Feature: Al fresco dining (2022)

This is, believe it or not, the third edition of my guide to the best places to eat al fresco in Reading, and looking back on my previous guides to this subject, it’s safe to say that they’ve not aged as well as I might have liked.

From my Class of 2015, three of my choices have ceased trading and one of the others, the Allied Arms, has lost much of its appeal for al fresco dining since the Pizza Express next door closed down. It only really made the list because of the strangely luxurious experience of having a pint of Thatchers Gold in the beer garden with a Pollo Ad Astra from just down the road; it was, it occurs to me now, a gastronomic moment very much frozen in time and of its time, every bit as much as enjoying cocktails and a burger outside Santa Fe or sitting on the balcony at Dolce Vita.

My more recent version of this list, from 2019, hasn’t fared an awful lot better. Dolce Vita, of course, has closed, and I know some people in Reading mourn its loss as much as I do. But other places have dropped off my list because they’ve been surpassed: take Bhel Puri House, whose food you used to be able to eat in the Workhouse courtyard. And you still can, but the courtyard has been desecrated by the Mercure Hotel, who tore it up with a plan to put in some horrendous decking, were told to cease and desist by the council and left it half-done and completely fucked, one of Reading’s loveliest sunspots turned into a guano-encrusted perpetual building site. 

Some places didn’t make the cut this time because although the surroundings are still excellent, the food no longer lives up to them. Thames Lido is a wonderful place to sit and look at the pool but the food has always been inconsistent and they’ve managed to mislay two head chefs in less than a year (they now have a “restaurant director” instead, whatever that is). After one hit and miss meal too many – which is all the meals I’ve ever had there – it’s no longer a place I can recommend. 

But let’s focus on the positives: for my money there are more, and better, places to eat outside in Reading than ever before. Part of that is down to Covid, I suspect, and places wisely investing in Covid-proofing their restaurants or pubs as best they can. And some of it is just our good fortune that many of our newer establishments have put thought into this, just as many of them have put thought into the delivery experience. Places that have perfected eating in, eating outside and takeaway, which includes a handful of the places on this list, truly represent a triple threat. 

That means I have a bumper selection for you, a baker’s dozen of the best places in Reading to enjoy food and drink outdoors. With one notable exception they all serve their own food, and I think you have a decent span of restaurants, pubs and cafés, and of food at all price points. And best of all, they’ve been picked on merit rather than because they reviewed well on TripAdvisor or paid money to be featured, like other local publications I could name. So without further ado let’s get into it: I have a feeling a list like this could be especially handy this year, and for that matter in the hot summers yet to come.

1. Blue Collar Corner

This list is in alphabetical order, but either way I’m sure it will surprise few people to see Blue Collar Corner at the top of it. In the four short months since it opened, Glen Dinning’s permanent site on Hosier Street has already established itself as a Reading institution. And if claims that “it’s just like being in London” are a little brash and reductive it’s definitely true that the site, with its shipping containers, street food vendors, buzzing tokens telling you your dinner is ready and a well-stocked bar with many excellent Double-Barrelled beers (and the superb lager they brew exclusively for Blue Collar) feels like nowhere else Reading has seen, and like nowhere anywhere near Reading either for that matter.

Blue Collar has picked a mixture of the star players from its weekday markets to run permanent kitchens at the site, which means you can choose from pizza at Sarv’s Slice, bao buns from YouBao or the near-legendary fried chicken from Swindon’s Gurt Wings. The Taco Tree, an offshoot from Vegivores, completes the quartet. In truth when I’ve attended I’ve found it difficult to stay away from Gurt Wings’ incredible JFC (karaage-style fried chicken) with Lost In Translation, their gochujang and sriracha combo sauce. But Sarv’s Slice is also well worth trying – their carbonara pizza, in particular, knocked my socks off.

I suspect I’m far too old and shabby to make a night of it there, but it’s a great place for a sunny lunch at the weekend or an early evening dinner before sloping off to the pub, leaving the young and the beautiful to enjoy their cocktails. I feel I fit in far better at Blue Collar’s Wednesday and Friday markets, which earn an honorary mention on this list – Fink’s mezze box, with chicken shawarma and falafel (because why should you have to choose?) is a go-to there. Or you could join the seemingly infinite queue for Sharian’s jerk chicken: I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people standing in the line at half-one have been waiting since midday.

Blue Collar Corner, 15 Hosier Street, RG1 7QL
https://www.bluecollarstreetfood.co.uk/blue-collar-corner

2. Buon Appetito

I rediscovered Buon Appetito last year, and it turned out to be one of my finds of 2021. But it’s this year that it’s become a proper happy place for me. It has fantastic outside space , and there’s an awful lot to be said for heading there after work, bagging one of their tables and waiting for your pizza to arrive.

It somehow feels, despite being on Chatham Street and a mere stone’s throw from the Oxford Road, that you could be in mainland Europe. Perhaps it’s the luminous orange glow of an Aperol Spritz bathed in sunshine, or maybe it’s the soundtrack of soft easy-listening cover versions of chart hits. Or it could just be the warmth of the welcome or that first bite of my favourite Reading pizza, all bubbled crust, capers and anchovies. Whatever it is, it adds up to something magical.

Best of all, unlike many places on this list, Buon Appetito is truly future-proof. It has cover and powerful heaters, and it will continue to be a great shout later in the year when the weather, as it inevitably will, turns to shit. Come to think of it, I had a distinctly agreeable al fresco meal in Buon Appetito last January, when anywhere else would have been inhospitable. One last thing: if it’s on the specials menu, save room for their brilliant pistachio tiramisu.

Buon Appetito, 146-148 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT
https://www.buonappetitoreading.co.uk

3. Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen (at the Butler)

N.B. Chef Stevie announced in August 2022 that he was leaving the Butler.

Many years ago, I Love Paella (either at the Horn or during its halcyon days at the Fisherman’s Cottage, before the acrimonious parting of the ways) would have been a shoo-in for a list like this. Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen is very much its natural successor, a great example of a pub showing some imagination, getting a talented chef in and becoming much more than the sum of its parts.

Sitting under a parasol in the back garden of the Butler – also on Chatham Street, as it happens – nursing a pint of Neck Oil and devouring some jerk chicken dumplings was one of the best al fresco experiences I had last year, or any year for that matter. And that’s before you factor in the chicken wings with a dark rum glaze, the phenomenally deep, smoky jerk chicken or an infernally indulgent slab of macaroni pie. If you want to make someone in your life jealous, go there without them and send them photos: the picture above is from the last time my other half did precisely that. I was green with envy, but I had to applaud her: Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and Stevie’s your chef.

Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen, The Butler, 85-91 Chatham Street, RG1 7DS
https://www.facebook.com/ChefStevieAnderson

4. The Collective

You might well expect me to put Geo Café on this list – the coffee is fantastic, the pastries are out of this world and the Orangery out the back is a lovely, quirky place to enjoy both those things. But, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I class the owners Keti and Zezva as friends so I will have to recuse myself for that reason. But in any event The Collective, at the other end of Caversham’s Church Street, fully deserves a spot on this list.

Their outside space is a beautiful, credible, grown-up piece of work and it creates an atmosphere which positively encourages you to linger, grab another coffee (and maybe one of their superb brownies) and just enjoy the experience of being part of a buzzing café culture not quite like anywhere else in Reading. I just came back from a holiday in Ghent where I went to a couple of fantastic cafés – they take coffee seriously there – with gorgeous, sophisticated outside space, and I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay The Collective than that it very much reminded me of them.

The thing to have there, if you ask me – and maybe you didn’t, but it’s my blog – is the French toast with bacon and maple syrup. But I’m long overdue a return visit to try out the chorizo ‘nduja hash, which sounds like a mixture of all the nicest things.

The Collective, 25 Church Road, Caversham, RG4 7AA
https://www.thecollectivecaversham.co.uk

5. The Last Crumb

Another terrific al fresco venue, the Last Crumb has really cemented its place in Caversham since it opened in 2019 and it has a lovely garden with benches and booths which catches the sun nicely. It might not have as extensive a range of drinks as some of Reading’s other venues, but they’ve done wonders with the outside space and it remains a great spot for a contemplative pint (especially of cider, where their range is a little more fun).

Food at the Last Crumb is not extensive: they’ve decided to do two things, burgers and pizza, and that’s pretty much it. But for what it’s worth they do both of them well and their pizzas are a pretty decent rival for the highly rated Papa Gee just down the hill. I think they still serve them on a metal bin lid which means they go cold quicker than they ought to, but on a scorching hot summer’s day, sitting outside, I imagine that won’t bother many people.

The Last Crumb, 76 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JN
https://dodopubs.com/locations/the-last-crumb/

6. London Street Brasserie

LSB: the great survivor and what the youth of today might refer to as the “OG” (although what would I know?) of Reading’s al fresco dining scene. It doesn’t have an awful lot of outside space, but what it does have is a classy, tranquil spot by the water and one of the town’s best sun traps. I ate on their terrace a couple of times last year and yes, I know it isn’t as cheap as it used to be. I know the set lunch is no longer the bargain it once was. I also know, believe me, that of any three dishes you eat there one will be great, one will be nice and one will be meh.

And yet it still has something. It still feels special to me, in a way the Lido has never managed, and authentic even when it’s not entirely at its best. It’s where I tend to go with the bits of my family who are even more determined to eat outside than I am, and the place has made several really happy memories for me since the pandemic began. Put it this way – it’s the only restaurant that’s made every single iteration of this list. I wouldn’t bet against it cropping up next time I write a piece like this, too.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
https://www.londonstreetbrasserie.co.uk

7. The Lyndhurst

Will he ever stop going on about the Lyndhurst? you’re probably thinking to yourself. And yes, I’m sure one day I will. When their food stops being incredible and inventive and ridiculously good value. When they stop being curious about other cuisines and other restaurants, when they stop ordering food from other places, taking it apart, putting it back together and adding it to their menu, souped-up and completely unmissable.

True story: the Lyndhurst read my takeaway review of Osaka, ordered the karaage chicken I’d written about, enjoyed it and then decided to make their own version. It was absolutely incredible, some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had anywhere, and I enjoyed it for months until they took it off their menu. And then they brought it back recently and it’s even better than ever. I’ll stop going on about them when they stop doing things like that. I’ll stop going on about them when I order the same dish there twice and they haven’t improved it, subtly and iteratively, between visits. I’ll stop going on about them when their curry night isn’t the best way to spend a tenner on food and a pint in Reading on a Thursday night.

Until then, I’m afraid you have to put up with stuff like this. The Lyndhurst’s terrace seats maybe fourteen people at a push, but if you get a table there on a warm day – with a pint or a glass of their gorgeous Riesling, and a menu – you honestly feel like you’ve won at life. Next time you’re there, try the monkfish with Bombay potatoes before they take it off the menu. It’s a beauty.

The Lyndhurst, 88 Kings Road, RG1 4DG
https://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk/

8. The Nag’s Head

For my money the Nag’s is Reading’s finest beer pub, and for a long time I thought that was all that it was (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And that’s still the case – the keg selection is superb, and there’s always a great spread of beers from our local breweries, let alone fun stuff from further afield. But when I reviewed the food last year I was delighted to find that they’d given a lot of thought to it – a stripped-back, easy to execute menu that doesn’t involve burgers or fish and chips, or microwaves.

So instead you get brisket or pulled pork rolls, from the smoker which starts running early doors. Or toasted sandwiches from the Croque Shop, a Brighton business that the owners of the Nag’s liked so much that they asked them to supply their pub a long way from Sussex. There are sausage rolls, too, although nothing’s stopping you ordering some pork scratchings into the bargain, apart from possibly restraint or dignity. The Nag’s, Buon Appetito and Chef Stevie form a beautiful little triad, proving again that West Reading is where much of Reading’s interesting food developments are taking place.

The Nag’s Head, 5 Russell Street, RG1 7XD
http://www.thenagsheadreading.co.uk/

9. O Portugues

Just to prove that West Reading and Caversham don’t have the monopoly on great al fresco dining options, the next three choices are all from the east side. O Português, on the edge of Palmer Park, has a decent terrace and a menu that does its best to transport you to Lisbon. The menu can be challenging in places (don’t have the snails) but if you pick well you can be rewarded with some cracking food – from prego steak rolls honking with garlic to a vibrant salt cod salad singing with parsley and red peppers. One of my readers told me that one of the best ways to enjoy O Português is with their octopus salad, some bread to mop up and a cold pint of Super Bock on draft. Put like that, it sounds unimprovable.

O Português, 21 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LE
https://www.facebook.com/OPortuguesInTown

10. Park House

My most recent discovery to make this list is Park House, the University bar on campus. It’s always been one of my favourite places to grab a pint in the sunshine – either before or after a happy amble round the Harris Garden, which has become one of my very favourite parts of Reading. Their beer is ridiculously cheap and Double-Barrelled, Siren Craft, Phantom and Elusive are invariably represented, along with relatively local breweries from slightly further away.

But what’s changed this year is the introduction of a great, compact, sensibly priced menu using local suppliers and beef from the university’s own farm. It transforms it from a nice spot for a drink to somewhere you could happily settle in for a session and have an enjoyable meal into the bargain. The things to pick there are the smoked pork ribs, the excellent, clever and nicely balanced confit duck salad and more of the smoked pork ribs. Possibly with a chaser of the smoked pork ribs.

Park House, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

11. Smash N Grab

Reading’s best burgers, for my money, can be had from a little shack on Cemetery Junction with a handful of outside tables. Husband and wife team Farooq and Uzma run Smash N Grab and despite almost packing it in earlier in the year they’ve decided to stick at it and are working hard on improving their outside space and expanding their menu.

I’m glad they’ve reconsidered, because their smashed burgers really are superb – beautifully done, deeply savoury things with fantastic texture and contrast. Smash N Grab are active on social media and have been frank about the challenge they face, with their neighbours and competitors Fat Twins building a huge structure outside what used to be the Granby Tavern to block their light and the view of the restaurant (seemingly without getting planning permission). So they need all the support they can get – and their burgers really do deserve a far wider audience.

Smash N Grab, 124 London Road, RG1 5AY
https://www.smashngrab.co.uk/

12. Tasty Greek Souvlaki

Another great example of restaurants as travel agents, Tasty Greek Souvlaki has made a huge contribution to Reading’s food scene in a short space of time since opening in 2020. And I really love sitting outside with a cold bottle of Fix (the glasses, frosted, are from the freezer) watching the world go by. The tables are seated side by side looking out on Market Place, which somehow makes the whole thing feel more Continental, and it has that brilliant effect where you know you’re in Reading, but you somehow feel elsewhere.

If you’re there in a pair or a four it’s really hard to beat the mixed grill, which is a cornucopia of meat – souvlaki, gyros, keftedes, pork belly and sausage – with something for everybody. But if you’re eating solo, the merida platter of crispy, salty gyros meat with chips, fluffy pitta and tzatziki is one of the best and best value meals for one you can find in Reading. And it’s a great place to dine solo: at some point I’ll put together an updated version of my feature on the best tables for one in Reading. When I do, expect Tasty Greek Souvlaki to be on it.

Tasty Greek Souvlaki, 20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com/

13. The Castle Tap

The Castle Tap doesn’t have a menu per se: I think you can get a cheeseboard there, but that’s it. They have done a great job on their outside space in lockdown, like their neighbours the Nag’s Head, and it’s a brilliant place to enjoy a beer or a cider on a balmy evening (their beer list is compact but always has something interesting on it, and they put a lot of effort into their cider selection).

And yet last year, the Castle Tap was the site of many of my favourite al fresco meals. Because to encourage you to stay there and keep enjoying their wonderful space, rather than sloping off to the likes of Harput Kebab, the management actively encourages you to order from Deliveroo and eat it in their gorgeous garden. They even, if you ask them nicely, give you the postcode for the back of the pub on Anstey Road, so your rider can almost drop it to your waiting table. A tub of chilli chicken from Kokoro or a red pork curry from ThaiGrr!, eaten in the sun with a great beer in front of you and the promise of more to come: little is finer than that.

The Castle Tap, 120 Castle Street, RG1 7RJ
https://thecastletap.co.uk

Advertisement

Pub review: Park House

I try my best, doing this restaurant reviewing lark, to visit places I think are likely to be either good or interesting, or ideally both; with a few notable exceptions, I don’t go anywhere where I think I’m definitely going to have a bad meal. And even if I have my reservations, I try to turn up with an open mind, ready to find the positives in my experience, however difficult that is. Sometimes the gods smile on me and I have a run of beautiful meals, one after the other. And that’s brilliant – exceptional meals are easier to write about, and people enjoy reading about them. Conversely, the worst thing is a run of bad meals. A succession of stinkers. That does rather break the soul.

The worst run I can remember started at the end of 2019. It began with a truly awful dinner at TGI Friday, and continued with the grisly spectacle of doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was going to the Dairy, the university bar and kitchen just down the road from the MERL. I’d always loved drinking there, especially on a hot day, but the food was bloody awful. That made three cruddy meals on the spin and nearly two months without enjoying a meal on duty: it was the kind of vale of tears that makes you seriously think about chucking the whole thing in.

Then at the start of this year, there was a surprising development: the Dairy published a completely new menu on Instagram. And it made all the right noises – beef came from the University’s farm four miles down the road, eggs were from Beechwood Farm (did you know that Beechwood Farm was run by Reading University alumni? I didn’t) and all the bread was supplied by Waring’s. Not only that, but the menu was full of the kind of things you might actually want to eat. Crispy fried chicken and pickled watermelon burger? Brisket and blue cheese ciabatta? Jerk spiced plantain and halloumi skewers? Count me in!

Something was clearly afoot at the University because a week ago Park House, its bar on campus, published a brand new spring menu. Again, it all looked distinctly tempting, and again the provenance was called out, with the beef coming from the University’s farm and name checks for the excellent Nettlebed Creamery and the Cotswolds’ Hobbs House Bakery. (Not everyone was overjoyed, mind you: I really can’t believe you won’t sell cheesy chips any more, said one comment). Park House has always been one of my very favourite places for a pint in the sunshine, but was it possible that it also offered great, affordable food under the radar? Zoë and I ventured out on a sunny spring evening to put it to the test.

It’s truly a gorgeous spot, inside and out, one of those beautiful Victorian redbrick buildings Reading so specialises in (I think I read somewhere that it’s by Alfred Waterhouse, of Reading Town Hall and Foxhill House fame: I can’t find any evidence of that, but it’s definitely in keeping). It used to be the university’s Senior Common Room, and it still has a distinctly clubbable feel inside, all dark panelled walls and solid wood floors. You could imagine trying to have an intellectual conversation in those rooms, put it that way.

And if you failed it would probably be because of the selection of beers. Park House punches well above its weight with a range many Reading pubs would envy: a dozen beers and ciders with a range of cask and keg. And again, there’s a distinctly local feel with Siren Craft, Elusive, Double-Barrelled and Phantom well represented (in fact, the most exotic drinks on the menu are from Cotswold Cider Company, a colossal 39 miles away). It doesn’t surprise me that Park House has made it onto Reading CAMRA’s Ale Trail this year and the things we tried – a couple of pales from Siren and a mild from Elusive – were yet another reminder of how well served we are in these parts for beer.

Having praised the interior, we did end up eating and drinking outside for a couple of reasons. One was that Park House was distinctly crowded: 6 o’clock on a Monday, surprisingly, seems to be peak eating and drinking time. The other, more happily, is that Park House’s outside space is a natural sun trap, and further proof – if any were needed after visiting the Nag’s Head – that there are few car parks you couldn’t improve by turning them into beer gardens. It’s a proper happy place for me, and it’s where I had my first al fresco pint last year after the longest lockdown winter of all time (14th April 2021, since you didn’t ask). So, the scene was set: was Park House going to be a surprise find, or a disappointment of The Dairy 2019 proportions? It was time to find out.

There are separate menus for breakfast and Sunday lunch, but the rest of the time Park House offers a relatively compact lunch and dinner menu – more compact than I thought, because for some reason the “Crafty Grill” section, offering burgers and hot dogs, wasn’t available. I think it’s also a Sundays only thing. So actually you have a nicely streamlined choice in front of you – less than half a dozen starters and eight mains, one of which is just a bigger portion of one of the starters. The use of “starters” and “mains” might give you the misleading idea that you can order them all at the same time to arrive at different times: don’t try this if you go there, because I just got a blank look and a polite request that you order as you go. Still, it beats the Wagamama approach of bringing anything out whenever they feel like it.

I should also add that everything is ultra-reasonably priced: most of the starters hover around the five pound mark and the vast majority of mains are less than a tenner. Laudably, they’re also trying to include calorie counts on their menu, although this seems to be a work in progress and I for one would rather they didn’t bother.

I really wanted to try the rarebit on the starters menu: Highmoor is one of Nettlebed’s finest cheeses and the thought of it bubbling away on Hobbs House sourdough – for a smidge over four pounds, into the bargain – was a delectable one. But sadly it wasn’t available, and although I was disappointed that they’d run out of either bread or cheese I was also pleased to see that they didn’t try and pass off something inferior instead.

The pick of the starters, anyway, were the smoked pork ribs. They were huge, irregular beasts that came away from the bone cleanly, and I loved the decision to give them a dry spice rub rather than slather them in sauce – so you got mustard seed, what I suspect was cumin and even some honey notes in there. They were served with a wonderfully light and clean coleslaw, and even here you could see the attention to detail, with crisp thin batons of apple and scarlet slices of chilli which added more colour than heat. Like the ribs, the coleslaw was better than it needed to be, and that’s always a winning quality.

I loved this dish, and at just under six pounds it was the kind of thing you could order just because you had a cold beer it would go perfectly with, or because the sun was out, or because it was a Monday. If only all bar food was like this. I loved it so much, in fact, that we ordered a second portion to come with our main courses: maybe there were advantages to ordering each course separately, after all.

The smoked cod croquettes were less successful, which was a pity because they leapt off the page as something I had to try. It was just weird that they came without breadcrumbs: the picture of this dish on Park House’s instagram shows the croquettes breaded, but these were lacking a coating and looked weirdly naked, as if they’d been skinned. And that had an impact in a couple of ways – it meant they didn’t have that lovely crunchy shell, but also it meant that when you cut them with a knife they sagged and deflated, like a sad party balloon.

It’s a pity, because the bones of the dish were good, with a nice whack of salt cod and a fresh and tangy tomato salsa (although again, it could have done with more heat from the chilli). Only afterwards did I realise that maybe the croquettes had no breadcrumbs for the same reason that the kitchen couldn’t serve rarebit. I daresay that if you order it, you’ll probably have better luck than I did.

Mains were uneven too but, as with the starters, the best of them showed real imagination. Confit duck salad, Zoë’s choice, was a beauty – partly because of the confit duck, which is never not good, but mostly because of what it was paired with. It could have given salad a good name, because it had so much going on – ribbons of carrot and radish for texture, segments of orange adding bright sweetness and a welcome scattering of edamame. It was all brought together by a fantastic dressing with plenty of aromatic sesame oil in the mix.

What this had in common with many great dishes from far more lauded restaurants was that every forkful could be slightly different from the last, but every bit as delicious. In an ideal world I’d have liked the duck leg to be ever so slightly bigger – so I could have tried more of it – but for less than nine pounds it was hard to fault.

I wish my fish and chips had been equally hard to fault, but it wasn’t to be. The best of it was the fish itself – beautifully cooked, the batter light, lacey and full of delicious crenellations. But the chips, which I’m pretty sure were bought in, were a little variable with a few grey patches that put me off them. There were peas, if you like that sort of thing: I don’t especially, but they were just fine. Tartare sauce was good, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. And for that matter, lovely though the fish was, it was on the slender side for just over ten pounds. I couldn’t help but compare it with the colossal slab of fried leviathan you get at the Lyndhurst for eleven fifty (the Lyndhurst’s chips are miles better, too).

All in all, our meal – three starters, two mains and a pint and a half each – came to just under fifty pounds. It’s worth calling out the price of drinks in particular, too – our beers and ciders came in at around four pounds a pint, a mile away from the rarified prices you’d get in town at the Allied Arms or Blue Collar Corner.

So Park House isn’t the home run it could have been, but it was none too shabby all the same, with bags of potential. If you went there and just ate the ribs followed by the confit duck salad – Zoe’s order, but then she always picks well, present company excepted – you might well come away raving about the quality and the value. And if you went on a day when all their figurative ducks were in a row, the rarebit was on the menu and the croquettes hadn’t been flayed alive, you’d be counting the days until a return visit.

But I easily saw enough to persuade me to recommend it. The thought that had been put into the menu, the little touches in some of the dishes, the fact that they didn’t just knock up a rarebit with second-string ingredients – all of these things couldn’t help but endear me to the place. And it’s still one of the best spots, on a sunny weekend afternoon, to go with a paperback, get a drink, top up your tan and maybe accidentally-on-purpose order some ribs, because it beats yet another humdrum packet of Pipers Crisps. Are they the best bar snack in Reading? Quite possibly.

Park House – 7.3
Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
0118 9875123

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

Pub review: The Nag’s Head

I’m not sure there’s any such thing as the perfect pub, but I’m lucky to live near three that each embody different aspects of the platonic ideal of a public house.

The Retreat is arguably Reading’s best “classic” pub, even if its refurb last year made the toilets disconcertingly classy. The story goes that when the landlord of the Alehouse visited and saw the work the Retreat had carried out in lockdown he turned to Brian, the landlord, and said “thanks a bunch – now I really do have the shittest pub toilets in Reading” (apparently the Alehouse has done some work on them since). The Retreat lacks outside space, and the small beer selection is a little too cask-led for my personal taste, but it remains a wonderful place with a welcome like no other.

Then there’s the Lyndhurst, which does Reading’s best pub food, without question. It hosts burger nights on Mondays and curry nights on Thursdays, and boasts a menu full of staples like chilli beef nachos and katsu chicken burgers. And then there’s the icing on the cake: dazzling specials that tend to go on the menu Fridays and Saturdays and match any restaurant food anywhere in Reading. One week it’s skate wing topped with capers and crunchy croutons soaked in a sauce Grenobloise, another it’s lamb rump with an enormous slab of shredded lamb shoulder, breadcrumbed and fried, on the side. 

To round off the holy trinity, the Weather Station boasts a superb selection of beers, the vast majority of which are on keg, has a nice little courtyard out back where you can drink them and has really gone from strength to strength in 2021. It always has at least one sticky, strong, indulgent imperial stout on the list and some of the DIPAs and pales on tap are truly terrific (a special mention to Wild Weather’s Orange Lazarus, which is as refreshing a summer drink as you could hope to find).

Having said all that, over the last twelve months I’ve spent a fair amount of pub time on the edge of West Reading, where the Castle Tap and the Nag’s Head have done an exemplary job of adjusting to Covid and providing great converted spaces for al fresco drinking. When I finally emerged from the cocoon of that first ever lockdown for an al fresco alcoholic drink, it was the Nag’s Head I made a beeline for. But the Nag’s Head always had two drawbacks. 

One is that you couldn’t book a table, whereas at the Castle Tap they’ll gladly reserve you one outside. The other was that they never really had much of a food offering. That needn’t be be a problem. The Castle Tap is more than happy for you to order from Deliveroo and eat it at your table – they’ll even give you the postcode for the beer garden out back to use as a delivery address – but the Nag’s has always taken a dim view of that.

On one hand, it meant that the Nag’s Head didn’t bother trying to adapt to the constantly changing landscape of substantial meals, this tier and that tier. Life was simpler, if less lucrative – although the Nag’s also reopened later than its peers last year, sensibly spending extra time sprucing up their beer garden, so perhaps they could absorb those losses. But it also meant that they were closed for longer than some of Reading’s other pubs with outside space when they could have put together a menu, or invited a street food trader over, and continued to trade.

Anyway, when they reopened in April this year they were sporting a brand new food menu and a new smoker for pork and brisket. The menu was compact – not big enough to necessarily make the Nag’s a food destination in its own right, but aiming to offer enough choice that you wouldn’t have to face the invidious choice between leaving the pub to grab a meal or staying, getting shitfaced on an empty stomach and accidentally falling into Harput Kebab on the way home (and I’m not judging, because I speak from experience). And that kind of menu works: Zoë and I were having an early evening beer in the sunshine during her week off, and neither of us could face going home and cooking, which is why you get this review this week.

Before I talk about the menu, a little about the setup. Last year the Nag’s turned its car park properly into a beer garden, with plenty of well-distanced tables, some out in the open and some under marquees, with astroturf underfoot. It future-proofed them well, with the tables superb in sunshine but still usable in the rain, although having to take down the sides of the marquees to qualify as “outdoors” meant the wind could be mighty fierce. All ordering is at the table, with links to the beer list on Untappd, and payment is taken at the table, too. Although many other pubs abandoned table service as soon as they could the Nag’s is currently sticking with it, which I personally really appreciate.

The menu confines itself to three categories only – toasted sandwiches, sausage rolls and meat from the smoker. The Nag’s always used to offer the latter – pulled pork and beef brisket rolls – but the toasties and sausage rolls, a new move, are supplied by The Croque Shop, a business from Brighton. It’s an interesting decision to use them rather than a local supplier, although the pork and beef are from Vicar’s Game, probably Berkshire’s best-known butcher (it’s not all meat: there are vegetarian and vegan options for both toasties and sausage rolls).

Sausage rolls cost four pounds, the pulled pork and brisket are six pounds fifty and the toasties range from six pounds to nine, the most expensive thing being a Reuben made, slightly randomly, with pork belly instead of beef. You order the food along with your beer, but they take the order separately and you pay separately for your food when it arrives. Service is really very good at the Nag’s at the moment – months of running table service has really honed their skills in this area, and everyone who looked after us was friendly, personable and good at coming over just as we needed to order some more drinks.

Let’s start with the pulled pork sandwich, because it was good. Really good, in fact. You get a generous helping of the stuff stuffed in a brioche bun and topped with their own recipe barbecue sauce, and it’s a wonderful thing. So much pulled pork, to me, is a little bit claggy and gloopy, mixed in with the barbecue sauce and too often on the mulchy side. The Nag’s pulled pork, by contrast, was drier and not completely shredded – you could easily pull it apart, and the texture was spot on, but some of it was still in big, delicious doorstops. The barbecue sauce added more heat than sweetness, and there was just enough of it to compliment without overpowering.

It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I’m beginning to think a trip to the Nag’s without a pulled pork roll might be no kind of trip to the Nag’s at all. I enthused about it so much that Zoë ordered one herself with the next round of drinks and I had to look on enviously while she polished it off (admittedly an experience I’d been happy to inflict on her earlier in the evening). She used some of the accompanying crinkle cut crisps – Seabrook, at a guess – as a vehicle to transport some of the excess pulled pork into her gob, a trick I wish I’d thought of. I’ll try the beef brisket next time I’m at the Nag’s – or at least I’m telling myself that now – but the pulled pork roll is six pounds fifty well spent, and for my money one of the best sandwiches in Reading.

“You know the food at the beer festival? You know the crappy carvery they always have there?” said Zoë.

“I’m afraid so.”

“This is what the pork sandwiches at the beer festival should actually taste like.”

I really couldn’t disagree.

While I’d been gloating over my good choice, Zoë had tucked into a chicken, cheese and chorizo toastie from that section of the menu. Much as I’d love to use the pun “croque of shit” somewhere in this review, this was anything but – well made on good, sturdy sourdough that toasted well and full of decent quality chicken, vintage cheddar and nuggets of chorizo rather than cheap supermarket slices. Zoë was a fan – “this is as good as a Shed toastie”, she said – and we’ll have to take her word for it, because it was so good that I didn’t get a bite. At six pounds fifty it would compete with a Shed toastie on price, although it’s slightly smaller. But I think the pulled pork was probably better value.

In the interests of covering as many bases as possible, I also had a sausage roll. The most intriguing-looking one on the menu was pork, apricot and Stilton, and it looked the part – heated up in an oven rather than microwaved with nicely flaky, rustling pastry and a dense core of sausagemeat. And it came close, but if there was any Stilton in it I couldn’t detect it. I’d have liked it, for contrast against the sweet apricot studded through the sausage roll, but it was still decent even without it. If I’d known it was going to be a blue cheese free zone I might have gone for the pork, cheese and Marmite option – but who’s to say whether it would have turned out to have Marmite in it?

There’s not much point in saying a lot about the beers we had during our meal because the Nag’s (and the breweries it buys from) mix things up so frequently that anything I drank might well not be on when you’re there next. There’s a touch of ADHD about it, because you find something you like and they’re always on to the next thing (Siren Craft, it seems to me, is especially prone to this). But it would be remiss not to mention Woodland Battle Dance Exhibition, the newish DIPA by Double-Barrelled which is my favourite beer from them yet; it’s still on at the Nag’s at the time of writing, but who knows how long that will last?

It’s also worth adding that the Nag’s always has a good complement of beer from local breweries, with Siren, Double-Barrelled and Elusive well represented all of the time along with beers from smaller local breweries like White Waltham’s Stardust. It does make me wonder, a little, why their toasties and sausage rolls come from Sussex – but the toasties and sausage rolls are good, so maybe that’s why.

It was always going to be difficult reviewing somewhere after last week’s review, the best meal I’ve eaten on duty this (or any) year. But the Nag’s is the perfect choice, because despite being as different an experience as I can think of, the Nag’s does share some DNA with really good restaurants. Picking your suppliers carefully, having a compact menu which you execute superbly and matching your food to the atmosphere you want to create aren’t skills exclusive to restaurants: pubs and cafés need to get that right as well.

And I think the Nag’s has thought that out perfectly. It’s not destination food, but it’s just the right food to accompany a trip to the pub, or to try and stave off the inevitable hangover you can see on the horizon during a trip to the pub (I’m at the age now where sometimes I can sense the hangover in the post after a couple of drinks – that’s your forties for you).

The pulled pork sandwich is the pick of the bunch for me, but any of them would grace a drinking session and they offer an excellent change of gear from ordering a packet of pork scratchings and some Bacon Fries and opening them out on the table, pub tapas-style. And writing this, it strikes me that this is just typical of the Nag’s. They took their time deciding what to do about food while others tinkered at the edges or got street food traders in. But trust them, once they did get round to it, to do it properly.

The Nag’s Head – 7.8
5 Russell Street, Reading, RG1 7XD
07765 880137

http://www.thenagsheadreading.co.uk

Pub review: The Fisherman’s Cottage

When I looked at my to do list to decide where to review this week, I had a shopping list of requirements. Somewhere relatively new or unknown, for starters. A venue with good outside space – because the weather is clement all of a sudden and I know that many people, like me, still feel more comfortable eating and drinking outside. Finally, I wanted to pick a place with an interesting story – either somewhere I reviewed a long time ago that has survived the pandemic, or somewhere that opened since the pandemic began.

I scanned the list several times, fruitlessly, and then I realised it had been staring me in the face all along: it was time to go back to the Fisherman’s Cottage. It ticks all those boxes. Down by the river, with tables out front and an attractive beer garden (complete with faux beach hut booths) out back, it is one of Reading’s best pubs in terms of outside space, much of which catches the sun. And it manages to be both new and unknown, kind of: it came under new ownership last year when it was taken over by Turkish chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins.

To say she’s had a baptism of fire would be an understatement. The Fisherman’s Cottage reopened just in time to be hit by our second lockdown in November. They had a couple of weeks of trading in December before we went into Tier 3, or Tier 4, or whatever they called it back then, and then we had a third national lockdown which only began to lift in April. During that time, the Fisherman’s Cottage did its best to adapt and survive: there was a click and collect menu, and every weekend if you walked along the river you saw tables outside groaning with cakes and cookies, for sale to passers-by.

Their neighbour the Jolly Angler grabbed more headlines with its attempt to turn its back garden into a poolside beach bar, but the Fisherman’s Cottage kept plugging away all the same. And now we’re in a weird situation: the pub has been under its present management for over six months, but has only been able to operate as a pub for the past two. I know of a few people who have gone there for a drink, but nobody who has eaten there – so on a beautifully sunny evening, accompanied by my partner in crime Zoë, I strolled down the river to give it a whirl.

“I’ve been looking forward to this all afternoon” said Zoë. “But I’m a bit apprehensive too.”

“I know what you mean. You really want it to be good, don’t you?”

“Exactly. Nobody wants to be talking about a shit meal at a time like this.”

There are few sights more gladdening than a bustling pub, especially on a sunny day, and I was pleased to see that the Fisherman’s Cottage was busy when we got there, with most of the tables out front occupied. Although I didn’t eat inside I can confirm that it’s still an attractive space, with a conservatory, plenty of light and, of course, that garden out back. We decided to eat out front though, mainly because it just felt more like being part of things, people-watching the friends walking past and the cyclists pulling up for a pint.

Speaking of pints, I should talk briefly about the beer, because I know this will disappoint many of the Fisherman’s Cottage’s former clientele. Under its previous management, the same owners as the Greyfriar, it was more of a craft beer destination. That’s not the case now, so you have a choice of the usual suspects – Camden Hells, Estrella, Corona and so on. I can see from Untappd that they do still do some local stuff, with recent check-ins of beers from Disruption Is Brewing and Wild Weather, but the selection is definitely narrower: hopefully the pub might develop this over time.

The menu felt like an attempt to cover a lot of bases, and it was impossible to tell by looking whether it would be good: sometimes you just know, one way or the other, but this was relatively inscrutable. The starters felt like the weakest section, with some dishes that were more sides than starters (fries, potato wedges and so on) and others, like mozzarella sticks, that felt like something you could pick up from any supermarket. Everything was affordable, though, with the priciest starter costing eight pounds.

The mains were divided into sections and felt a little busy, although many were variations on a theme – salads, pasta (the menu didn’t say which kind of pasta, just pasta) and pizza. There were a few curries, most of them Thai, three burgers and half a dozen other mains which ran the gamut from Morocco to Australia and onwards to the Caribbean. It was refreshing to see a pub that didn’t offer fish and chips, but even so the menu felt unfocused – you always worry that with so much on offer, a kitchen won’t do it all well. Pricing was variable, with dishes ranging from around nine pounds to sixteen for the priciest mains (steak or lamb chops, in this case). 

We ordered three starters and a couple of main courses, along with a couple of pints, and our bill came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip. Normally I put that bit at the end of a review, largely because I get my bill at the end of a meal, but on this occasion they brought the bill out straight after I’d ordered. At first I found that strange, but in hindsight it’s how it generally works in pubs – you wouldn’t bat an eyelid paying up front somewhere like Bluegrass BBQ, so it’s probably just the cognitive dissonance between eating in a pub and having table service.

I had the best of the starters, I think. I wanted something closer to Muren Atkins’ Turkish roots, so I’d gone for the courgette fritters. These were probably the best thing I ate all evening – light, crispy, beautifully fresh and reminiscent of many happy holiday meals. The yoghurt and mint dip they came with had a strangely clumpy texture, but there was no arguing with the taste. This felt like good value at five pounds fifty – “I’d order this next time” said Zoë, and I probably would too.

I rarely order calamari in restaurants – it doesn’t usually bowl me over – but Zoë often does, so she decided to go for it. Calamari is a tricky one, because unless it’s very fresh it always has a little bounce. That was the case here, too, but even having said that it was still a pretty good example and better than most I’ve had in Reading. The coating was nicely crunchy and, crucially, stuck to the calamari, and it’s hard to beat sweet chilli sauce as a dip for this, unless you make an excellent aioli or tartar sauce.

“This is decent” said Zoë, “and miles better than anything you’d get from a Prezzo or a Zizzi”. I enjoyed the couple she let me have, although I still think the courgette fritters were a better bet.

We also ordered a cheesy garlic bread, because there isn’t much to dislike about the epicentre of the bread/garlic/cheese Venn diagram. This was a bought-in ciabatta or panino halved and toasted with cheese and some garlic. It cost five pounds, and felt slightly sharply priced at that, mainly because it was lacking in firepower from the garlic.

“It’s a bit generic” said Zoë. “This is all your fault” she added, “because you’ve gotten me used to all the artisan shit. I would have lapped this up before I met you.”

“Are you complaining?” 

I asked the question because I knew the answer: when Zoë and I got together she was a korma eater with an aversion to tomatoes, but years later she can wax lyrical about fresh heritage tomatoes with burrata, khachapuri, or Clay’s ghee roast chicken with the best of them.

“Not at all.” She had a suspicious look on her face, but that might have been because she’d just caught sight of the ketchup bottle on the table. “But it’s frustrating – it wouldn’t take much to really ramp this dish up.” I tended to agree, although mainly I’d have added industrial quantities of garlic.

As the evening progressed a beautiful crimson sunset materialised on the far side of Blake’s Lock, and you could almost believe that things were normal again, that there were no such things as variants and amber lists, anti-vaxxers and virus deniers, people refusing to wear a mask or get a test. Instead there was just a pub table, my favourite person on the other side of it, a crisp pint of Estrella in front of me, empty plates with more on the way. Nothing but goodness, in fact: what a wonderful world it can still be, if you let it.

My reverie was interrupted by our main courses arriving a little more briskly than I’d have liked. But again, it didn’t feel like a significant issue: I imagine many pubs and restaurants are still finding their rhythm when it comes to serving diners. I had chosen the only main course to specifically reference Turkey, the meatballs, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The meatballs themselves were nicely coarse and well-seasoned, not suspiciously homogeneous and smooth. They were served with slices of fried aubergine. It’s a vegetable I often struggle to like but the Fisherman’s Cottage had cooked it nicely, with a good texture, some crispiness and none of the mulchiness aubergine can sometimes have.

Aubergine is pretty inescapable in Turkish cuisine. One Turkish aubergine dish is called imam bayildi which translates as “the imam fainted” – apparently from pleasure, according to a folk tale. I couldn’t quite match that, but I was definitely pleasantly surprised. The whole thing was rounded off by a beautiful, sweet, thick tomato sauce, a pile of white rice and a little foliage. It was a satisfying, unpretentious plate of food and felt like decent value at eleven pounds fifty.

Zoë had decided to brave the pizza section of the menu – a relatively new addition, according to the Fisherman’s Cottage’s Instagram feed – and had chosen one with chicken, caramelised onion and gorgonzola. She really enjoyed it, and made relatively short work of it, and the pieces I tried were pretty good – the chicken and sweet onion worked nicely together, though I thought it needed more of the gorgonzola to bring it all together.

I think she liked it more than I did, though – the base is rolled by hand and the whole thing is cooked in an oven on a pizza steel, but the dough was lacking any lift or bubbling which left the crust feeling a bit flat. In fairness, in that respect it was no different to the pizzas at sadly-departed Tuscany, down the Oxford Road, but the price of this pizza – fifteen pounds – felt on the steep side.

“I don’t think it’s that bad for pricing” said Zoë. “You’d pay that much for a Romana pizza at Pizza Express.”

“It’s more expensive than Papa Gee, though.”

“Anyway, I think it’s very good. I’d order it again.”

The weird thing about having paid your bill at the start is that there isn’t that moment to bring your meal to a close and add that full stop at the end. Service, incidentally, was friendly, efficient and masked, even though we were outside. I’m used to drinking outside in places with a little buzz – the Nag’s, of course, and my favourite right now, the Castle Tap. But it was a pleasant feeling to enjoy a meal surrounded by other people – sitting in the cold outside La’De Kitchen in Woodley on a chilly April evening or being the only people outside Crispy Dosa just doesn’t impart the same warm glow you get from being part of something bigger than you. As we all emerge from our own personal lockdowns, at varying speeds, I imagine there’s more of this to come.

While we waited for the wait staff to take our plates away we compared notes and, with a sense of relief, both decided that we’d enjoyed what we’d eaten. It does feel a little, to me anyway, that the Fisherman’s Cottage is playing it safe with a menu that tries to cover as many bases as possible. That’s understandable, especially at a time when every paying customer counts, but my favourite things on the menu were the Turkish dishes, and it did make me wish that there was more of that on offer. But then Muren Atkins has run restaurants in Turkey, England and the Caribbean, so maybe she’s more interested in offering something more international.

Even so, I’m really pleased that I can cautiously recommend the Fisherman’s Cottage next time you want to eat outside, or have a cold pint outside and eat something decent to accompany it. The food maybe isn’t the main attraction – a short walk onto the Kings Road will take you to the Lyndhurst, where the menu is at a different level – but it’s easily good enough to merit a visit, with some dishes that point to real potential. And it would be nice if the beer list leaned more towards the local, but that might come in time. But the pub is a lovely building, and it makes such a difference to see it being used and enjoyed, as opposed to last summer when it lay dormant at a time when it could have made the best of its riverside setting. I sense that Muren Atkins will look after it well, provided she gets some help from all of us. On this showing, she deserves it.

The Fisherman’s Cottage – 7.2
Kennet Side, Reading, RG1 3DW
07925 336269

https://www.thefishermanscottagereading.co.uk
Delivery via: No delivery, but click and collect available through the website

The Last Crumb

Reading’s pub scene has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the second half of 2019, despite pubs closing day in day out all over the country. The Lyndhurst reopened under new management and is now dishing up some really impressive food: last week I went there and had saddle of rabbit, stuffed with chicken liver and wrapped in Parma ham, up there with any rabbit dish I’ve had in Bologna. Then the Retreat was saved from an uncertain fate by a buy-out and is going from strength to strength with a new wine list, a far bigger presence online and, thankfully, the magnificent Brian still behind the bar.

That’s all well and good, but when the pub in question undergoes a more dramatic makeover people can be a little sniffier. The Eldon Arms closed and reopened in September as the Weather Station, with a few locals lamenting the loss of the name. I’ve been a few times since the reincarnation and it does some interesting beers, although sitting on a hard stool and using a barrel for a table is maybe designed for customers far younger and cooler than me: I soon found myself longing for a proper seat, which is around the point where I sloped off to the Retreat.

Finally, Caversham’s Prince Of Wales, at the top of Prospect Street, was acquired by Dodo Pubs who have spent a fair bit of time and money rebranding it as the Last Crumb. This provoked more complaints about losing the name, which I found harder to understand: surely there are quite enough pubs around the country called the Prince Of Wales? (I bet nobody would have objected it had been called the Duke Of York). Anyway, it’s not as if the people up in arms had frequented the pub back when it was the Prince Of Wales – everything I’d ever heard about the place suggested you wouldn’t go in unless you were up to date on your tetanus jabs.

I was delighted by the news that Dodo Pubs had taken on the Prince Of Wales, because I’ve always been a fan of the Rickety Press, their outpost in north Oxford’s Jericho – a lovely pub that does a good range of beers and ciders and very credible pizzas and burgers. When my Canadian family came to visit the U.K. earlier in the year and we went for a day trip to Oxford, I booked us in to the Rickety Press knowing it would suit everyone – craft enough for my twentysomething cousin and unpretentious enough for my 80 year old uncle. We had a lovely meal there, and I found myself wishing there was somewhere similar in Reading. And then my wish was granted, so my other half Zoë and I headed over on a weekday night to see whether the Last Crumb lived up to the promise of its sibling.

The inside is rather “2019 pub by numbers”, but not so terrible for all that. Yes, the walls are all a modish blue-grey and there are pointless bookshelves and objets everyway, but the flooring is lovely, the bare brick behind the bar equally so and at least it isn’t architectural carnage like, say, the interior of the Market House.

It’s divided up into rooms and those closest to the front of the pub are more conventional – banquette seating along one side, decent-sized tables and booths (I didn’t sit in that bit, mainly on account of it being colder than Priti Patel). The room nearest to the kitchen, incongruously, had round chrome-trimmed tables which were more reminiscent of a Fifties diner. And then there was the bigger room nearer to the bar, where you had a choice of perching on high chair at a high table or sitting on a minuscule chair at a long, low table probably intended to be communal. A bit like the Weather Station in that I took my seat thinking, deep down, that I was just a little too old for that kind of thing.

I’m not going to go into detail about the booze, but the selection looked decent to me. Dodo has its own lager and stout, and also serves Cotswold lager, Stowford Press and a small but reasonable range of craft. Of the fourteen beers and ciders on offer, only three crossed the five pound a pint Rubicon. I had a pint of Stowford Press, although I regretted not spotting the Cotswold Cider Company’s Yellow Hammer up on the board: next time, perhaps. Zoë, uncharacteristically, had a virgin mojito which was very nice, if more expensive than the cider.

Anyway, back to the food. The menu – sensibly I think – is quite limited, so you had a choice largely of pizzas or burgers, with a few salads tacked on the end and a handful of sides (there’s also a brunch menu, if you’re there that time of day). They’ve taken care to have a vegetarian and a vegan option on both sides of the menu, too, although I wasn’t sure how the “Leaf Not Beef” was truly vegan with smoked cheese on it. Some of the names should never have got out of the committee stage, either: I’m thinking especially of Coldplay tribute “Viva La Vegan” and the truly painful “Salami Get This Straight”. Not the worst I’ve ever heard – I used to frequent a sandwich shop in Oxford’s Covered Market which served something called “Yes Sir, Cheese My Baby” – but close enough.

Our order came out quicker than I would have liked, and with no starters or desserts on the menu we tried our best to cover a full range of the menu. The most successful thing was Zoë’s burger – the Moo & Blue special (Pie Minister should sue them for breach of copyright). It was good enough that I was only allowed a bite, but that bite was quite enough to make me wish I’d ordered one.

The patty was lovely, dense but not too dense with no mealiness or crumbliness (the menu says you can choose between well-done and pink: this was probably somewhere between the two). It was sensibly sized, i.e. you could pick it up and eat it without unhooking your jaw. But what really made it was the punch of Gorgonzola, a brilliant cheese to pair with this bringing plenty of salt and tang. The bun – a brioche, of course – was toasted and had enough structure to hold the whole thing together. One of the best burgers I’ve had in Reading outside Honest Burgers but also, at ten pounds fifty for the burger alone, more expensive.

You pay extra for the fries, so we shared a portion of cheese and truffle fries for four pounds seventy-five (sorry, I must stop listing the price of every dish, it’s a very Get Reading thing to do). They were served, as is the fashion, in a receptacle not quite big enough and I think Zoë liked them more than I did. Truffle oil is always a cheap way to add to the price of the dish and although I liked the cheese (allegedly fontina) it needed more of it.

We also tried the Dodo fried chicken, partly because of the absence of starters and desserts on the menu but mainly because I struggle to resist it when I see it on a menu. I’d had it before at the Rickety Press, where I enjoyed it very much, but this wasn’t pulled off with quite the same skill. The coating was tough and hard on the teeth, nice though the spicing was, and the meat – thigh rather than breast – had a little more give than I’d have liked. I wouldn’t say they were hipster Turkey Twizzlers, but I would say they were closer to that than they should have been. Again, Zoë liked them more than I did, so perhaps I was being especially fussy that evening.

My pizza managed simultaneously to be delightful and disappointing. I’d chosen the “chorizo piccante”, looking to compare it to Franco Manca’s very successful chorizo pizza. And it won out on so many levels – the shape was pleasingly irregular and there was a little leopard-spotting on the crust. The meat was good quality too – thin slices of chorizo and little blobs of something the menu just calls “soft spicy Brindisa” (there’s a word missing, but at a guess it was sobrasada). But what really picked it up was the bite added by a generous helping of pickled red chillies, lending the sharpness and fire it needed. So why disappointing? The decision to serve it on a thin steel plate like a bin lid meant that the whole thing was pretty much stone cold by the time I reached the halfway mark. Papa Gee, you can safely say, wouldn’t make a mistake like that.

Service, as so often the case when you order at the bar, was perfectly friendly but limited. I did notice staff loitering near the front door and greeting customers as they came in, which worked nicely, but there’s only so much you can say about service in a place like the Last Crumb. Our meal – a pizza, a burger, fries, fried chicken and a couple of drinks – came to forty-two pounds, not including tip. Not bad, all told, and not too expensive.

Despite the slight tone of grumpiness I detect reading back over those paragraphs, I did rather like the Last Crumb. It’s sensibly chosen to only do a few things and do them well, and on that basis it largely succeeds. But, and it’s a reasonably big but, it doesn’t do them so superbly that it becomes a destination of itself. If it was round the corner from me, I would be there pretty often, but on that side of the river (and right at the edge of the centre of Caversham at that) it feels just a little too far to go for such a quick and limited meal. That might change in the summer, when they make the most of their fabulous outside space and you could happily have a long weekend session there, but in the meantime it feels like a place largely for locals. That said, they’re lucky to have it and it fills a gap nicely – and with its five pound cheeseburgers on Monday and happy hours during the week Caversham residents will find plenty to enjoy.

That said, I kept my eyes peeled at the end of the evening as our taxi headed home down Prospect Street and Gosbrook Road. With the notable exception of Quattro, every pub and restaurant looked to be having an eerily quiet Wednesday night; every window was a little vignette, Caversham as reimagined by Edward Hopper. By contrast, the Last Crumb had been pretty much jumping throughout my visit. It might be a Dodo pub, but it’s not at risk of extinction any time soon.

The Last Crumb – 7.4
76 Prospect Street, RG4 8JN
0118 9470749

https://dodopubs.com/locations/the-last-crumb/