Takeaway review: Shake Shack

Well hello there! Welcome to this week’s review, where I go back to trying takeaways and search desperately for interesting things to say about Shake Shack.

I know my reviews never start this way. You’ve read enough of them by now, I imagine, to know the structure. I start with a preamble that puts things in context, talks about the place I’m reviewing this week and why I chose it. Is the new joint that’s opened the biggest and best? Why doesn’t anywhere in Reading do good food of this or that cuisine? Is the place I visited a few years ago still any cop? You get the idea.

Then I run you through the menu, and how prices range from bla to bla. If we’re in a restaurant, I’ll tell you what the room (or my table outside) is like, and if it’s a takeaway I tell you what I made of the delivery experience. Then I get out my Big Food Thesaurus, because every restaurant reviewer’s got one, and describe the dishes – spoiler alert, if it’s a takeaway it’s often not quite hot enough – trying to avoid wanky words like “bosky” or ones, like “unctuous”, that people bandy around without understanding what they really mean.

I also throw in some choice remarks from whoever’s eating with me that week. Because the more of somebody in the review who isn’t me the better, am I right? Usually that’s my partner Zoë, who’s much more quotable than I am. But Zoë is joining me for fewer reviews at the moment, because we’re going to a wedding in a couple of weeks and she wants to wear an outfit that, in her own words, “doesn’t come with guy ropes”. So other times a friend of mine comes along, and I might also spend some time describing them; these reviews don’t clock up their massive word count by themselves, you know. 

Anyway, then I tell you what the service was like, how much it costs and whether it was good value, and finally I inelegantly loop back to the preamble and tie it all together with a pretty bow. That’s the formula, and you’ve all flown with me often enough to know that perfectly well. Thanks for choosing my blog today: the emergency exits are here, here and here, and I hope you have a very pleasant onward journey.

My reason for opening the figurative kimono this week is that my takeaway from Shake Shack was so nothingy that it was a challenge to hold all the details in mind, like trying to recall a dream days after you wake up from it. At least with some dreams you actively want to remember them – winning the lottery for instance, being on holiday, or having it off with your favourite film star – but I doubt most people would long to dream about Shake Shack. I think I can understand why some “proper” restaurant reviewers spend the first half of their reviews talking about something that has nothing to do with the restaurant: they’re probably just bored.

Sorry, I should at least tell you something about Shake Shack first. It’s an American chain – yes, another one – that started life twenty years ago as a solitary hot dog stand in New York’s Madison Square Park. Restaurants like to make much of where they’ve come from when their back story is like this, possibly so you won’t pay quite so much attention to where they are now. 

And where Shake Shack is now is a big chain with two hundred and fifty locations worldwide, including ten in the U.K., the majority of them in London. They opened in the U.K. the same week as Five Guys, although Five Guys has spread further and faster, possibly because it’s backed by Charles Dunstone, the billionaire co-founder of Carphone Warehouse. That might explain why Five Guys has been ensconced in Reading for eight years, whereas customers only got to try their rival from late last year, when Shake Shack teamed up with Deliveroo Editions to start selling to the people of Reading from that dark kitchen near Phantom Brewery.

I ordered from them this week out of pure curiosity: just as with Rosa’s Thai, the other London import on Deliveroo Editions, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I can be as meh about burgers as the next person, quite possibly more so, but I always got the impression Shake Shack was more highly rated among burger anoraks than Five Guys, the Burger King to Five Guys’ McDonalds (although the burger chain people really want to see come to these shores is the elusive, much-fêted In-N-Out Burger). So I fired up Deliveroo on my phone on Sunday night to see if they offered something that the likes of 7Bone, Honest and Gourmet Burger Kitchen – now available on Deliveroo, surreally, from the kitchen of our local Carluccio’s – didn’t. 

If they did it wasn’t immediately apparent from the menu, which was streamlined and straightforward. You can have a burger, a cheeseburger or a “SmokeShack” burger (with smoked cheese and bacon) either as a single or a double. Their vegetarian option – there’s nothing at all for vegans here – was a fried portobello mushroom stuffed with cheese.  Double burgers come in at around nine pounds and you have to buy fries separately, which pegs the price pretty much at the same level as Five Guys, Honest and 7Bone.

They also did a chicken burger and nuggets, a “flat-top hot dog” (which looked genuinely unpleasant in the photo) and a limited edition selection of Korean-influenced dishes making liberal use of gochujang. Most of the chicken dishes on the menu were described as “chick’n” which did make me wonder if it was in fact, technically, chicken. A bit of research reassured me, but it still seemed like a weird, unnecessary turn of phrase. Anyway, we ordered a couple of burgers, a couple of portions of fries and some nuggets and the whole thing came to forty pounds, not including rider tip.

As is so often the way, everything happened either a little too quickly or not quite quickly enough. Our order was on its way literally twelve minutes after we ordered, and it got to the house in close to ten minutes. It was on the lukewarm side, but I don’t know if that was down to the rider or the packaging. Shake Shack proudly proclaims that all the paper used in their boxes is from sustainable forests: that may be true but it was pretty thin and didn’t look like it offered much in the way of insulation.

Zoë had picked the chicken burger – partly, it turns out, because she was a bit of an expert in this field. It looked pretty decent – a thick fillet with a crunchy coating and meat whiter than American teeth. She’d left the pickles out, owing to her long-standing aversion to vinegar, and replaced them with long crisp slices of raw onion, as a heathen would do. But she seemed to enjoy it, although she thought it needed to be hotter.

“It’s not bad. I’d compare it to the McChicken Sandwich – I used to eat that back in the day, and very good it was too. Then they they replaced it with something called the Chicken Legend in a ‘ciabatta roll’” – she conveyed the inverted commas through the power of disdain alone – “and that was rubbish. It’s dry as fuck, too much roll. It comes with a ‘cool’ mayo and I don’t like the taste of it. Now you have to have a chicken mayo sandwich from the Saver menu.”

“Don’t you have a mini fillet from KFC instead?”

“Not from the one on Broad Street” she said. I wondered if she was referring to the infamous rat incident from a few years back and then I remembered: she knew numerous people who had fallen ill shortly after eating there.

“Do you remember the McChicken Premiere? That one came in fake focaccia bread, and the advert had Dani Behr, dead behind the eyes, desperately pretending to sound excited about a chicken burger.”

“Never heard of it.”

I think Zoë ordered better than I did. I’d chosen the SmokeStack Double, the most expensive burger on their menu, a double patty with cheese, bacon and chopped cherry peppers. The way it had been packaged – part-wrapped but left open – might have been visually appealing, but it meant it was colder than it needed to be, and most of the cherry peppers stayed stuck to the paper when I picked the burger up. The remainder hung around, adding a sweet crunch that jarred with everything else.

Again, if it had been hot it might have been nicer, but I didn’t feel any real difference in quality between this and Burger King, let alone Shake Shack’s more direct competitors. The bacon was nice, the patties were reasonable – cooked well done, even though I hadn’t ticked the box to request that – but I struggled to think of a burger I’d had in Reading that left me as ambivalent as this. 7Bone may be a grease overload, but at least it tastes of something. Honest’s burgers are probably the benchmark. Reading’s street food options, whether it’s Boigers or the sadly-dormant Meat Juice, beat Shake Shack hands down day in, day out. And I couldn’t help but think of plucky little Smash N Grab, out on Cemetery Junction, infinitely more deserving of my money than this, even if their fries need work.

Shake Shack’s fries, by the way, are crinkle cut – that’s their shtick – and they weren’t bad, if a tad lukewarm. They were at least well salted, and I’ve always suspected that crinkle cut chips are just inherently better. Zoe had gone for the gochujang ones, which merely meant that they gave you little plastic pots of bacon and spring onions to sprinkle on top and a tub of gochujang mayo to dip it in. I’m not sure much sustainable paper was involved in all those tubs, and I’m also not sure it was worth the additional one pound fifty. “It’s real bacon though” said Zoë, her expectations low enough by this stage that this came as a pleasant surprise.

Finally, we’d gone for some of the gochujang “chick’n” bites. The menu said that these came with gochujang glaze and another tub of that mayo. I expected from that description that they would indeed be glazed, but actually they were coated and topped with a meagre drizzle of gochujang sauce which only covered three of the ten nuggets. The taste was actually quite pleasant: there’s a wonderful, deep, savoury note to gochujang, with a slight hint of fermentation and funk. But the texture was woeful, the coating soggy and pappy underneath, no crunch to be seen. The whole thing was so woolly and unmemorable that we left a fair few of them, including one weird mutant ubernugget that was as big as three normal ones. Imagine fried chicken you don’t feel like finishing. That used to be a lot more difficult for me to do before I ordered from Shake Shack. 

I found myself thinking of Honest’s recent Thai chicken special, fried chicken thigh honking with fish sauce and a honey sriracha glaze, topped with Thai slaw, ranch dressing and cheese. It’s one of the best things they’ve ever done, and one of the finest burgers I’ve had. I loved it so much I ate it twice – at the start of the month, outside, on Market Square, and again at the end, at home, after trekking into town to click and collect on the final day of the month, because I wanted to eat it one more time before they discontinued it. Compared to that, Shake Shack wasn’t even a parody. It was a travesty.

When I first finished my takeaway from Shake Shack I think I might have been in a salt and additive-induced coma. “It wasn’t that bad” I thought to myself, “except that it wasn’t hot enough. But if you lived north of the river, and they were close to you, it might be worth a delivery.” But now I now think that was the gochujang talking. Because really, Shake Shack feels like a boring, bland way of parting a gastronomic fool and their money. 

So if you live in Caversham, and I know legions of my readers do, don’t order from Shake Shack. Get your burger from the Last Crumb instead. If you’re out east, give Smash N Grab a go. If you’re in town on the right lunchtime, head for Blue Collar. And if you’re near the town centre, go to Bluegrass, or 7Bone, or Honest, or the Lyndhurst, or King’s Grill. Go to Burger King, for that matter. Go literally anywhere else, so that one day Shake Shack’s marketing people and the experts at Deliveroo Editions realise that a town with a vibrant food culture won’t be fobbed off with some mediocre pap just because it has a few restaurants up in London. That kind of bollocks might work in Basingstoke or Bracknell, but it simply won’t wash here.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë, who summed it up neatly as she ruefully tackled one of those stodgy nuggets. 

“You’d be better off going to Gurt Wings, where you could get three massive strips and a fuckload of tater tots for the same money. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Indies do it better.”

They do. They nearly always do.

Shake Shack

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/shake-shack-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only

Takeaway review: The Reading Room at the Roseate Hotel

Normally with my reviews, as most of you know by now, you get a preamble. That’s the bit before I talk about the food – the bit some of you think is too long – that gives some context and explains why, this week of all weeks, I picked this restaurant of all restaurants.

I had a preamble all ready in my mind for this week’s delivery from The Reading Room, the restaurant that’s part of the Roseate Hotel. You know, what used to be Cerise in what used to be in the Forbury Hotel. In it, I was going to talk about how, oddly in 2020, Reading’s high-end dining scene saw more activity than you’d expect in the middle of a global pandemic. The Reading Room launched with a new fine dining offering and then the Corn Stores reopened with a constantly-changing Michelin-chasing tasting menu.

I would have gone on to say that both restaurants have pivoted in different directions in lockdown. The Corn Stores seems to have been offering a fancy, expensive, heat-at-home option, in keeping with other highly regarded restaurants nationwide (although best of luck finding any details on their website). By contrast, the Reading Room has chosen to offer gourmet burgers via the usual delivery apps, a limited menu focusing on quality.

I know, burgers. But then I remembered that it’s three years since I reviewed Honest Burgers, during which time they have established themselves at Reading’s favourite burger, the Coke to 7Bone’s Pepsi. And I wondered whether the Reading Room was a genuine contender to that undisputed primacy, so I decided to place an order and see whether they lived up to the promise.

Unfortunately, that preamble has been derailed somewhat by the Apocalypse Now of delivery experiences, one so horrendous that I can’t imagine myself ordering from the Reading Room again, or using Uber Eats for the foreseeable future. Those of you who enjoy my misfortune, and I know there are a few of you, will enjoy picking through the debris of this one. For my part, I’ll just tell you what happened and maybe you can decide whose fault, if anybody’s, it all was.

The Reading Room delivers through all three main delivery partners, but I fired up Uber Eats on a weekday evening to make my choices. The Reading Room’s options were nicely compact: there are three beef burgers, a chicken burger, a pulled pork burger, a “lean turkey burger” (do you reckon that really appeals to anybody?) and a couple of vegan and vegetarian options. They all come with fries and there are a few optional sides – chicken wings, onion rings, that kind of thing. The limited range was more Honest than 7Bone, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I placed an order at quarter past seven and twenty minutes later the app told me my driver was en route. It said he was making another stop on the way to my house, although the map of his route made it look like he was heading all the way across to the other end of town, but I decided to reserve judgment. And sure enough, he was outside my house ten minutes later, holding out a bag to me. So far so good, except that it had a Tasty Greek Souvlaki sticker on it, and somebody else’s surname scrawled on it in biro, all block caps.

“I’m really sorry, but this isn’t my order.” Funny how we always apologise in these circumstances.

“But this is the right address.”

“It might be, but I didn’t order from this restaurant and that isn’t my surname. We ordered from the Roseate Hotel, the burger place. The app said this was your second stop, are you sure you didn’t deliver our food to them?”

“No, I had to drop something off at the Roseate Hotel.”

This made no sense.

“Hold on a second” he said. A car was trying to pass on our narrow one way street, so he pulled away. I assumed he’d come back to continue the conversation, but no – he had vanished, never to return. Shortly after this, my phone pinged to notify me that the order had been cancelled and I wouldn’t be charged. I have no idea why they didn’t send me my food, but they fixed it quickly and the driver was perfectly pleasant, if a little rabbit in the headlights, so up to this point I had no complaints. Uber Eats even gave me five pounds off my next order, which seemed very nice of them.

I did what I expect most people would do in my situation: I fired up the app and reordered the same dishes. With hindsight, maybe I should have cut my losses: the alarm bells rang when about eight minutes later the app informed me that a driver was on his way with my food.

“That’s far too quick for them to cook it all again from scratch, isn’t it?” said my other half, Zoë. Quite.

Our second driver, who was also perfectly pleasant, pulled up in a black cab and got out holding a paper bag with our order in it. He may have had an insulated bag on the back seat but if so, I didn’t see it.

“I’m concerned that this might be my original order, which was ready over half an hour ago.” I said. “This has arrived far too quickly to be a new order. Can you wait while we just check if it’s hot?”

“Sure” he said. We took it into the kitchen and opened it up. It felt around half an hour from being hot – surely it had to be the original order, given that it had arrived so quickly? If they’d cooked it straight away at speed and the driver had scrambled it to us in five minutes flat, I would have expected it to be piping hot.

“I’m sorry,” I said – sorry again, for some reason which escapes me – “but this isn’t hot.”

“You’ll have to take it up with Uber Eats, I’m just the delivery driver” he said, and like that he sped off into the night. So, it was a lukewarm burger and chips for dinner and my main task was to try and work out whether, if it had been hot, it would have been the worldbeating burger you would hope to get from what used to be the Forbury Hotel. 

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it’s a no from me. I went for the “Reading Room Prime Steak Burger”, their premium option with mushrooms, Stilton, tomato relish and “sticky bacon” which I opted to add on. According to Uber Eats the meat is “sourced from the Windrush Valley at the food of the Cotswold Hills”. 

Well, bits of it were nice. The Stilton had a good salty kick and I didn’t mind the tomato relish at all. But the bacon was a flaccid rasher of back, more icky than sticky, and the burger was chewy and unseasoned, grey rather than pink in the middle. I can only guess whether it would have been better straight out of the kitchen – possibly, yes, and that half an hour delay would have seen to any remaining juiciness, but the whole thing was dry and tasteless and I suspect that would have been the case one way or the other. The chips weren’t good either: the last time I had half an hour old chips was in a staff canteen, and even they were better than the Reading Room’s “skin on chips”.

Zoë’s pulled pork burger was a little better – “it’s stayed hotter because it has this big rosti on top of it”. The patty was minced pork, the rosti was apparently pretty good and there were some tender pieces of pork belly on top of the whole thing. “I’d probably order this again” was her verdict, although it’s hard to imagine a situation where that will ever happen. I’m not sure that you could ever describe this as a pulled pork burger, though, unless by “pulled” they meant “pulled a fast one”.

I don’t hugely like chicken wings as a rule, but my burger and chips were so dismal – I didn’t finish either – that I decided to try them. One was pleasant enough, the second had a fishy aftertaste which I couldn’t put my finger on. They were pretty much stone cold. Zoë, who does like chicken wings, could only manage one. “They’re overcooked and dry” was her verdict. A meal like this is barely a meal at all. It’s worse than a meal, the absence of a meal, and was worse than any of the things I could have cooked up with the contents of my fridge. 

After what passed for my dinner, I tried to get in touch with Uber Eats to complain about my cold, late food. Their app does everything it can to guarantee that you can’t speak to a human or call a phone number – to Deliveroo’s credit, they are at least contactable – but I went through the options on their help section and was told that somebody from Uber Eats would be in touch about the issues I’d raised. You can’t fault their promptness, because in less than half an hour I received an email. It didn’t give a phone number, an email address or any way to get in touch with them if you found the response inadequate, which is interesting given what it said. Here is a screenshot.

I contacted Uber Eats on Twitter to see if they wanted to talk about this, but I didn’t hold out much hope. Looking at their mentions, it seems they take over 24 hours to respond to unhappy customers, and I’m guessing that’s because there are so many of them.

“My food took 30mins to arrive after leaving. I’m one mile away. Food stone cold and incorrect” said one. In another, Uber Eats said that they couldn’t do anything because the order was placed 48 hours ago, although it probably took them that long to pick up on the complaining Tweet. “You keep sending me an automated message and ignoring the situation” said a third. My 29p credit probably puts me in the top percentile of people whose dinner plans are ruined. The worst thing is that it’s a credit not a refund, so I can’t even go crazy, go out and blow it all on some Space Raiders.

This is the tricky thing about this model with a middle man involved: the driver says you should complain to Uber Eats, whereas Uber Eats’ line is that you should just give the restaurant a poor rating on the app. I did consider contacting the Reading Room to get their feedback, but the website lists no phone number or contact details and the Twitter feed hasn’t uttered a word since summer 2019. It’s almost like they don’t want customers, which is probably for the best under the circumstances: I can’t see them getting any from this review.

I still don’t really know whose fault it was that I had such a dire meal. Was it Uber Eats, for some kind of software snafu that meant I never got my order from Driver A? Was it Driver A for making it to the Roseate and not realising that he was meant to collect some food there? Or was it the restaurant for seeing the second order coming in and thinking “well, we have that sitting here under the pass and we’ll only have to throw it away”? And weirdest of all, I’m giving the restaurant the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they sent out my food that had been sitting under the lights for half an hour – if it was a brand new order that turned up to my house, tepid and underwhelming, that would reflect even worse on them. 

Or, equally plausibly, maybe I am just a moron who should have foreseen that this was exactly what would happen if I tried to order exactly the same dishes all over again. Who knows? Answers on a postcard. In the meantime if you want a burger delivered to your home stick to Honest, and if you can order a takeaway directly from the restaurant instead of using a third party please do.

In any event, if you really do want Reading’s best burger these days, you need to make your way to Blue Collar on a Wednesday lunchtime and grab one from the dubiously-named Meat Juice. It only comes one way – with proper bacon, a slab of mature Cheddar, burger sauce and pickled red onion. The patty is made from minced chuck steak, perfectly seasoned with just a hint of chilli in the mix. There aren’t any fries with it and it will only set you back six pounds fifty. Eaten on a bench just round the corner from Market Place it is pretty damn close to perfection. 

Having said that, if you want a better meal than the one I had at the Reading Room, you could just go out and buy some Space Raiders: they would outperform it in pretty much every respect. I’d give you the money for that myself but I’m afraid it’s resting, Father Ted-style, in my Uber Eats account, unlikely ever to be redeemed.

The Reading Room
The Roseate Hotel, 26 The Forbury, Reading, RG1 3EJ
0118 9527770

https://www.roseatehotels.com/reading/theroseate/
Order via: Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats

Feature: The 2019 Edible Reading Awards

Can you believe it’s that time of year again? Hopefully by now you’ve bought all your Christmas presents (even if, like me, you’ve not necessarily wrapped them yet). Hopefully you’ve sent and received all your cards – if you still do that sort of thing – and reflected on the new names on the list and the people you’ve finally pruned. You’ve probably had your work do, and been out with your friends. You may even be on roast dinner number four or five by now. We all have our festive traditions and one of mine, for the last five years, has been sitting down and writing this, my end of term report on Reading’s restaurant scene. Was it an “exceeds expectations” or a “must try harder”? Hmm. Let’s find out.

I initially thought it had been a quiet year for restaurants in this town but actually, on reflection, there has been a fair bit of movement. No big-name openings like 2018 – no Lido, no Clay’s, no Corn Stores – but instead a steady succession of new places vying to capture your spend and your affection. So 2019 was the year when we said hello to Argentine steakhouse Buenasado and Greek white elephant Lemoni in the Oracle, the Pantry in the Town Hall, Vegivores and the Last Crumb out in Caversham and countless other new kids on the block.

Some existing restaurateurs moved to new premises: Tutu shifted her Ethiopian Table from the Global Café to Palmer Park, and Kamal (of Namaste Kitchen) finally opened new restaurant Namaste Momo on the edge of Earley. And there’s always a new restaurant just around the corner – the first of 2020 may well be Osaka, the new Japanese restaurant due to set up shop in the old Café Rouge site, but I doubt it will be the last. We’re also allegedly getting a Taco Bell, presumably to compensate us in some Newtonian sense, for the forthcoming closure of bigoted poultry purveyor Chick-Fil-A.

Not that we haven’t had enough restaurants close this year. The saddest, for me, was Tuscany, the fantastic independent pizzeria down the Oxford Road. I was also disappointed that Vibes, the Caribbean restaurant on Queens Walk, closed before I paid it a visit. We also lost two Reading institutions in the form of China Palace and Beijing Noodle House – although, to be euphemistic, both had seen better days.

Town centre Vietnamese restaurant Mum Mum and Alona, serving Lebanese food down the Wokingham Road, also closed their doors for the final time. Neither got to celebrate their first birthday. Nor did Bench Rest, which stopped serving in the Tasting House after less than a year: Reading’s original nomad moved on again, and is apparently leaving the country next year.

In terms of reviewing, it’s been a year of highs and lows. I experienced the worst nachos in the world, activated charcoal-flavoured ick, food that came all at once, John Lewis tablemats, albino carbonara and comically laissez faire service. But I’ve also had astonishing sausage rolls, eye-opening pasta, the warmest of welcomes and seen familiar faces in new places. Every now and then I’d have a run of meals so bad, or so bla, that I started to feel discouraged, but the next superb meal was never too far away. Trips abroad made sure I never fell out of love with eating out, especially one holiday where the food just blew me away.

It’s been a fantastic year in terms of the blog – a record-breaking one, with more visitors than ever before. As always, I’m incredibly grateful to all of you who read, like, comment, Retweet, share or just lurk, whether you do so smiling, laughing, tutting or grimacing. I’m grateful to everybody who’s come out on duty with me this year – friends, readers, my terrific family and of course Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion. And I’m also grateful to everybody who has come to one of the five readers’ events I’ve run this year – all at some of Reading’s finest independent restaurants, each of them offering a special one-off menu. I’m not sure 2019 will be topped, but of course I’ll try my best to next year.

With all that said, it just remains for me to hand out the gongs in this, the 2019 Edible Reading Awards. It’s been harder than ever to reduce the long list to a short list, let alone pick the winners, and any of the honourable mentions this year could easily have taken top spot instead of the eventual winners. We’re lucky to live in a town that makes these decisions so difficult, so if you disagree with any or all of the winners I can hardly blame you: on another day, I might have disagreed too. Anyway, that’s quite enough preamble: let’s announce some winners, and you can tell me what I got wrong in the comments.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chilli nachos, The Lyndhurst

It was pretty much love at first sight when I ordered the Lyndhurst’s chilli nachos for the first time, and none of my subsequent encounters have dimmed my ardour. A wonderful chilli made with slow-cooked, shredded beef (a chilli which doesn’t appear elsewhere on the menu in the mains section), robust hand-made tortilla chips, a healthy helping of well-made guacamole and some cream cheese, a lettuce leaf if you want to pretend to be a better person than you actually are. A perfect starter to share, or to snaffle on your own, or a dish to eat with a few pints just for the sake of it, because it’s so perfect. I’m a huge fan, and I live in constant fear that they’ll either take it off the menu or price it slightly less generously (seven pounds twenty-five pence, would you believe it). Superb stuff.

I know that not picking a starter from Clay’s will be controversial here – one Twitter follower suggested I should have a separate award for the best Clay’s starter (and that too would be an incredibly tough one to call). Clay’s does deserve an honourable mention though for their cut mirchi chaat – a sort of stuffed and battered chilli dish that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to resist (yes, I know: but what about the chicken 65, the kodi chips, the squid pakora, the duck spring rolls, and basically all the other starters. Enough already). Another honourable mention goes to Zest for their triple-cooked pork belly with XO sauce, a dish I’ve thought about on pretty much a daily basis since I had it at the start of the month.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Honest Burger

Chains are all about consistency, and in my experience Honest has gone from strength to strength this year, becoming the place to go if you want a quick, enjoyable, reliably superb meal. It helps that they’ve swapped out their local special – the indifferent jerk chicken burger has given way to a gorgeous new option with Waterloo cheese and bearnaise butter – but it’s just that they never put a foot wrong. My stepfather is so impressed with their vegan burger that he picks it over a conventional beefburger, some of the specials this year have been absolutely knockout (especially when they involve fried chicken) but really, it’s just that it’s regularly, unspectacularly excellent. Reading still has far too many burger joints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the rest closed down. But Honest is another matter altogether.

The two runners-up in this category also deliver the kind of consistency and comfort you want from a visit to a chain restaurant. Pho continues to offer an excellent range of dishes (I don’t think I’ll ever really see the appeal of the eponymous dish itself, but I’m evangelical about their com chien) and Kokoro has done me a turn on many an early evening when I can’t be bothered to cook and on a few hungover Sunday lunchtimes. Their sweet chilli chicken is a particular favourite of mine, although I know the katsu curry also has its fans.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

Yes, on this occasion lunch probably means brunch and yes, Fidget & Bob is out of town which means that for most people it’s a weekend lunch option. But nevertheless, most of my happiest lunches this year have been at Fidget & Bob and they invariably involve a variant of their phenomenal brunch menu which they serve all day. You can have a breakfast wrap, or the “hangover” (a sausage, bacon and egg sandwich) but I always seem to go for their golden, gorgeous scrambled eggs, served with crispy back bacon and a slice of their sausage loaf. Other dishes – sandwiches, panini and their home-made noodle pots – are available, but the trick is to save room for cake. I am hooked on the kouign amann – hopelessly indulgent Breton pastries made with plenty of salted butter (they missed a trick not calling them “Breton butter pudding”) but the salted caramel brownies are also phenomenal.

Picking a winner in this category wasn’t easy, limiting the runners-up to just two was equally difficult. An honourable mention goes to Caversham’s Geo Café which has spent 2019 completing its transformation from Nomad Bakery and, along with a beautiful array of cakes, still serves one of Reading’s finest sandwiches in the form of the ajika-spiced corn-fed chicken wrap. Also highly commended is Shed – which is every bit as good as ever and continues to serve Reading’s best golden, cheese-laden, comforting toasties.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Lamb with cumin, Kungfu Kitchen

In a year of wonderful main courses – far too many to list here – KFK’s lamb with cumin was the one I kept coming back to. I had it on my second ever visit, and it’s been a struggle not to order it every time since. The lamb – sliced wafer-thin, as it is for the hot pot – is so deep and rich. It tastes properly of lamb – which might sound like a silly thing to say, but somehow lamb is so often a pale copy of how it ought to taste. “This is how kebabs should be” said my other half the first time she tasted this dish, and I can understand what she meant. The whole thing, flecked with sesame seeds and tumbled with onion and coriander, stalks and all, is the kind of intensely savoury dish you daydream about long after you have eked out one final mouthful. KFK does so many excellent dishes but, in the lamb with cumin, it has one unforgettable one.

It is a tribute to how strong a field it is that many of the dishes on my long list could easily have won this award: Fidget & Bob’s char siu pork, for instance, or Namaste Momo’s spellbinding lamb kothey momo. But there’s only room for two runners-up. First, the chinta chiguru from Clay’s – terrific, tender chicken thigh in a striking, sharply elegant tamarind sauce (very much the unsung hero of the Clay’s menu, in my book). And secondly, Bakery House’s boneless baby chicken with vegetable rice and beautifully dressed salad, possibly Reading’s most complete main course.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Mio Fiore, Newbury

I so loved my visit to Mio Fiore this year, and I’m long overdue a return trip. There was just something magical about it – so unprepossessing and yet getting everything right, serving dishes that are so often unspecial in chain Italians and reminding you just how superb they can be in the right hands. It came around the same time as I had a brilliant holiday in Bologna and a bloody horrendous meal in Cozze, and the fact that the standard was so much closer to the former than the latter put a huge smile on my face. If you go, the spaghetti puttanesca (pictured above) is pretty damn close to perfection.

Honourable mentions have to go to Goring’s Miller Of Mansfield, a special occasion restaurant which will leave you wanting to invent more special occasions, and Oxford’s Pompette, a truly spectacular French neighbourhood restaurant which I’d dearly love to pick up and drop somewhere in Reading. In fact, since I can’t do that, I’m literally lunching there again today.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I stopped giving an award out for Tweeter of the year this year, because Fidget & Bob won it every year. They may as well keep the trophy. But this year, eating there more often, I discovered that how they were on Twitter probably came so naturally to them because it was just an extension of how they were in real life. Their welcome is always warm but perfectly-judged, not faux-matey, never too much. They seem to know literally everybody who eats in their little café – who they are, what they like, how they’ve been, the comings and goings of their lives. I suppose it must be easier to do when you run a small venue and there are only a couple of you, but that doesn’t stop it being extremely impressive – or bloody hard work, however easy Shu and Breege make it look.

An honourable mention has to go to Mio Fiore, who also have that perfect balance spot on in a far bigger venue, and I also have to single out the inimitable Jo at Kungfu Kitchen. Her service is a constant joy to me – the conversation, the recommendations, the gossip, the way she always seems delighted that you’ve come back. There’s no welcome quite like it in Reading, and once you’ve tried it you’ll know exactly what I mean.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Chocolate custard with sesame tuille, The Miller Of Mansfield

So beautiful, so elegant and so delicious: the Miller’s chocolate custard is a smooth, glossy thing somewhere between the texture of a ganache and a mousse. It looks almost as beautiful as it tastes, with a salted sesame tuille on top perfect to break into little shards, the whole thing artfully dotted with microherbs and little dabs of vivid orange. It was by far the best dessert I’ve had this year: when I went on duty I shared it with my dining companion, but when I managed to engineer a return visit a few weeks later I made sure I got one all to myself.

Honourable mentions go to Zest’s excellent white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake – a big old slab of heaven – and the timeless simplicity of Mio Fiore’s tiramisu.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst

I was very sad when the Lyndhurst closed in June, the landlord went off to pastures new and at least one of the chefs moved on to the Fisherman’s Cottage. And I had my doubts when it reopened the following month – there was a hesitancy about the whole thing, and on the opening night the team seemed more than a little fazed about what they had taken on.

Well, over the months that followed they have, if anything, surpassed their predecessors with an interesting and exciting menu which constantly changes. I tried a beautiful dish of oxtail there, rich shreds of meat wrapped up in the embrace of a cabbage leaf. Weeks later, it had vanished from the menu like a mirage, never to return. The picture above is of a stunning rabbit dish – stuffed with chicken liver, wrapped in prosciutto, a dish which kept popping back into my mind at random moments, normally when I was eating something nowhere near as good. I think they served that dish for less than a week, and I haven’t seen it on the menu since.

One staple, though, is the curry night on Thursdays – a choice of three curries, all miles from the generic stuff, with rice, a bhaji, a pint and a naan, all for a tenner. The ever-present katsu chicken burger is always worth ordering, too, with some of Reading’s best chips – and then there’s the small matter of their chilli nachos, as I’ve already said.

The tables have got busier, the “reserved” signs more frequent, and I for one am delighted to see them doing so well. And the hesitancy hasn’t exactly vanished: it’s more that it’s morphed into a really charming humility. They don’t ever sing their own praises, which is even more reason why it’s my pleasure to do it for them by awarding them my Newcomer Of The Year award.

Some people would have expected Kungfu Kitchen to win this award, but they opened in October last year so aren’t eligible (and, personally, I was delighted to dodge another incredibly hard decision). I do, however, have to mention the two runners-up in this category. Buenasado really surprised me when I visited it on duty – I had low expectations of a small restaurant popping up in the Oracle in the site vacated by CAU, but they did a really creditable job (and their lunchtime steak frites offer is not to be sniffed at, either). An honourable mention also goes to Namaste Momo, the new outpost from Kamal, the man behind Namaste Kitchen. It’s a little out of the way, and the execution of the menu is still slightly uneven, but the hand-made momo are literally worth the price of admission alone: not only that, but Kamal will absolutely charm the socks off you.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Kungfu Kitchen

This was absolutely the hardest decision of all. Just think, for a second, about how lucky we are to live here. Here are some of the restaurants that didn’t even make my shortlist: Fidget & Bob; Pepe Sale; Geo Café; The Lyndhurst; Namaste Momo.

And then look at my runners-up. Bakery House is a superb, consistent, brilliantly run Reading institution where you can take pretty much anyone you know and guarantee that you’ll have a superb meal. You can go with vegetarians and go crazy with the mezze, or take your carnivorous friends and rejoice in the chicken livers, the little spiced sausages, the shawarma and the chicken fresh from the grill. I can’t remember them ever disappointing me.

And then there’s Clay’s. How could I not give the award to Clay’s, you might quite reasonably ask? If anything, their second year has been stronger than their first: look at all that game on their menu at the start of 2019, the quail, the rabbit and the pheasant. And then, just when you think their food couldn’t get any better, they pivoted again: amazing baby squid, like some hybrid of Hyderabad and Andalusia, a crab fry dish which has left so many diners speechless. They’ve even got me to eat baby corn, something I’d previously thought was impossible. I know full well that not picking them as 2019’s winners will leave many of you questioning my judgment this year (and possibly next).

But this is a decision made with the heart, not the head, and Kungfu Kitchen has been my restaurant of this year. From the very first visit I was wondering when I could go back, and on every visit I’ve faced that agonising tug of war between ordering a dish I know and love or venturing deeper into the menu. It never feels too much like a leap into the unknown, largely because of the magnificent Jo who always acts as a sherpa, taking you just far enough out of your comfort zone without ever leaving you high and dry (with possibly one exception: she once made me order a boiled beef and chilli oil dish which was a challenge, more a dish you survive than finish). She is a force of nature, and a huge part of what makes Kungfu Kitchen so enjoyable and so welcoming.

The food really is marvellous – whether it’s the fried fish in spicy hot pot, the sweet and aromatic wonder of the fish fragrant pork, the piquant kung pao chicken, the glorious pork belly, boiled, sliced super thin and then stir fried with Chinese mushrooms and plenty of heat, the salt and pepper tofu – yes, tofu – or one of my very favourites, the Xinjiang-style shredded chicken which almost literally takes your breath away with the heat before gradually releasing its grip on your larynx. That makes it sound awful but honestly, it’s exhilarating.

The conventional wisdom is to go to a place like Kungfu Kitchen in a big group so you can try more dishes, and that’s partly true. I’ve been at a birthday party there where they effortlessly served about twenty people, they did a bang-up job (complete with karaoke!) at one of my readers’ lunches earlier in the year. But I’ve also been here with smaller groups of friends, on quiet nights with my other half and, on occasion when I’m at a loose end, I’ll walk up the hill on my own and order just the one dish – such a hardship – and a beer and have dinner for one watching the toing and froing, the bustle and the banter. The welcome is never less than perfect, and the food is never less than gorgeous. It truly is a happy place.

It’s been a real joy to watch Kungfu Kitchen spreading its wings on social media, and to see so many ER readers go there and fall in love with the place, as I did. And so it seems appropriate to end 2019 by giving them this award and by wishing them – and all my winners and runners-up, and just as importantly all of you – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Brewdog

Regular readers might remember that I first attempted to review Brewdog about three months ago, unsuccessfully as it happens. I came, I saw, I was told they couldn’t even take orders for at least thirty minutes and I sodded off. To the Real Greek instead, in fact, where I had a surprisingly enjoyable meal with my friend Steve. He still messages me occasionally just to talk about sausage (the one at the Real Greek I should say, although I think Steve has a soft spot for most sausages, so to speak).

I decided I would leave Brewdog for another day when my frustration had subsided and I’d forgotten some of the faux wackiness which had slightly got my back up – the almost illegible menu and the zany pun-ridden dish names like “Hail Seitan” and “Clucky This Time”. So I turned up with my old friend Mike on a Monday night to check it out, hoping for better luck this time.

Much was different from my last visit. In May, Brewdog had been open less than two months and there was still a huge buzz about the place. It had been fuller and louder, whereas going back now it was definitely a quieter proposition – although that might also be because I went on a Monday. Another difference was that last time I turned up on spec, whereas this time I had had already booked a table.

The site has a chequered history. It’s been the Litten Tree, a properly purgatorial chain pub known to many Reading residents of a certain vintage as the “Shitten Tree”. It’s been RYND, with beautiful interiors, rock-hard cheap seating and bandwagon-chasing knock-off American barbecue food. And most recently it’s been Public, a venue whose selling point – if you see this as a selling point – was to have board games, fussball tables and pool tables. I imagine the trendsetters went there but wouldn’t have been seen dead in the Sun, on the opposite side of the road, with its thoroughly charming bar billiards table: nowhere near ironic enough.

RYND, for all its faults, did a beautiful job of exposing the brickwork and then Public cocked it all up with cheapo tiles and wood panelling, so it was lovely to see that Brewdog had restored the room to something like its former glory. The large central room does feel like a beer hall, with long tables and – no surprises here – industrial light fittings. I’d asked for a booth, and it would have been nice to have been seated at one of the ones in the main room to feel more like part of things, but instead they put us in the smaller area off to the left, very much the overflow car park of the restaurant.

On my last visit, poor Steve and I waited at our table in bewilderment for easily five minutes before realising that nobody was going to come to ask us what we wanted. At the time, I wrote this off as my mistake, thinking that Brewdog was far more like a pub than a restaurant. But another difference with this visit was that a very friendly, smiley waitress came over and asked us what we’d like to drink. I have no idea whether that’s because it was quieter, or because we’d booked a table or for some other reason, and it slightly bugs me that I can’t tell you which of my two visits was more representative.

The menu was, well, burgers and hot dogs. And two salads. I couldn’t help thinking that Brewdog might have put more effort and imagination – albeit misplaced – into the names of the dishes than the dishes themselves. I had my eye on a burger from my extensive research – the “Jackpot”, with its winning combination of black pudding, chorizo and blue cheese – but I was also determined to let Mike pick first. I’m lucky that people want to come out on duty with me, so I always try to make sure they aren’t eating their second choice of starter or main.

“I quite fancy the ‘Chipotle Chorizo’,” said Mike, which made perfect sense: his mum is Spanish, after all.

“That’s fine” I said through gritted teeth, dying slightly inside as the prospect of sampling the Jackpot receded into the middle distance. “I’ll just have one of the chicken burgers instead. I love southern fried chicken.”

My first choice of chicken burger would have been the “Buffalo Chicken”, but we’d also decided to have some of the buffalo cauliflower, so I ended up going for the “Cluck Norris”: southern fried chicken and avocado. I had a sneaking feeling I had picked the menu’s equivalent of a chicken korma at this point, but the die was cast. Besides, why whinge about it to Mike when I could bide my time and instead complain to literally dozens of readers? Think of the delayed gratification, I told myself as I drank my pint.

I suppose I should at least attempt to talk about the beer, so here goes: there are a whole range of Brewdog beers on tap along with others in bottles and a range of other guest beers. Nearly everything crosses the five pound a pint Rubicon which, in fairness, probably stopped being any kind of meaningful threshold at some point last year; nowadays you just pay whatever they charge you and if you wince when they tell you how much your round is, you’re either in the wrong place or pubs just aren’t for you. The menu helpfully made suggestions about which beers paired well with each burger (Mike followed this advice, because he’s that kind of person and I didn’t, because I’m not).

Mike declared himself very satisfied with the Punk IPA and the Dead Pony, the latter specifically chosen to go with his burger. “They sell Brewdog on the continent”, he told me (Mike spends most of the year swanning around Europe running coach tours: I like to think he’s like a twenty-first century Robin Askwith, although the lack of stories of swordsmanship suggests this might be wishful thinking), “but it’s really expensive over there.” The punchline was left hanging in the air: I couldn’t be bothered to claim it.

My beers, from the outer reaches of the list, were more interesting I thought, although that doesn’t guarantee that my descriptions of them will be. I had a pint of Lighthouse by Windswept which I really liked, a “Kolsch style lager” (it means it’s kind of German, apparently – you know, like the Royal Family) which was crisp, clean and just the right side of the dividing line between bland and delicate. The Windswept website says it’s best enjoyed after abseiling or archery, which strikes me as a shame because it means I’ll never get to enjoy it in optimum conditions: never mind, I’ll live.

I followed it up with a pint of “#MashTag2018” which seems to be a beer that’s part crowdsourced through polls every year. The 2018 version, which presumably was chosen by Russian bots, was infused with hibiscus and yuzu and I liked it a great deal; the sharp citrus added by the yuzu made it smarter than the average beer. Mike had a sip and decided to order a pint of himself after he’d lapped me. He then decided that it was more fun to sip a little of it than to wade through a pint of it, which I figured served him right. Karmic payback for stopping me hitting the Jackpot, perhaps.

The burgers at Brewdog cost between nine and ten pounds and fries (or sweet potato fries) are extra, so in terms of price it’s probably largely on a par with Honest. It’s taken me until this point in the review to mention the H word, but they were very much in my mind as I had my dinner because, for better or worse, 2018 is the year that they’ve become the benchmark for all burgers in this town.

Here’s something you’ll rarely hear me say: the problem with my chicken burger is that it had too much chicken. It’s honestly true – the unremarkable-looking seeded brioche had two large coated chicken breasts in it. That might have been a dream come true if the coating had tasted of anything, but in fact it had almost no flavour at all. A real shame, because it looked the part and the texture was great, but in terms of taste it was like a mirage of KFC. This also meant that the whole thing was unbalanced because the things it really needed – the avocado, the coriander, the Cajun mayo – simply couldn’t put up a fight against all that bland fried chicken. With proper coating, less chicken and more of the rest it could have been world-beating, but as it was I actually left some of it. A knife stuck needlessly out of the top, Excalibur-style, and I couldn’t tell whether it was decoration or punishment.

Mike’s “Chipotle Chorizo” was better, but still unspecial. The burger itself – very much cooked medium-well – was crumbly and dry and left me, again, thinking wistfully of Honest at the other end of town. The chorizo was by far the best thing in it – coarse, juicy and piquant – but the chipotle mayo didn’t add a lot and the padron peppers felt a bit random. There was one in the burger and another impaled on top of the bun – that knife trick again. I felt like Mike had got the better deal, but only in terms of shades of meh. Speaking of meh, the fries were wan and disappointing, and I didn’t have any desire to finish them all. Mike had upgraded to the sweet potato fries – they cost fifty pence extra – and this was money well spent, although probably money better spent would have involved not having fries at all.

The bright spot was the buffalo cauliflower, which we both agreed was quite the nicest thing we ate all evening. Big firm florets in a hot, sour glaze, and easily more interesting than the feature attraction, a scene-stealing bit part. But even this wasn’t perfect – I liked the coating but I’d have liked it to be crunchier and stick to the cauliflower a bit better. And, when it came to it, we paid eight pounds for it, so it really wasn’t much cheaper than the burgers. Perhaps by this point I’d just run out of magnanimity: it’s distinctly possible. There was a vegan dip with it, which tasted like a photocopy of salad cream and might have appealed, if you were a vegan.

This is all getting a bit crotchety, isn’t it? I should perhaps focus on the service because it was properly lovely. Our waitress (or, according to the bill, “server”) was likeable and cheery without ever seeming fake or making us feel like miserable old shits, not that we needed any help in that department. Our bill for two came to just shy of sixty pounds, excluding service (and the menu, randomly, also gives you the option to buy a pint of Punk IPA for the kitchen: I’m not sure that would have improved matters, but it might have been worth giving it a whirl). At the time that didn’t feel like a lot, but looking back it feels like money extracted somewhat by stealth.

It’s probably obvious by now that Brewdog wasn’t my bag at all, but what surprises me is that I honestly expected it to be better. It has a small menu and I thought sticking to a few things might mean they did them well, especially when you think about how considered their brand is and how much attention to detail they’ve put into the building, and the fit out. So it’s disappointing that the food was so drab; if I wanted that kind of meal I’d go to Honest, and if I wanted that range of beer I’d walk slightly further out of town and make for the Nag’s Head.

Of course, it’s possible that Brewdog was aiming for the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where beer drinkers and food fans meet, but somehow I doubt it. It felt like the food was just there to tick a box rather than to properly complement the beer, and I found that a little sad. It felt a lot like a slightly less corporate Oakford Social Club, but when you strip away the beards the experience is much the same. What Brewdog really highlighted, for me, is one of the big gaps in the market left here in Reading. Since I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage, punters have been left with a pretty stark choice: you can have a fantastic range of well-kept beer or you can have brilliant food, but – for now at least – you can’t have both.

Brewdog – 6.2
11 Castle Street, RG1 7SB
0118 9568755

https://www.brewdog.com/bars/uk/reading

Feature: Table for one

What a difference three years makes: back in 2015, when I last posted a guide to solo dining, I waxed lyrical about it as an experience but, truth be told, I didn’t do it that often. Now and again when my spouse went away on business, mainly, or on the odd occasion when I had a day off to myself, but my experience of it was more limited than my paean of praise made it sound. It probably shows in the piece, because – despite my best intentions – it read more as advice and consolation for those who found themselves unfortunate enough to be eating alone, rather than a celebration of the joys of a table for one.

These days I have a far richer experience of eating on your own, at all points on the spectrum. Separation, divorce, self-discovery, solo holidays, working out that some of your friends aren’t actually friends at all: all that Eat Pray Love bullshit has many effects but one of them, for me, was to give me a far better understanding of the benefits of going to a restaurant accompanied only by a copy of Private Eye (and my phone, for when the cynicism gets too much). Fast forward three years, and I’ve eaten on my own all over the place.

I’ve been jammed in at the bar at a hot – in both senses – packed no-reservation London place on a weekday lunchtime. I’ve spoiled myself by ordering from the a la carte menu at Nirvana Spa, in my fluffy white robe, peering at my paperback between courses. I’ve dined at Pierre Victoire, pretending to pay attention to a magazine while really people watching North Oxford’s finest eating and chatting, imagining all those different lives intersecting, albeit briefly, with mine. And last year I spent the best part of a week in Paris on my own, reinventing old favourites and discovering new ones. A good table, a good view, a good glass of wine and a good book, alone but not lonely; I might not have learned to completely love eating alone, but I certainly came to appreciate it.

Closer to home, there’s a lot to be said for a table for one and lots of occasions where it can be a positive pleasure. The quick solo meal on the way to meet friends in the pub, especially people from the “eating is cheating” brigade (just me, maybe, but I’ve always found that a dreary philosophy to live by). The drawn-out lunch on a Saturday when you have the day to yourself. Or even just the moment – and this might just be me – where I get off the train at Reading station (or Gare Du Ding, as I keep calling it) and I just can’t be arsed to cook. The sun is shining, I have nowhere in particular to be and I think how nice it would be to treat myself before heading home.

Not only has my life changed a lot in the last three years: Reading has too. Two of my choices last time around are not currently trading. I Love Paella has left the Fisherman’s Cottage (in contentious circumstances: less said about that the better) and Dolce Vita has left Kings Walk, forced out by a greedy landlord who wanted to make more money. If Namaste Kitchen was still running its menu from earlier in the year it would have made this list, because I couldn’t imagine anything finer than going there and having a beer, a plate of paneer pakora and a chicken chow mein (one of the joys of eating solo, in a small plates restaurant like Namaste Kitchen, is not having to share food for once).

And of course, I still miss Georgian Feast (the artist formerly known as Caucasian Spice Box) back when they cooked from the Turks Head. It became a regular ritual for me to head over there and eat on my own for the first half of last year: meatballs, spiced chicken thighs, sharply dressed salad and cheese bread – oh, and a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple. At the time I was living in a truly awful one bedroom flat, and it felt like having friends cook for you which, after a while, I suppose it sort of was; sometimes you can tell a lot about a restaurant by how it treats solo diners.

The other way that this list has changed since 2015 is that it reflects the rise of what, for want of a better phrase, I would call the Good Chain. Smaller, smarter chains are coming to Reading and they can often provide a little bit of the intimacy of an independent restaurant with some of the polish you associate with a bigger establishment. I make no apology for including so many of them here, because I’m interested in good restaurants – and good restaurants to eat alone in – and it’s not my fault that Reading doesn’t yet have the kind of independents, especially in the town centre, that get this stuff right.

I eat alone less often these days than I used to, nowadays, but a good meal alone is still a wonderful act of self-care, provided you pick the right venue. No quibbles about splitting the bill, nobody judging you for ordering too much, or having the expensive wine. No rush, nobody to please but yourself, and all that people watching. So here are my current recommendations – I hope they come in handy, and if you’ve always considered eating out on your own a step too far I really would encourage you to give it a try.

1. Bakery House

The perfect combination of food and anonymity.

I’ve grown to love an early evening meal alone at Bakery House. I sit facing out into that long, slightly chilly room, sip on an orange Mirinda (it’s basically Tango) and wait for the food to arrive. Some days I’ll munch on maqaneq: little, punchy sausages – you get an awful lot of them. On others I might go for the smooth, rich houmous beiruty, glossy and packed with tahini, beautiful piled on a big bubble of pitta, fresh from the oven.

That done, I can look forward to the main event. I tend to order the lamb shawarma – a big mound of intensely flavoured shreds of lamb, with garlic sauce, chilli sauce and terrific vegetable rice. But then there are also the delights of the boneless baby chicken, all charred skin and tender meat, a holiday on a plate. What could be better than being so transported?

The service at Bakery House can verge on standoffish, grumpy even. In other contexts that might be frustrating, but there’s something oddly comforting about how anonymous you can feel eating there. They don’t care whether you’re in a big group, on a date or alone, they’re simply there to bring you food and to leave you in peace. They’re like the barber that knows better than to talk to you when he’s cutting your hair, and some of my happiest, most meditative meals have taken place at Bakery House.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, RG1 4SJ
http://bakeryhouse.co

2. Cote

Three courses, because you deserve them.

Cote, for me, is for the full solo three course experience. Sitting on the banquette looking out into the room is one of the best, most uplifting ways that you can say “I deserve this”, whether you’re ordering from the set menu or the full a la carte. The latter sometimes has some brilliant specials – confit duck, perhaps, or the rare treat of a skate wing swimming with butter and festooned with capers (there isn’t much in life that rivals flipping a skate wing over halfway through eating it and realising that you have the thick side yet to come).

The set menu really comes into its own on summer days, when you can sit at a little table outside, with a view of the canal. I like to drink a Breton cider, crisp and almost sweet, and watch the world go by while I make my choices. Some of the dishes are good, and some are great, but all are stupidly reasonably priced, and the act of eating before 7pm means that you’re likely to be finished before the light has faded and the best of the evening has gone. I used to think “if I tried hard I could imagine I was in Paris right now”, but these days I think “I’m so lucky to live here.”

Cote, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

3. Franco Manca

Comfort food, elevated.

When it comes to comfort, little can top cheese on toast – and if anything can, it might be Franco Manca’s sourdough pizza. I have a real soft spot for their anchovy and caper version (ask for extra anchovies, because although Franco Manca is very reasonably priced you do to some extent get what you pay for). That said, their standard margarita is also worth a go, topped with whatever extras they have on the menu that day (the picture above, coppa and Ogleshield cheddar, was a particular high point). Oh, and have a blue cheese or pesto dip, because it really does transform the whole thing.

Franco Manca is perfect for a quick stop, but it’s actually not hard to make it more of a treat. Some of the starters – especially anything with mozzarella (smoked or otherwise), burrata or fennel salami – well worth lingering over, as long as you can overlook the fact that most of them are stuff you’d put on a pizza taken off a pizza and served cold on a plate instead. I can, anyway. And finally, the chocolate ice cream is pretty decent as is my personal favourite, a crafty affogato.

When I first reviewed Franco Manca I liked the food and was sceptical about the room, mainly because it was impossible to hear your dining companion. It turns out that really isn’t an issue when you go on your own, which means that what could be a wall of noise becomes a strangely comforting hubbub. Sitting outside, on a summer day, is also a lovely thing to do.

Franco Manca, The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AT
https://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading

4. Honest Burgers

Meat and potatoes.

I said the Good Chains had this eating alone business down pat, and you would struggle to find a better example of that than Honest Burgers. Much has been made, quite rightly, of what a beautiful job they did with the interior. And plenty has been written about the virtues of the Reading burger, making the most of our local suppliers. Not to mention the King Street Pale, a truly wonderful beer which even I, more of a lager fan, can neck by the pint.

Well, yes. But for my money, the best thing to do at Honest is forego the Reading special and whatever the flavour of the month is and let Honest do what they do best, which is serve cheeseburgers. I go for their most basic burger, topped with cheddar, and that way you can really taste the quality of the beef, the char of the crust, the hint of salt.

Your mileage may vary, but in any case it really is another fantastic venue to eat well and unfussily, especially if you have somewhere to go shortly afterwards. My stepfather has got into the habit of grabbing an Honest before taking in a movie at Vue, and he is a man who knows what he’s doing.

Honest Burgers, 1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/

5. Kokoro

Dinner on the run.

Kokoro is an illustration of what I call the “yaki soba effect”. Back when I used to go to Wagamama, I always ordered the yaki soba, a big heap of noodles with chicken and prawns and pickled ginger and plenty of good stuff. It never let me down, and became my takeaway of choice for a while. Then I decided I really ought to branch out, but every time I did my meal was plain disappointing – and, usually, I had to watch someone else eat yaki soba in front of me while I pretended to enjoy chicken katsu curry (a dish which always looks a tad too scatological for my liking).

Kokoro is the same – it’s all about the sweet chilli chicken. I mean, just look at that picture up there. Look at it! Doesn’t it make you peckish? A glossy, fiery deep red sauce (and these days they give you enough to coat the rice or noodles) with clearly visible garlic – the best kind of garlic, if you ask me – and piece after piece of tender, crispy-coated chicken. They serve it in either a medium or a large cardboard tub: the medium is quite big enough for anybody, but the large only costs a pound more. The whole thing comes in at the six or seven quid mark, and it’s one of the very best dinners on the run Reading has to offer. You sit at a basic wooden table, polish it off and watch other people come in and place their orders – usually for the sweet chilli chicken, unsurprisingly.

Last time I went, I decided to try the chicken curry instead. It had lots of tender, chicken thigh cooked into strands. It had an anonymous brown sauce which tasted largely of nothing. It was, in short, not the sweet chilli chicken, and that’s when I realised that I won’t make that mistake again. Kokoro also sells chicken katsu curry, but who on earth orders that? People who don’t like the yaki soba at Wagamama, I suppose.

Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
http://kokorouk.com/

6. Sapana Home

Because the best things come in multiples of ten.

4EC1952D-7962-4818-9132-4C76DF3C89FC

Ten pan-fried chicken momo cost six pounds fifty at Sapana Home. They come on a plate, clustered round a little dish of hot dipping sauce, and when you have them pan fried they have a slightly caramelised exterior which seals the deal. A plate of Sapana Home’s momo, I think, can gladden even the heaviest heart. My favourite momo is the fifth one: before that, they pass too quickly and you eat them almost without savouring them, whereas after that you are maybe a little too aware that your pleasure – as most pleasures do – is inevitably coming to an end.

There are other dishes there I recommend, if you’re feeling greedy. The chicken fry is wonderful – pieces of chicken, spring onion and tomato with that same hot sauce. The chow mein, which is fundamentally the chicken fry plus noodles, is also splendid. And if you feel more adventurous I heartily recommend the samosa chaat, a glorious four-way pile-up involving samosas, yoghurt, crispy noodles and red onion.

Late 2016, when I took a break from reviewing restaurants, was a pretty bleak period in my life. Nothing was going right, and when I finished work and got back into town on the train I really didn’t want to go home any time soon, much of the time. What got me through many difficult days, back then, was a plate of momo at Sapana Home. It’s a little place, and it’s best to sit upstairs if you can, where there is daylight. The service is brusque but not unkind. There was a period when sitting there, eating momo and listening to the oddly comforting (if mindless) strains of Heart FM was truly my happy place.

If any further illustration was needed, it’s this. The photo above was taken last night: writing this made me want to go back, so I did. Things have changed a little since I last went: the music was classic Bollywood rather than commercial radio, and the momo (they now do lamb too, although I didn’t order them) were slightly less packed with filling, lighter and more delicate. It was like seeing an old friend after a while and realising they’ve lost weight. I did, for a moment, consider putting Kings Grill in this sixth spot instead. But I’ve kept Sapana Home on this list – it may be mainly for sentimental reasons, but momos six to ten were still as bittersweet.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
http://sapanahome.co.uk/