Restaurant review: Chick ‘N’ Sours, Covent Garden

This week’s review came about for a fairly simple reason. Two weeks ago I went to London with my friend James, with an uncomplicated plan: to visit Casa do Frango in Piccadilly to see if it did the best piri piri chicken outside Portugal (regular readers may have already read that review). A couple of days before the big day, I got a text from him.

“Do you think we could do the holy trinity? Two chicken places with craft beer in between?”

I immediately knew where he was referring to. Could we? Should we? Was this Bacchanalian excess even by my standards?

“Are you suggesting… Chick ‘N’ Sours?”

“Yes. Two in a day.”

And so I made a dinner reservation a suitable interval from lunch, had a light meal the night before, skipped breakfast and wore my loosest garments on the train to Paddington. Two of London’s best-known chicken restaurants in a single day was a serious endeavour. As I was heading for Gare du Ding my phone pinged with a text from James: It’s Chicken Day. Praise be the Lord.

Chick ‘N’ Sours might be the capital’s most fêted fried chicken restaurant. Their first permanent premises were in Haggerston, on the edge of Dalston, and when Grace Dent, then at the Evening Standard, went in 2015 she raved about the place. The following year they set up shop in Covent Garden, just off Seven Dials, and the acclaim has been constant ever since; Marina O’Loughlin, then at the Guardian, visited the second branch in late 2016 and enthused in her inimitable manner.

Since then they have been universally praised to the rafters: even the FT and the stuffy old Telegraph rated the food there, the latter in a so this is what the kids are eating these days kind of way. By now it feels like every half-decent blogger under the sun has paid it a visit, along with a number who only aspire to that standard. So after a very enjoyable time at the Mikkeller Brewpub on Exmouth Market, sampling terrific al fresco beers and finally feeling like spring had sprung, James and I pulled up in an Uber to try it out. Better late than never.

Chick ‘N’ Sours is a basement restaurant, and like all the best basement restaurants it has a slightly illicit feel to it. It sits somewhere between speakeasy and dive bar – neither of which, by the way, is a pejorative term – with faux zinc tables and chairs that are a mixture of Fifties American diner and Fifties British classroom. Our table was next to four office bros who had clearly fallen into the pub straight from work and then fallen into the restaurant straight from the pub. They were making inroads into what looked like most of the menu; turned out not everybody works from home on a Friday after all.

The menu is a vegetarian’s worst nightmare. Most of it involves chicken in a starring role, with the exception of one small plate and a vegan burger made of goodness knows what: it’s not a menu that even pretends to make concessions. It’s also compact – just the three starters, four burgers, chicken on the bone and tenders. You can have wings if you want, and there are a handful of sides, but that’s very much your lot; one other option, a whole deep fried chicken, is available if you give them forty-eight hours’ notice, which we sadly didn’t.

The tendency to pepper a menu like this with puns or edgy references has fortunately passed Chick ‘N’ Sours by, in the main, although describing a condiment as “seaweed crack” did strike me as unnecessary – showing my age, probably – and I was curious about the “strange flavour sauce” that came with the bang bang cucumber, although not enough to order it. For a restaurant with this reputation in this part of Covent Garden, prices are reasonable – starters are around seven quid, burgers thirteen, sides about four. It was a menu full of bold flavours and gastronomic primary colours, and it made me excited about what was to come.

That’s the “chick”, so to speak. The “sours” element comes from the restaurant’s stripped-back drinks list, made up of a narrow selection of wine (one of each, if you catch my drift), a couple of beers and the four sour cocktails that give the restaurant the second half of its name. James went for a “Chick ‘N’ Club” – typing all these unnecessary apostrophes is starting to irk me, just so you know – a fruity gin and crème de mure concoction which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy.

I on the other hand chose something called the “Habanero Jungle Bird” with rum, Campari, lime vinegar and habanero in it. This, perhaps, is where the problems started to come in: I expected this to do a truly chaotic conga in my gob, that combination of hot and sour, so when it was muted I wondered what that might mean for the food we were about to eat.

The thing is, every review I’ve read of Chick ‘N’ Sours talks about how you get walloped by massive flavours from start to finish and emerge at the end sweating buckets, palate ravaged, desperate for more and feeling alive for the first time in years: or maybe it’s the “seaweed crack”, you never know. One review I read, and I’m not even paraphrasing, said “I know they do good fried chicken because I have really good tastebuds” (see? there are bloggers out there even more unbearable than me).

The high point of the meal, ironically of the whole day, was the first thing they put in front of us. Chicken toast – think sesame prawn toast but with chicken instead – was a really, really outstanding plate of food: clever, delicious and beautifully executed. Three hefty pieces of chicken toast, lacquered with a sauce they called “chilli tamarind caramel”, surely the best what3words of all time, and served with a simple sesame studded slaw.

Honestly, they could just call the restaurant Toast ‘N’ Sours, sling these out all day and I’d have liked the place considerably more. I wish we’d ordered one each, with one on the side for good luck. But in the wider context of the meal it felt like a breakout star in search of a spinoff, a Saul Goodman or a Frasier Crane. Nothing else we ate would approach those heights.

Take the Mexinese nachos, for example. I read up on these after the fact and everything I saw made me pine for a dish that, in truth, I feel I never had. They come, apparently, loaded with Szechuan chicken and bacon ragu, kimchee, chilli and cheese sauce in a sort of multi-continental mashup of epic proportions. The review in the Guardian talks about fermented chilli paste and a touch of anchovy, the FT talks about gochujang. With all that thrown haphazardly into the mix, the risk is that it would be a bit much, that you’d be asking them to show a bit of restraint. In reality it was a slightly forlorn plate of food, of nachos draped in thin mince and tasting of not enough.

Wings, “disco wings” according to the menu, were better. James liked them – and he’s more a wing aficionado than I am – whereas I thought they were okay. You had a choice of naked, kung pao or hot and we’d picked the latter. It was still what James likes to refer to as “white people hot”, but was plenty hot enough for me. The wings, properly tossed rather than sauced, were decent enough – and if I wasn’t wowed that’s probably because I’m the sort of heathen who never feels this kind of thing balances reward and effort as I’d like. “They would have benefited from not being breaded” was James’ comment, as part of our post match analysis. “A naked fried wing tossed in that sauce would have been much better.”

Mains arrived before we’d finished our starters, which at least gave us an excuse to abandon the nachos. I’d heard from a few people that the House Fry – drumstick and thigh on the bone with pickled watermelon – was the thing to order, but when James tried to he was told they didn’t have any.

Instead he went for my regular order in places like this, the tenders, and they were positively underwhelming. You got three of them, big flattened pieces of chicken, and having gazed lovingly at a fair few pictures of Chick ‘N’ Sours’ food online I can honestly say they’ve always looked more golden, more crinkle-edged, more alluring than this. These looked like they could have been bought from the chiller section of Marks or Waitrose and finished off in the oven, beige-blond boring things.

James concurred. “The coating wasn’t great – it lacked crunch, too soft. It needed another two minutes in the fryer” he told me. “They could have been seasoned better coming out of the fryer, too.” He dipped them in his gochujang mayo, but didn’t finish them. And James, like me, is not a man to leave fried chicken.

My burger, the K-Pop, also failed to shine. This was chicken thigh with, again, a riot of flavour shoved on it – gochujang mayo, sriracha sour cream and chilli vinegar. Again, it just sounded so good: I’m used to the heavenly combination of gochujang and sriracha from Gurt Wings’ outstanding Lost In Translation fried chicken, so I had high hopes.

How did this manage to taste of so little? And how had they managed, while achieving that, to also put so much gunk in there that the bun underneath soaked through, making it almost impossible to eat? Normally a restaurant needs to outgrow its two small branches, fall into bed with some venture capitalists and roll out all the way to Reading to be this middling: how had Chick ‘N’ Sours pulled it off without doing all that?

I feel like I’ve already said enough, but let’s dot the Is and cross the Ts of disappointment by talking about the remainder of the food.

For some reason they brought us an additional portion of chips, by way of apology. Initially I wasn’t sure what for, then I thought it might be because they didn’t have the house fry, but with hindsight I think it might have just been for the food in general. It’s interesting that Chick ‘N’ Sours’ menu makes much of their chips being cooked in beef dripping and yet they turned out to be fairly indifferent, while earlier that day Casa do Frango had made no bold claims about their fries and they were infinitely superior.

Oh, and we also had a pickled watermelon salad. Ever wondered what pickled watermelon tastes like? Me too, and I’m still wondering: this just tasted of watermelon.

You get the general jist by now. I spent a little time looking at the other tables – the place was doing a roaring trade – and wondering what I was missing; I’ve rarely felt so much of the emperor’s new clothes about a restaurant as I did that night in Covent Garden. And that’s not to say it was an awful meal, but it was an ordinary one. Service was pleasant, if brisk, and the one thing I can say is that, especially for that part of London, it was affordable: all those starters, sides and mains and a couple of cocktails each came to a hundred and six pounds, including service.

This has to be one of the weirdest summaries I’ve ever had to write, of a place I’ve wanted to visit for something like five years, of a place which in theory serves some of my favourite food and which everyone, and I mean everyone, loves. The only logical conclusion, really, is that I’m wrong and that if fried chicken is your thing and you find yourself in the centre of London this is the place to head for. Everybody else says so. It’s me: I’m wrong, and I don’t know why I’m so out of step.

It could be expectation – that I thought the place would be incredible and so, when it was merely quite good, I felt like the sky had fallen in. But I don’t know if it’s even that; I guess my expectations were that it would be even better than Eat The Bird, which I encountered and loved on a recent visit to Exeter. But in reality it didn’t come close to their food, and if you asked me which one I’d want to open a branch on my doorstep it would be Eat The Bird every time.

All that makes this review especially frustrating, of somewhere I hoped to love, wanted to love, expected to love but just didn’t. A so-so review of somewhere in London you were probably never going to visit anyway. That’s the thing about these reviews outside Reading – when they’re a belter they’re fun to write, hopefully fun to read, and everybody wins. But when they’re mediocre, the so what factor is sadly lacking. So I must apologise: hopefully better, and more local, restaurants lie in both our futures.

Or maybe I just have really shit tastebuds. It’s a distinct possibility.

Chick ‘N’ Sours – 6.8
1A Earlham Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9LL
020 31984814


Restaurant review: Eat The Bird, Exeter

I found myself in Exeter in a very specific set of circumstances: I was down in Padstow last week, celebrating my dad‘s birthday, and looking at how long the train took Zoë and I decided to break our journey en route and spend the night somewhere along the way. It quickly came down to a choice between Totnes and Exeter and although I was tempted by the former – I have happy memories, the one time I visited Totnes, of arriving on Midsummer’s Eve to stumble upon what can only be described as some kind of Druidic ceremony under way in the town square – the former won out, on account of being bigger with potentially more to do.

As it turned out I rather liked Exeter, revisiting it after an interval of close to twenty years. It has an absolutely superb bakery and coffee shop slap bang next to the central station which did a splendid job of refreshing me the afternoon I arrived and the morning I departed; my only regret is not getting to try the craft beer and gin bar next door. What a contrast between this and stumbling out of Gare Du Ding to choose between a Mitchell & Butler and a Fullers pub: we could learn a lot from Exeter.

Not only that but Exeter also had, as I discovered, a burgeoning coffee scene with several marvellous coffee shops, mostly clustered round Fore Street. I stopped at the excellent Crankhouse Coffee and enjoyed a superlative latte, picking up some beans to take home (one trend I did spot in Exeter was people in cafés bed blocking tables for hours with a laptop and a glass of tap water, not buying any coffee: it must drive the owners nuts).

Fore Street also played host to a brilliant independent bookshop and a bottle shop whose owner had got his hands on stuff from all sorts of intriguing American breweries I’d never heard of before. I left with a pair of novels for my holiday and a couple of imperial stouts it took all my strength not to open before the end of my trip.

It wasn’t all beer and skittles, mind you. Without wishing to channel my inner Pevsner or Betjeman, Exeter has as much postwar architecture as the next place, some of it fascinating and some downright ugly. I was surprised by how many premises were boarded up, even if the area round by the Cathedral was blessed with the usual suspects – Côte and what have you – along with a branch of The Ivy, the Wetherspoons for people with more money than taste.

I was in the unusual position of having some Exeter recommendations from Ruth, a long-standing reader of the blog who moved to the city from Reading three years ago. It was Ruth who tipped me off about Crankhouse Coffee, and I can only apologise that I didn’t get to try out her other suggestions. So apparently there’s a little enclave called St Leonard’s a mere ten minute walk from the centre with a terrific tapas place called Calvo Loco and a cutting edge small plates restaurant called Stage: I promise, scout’s honour, that I’ll check them out next time.

But I’m afraid, because I’m basic that way, I probably disappointed Ruth by having my eye on a fried chicken restaurant called Eat The Bird, the second in a tiny chain based in Taunton, Exeter and Cardiff. I didn’t just disappoint Ruth, either: when I told the thoroughly nice, distinctly urbane chap at our hotel our planned destination was it my imagination, or did he roll his eyes despairingly? He recommended some good gin bars I could stop by on the way there, but I was beyond redemption.

Eat The Bird is at the end of Exeter’s rather long High Street, a wide-pavemented thoroughfare which somehow reminded me of Belfast, just past a retro-looking party shop called Streamers, at the point where the city starts to look a little postmodern (put it this way: it’s opposite a bookie and a Poundland).

But I quite liked the interior: it was well done, in a sort of stripped-back way. The main dining room in the front was all partitioned booths, the floor bare concrete and the brick wall painted a vivid crimson. The kitchen itself was in a shipping container plonked in the middle of the restaurant. The overall effect was about as close to street food as you could get while still eating indoors, but the whole thing was transformed by warm, enthusiastic service from start to finish.

The reviews I’ve read of Eat The Bird’s menu tend to focus on the laddishness of the puns behind most of the dishes. And yes, I suppose calling a Korean chicken burger “the Chicktator” is a little hackneyed, as is giving other sandwiches monikers like “Clucking Hell” or “Cluck Me Sideways”. But the same bloggers clutching their pearls about that do like to wank on about “falling in lust” with dishes, describing them as “lascivious” or generally rambling on as if they’ve never met a risotto they didn’t want to shag, so maybe some perspective is in order. Personally I blame Nigella and Nigel, the patron saints of that kind of food writing.

The thing I’d focus on is the drinks menu: I’m really not sure that calling a cocktail “Hobo Juice” and serving it in a brown paper bag is the wizard idea they thought it was. But their house IPA Wing Fingers, “a 3 way collab between us, Many Hands Brewery and hip hop artist MC Abdominal” (really?) was truly gorgeous, just about sessionable and spot on with all of the food we ordered. And we ordered a lot, as you’re about to discover.

The menu focuses on chicken – you don’t say – but mostly boneless, either as burgers or tenders. You can get wings, but not whole pieces of chicken on the bone à la KFC or Popeyes. There are a handful of beefburgers, more than lip service, which looked very good indeed, and four vegan variants of the chicken burger featuring everybody’s favourite apostrophe-ridden meat substitute, something called “chick’n” about which I’m perfectly happy to know nothing. Most chicken burgers will set you back eleven or twelve pounds, and there are also four different types of loaded fries including a tempting-sounding poutine.

But best of all, they also served frickles. If I could do it again I’d order these with the beers rather than having the food come all at once, because they were one of the finest beer snacks I can recall. So often they’re big watery things, the batter not adhering (a problem Honest’s onion rings, much as I like them, also have). Here they were smaller, punchy slices of gherkin, salt and sharpness in perfect harmony, the impeccable batter leaving your fingers shiny. Good on their own, even better dabbed in a pot of ranch dip; even Zoë, a pickle hater of long standing, liked them.

Better still – and yes, we ordered these as well as having burgers, because gluttony – were the chicken tenders. You got a generous helping of these, along with a little pot of dip, for a crazy six pounds fifty. And honestly, they were so good – all gnarled exterior, a fantastic coating that delivered on taste and texture. Good dipped, just as good on their own, close to the summit of what this kind of food can be.

Having eaten at Popeyes not so long ago, I remember thinking that although the American chain had perfected the crunch the flavour had just not bothered to show up. I thought at the time that something was missing: what was missing, in honesty, was that they weren’t these. Whisper it quietly, but these might even have been better than Gurt’s tenders, and they’ve attained near-legendary status in Reading. We ordered two other dips on the side, a ranch for Zoë and a decent, if slightly gloopy, Korean one for me.

Both of those things were strong contenders for my favourite dish, but so were the fries. We’d picked the tastefully renamed Kyiv fries which were loaded up with little nubbins of fried chicken, confit garlic butter (apparently), garlic mayo and an avalanche of Parmesan. Yours for seven pounds, and in my book easily worth that. I didn’t really get the garlic butter, and the overall effect was almost like a portion of chips covered in a really potent Caesar dressing. But even once the Parmesan and the mayo had run out – which they only did towards the end – what was left were gorgeous, still-crispy chips. So often this kind of dish is a way to charge more for fries and conceal how poor they are, the old street food confidence trick, but here every single element was best in class. “These have to be the best loaded fries I’ve ever had” was Zoë’s verdict. I completely agree.

If I’ve saved the burgers til last it’s almost because, with everything else, we arguably didn’t need them. And if they didn’t quite scale the heights of our other food it’s simply because that had set a tricky standard to meet. But the chicken burger itself was extremely good – generously proportioned, again in that top notch coating and holding up against everything dumped on top of it. It was breast rather than thigh, and although thigh would always be my preference this was excellent, tender stuff. I imagine it’s brined, or soaked in buttermilk or unicorn’s tears and all that bla, but however they do it, it comes out superbly.

Zoe had hers – the “Holy Cluck”, don’t you know – with brie, bacon, garlic mayo and onion marmalade and was an enormous fan of it, but for me that oozing brie would have been overkill.

I’d chosen the “Proper Filth” – let’s not go into how this kind of food tries to present poor hygiene as a good thing – and I loved it. Instead of brie it has smoked cheese and that, along with bacon and a decent barbecue sauce gave the whole thing a hulking whack of smoke that worked beautifully. I’d have preferred the bacon streaky and better cooked, but I’ve been saying that about most of the bacon I’ve encountered for many years and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. The bacon was the weakest element of the burger, the burger was the weakest element of the meal, but by weakest I just mean “least utterly excellent”. It was still utterly excellent.

One thing I found odd about the restaurant was that although they took your order at the table, they gave you the option to settle up by scanning a QR code. We did that, and I suppose I can see it’s convenient, but it felt jarring that you could just pay your bill and sneak out into the night without human contact. I partly say that because the service was excellent all round. It was surprisingly apologetic too – I think our food came out in around forty minutes and what with the gorgeous beer, and the buzz, and the feeling of being on holiday that was perfectly fine with us. Maybe it wouldn’t have been with other tables, but they really didn’t need to say sorry for making us wait. If anything, it gave me confidence in the food.

At the end the chap who had mostly looked after us came over, we chatted about fried chicken in general and the places we were keen to tick off in London (Chick ‘n’ Sours has been on my list for as long as I can remember) and I got a clear impression that the people who worked here loved food, loved Eat The Bird’s food and cared about food and service in general. It’s always nice when you’re served by someone who is as interested in restaurants as you are, something that also happened the last time I went to COR.

Our bill, which we’d already paid by then, came to sixty-three pounds not including tip, for all that food and a couple of two-thirds each of the house beer. Personally I thought that was solid value – especially when someone more sensible, less greedy, less on vacation and less of a tourist would most likely have spent less.

I know a review like this is all a bit “what I did on my holidays”. Exeter, of all places: some of you will never read it, many of you will never go there. But the point is that you have to try the Eat The Birds of this world to understand why the likes of Popeyes are so desperately pisspoor. You have to eat the unhyped stuff, sometimes, to understand that the hyped stuff is all smoke and mirrors.

If you want Reading to have ambition, you need to try and work out who its role models should be. And places like Eat The Bird – small, independent, growing cautiously and still clearly taking pride in everything they do – are the kinds of places we should be getting. They’re also the places we don’t get, and that is a worry.

Full and happy, we wandered out into the night and ended up at a place called Little Drop Of Poison – also on Fore Street – which was a captivating jumble of styles. There were old men drinking cask, hogging big tables, who had probably been drinking there since before it was a craft beer place and were too stubborn to switch their allegiance. There were a bunch of impossibly young people, one of them still wearing his staff t-shirt from Boston Tea Party, congregated around the pool table drinking the kind of brightly coloured ciders I hurt my liver with when I was their age.

And finally, in a cosy table near some twinkling lights, there were Zoë and I, taking advantage of beer lines full of obscure treats – IPAs from a little brewery I’d never heard of in Worthing, pastry sours from Poland’s Funky Fluid, imperial stouts packed with chocolate and chilli by Põhjala, brewed in Tallinn. It was just a quietish Wednesday night, but I felt a real gratitude to the city for showing me just a fraction of the stuff that doubtless made it a lovely place in which to live. So I silently raised a glass to Ruth, even if I hadn’t wound up drinking in one of her recommended pubs, because she was right after all. Exeter has an awful lot going for it.

Eat The Bird – 8.3
183 Sidwell Street, Exeter, EX4 6RD
01392 258737

Restaurant review: Popeyes

Yes, Popeyes. Now, I imagine some of you think it must be Shooting Fish In A Barrel Week here on Edible Reading, that I’ve gone for the easy option of punching down for those sweet, sweet clicks. And who can blame you? Fried chicken restaurant Popeyes is the latest, though by no means the last, big American chain to touch down in Reading, continuing a trend that began with Five Guys ten years ago and which, if anything, is accelerating. You know this already, I’m sure: we’ve also had Chick Fil-A, Wingstop, Taco Bell and, of course, Wendy’s.

And, just as with Wendy’s, from the moment the news broke about Popeyes our local press – what’s left of it – went completely gaga. OMG Popeyes is coming to Reading! it gushed last March, followed by It’s going to be in the old Gap store on Broad Street! in November. I especially loved the photo caption – always a Berkshire Live speciality – saying “Popeyes is an American restaurant that sells fried chicken” (who writes them, Mr Chips from Catchphrase?)

“Customers can now sign up for updates about when the new Reading Popeyes will open and a lucky few are in with a chance of being invited to the grand opening of the store” said an article, suspending any remaining critical faculties. But why sign up for updates when you can just read Berkshire Live as it pumps out more free advertising for a well-backed business which doesn’t need it?

So a couple of months ago Berkshire Live confirmed that Popeyes was opening on the 23rd February, and that the first two people in the queue for the first three days would win a year’s supply of chicken sandwiches. It must have been a slow news day on the 22nd February because it ran almost exactly the same story again: copying and pasting from TripAdvisor is bad enough, but copying and pasting from your own website must be a new low.

I hope after doing all that free advertising for Popeyes the drones at Reach plc at least got some free food in return, you might be thinking. Well, don’t worry – they did! “I was lucky enough to be invited down to the Reading restaurant for a sneak preview of what the international chicken chain has to offer”, an article began. “With celebrity fans including Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, I’ve been eager to try their famous Louisiana cooking for quite some time.”

You might be astonished to find that our local Reach plc publication absolutely loved its free food: I know I was. “I tried Reading’s Popeyes and was blown away by one thing” said the headline, although the article then raved about both the chicken sandwich and the Cajun fries, so even that was an inaccurate report of their own meal. By my reckoning Berkshire Live sounds like it had two meal deals, so it sold its soul for twenty quid: that’s roughly what it’s worth. “If I was walking through town, wondering where to stop for a quick bite to eat, I’d head straight there” it concluded. Talk about a plot twist!

Not to single Reach plc out, the Reading Chronicle managed an even more glowing writeup of its free scran, although one that copied out more of the accompanying press release. “This burger is put together like a piece of art…” it enthused, with a touch of hyperbole. “Every bite makes you want another and by the time you know it you’ll be buying another portion.” Pretty potent stuff for a chicken burger you might think, but apparently, it had the author’s “jaw hitting the floor”. The overall impression was that Popeyes made Pulp Fiction’s legendary Big Kahuna burger taste like the contents of a warm food recycling bin. Two local journalists can’t be wrong, can they?

So yes, the scene is set for me to give Popeyes the time honoured kicking that I’ve doled out, over the years, to the likes of TGI Friday, Taco Bell, even Wingstop. But here’s the thing: my antipathy towards big American chains and the homogenisation of Reading is on the record and has been for years. And yet, on the other hand, I really love fried chicken. Always have. I love it in all its forms, from a crafty KFC to Blue Collar’s legendary Gurt Wings, from Bristol’s Wing’s Diner to the Lyndhurst’s karaage chicken to Clay’s Kitchen’s payyoli chicken fry and everything in between. The crunch and yield, the seasoning and the sauce: there’s nothing else out there quite like it.

It’s a proper Achilles heel and if I found a good one I doubt I’d care if the restaurant serving it was the property of a holding company co-owned by Elon Musk, Tim Martin and Scrooge McDuck. And all the talk and hype about Popeyes, about how its chicken sandwich “broke the internet” back in 2019, raises at least the possibility that it could be a game changer. So we have a classic scenario: what happens when an irresistible force (my love of fried chicken) meets an immovable body (my disdain for big American chains)? If you know the answer already you were one step ahead of me when Zoë and I stepped through those doors on Broad Street on a Bank Holiday Monday afternoon.

It’s hard to believe the interior had ever been a Gap, that much is true. But beyond that I’m not sure what there is to say – there are big touch screens at the front on which you can place your order, there’s a counter right at the back and there are loads of very functional-looking wipe-clean tables, most of which are occupied at any given time. If it sounds like I’ve described McDonald’s, there’s a reason for that: it’s not that different from one (and I actually went to the McDonald’s on Friar Street a few months ago – after an afternoon and evening on the sauce, in my defence – so I vaguely know what I’m talking about).

So yes, it’s a big cacophonous space where you sit, eat your food and sod off. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but let’s not pretend it’s a masterpiece of interior design that will make you long to linger. It’s almost designed to be just insufferable enough that you vacate your table nice and quickly so they can make money off the next group to plonk themselves down there. Someone on Twitter said to me that the interior was much nicer than KFC. I’m not sure it is, really, I think it’s just a lot newer.

Although you can order at the big touchscreens – and I hope for their sake they’re more effective than the ticket machines in Reading Station – there’s also a QR code on the table so you can grab a seat and look at the menu at your leisure. Not that it will take long, because Popeyes does chicken, chicken and chicken. Oh, and something called a Creole Red Bean Sandwich, for vegetarians who are dragged to Popeyes by friends or family who don’t much like them. But beyond that, it’s just how you want your chicken: in a bun, on the bone, on the wing or as tenders. The only other permutation is whether you want it regular or spicy.

Oh, and the sandwiches are either normal or “Deluxe”. Want to guess what Deluxe means? It means they charge you an extra pound and give you cheese and some lettuce. I know we’re in the middle of a salad shortage, but when did salad become a luxury item? Is it only a luxury to people who are going to Popeyes for dinner? It’s a puzzle. Anyway, sandwiches are six or seven pounds, if you bundle them with fries and a soft drink you’re spending something like a tenner. I don’t eat in Popeyes’ peers often enough to tell you if that is especially expensive in relative terms, but in absolute terms it’s pretty affordable.

We decided to try a little of everything so we placed our order, which came to just under twenty-eight pounds, all in, and waited the grand total of six minutes before a tray was brought to our table. They bring you the food, but you have to go up and get your own drinks – I’m not sure why. Weirdly they also charge twenty-five pence extra for fat Coke, although I’m not sure how they enforce that.

The fact that everything I’m about to describe are iterations of the same dead animal in one of two different coatings might make what follows a tad monotonous. Let’s whip through it. I’d chosen the classic sandwich, the one that allegedly broke the internet. Those two local articles I’d read raved about how huge it was, as if they’d somehow deep fried some ostrich; it’s not a meagre burger, but it’s not colossal. The one thing the articles did get right was the crunch: the crunch Popeyes achieves is quite something. It does have that almost-brittle snap spot on, and the coating adheres to the burger perfectly. That’s the good news.

The bad news, and I’m not sure how they managed this, is just how little it tastes of anything. It’s all very well raving about how huge and thick the burger is, but if the coating is bland it just means that however tender the flesh underneath is the whole shebang feels like a bit of a chore. And that, sadly, is how I felt about it. With KFC, there’s no mistaking that blend of herbs and spices. It’s not for everyone, and it’s probably just as well I don’t know what goes into it, but it tastes of something. It leaves you gasping for a cold drink, it dehydrates the inside of your mouth with every bite. But it tastes of something, and afterwards you feel like you’ve done something disreputable but indulgent.

Popeyes’ burger, on the other hand, could have been produced on a 3D printer and I’m not sure I’d have been any the wiser. A splodge of mayo and some watery slices of gherkin weren’t going to change that.

Popeyes’ fries, especially their Cajun fries, also come in for a lot of praise. I quite enjoyed them, actually – they had good crunch and the dusting of Cajun seasoning (yours for an extra quid) definitely added a dimension. But they were lukewarm when they arrived and cold not long after that, one of the most basic things fast food restaurants have to get right. KFC used to get a lot of stick for its fries and it worked on improving them: they’re still not best in class, but they’re not noticeably worse than Popeyes’. Zoë dunked hers in some ranch dip, which apparently improved matters.

Being fancy, Zoë had gone for the spicy Deluxe burger – just look at that luxury iceberg lettuce – and had similar feedback to mine. “It’s okay, but it’s not that spicy and it’s really not that special. To be honest, I prefer the McSpicy.” McDonalds put the McSpicy back on its menu permanently in February, apparently: it’s almost like they knew Popeyes was coming. If I went to Popeyes again, I’d be tempted to order this just to see if it supplied the so what factor, but, as you’ve probably already guessed, that’s unlikely to happen this side of Christmas.

For completeness we also had chicken without bread in a slightly different shape or, as the menu likes to call them, tenders. And again, the disconnect between looks and taste couldn’t be starker. These look the part: they look like they’re going to taste amazing. And when you bite into one, your teeth tell you you’re in for a treat, with that almost audible crunch. And beyond that? Nothing much.

If you dip them into something, they at least taste of the dip but that, I’m afraid, is as far as it goes. I tried them with a “Bold BBQ”, which really wasn’t, and a “Red Hot Honey” dip which I rather liked, despite it not being especially hot. It was more like a sort of sweet chilli number, and perfectly agreeable (I looked on the label on the lid of the plastic tub: the main ingredient was water).

Zoë also had some chicken wings, thrown in as part of a promo the restaurant was doing. I almost forgot she’d ordered them, in the course of writing this, but that’s okay because I think she almost forgot eating them too.

So, let’s recap. The sandwich may have broken the internet, but this review will not. Throughout my meal, my jaw remained resolutely undropped. I didn’t have one bite after another until, as if possessed by some kind of hypnotic superpower, I wandered over to the touchscreens, zombie-like, to order another portion. Sorry to piss on anybody’s (Cajun) chips, but if this restaurant was half as good as Berkshire Live and the Reading Chronicle said it was, it would be ten times as good as it actually is.

And yet this isn’t a hatchet job, and the mark below isn’t savage. And why’s that? Because, I’m sorry to say, it’s so boring. It’s not terrible food – not like Taco Bell, or Wingstop – it’s just bang average with a thick dusting of weapons-grade hype. I’ve always thought chains opening in Reading shouldn’t be a problem if they do something nobody else does, or if they do it better than everybody else. The best chains, like Honest, understand that.

But on either of those counts, Popeyes falls flat on its face. You can get a chicken burger in countless places, and most of them are easily as good as theirs. Honest’s has gone from strength to strength, even Blue Collar Corner is doing one at the moment – it’s a little bland, but at least it’s chicken thigh and it’s still probably more exciting than Popeyes. And speaking of Blue Collar, if it’s fried chicken you want Gurt Wings is in the market Friday lunchtimes and their tenders knock the spots off Popeyes’,

I’m not even angry, and I can’t bring myself to hate Popeyes. It’s good that people are excited about it, even if that’s mainly because they’re excitable, and bringing new jobs to the town centre can only be a good thing. But while I was eating it, and as I cogitated on it afterwards, I couldn’t help thinking, in the immortal words of Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Is this all it takes to get half a dozen articles in the local press, while newcomers like San Sicario get ignored?

It frustrates me that people think Reading is so easily mugged off with the latest shiny thing, that nobody wants to look beyond the obvious to the people and places that make this town so interesting. Why even now are we, as a town, so happy to settle for second best? I can already picture Reading Borough Council’s bid for city status in 2026: Look, we’ve got a Popeyes!

Just this once – and these are words I never thought I’d say on the blog – I’ll leave the last word to Beyoncé. She may have got a lifetime loyalty card from the restaurant, but that was back in 2003. What does she say nowadays?

“I can’t really eat it anymore.”

Popeyes – 6.5
107-108 Broad Street, RG1 2AX
0330 1758760

Feature: Reading’s best…

There’s a new trend in Berkshire Live which drives me absolutely crackers. Having moved on from a steady emetic trickle of “X’s quiet life in [insert name of Berkshire village here]” articles (translation: here’s somebody who used to live in Berkshire and that’s literally all we know about them) their latest form of copy and paste gonzo journalism is one where they knock up madlibs-style reviews of restaurants which – and you could bet your life savings on this – the “journalist” has never visited.

The new trend – or do I mean new low? – is to churn out articles that say “the X restaurant so good you’ll think you’re in [the most famous city in country X]”. It’s so witless it could almost be amusing. So if you eat in l’Ortolan, for instance, you could imagine you’re in Paris (I’ve been to Paris: l’Ortolan is nothing like it). If you have tapas in Wokingham’s Sanpa you could believe you’re in Madrid, allegedly, and never mind the pesky detail that tapas is from Andalusia, miles away to the south. 

Oh, and if you eat American barbecue in Blue’s Smokehouse – and it’s great, so maybe you should – guess what? Close your eyes and you could be in the Big Apple. Again, it’s not noted for its barbecue but details are for pedants, apparently. It goes on: Quattro is just like Rome, some Chinese restaurant in Cookham is the spitting image of downtown Beijing, Sapana Home is like dining in the Himalayas (they call out the “momo dumplings” at Sapana, which is like saying I very much enjoyed the chips potatoes). I thought they couldn’t get more laughable but the latest says that afternoon tea at the Forbury Hotel “will make you feel like you’re dining with the King”. Stay classy, Berkshire Live.

But that isn’t enough, so to pad out the article – and to further pull the wool over your eyes – they like to add a bit of bumf from the restaurant’s website and those all important customer opinions. After all, in Berkshire Live’s own immortal words, “Recent years has brought more people online as it gives them an easy way to choose somewhere to eat. One place most of us look is the reviews – what do people really think about where we want to eat? We decided to list the last three reviews all less than a month ago to see what people have said.” 

Maybe people are looking online because local papers have died and been replaced by moronic clickbait? Just a thought. But yes, the rest of their extensive research consists of firing up Tripadvisor and copying and pasting the three most recent reviews. But Berkshire Live doesn’t care about that. In their mind, everybody wins: they hit their targets for pumping out meaningless content to sell ad space and you get a “review” which tells you nothing about the restaurant, Ctrl-C and Ctrl-Vd by somebody who has never been there and, for all we know, has never even left their home office (are Reach plc staff affected by the train strikes? It seems unlikely). Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and keema, as they say, is your nan.

So this is what passes for journalism these days and the most insulting thing is that they’re so cretinous they think nobody will notice. How times have changed. In the old days, local newspapers used to sneak ads into the paper and not tell readers that money had changed hands and many people, myself included, were outraged about that. Nowadays they’re so desperate for content that they publish what are effectively full length ads without even being paid for the privilege. It makes you wonder who pumps out more sewage: the water companies or Reach plc?

Anyway, by contrast this week’s feature – no review, because I’m away this week – is one of those lists everyone likes with one crucial difference: they’re my opinions, born of going out there and trying as much of Reading’s food and drink as I can. So this article might come in handy if you can’t be arsed to schlep through any of my lists, or to comb through the blog but just want to know, in my entirely subjective opinion, where to get the best coffee, pizza, sandwich and so much more in Reading. Read, enjoy, share, comment and – of course – disagree, because if you don’t disagree with a single thing on this list I’ll be very surprised indeed.

Apart from my (entirely subjective, don’t forget) guarantee of quality I can promise you one other thing. None of these places will make you feel like you’re in Naples, New York or Nagoya. Because, as we’ve established, that is utter, utter bollocks. Besides, they’ll go one better than that: they’ll make you glad you’re in the Ding.

Reading’s best breakfast – Dee Caf

Dee Caf’s breakfast isn’t a looker, and nothing about it is built for Instagram. But in terms of midmorning indulgence on a plate it is probably unparalleled in Reading and well worth a meander out in the direction of Tilehurst. Bacon and sausages AND black pudding, all from a local butcher? Hash browns and properly buttered toast too, on an enamel plate which is only just big enough to contain all that bounty? Count me in. When I went the only drawback was the coffee – they’ve now switched to Anonymous, which is a very smart move. (Montague House, 12 Spey Road, RG30 4DG)

Honourable mention: The Switch

What is it with West Reading and good breakfasts? The smashed avo with bacon at The Switch is unashamedly high-end, and priced accordingly, but shows what a good dish it can be in the right hands. (19 The Triangle, RG30 4RN)

Reading’s best burger – Smash N Grab

Smash N Grab is quietly doing great things down on Cemetery Junction and their inimitable take on smashed burgers easily justifies a trip out of the centre. These are indulgent, overloaded burgers – messy, stuffed, deeply sinful things, and you will feel replete, satisfied and a little ashamed of yourself at the end of one. The chips still need work, and the cake shakes are a little artery-hardening for me, but the burgers are still unbeatable. If it’s on the menu, the MacBook Pro (topped with a slab of breaded, deep-fried macaroni cheese) is every bit as so-wrong-it’s-right as it sounds. (124 London Road, RG1 5AY)

Honourable mention: Honest Burgers

Reading’s branch of the small chain is the best town centre option and very rarely has a bad day at the office. The burger, served pink, is reliably terrific and the monthly specials mix things up nicely. They’ve just added a buffalo fried chicken burger to their menu, if beef isn’t your bag. (1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB)

Reading’s best coffee – C.U.P.

C.U.P. just edges it for me, and both its Blagrave Street and Reading Minster outposts have a lot going for them. Blagrave Street is great for people watching passers-by, and the seats outside Reading Minster are great for people watching your fellow customers. Either way, although the latte is superb the signature here is the mocha, made with an awful lot of real chocolate – a dessert, a pick me up, a treat and a necessity all crammed into a single takeaway cup. (7 Blagrave Street, RG1 1PJ/53 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG)

Honourable mention: Workhouse Coffee

The eminence grise of Reading’s coffee culture, Workhouse is superb and reliable for latte and my espresso-drinking friends swear by their espresso. It’s a shame the greed and neglect of the Mercure Hotel has robbed them of what was one of town’s best and sunniest al fresco spaces, and the interior feels like it needs a bit of love. But the staff are great and the coffee remains top notch. (10-12 King Street, RG1 2HF, also 335 Oxford Road, RG30 1AY)

Reading’s best fish and chips – Finn’s

I know nobody will agree with this unless they live near Finn’s, and I can’t remember the last time I had fish and chips at Wing’s, or Deep Blue, or that other place you like. But I maintain that Finn’s, the pride of east Reading, does wonderful fish and chips with a light, crispy batter and chips that have the perfect balance of floury stodge and crunchy shrapnel. I must work up the courage to try their masala cod one cold winter’s evening. (42b Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA)

Runner-up: The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst serves up the epitome of pub fish and chips, an excellent portion of battered leviathan and some of Reading’s very best chips. Those of you who like mushy peas will enjoy these, and those of you who tend to leave them have something in common with me. Spoiler alert: this is not the Lyndhurst’s only appearance on this list, you may not be surprised to hear. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

Reading’s best fried chicken – The Lyndhurst

See? Told you. The Lyndhurst’s chicken karaage has been tweaked and tinkered with steadily since it first appeared on their menu last year. They took it off the menu just as I was developing a serious karaage habit (forget ketamine: this is the real K hole) and then this year I was overjoyed when they brought it back. The texture is unbelievably crunchy and gnarly, the portion size is so generous that you won’t mind offering your companions a piece and making them jealous and the little shards of fried kale add an extra savoury note. What was a kewpie mayo has now been swapped – another tweak – for a wasabi mayo which adds just enough sinus-clearing power. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

Runner-up: ThaiGrr!

You could hold a piece of fried kale between this and the Lyndhurst’s karaage, that’s how little separates them in terms of quality. ThaiGrr’s chicken is a ridiculously generous six jointed pieces on the bone with shatteringly crisp skin, tender meat and little slivers of garlic sprinkled on top. It comes with some very pleasant sweet chilli sauce, and you can spend all six pieces wondering if it needs the dip without ever reaching a conclusion. (1d Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Reading’s best pizza – Buon Appetito

One of my favourite discoveries of the last year has been the revitalised Buon Appetito at the end of Chatham Street which, for my money, knocks out the very best pizza in town. The base, a puffy-crusted, leopard-spotted delight, is next level good and the range of toppings is just wide enough without getting ridiculous. I am a huge fan of their Napoli which comes strewn with anchovies, olives and crispy fried capers, but there’s also a lot to be said for the Blue Parma, with twenty-four month aged Parma ham and a fair old whack of gorgonzola. It helps that Buon Appetito is one of Reading’s very best al fresco spots: they mix a mean Aperol spritz or negroni, too. (146 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT)

Honourable mention: Papa Gee

The other side of the river on Prospect Street, Papa Gee has nearly twenty years of experience of dough-slinging and it really shows. My latest visit was extremely recent, so I’m delighted to have extremely fresh memories of how good they are. The base maybe doesn’t quite have the quality of Buon Appetito’s, but you can expect pizzas topped by a man who doesn’t enjoy saying “when”. The iconic dish here, the pizza Sofia Loren, comes with pepperoni, beautiful coarse nuggets of sausage, red onions, chilli and my unqualified endorsement. (5 Prospect Street, RG4 8JB)

Reading’s best sandwich: Madoo

This is an incredibly difficult category, and I think I’ve only been able to narrow it down to two with a little cheating – wraps get their own category, and technically a burger is a sandwich too. But, to get off the fence, at the moment I’m not sure anyone can top the toasties at Madoo. Made with a variety of focaccia and pretty much customisable however you like, they are a carby, cheesy miracle on Duke Street. On my most recent visit, on the day of the big funeral, I had pancetta and scamorza in a focaccia topped with onion and thin slices of potato: try being sad after scoffing one of those. (10-14 Duke Street, RG1 4RU)

Honourable mention: Shed

Shed is still the godfather of Reading’s sandwich scene. Its lunch scene in general, to be honest. Their Tuna Turner – all tuna mayo and oozing cheese, studded with jalapenos, the bread bronzed and burnished – should earn them a blue plaque one day (other sandwiches are, of course, available). (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT)

Reading’s best street food: Gurt Wings

Gurt Wings is a street food player with a national profile and, luckily for us, a soft spot for Reading. From their regular presence at Blue Collar’s Friday markets they took on a permanent pitch at Blue Collar Corner in March, and if the recent announcement that they’re leaving Blue Collar Corner has caused gloom and withdrawal symptoms across the land, the pill has been slightly sweetened by the news that they’re returning to the Friday markets again.

Everything they do is magnificent but the tenders, smothered in hot and sour buffalo and sharpened with a little blue cheese sauce, are truly fantastic. I also absolutely love their JFC – popcorn chicken with a hyper-punchy gochujang sauce and a smidge of sriracha mayo. About once a year they do a chicken burger in an iced doughnut topped with candied bacon – it has to be tried to be believed, but once is probably enough. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Fridays only)

Honourable mention: Purée

Although Blue Collar is synonymous with street food in Reading, one of Reading’s finest street food options is Purée, the distinctive green van on Broad Street near our smaller, less attractive branch of Boots. Sam Adaci’s van took a sabbatical during Covid and a lot of us were very worried that it might not return, but gladly he is there most lunchtimes dishing up some of the best – and best value – lunches in town. The real winner here is the challoumi wrap – jammed full of glorious chicken and halloumi with hot sauce, garlic sauce, pickles, the works. (Broad Street, RG1 2AA)

Reading’s best sushi – Intoku

I had a rather hit and miss visit to Intoku earlier this year: the service was slapdash in all kinds of ways, but I also saw enough to convince myself that in terms of quality we finally have a restaurant in Reading that can approach the likes of Miyazaki in Maidenhead or my all-time favourite, Windsor’s Misugo. The soft shell crab rolls are an absolute dream, the maki are precise and nicely done and although the sashimi isn’t Reading’s best, it’s good enough. The fact that they also do gorgeous bao and possibly the best crispy squid I’ve had in town is just a bonus. (30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX)

Honourable mention – Sushimania

I know Osaka and Oishi have their fans, but I have a real soft spot for Sushimania, on that slightly grim brutalist corner overlooking the Hexagon. It’s all you can eat but made to order, and you can get most of the core menu that way, an inexpensive treat on a week night with a bottle of Asahi. They ration you on the salmon sashimi and the eel nigiri – make sure you get your full quota of both, because they’re bloody great. (9 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Reading’s best wrap: Cairo Cafe

Sadly, Cairo Café closed in April 2023.

Go to Cairo Cafe and order the chicken shawarma wrap. Marvel at what comes out, hotter than the sun, perfectly assembled, crisped on the outside, gooey with cheese, the meat singing with spices and mint. Eat it in that peaceful place, looking out the window at the comings and goings of the grittier end of town, and tell me there’s a better wrap in Reading. And no, you don’t feel just like you’re in Cairo: you feel like you’re on West Street, because you are.

There’s a lot of chicken in this list, isn’t there? Reading really needs another restaurant reviewer who likes chicken a little less than I do. (13 West Street, RG1 1TT)

Honourable mention: Geo Café

Time for the disclaimer I put up every time I talk about Geo Café – unlike most restaurant owners in Reading, I would class Keti and Zezva as friends, and so you are absolutely free to disregard this, or take it with a pinch of salt, or say I should have picked someone like Mission Burrito instead. But you would be missing out if you hadn’t tried Geo Café’s wraps – either the chicken, pungent with almost acrid ajika and walnut sauce, like nothing you’ve ever tasted, or filled with aubergine, sliced thin, fried and rolled around more of that walnut sauce. Everyone I know who’s tried Georgian food comes away saying Why don’t more people know how good this is? and I couldn’t agree more: it may be the best cuisine you’ve never tried.

So yes, by all means ignore this tip but believe me – if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re my friends, Geo Café might well have topped this category. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG)

Takeaway review: Smashing Plates

Smashing Plates is no longer on Deliveroo Editions. If you want good gyros, you were always better off going to Tasty Greek Souvlaki.

Last month I had a very nice email from someone who worked as a commercial manager for Deliveroo Editions, telling me all about a new restaurant called Smashing Plates operating from Reading’s dark kitchen. And before we get started, let’s tackle the elephant in the room: I know, the name is a problem. It’s not as if it was my idea, so don’t shoot the messenger. Let’s all get that sigh, that cringe, that facepalm or weary shake of the head out of the way in unison right at the start of proceedings, and move on.

Anyway, the email described Smashing Plates as cool and “unorthodox” – only choosing to put inverted commas around the latter, as if the former was incontrovertible. Did I fancy running a competition for my followers, it asked? I could put a post on my Instagram telling people all about Smashing Plates, and if they liked my post, followed me and the restaurant and Deliveroo and tagged the person they really wanted to share the prize with then one lucky individual could win a £50 Deliveroo voucher to use at the restaurant of their choice. Did that sound like something I would be interested in? I mean, did it?

Did I want to give over my Instagram to pimping some restaurant I’d never even tried and ask my followers to give them and Deliveroo loads of free publicity just so that one solitary reader could win fifty quid? Hell no. Don’t get me wrong, I do run the occasional competition for readers, but I try and pick the partners for them carefully. I’m not that easily bought, or that cheaply. It struck me as especially weird that the prize was vouchers you didn’t even have to spend at the restaurant the competition was meant to promote. Who was doing the benefiting here – Smashing Plates or Deliveroo?

So I declined politely and no doubt they found many other Instagram accounts to team up with. In fact, I know they did: you don’t have to look far to find plenty of #ADs and #invites featuring the restaurant (although at least the social media posts declared them, unlike some prominent restaurant bloggers). But it did make me think about whether Smashing Plates was worth ordering, so I made a mental note to come back to them later. And here we are.

They’re almost a diffusion brand in themselves, launched by Neo Christodoulou, the co-founder of The Athenian (which itself was on Deliveroo in Reading a while back, if memory serves). Smashing Plates has opened in four venues across London, all of them previously branches of The Athenian, and has two dark kitchens, here and in Cambridge. 

I’d like to say that they have a distinct identity from the Athenian, but looking at both websites I’m none the wiser. The Athenian is all about using “the best ingredients, freshly and lovingly made to order”, they “source everything from our partners in Greece and here in the UK” and “environmental concerns are super important to us… we turn our cooking oils into biodiesel and our kitchens are powered by renewable energy”. 

Smashing Plates, on the other hand, says “The menu is seriously fresh and totally traceable. I know where every ingredient in every product has come from”, “our cooking oil… gets collected and turned into bio-diesel” and “everything is fresh, from start to finish”. Seriously – chalk and feta, these two. I wonder if they fell out and Christodoulou thought “I’ll show them… by copying their entire website”?

Smashing Plates’ delivery menu is small and centred on wraps and sides, gyros and souvlaki. It has slightly less range than their restaurant menu, but there’s enough choice that you don’t feel hemmed in. Perhaps significantly, real priority is given to vegetarians and vegans – so, for instance, you can have gyros with chicken, but pork isn’t on the menu and instead you can choose from halloumi, seitan or portobello mushroom. Most of the sides, for that matter, are vegetarian. They also do salads, loaded fries, skepasti (a gyros toastie) and a handful of desserts and if you fancy a Greek beer on the side you can get your Fix, literally and figuratively.

Nothing is too pricey, either – wraps and salads cost between seven and ten pounds, practically all of the sides are less than a fiver. I chose a wrap, a couple of sides and a dessert, which came to just over twenty pounds not including rider tip (they were doing 25% off food that night), sat back and waited.

Are you ready for the obligatory fuss-free delivery paragraph? Okay, here goes: I ordered just before eight o’clock on a weekday night, my driver was on his way twenty minutes later and in just over five minutes he was at my door. How far we’ve come from me obsessively checking the tracker and saying “why is he going down the Orts Road?” to Zoë as she rolls her eyes for the seventh time: perhaps this is what personal growth looks like. I particularly appreciated the fact that my hot food was in one bag and my cold food in another – if I’d known they were going to be that careful I might have ordered that Fix after all. Please drop us a review! was written on the bag in biro. How little they know, I thought.

Everything was hot and stayed hot throughout the faff of me taking it out of the bag, photographing it, photographing it again because one of my feet was in one of the photos and so on. The gyros – I’d gone for pork – was good but a little muted for my liking. It’s not possible to eat one without comparing it to Tasty Greek’s gyros wrap, and Smashing Plates’ version wasn’t quite at that level. The meat didn’t have that wonderful crispy caramelisation that comes from being exposed to a naked flame and then thinly sliced, and although it was still decent I knew I’d had better.

What was good though, was their signature smoked aubergine sauce. It made a surprisingly refreshing change not to have tzatziki in a gyros wrap and this supplied some badly needed depth of flavour – more sweet than smoky, in truth, but still welcome. I found myself thinking about Tasty Greek Souvlaki’s set-up and wondering whether an off the shelf dark kitchen on the edge of Caversham could match it. Maybe that’s why the gyros fell short. Perhaps, for that matter, it’s why they only offered one meat option for the gyros. Working within your limitations is all very well – I do it as a writer all the time, god knows – but in an ideal world other people don’t notice your limitations.

But Smashing Plates was saved by the sides. Panko chicken bites were marinated with oregano and smoked paprika and they really weren’t mucking around when they said that: opening the box you got a wonderful herbal hit of oregano, a refreshing antidote to all the many times I’ve walked through Reading in the slipstream of someone smoking a massive joint.

It was chicken breast rather than thigh but it wasn’t dried out or bouncy and the coating was crunchy and genuinely delicious. You got a hell of a lot of chicken, the tzatziki it came with was pleasant, if underpowered on the garlic front, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bite. Looking in the box afterwards I found loads of little crunchy pieces of coating – yes, I ate them all with my fingers, with no shame – and not a jot of grease. If they could do all this for less than five pounds, what on earth was Wingstop’s excuse for being so crappy?

I also very much liked the courgette and feta bites, although it was a little odd to get only five of these for a fiver as opposed to so much chicken. The blurb calls them “fluffy” which, if anything, does them a slight disservice. The first ones I had, from the box at the start of the meal, almost had the silky texture of croquetas, with a nice tang from the feta. And actually, as they cooled if anything I appreciated them slightly more. The flavour came through better, and they firmed up so you could tell, from a bite, just how much courgette and cheese had been packed into them. 

Oh, and I had dessert too, a vegan chocolate brownie. If you decide to give Smashing Plates a try, give this a wide berth. It felt like supermarket quality at best: no real texture to speak of, no contrast between crumble and squidge, and a salted caramel topping that just felt like badly sunburnt sugar. Three pounds fifty, too – I know that’s the going rate for brownies at the likes of Workhouse or The Collective, but theirs are bigger, and better, than this. What were you thinking ordering a dessert from Deliveroo? you might be thinking. You might have a point.

Despite the brownie, I found I rather enjoyed Smashing Plates. It’s true that you can get slightly better gyros from Tasty Greek Souvlaki, but my chicken bites and halloumi and feta bites were properly enjoyable, and different from anything offered by Tasty Greek. If I ordered again I would have a gyros because I’d feel that I ought to, but it would largely be an excuse to go crazy and order all the sides. They do another that’s halloumi with sesame seeds and maple syrup which is calling to me: I love all three of those things, and I really want to experience the centre of that particular Venn diagram.

It helps, I’m sure, that my meal was better than I expected it to be. On the sofa in my comfies at the end of a forgettable day, waiting for Zoë to come home from a late shift, the weather positively Baltic outside, it brought me a little joy. And that’s the thing about takeaways – they don’t always have to hit the heights. Sometimes you just want one fewer problem. Sometimes it’s just about that little bit of self-care, treating yourself while you sit in front of Bake Off (I’m rooting for Giuseppe to win) or Strictly (Team John and Johannes all the way). That, to me, is a decidedly orthodox pleasure.

And the silliest thing of all is that if I’d taken Deliveroo up on that competition, I might never have written this review. Some of you might have found out about Smashing Plates, if you happened to be on Instagram, and one of you could have won fifty quid. But I expect you’d have spent it elsewhere, because you probably wouldn’t have the foggiest idea whether Smashing Plates was any good. And that’s the point of this blog. I don’t know why influencers do what they do, although naturally I wish them all the best. But I do know why I do this.

Smashing Plates
Order via: Deliveroo only