Feature: Al fresco dining (2019)

The thoroughly unseasonal spell of sunshine we had recently got me thinking about spring, waiting just round the corner. Tea and toast in the garden, the magnolia flowering, having a coffee outside Tamp or in the Workhouse courtyard and watching the world traipse past. That in turn made me remember, further down the line, the harbingers of good times ahead: the beer festival weekend; “just the one pint” after work in the Allied Arms garden morphing into a long, messy evening; Saturday afternoons stretched out in Forbury Gardens with a good book; the glorious golden slide into summer.

It’s nearly four years since I last published a feature on al fresco dining in Reading, believe it or not. But, as with everything else in this town, much has changed in that time. Dolce Vita and the Plowden Arms have closed, robbing us of some of the best food for miles around and one of Reading’s nicest sun-bathed spots. Forbury’s and Picnic – which also made my list four years ago – are not what they were. The market menu at Forbury’s seems to get more expensive and less special with every passing year, and Picnic isn’t even open on Sundays any more.

Finding establishments to replace them has been harder than you might think. Reading has some great outside spaces but generally, the places lucky enough to own them do not serve good food. The roof terrace at the Thirsty Bear, for instance, is a nice spot and a natural sun trap, but the pizza’s iffy. The Hope & Bear, the artist formerly known as the Abbot Cook/Upin Arms/Jack Of Both Sides, has a very pleasant garden – if you can get past the hum of traffic from the London Road – but the food has never been anything to write home about.

Then, of course, you have places that do decent food but where the space isn’t quite up to scratch. Many of these are chains: it would be lovely to eat outside at Carluccio’s, say, but that spot on the edge of Forbury Gardens sadly never catches the sun, so what should be a great opportunity to have an Aperol spritz and some antipasti becomes a chilly affair. Similarly, the space out the front of Franco Manca is okay, but hardly inspiring. I still enjoy eating at the Lyndhurst, but that little terrace looking out on to Watlington Street feels a tad lacking, more for a pint than the full dining experience.

For my money, Reading lost its finest al fresco dining spot last year when the Fisherman’s Cottage decided to dispense with I Love Paella. When that happened we lost the opportunity to eat salt cod churros and empanadas, patatas bravas with chicken thigh and piquant sauce and so many other glorious dishes in the sunshine with a pint of something cold, fizzy and refreshing. The pub now gets one hundred per cent of the food takings – bully for them, but I definitely won’t be back. Even if the dishes didn’t taste bad, eating there would feel in bad taste.

All that preamble is to say that the list you’re about to read might be Reading’s best al fresco dining options (or at least a conversation starter: your mileage may well vary) but I have to add the disclaimer that they are far from Reading’s best dining options. There’s invariably a degree of compromise involved – you can have an almost Meditteranean lunch, you can have fantastic food, but you can’t necessarily have both. But on a hot and sunny day, when everybody is in shorts and you have a glass of something cold in front of you, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.

Oh, and since starting writing this feature the sun has gone in and the heavens have opened. I can’t help but blame myself, but I still hope this will come in handy in the months ahead.

1. Bhel Puri House

Small plates in the sunshine.

The courtyard outside the George Hotel, just off Yield Hall Lane, catches the sun beautifully in the summer. By day most of its clientele are enjoying coffee, cake or quiche from Workhouse, and in the evening you’re more likely to see patrons of the hotel bar sitting outside enjoying a pint and a fag. But the real trick – at lunchtime or dinner – is to pop in to Bhel Puri House and ask them to serve you in the courtyard.

There’s very little that can match sitting on one of those benches, soaking up the sun and enjoying Bhel Puri House’s almost-legendary chilli paneer, spearing a cube of cheese on a caramelised strip of pepper before popping it in your mouth. The Punjabi samosas are still as gorgeous as the day I first tried them and the crispy bhajia – thin slices of crispy potato with an almost-sweet bright orange carrot chutney – are equally beautiful.

Last year, as summer was coming to an end, I stopped at Bhel Puri House on my way home after work on Friday and enjoyed the courtyard one last time before the clocks went back. Normally I have a mango lassi, but on that occasion a pint of Estrella from the hotel bar seemed like the only sensible option. I’ll be there again as soon as spring is well under way.

Bhel Puri House, Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF

2. Bluegrass BBQ

Reading’s best al fresco brunch.

Another Reading restaurant with a sunny terrace going to waste is bland uber-chain Bill’s. It has a great location next to Reading Minster, but I really couldn’t recommend anybody eats there, not even for brunch. I know it has its fans, but I infinitely prefer crossing the churchyard and going to Bluegrass on Gun Street, which has a terrace by the Holybrook which catches the sun and which few people seem to know about.

Once you’re installed, they do one of the best brunches in Reading. Many like the pancakes, but I’m always drawn to the Smokehouse breakfast there. I’ve enthused about it before but really, it does everything very well: the bacon is smoked, salty, streaky and crispy, the sausages are terrific quality and the hash browns are an absolutely joy, especially smudged with a bit of barbecue sauce before eating. If you’re there in the evening, the brisket chilli is a revelation and I really like the southern fried chicken (although maybe not with the waffles and maple syrup). I can see that dinner in the sunshine with a really good beer could make for a lovely al fresco evening.

Bluegrass BBQ, 15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
https://www.bluegrass-bbq.com/

3. Côte

Continental, albeit canalside.

There are plenty of Oracle chains with space outside, and come the summer they are frequently rammed. Franco Manca and the Real Greek both have decent outdoor areas, and that’s before we get to the delights of eating outside at Nando’s (chicken thighs, medium, with rice, peas and extra halloumi, garlic peri peri on the side, since you asked), an experience which always feels a little like being on holiday in the UK. Many of the Oracle’s al fresco options – including Nando’s, sadly – can feel a little purgatorial. I do however have a real soft spot for the tables for two right in front of Côte (not, I should add, the ones at the edge of the waterside) where you can sit side by side, drink rosé, eat from the reasonable a la carte or the crazily reasonable set menu, and gaze out on the world.

Côte’s food is consistently good, and you won’t go far wrong there, but the specials are always worth a look (especially if they have skate wing on there, probably the nicest thing I’ve ever eaten at Côte). The charcuterie board is a lovely choice at any time of year, but in warm weather the tuna nicoise salad remains one of the best ways to feel slightly virtuous while eating out. Sitting with a view of the canal (technically a river, but if it looks like a canal and feels like a canal…) watching a parade of frazzled shoppers-to-be wander past shouldn’t really work, but for some reason it does. On a good day, when you have one of those tables and the sun is beaming down, you can feel like one of the luckiest diners in Reading.

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

4. London Street Brasserie

The original and best.

The only restaurant to make my list both in 2015 and today, London Street Brasserie has a nice outside area looking out on the river (and the often less than salubrious goings-on near the manky car park on the opposite bank). But that aside, it’s actually quite an attractive decked area which catches plenty of sun, and as the evening light starts to fade there are blankets to keep you warm. Many years as Reading’s fanciest restaurant (a title which has only really been challenged in the last year or so) means that in some respects the food is secondary to the whole experience. As with Cote there’s a set and an a la carte menu, but the better option is nearly always the set which offers an impressive range at a reasonable price: eat there at lunchtime or before 7pm to take full advantage.

Over the winter I became very attached to their haggis and duck egg on toast with HP jus – Reading’s ideal breakfast, disguised as a starter – and the fish and chips, also from the set menu, remains one of my favourite main courses at any price point. The a la carte always feels like more of a gamble at prices which are beginning to feel a little on the steep side for what you get, but the salt and pepper squid is a reliable dish and it’s hard to go wrong with venison and (yet more) haggis. The only thing that stops me gushing about LSB, apart from the pricing, is the consistency: it’s definitely a place which has the occasional off day, but at its best it’s still one of Reading’s finest places to have a meal in the open air.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
http://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk/

5. Thames Lido

For burning calories vicariously.

I have struggled to love Thames Lido, and I haven’t quite managed it yet: on every one of my three visits there’s been something wrong, either in terms of service, food or value for money. On one visit the gin and tonic was spendy and unspecial, on another the set menu was a little bit mingy for the money and on my last visit, the ox cheek (allegedly a signature dish) was claggy and undercooked. The service has always been consistent only in its inconsistency, although with Alex – who used to charm the socks off everyone at Mya Lacarte – now on board, that might have changed.

I know I sound like I’m moaning, but here’s the point: when I had lunch there last summer it was such a lovely spot that I put my reservations about the food to one side. The sun was shining, the surroundings were Instagram-perfect (there’s a reason it shows up there so often), my Spanish cider was cold and crisp and watching people braver than me doing lengths somehow helped me to work up quite an appetite. It simply is a gorgeous place to eat lunch, provided you relax your standards somewhat, and probably the single best view of any restaurant in Reading. I think it succeeds despite, rather than because of, its food, but I seem to be swimming against the tide in that respect. It’s the only swimming I plan to do, anyway: I’d much rather sit in the warm, order something nice and leave all that to people better qualified than me.

Thames Lido, Kings Meadow Park, RG1 8FR
http://www.thameslido.com/

Advertisements

The Dairy

It was love at first sight when I first laid eyes on The Dairy. I’d been paying a visit to the MERL on Upper Redlands Road earlier in the day and I’d dimly remembered that The Dairy, one of the bars which was part of the University, was just down the road. I’d never been, so in the spirit of adventure I did a bit of research, checking out the sadly departed Matt Farrall’s excellent article on the subject for the Whitley Pump). Later that week, I dropped in for a drink.

When I got there, I was thoroughly charmed. It took a bit of finding – it’s pretty much completely unsignposted, and you access it by going up a ramp only to find an unadorned door with a simple plaque next to it saying “The Dairy” in a plain, municipal-looking font. Once I got there, though, I liked the look of the place: it’s made up of two big rooms with clean, white walls, sizeable tables (high ones in the main room, lower ones in the back room), comfy furniture and a wide array of decent beers on keg, including four different craft lagers and representatives from many of our local breweries: Siren Craft, Wild Weather and Elusive, not to mention other breweries like New Wharf and XT.

It’s a university bar, but it was open to the public and seemed to have a pretty varied clientele. Not only that, but even without a student discount you could get a pint of good, well-kept craft beer for around three pounds fifty. I found myself making a mental note that this could make a great place for board games nights with friends, or for a quiet pint on the evenings when I fancied a change of scenery from my usual haunts (it was sleepy on a week night at the start of term).

Then I spotted the menu. Now, normally I would never have considered The Dairy as a venue for a food review, but there were lots of interesting touches on the menu which made me wonder. Jerk chicken, curry mutton and Jamaican vegetable stew all looked different from the usual fare and even the burgers, complete with a very now charcoal brioche, seemed slightly out of the ordinary. I took a picture of the menu and resolved to come back to see if this could be the kind of hidden find which always lifts my spirits.

Returning on a Saturday evening with my partner in crime Zoë, The Dairy was much more obviously a student bar and was far busier. I felt a tad decrepit grabbing a stool at one of the high tables, and then swapping it for one better equipped to support my child-bearing hips. That feeling wasn’t helped by looking around to see hordes of young people watching the big screens, playing pool, eating all-day breakfasts (not something on the menu I had ever considered ordering, in all honesty, and especially not at eight o’clock at night) and generally not appreciating that they were slap bang in the middle of the best years of their lives.

I wandered into the back room to see if any tables were available there, but was greeted by such a wall of noise that I thought better of it. I did spot one gentleman at another table who was even older than me, and that reassured me enough to grab a menu. Broadly speaking it divided into two sections (unless you count a very small selection of starters and salads and – of course – that all day breakfast): world food and burgers. We quickly decided to try one of each and I went up to the bar to place the order. None of the dishes costs more than a tenner and once you hand over your card (the whole place is cashless) they give you a little gadget which buzzes when your food is ready, signalling for you to go and pick it up from the hatch. Easy peasy.

The first warning bell rang when the gadget buzzed, no more than ten minutes after placing my order; that felt quick enough that I wondered whether a microwave had been involved. I approached the hatch to find the food had been set down in front of me, but with nobody on the other side to greet me. The shelves behind were full of stuff from Brakes, another disconcerting sign. I would have just taken the dishes and gone back to the table but one of them, the mutton curry, was missing the advertised naan bread and mango chutney. Instead there was a small bowl of what appeared to be giant, wan-looking chips, stood upright. I waited, but nobody appeared, so I said “excuse me” as loudly as I dared and a lady wandered in from what I assume was the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, but I’m waiting for a naan bread” I said, doing the English thing of apologising for expecting to receive what I had ordered.

“It’s a mistake with the menu” I was told tersely. “It’s wrong. You don’t get naan bread, because it’s a Caribbean curry. These are yuca fries.”

Never mind, I thought, carrying everything back to the table and picking up some cutlery from the bar. The mutton curry was Zoë’s, but I managed to try enough of it to dispel the rumour that it had been microwaved: surely it would have been hotter if that was the case. The meat was a tad chewy – not undercooked per se, but not enjoyable to eat and the spicing in it was probably best described as subtle. It was definitely luke-warm, though, and for nine pounds the portion felt a little on the mean side. I didn’t try the yuca fries (although I did google them to find out that they were made of cassava) but Zoe ate a few without any real enthusiasm. They looked like the kind of thing you might use to insulate a loft.

“What do you reckon?” I asked.

“It’s just not hot. To be honest, I’d rather go to Clay’s.” She had a point – I would far rather have spent a little more and had an infinitely better curry elsewhere. I had a feeling the list of places doing a better curry than The Dairy – and this in itself was pretty alarming – probably included Wetherspoon’s. Still, I’ll say this for the mutton curry: it wasn’t the chicken burger, which is an early front runner for the single worst thing I’ll eat in 2019 (let’s hope it bags that prize, because I don’t really want to think about what, if anything, could beat it into second place).

The charcoal brioche was weirdly, cloyingly sweet. The bacon – back, cooked to miserable limpness – was indifferent and salty. The burger itself was breaded and I’m not sure whether it was baked or fried but the coating had the texture of an asteroid with no discernible seasoning: the chicken, once you got to it, at least recognisably had started life as a fillet but after that it had been not so much cooked as mistreated. The thin slice of American cheese on top had been completely unmelted by the lukewarm contents of the brioche. I wasn’t sure how the kitchen had managed to overcook something, yet it still wasn’t hot: I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The “barbecue glaze” underneath it had the sort of gloopy sweetness which gave me bad flashbacks. There was something odd about the taste of the fries: it could have been that they were tepid, it might have been that they were stale, it might have been something else altogether. Running through the possibilities in my mind started to bring on reflux. I left a fair amount of this dish, and most of the fries, and things have to be pretty bad before I do that.

If the food had been good, there would have been more drinks. We would have checked out the dessert section of the menu and ordered the churros (“plain and caramel filled… served with butterscotch sauce”). But the food wasn’t good, and I needed to leave before I was completely put off The Dairy as a watering hole, and for that matter put off churros for life. The meal, along with a ginger beer and a very pleasant pint of Eisbar, a “Vienna style lager” by XT, came to just shy of twenty-two pounds. Service at the hatch had been pretty perfunctory, but the bar staff had been lovely and friendly (and one of them was very apologetic about it being her first shift). The whole thing seemed to reinforce my overall view, namely that The Dairy was a great place for a quiet drink but that nobody should consider eating there.

As we left, I was torn between feeling a little queasy and really wanting to eat some chocolate, or at least something that didn’t taste of the chicken burger. In the end I thought better of it, but that burger sat uneasily with me for the rest of the evening.

“I suppose the obvious comparison is the Oakford” Zoë had said while we were waiting for our food, before anticipation transmuted into disappointment, and I think in many ways she is right. For cheap, cheerful burgers, at least – although having done some research since the burgers at the Oakford are a little more expensive, mainly because fries are extra (though I don’t think anybody in their right mind would pay extra for The Dairy’s fries). But really, I couldn’t think of a good comparison: where else would the food have been quite so underwhelming?

I don’t know whether The Dairy’s dishes do come from a Brakes lorry (from the section of the website marked “for students”, perhaps), and you could say that I should have known better than to expect great food from one of the university bars. All I can say is that I was taken in by the menu, but more to the point I wrongly thought that the pride The Dairy had put into its drinks offering would be matched by the food. So I do have a new favourite watering hole, along with a salutary lesson that even after over five years of doing this I remain more than capable of making the wrong call and picking a duffer. I still recommend going to The Dairy for a nice pint if you’re in the area (and the benches out the front might be lovely on a summer’s day). Just make sure you’ve eaten beforehand.

The Dairy – 4.6
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.facebook.com/londonroadcampus/

German Doner Kebab

The new year always presents a myriad of opportunities, doesn’t it? A fresh start (unless, like pretty much everyone I know, you’ve been struck down by one of the many virulent bugs doing the rounds). A chance to change your ways, shed unhelpful old habits and bin off toxic former friends. And, of course, it’s a time to embrace every passing fad for self-improvement, whether that’s kicking the booze or going vegan for thirty-one teeth-clenchingly joyless days. Fuck that, I thought, I’m off for a kebab.

Not just any kebab, I should add, but a German one: German Doner Kebab has been plying its trade since last April, at the grim end of Friar Street near the Hope Tap, the latest creepy topless bar and the big Sainsbury’s (Brutalist on the outside, faintly Stalinist on the inside). Now, I’m not snobbish about kebabs: I’ve always thought that, done right, they can be darned delicious and the best ones, cooked well, are more than acceptable eaten sober.

Generally, in fairness, I mean shish kebabs – there’s something about chicken or lamb cooked there and then on a charcoal grill that’s difficult to beat (let’s face it, there’s a reason I’m always singing the praises of King’s Grill). But a chicken or lamb doner, sliced thinly, cooked on the hot plate to add a little crispiness and mixed with ribbons of iceberg and a really good sauce? That’s the stuff of – admittedly slightly guilty – dreams.

More recently that has tended to be the shawarma at Bakery House, or gyros on holiday in Greece, but I still fondly remember the golden age of growing up in Woodley and having a doner from the van parked up by Bulmershe school, or, years later, stopping at the sadly departed “Kebab Kingdom” on Cemetery Junction.

That was twenty years ago, but I can still remember the crunch of the red cabbage and the kick of those pickled chillies like it was yesterday. Come to think of it, I can remember when you could eat in at Ye Babam Ye, in the bit which is now Up The Junction and just to prove that everything comes around again eventually, here I am in 2019 sitting at a table eating a doner kebab, the hot new (old) gastronomic trend. Maybe they’ll rebrand Wimpy next.

My accomplice for this review was the author of pub blog Quaffable Reading, a man who prefers to be referred to as Dr Quaff (honestly, these anonymous bloggers and their pseudonyms: it’ll never catch on). I had accompanied him last year when he went to review The Retreat, my beloved local pub, and this was part of a sort of exchange program where he joined me to review German Doner Kebab and in return we then went on to a pub afterwards so Dr Quaff could review that. You might say that we approached things in the wrong order: I couldn’t possibly comment, although you might have an idea of my view by the end.

Dr Quaff is – and he didn’t offer any financial inducement for me to say this, I promise – superb company with a huge range of stories which managed to be both funny and interesting. But he also has a surprisingly donnish air (that time up at Oxford, perhaps) and made for a very suitable co-pilot on this visit. He was also willing to order all the things I didn’t, which made for a refreshing change as I’m used to having my second choice of everything on the menu.

The interior managed to be a chic take on a traditional fast food restaurant. The overwhelming theme was monochrome – big black and and white photos of Berlin landmarks (the television tower especially caught my eye), a huge image of the Brandenberg Gate along one wall and smart black button-backed banquettes and booths. But there was also a flash of orange bringing the whole thing to life: you really couldn’t fault their branding.

“It looks very much like McDonalds tries to these days” said Dr Quaff, at which point I had to admit that it was a very long time since I had been to one, and even longer since I’d paid attention (still, he has kids). We ordered at the counter and plonked ourselves at a booth in what was, for a school night, a surprisingly busy restaurant.

The menu gave a wide range of options, from quinoa salad to tempura cauliflower, all the way to… no, really, it’s basically just doner meat. Doner meat in a brioche bun, doner meat in a flatbread, doner meat in a wrap. Doner meat in a quesadilla, doner meat on – yes, really – nachos. It was the doner equivalent of that scene in Being John Malkovich where everyone just walks around saying “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich” all the time: doner, doner, doner.

You can get the doner-based dish of your choice for roughly five pounds, or add fries and a drink for two quid, and for vegetarians there is a veggie kebab containing the suitably vague “mixed veggie pieces”. Even the choice of doner meat (beef, chicken or “mixed”) is more specific than that. Personally, I found it weird that there was beef but no lamb, but I decided to reserve judgment.

The first dish to turn up was the lahmacun (or, in this case I suppose, “beefacun”), a thin flatbread smeared in something which may have been beef or possibly just the memory of beef, folded over and served with three dips (chilli, garlic and burger sauce) along with a rather hopeful wedge of lemon. When I started this I quite liked it, but as it cooled down and started to taste more of itself I found I rather cooled down too. But taste of what? I wasn’t really sure – certainly not of beef, and hardly of spice either. It also went soggy quickly which made dipping it in the sauces largely a waste of time. “It’s sort of like a keema nan” said Dr Quaff, and although I knew what he was driving at it still felt like a disservice to keema nans everywhere.

Dr Quaff had also gone for a side dish, the doner nachos. It was a classic example of the old adage that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should: I don’t think the combination of tortilla chips, jalapeños, American squeezy cheese and doner meat is one the world was waiting for.

The beef doner meat, and this was a theme funnily enough for the rest of the meal, was plain bad. It didn’t taste like any beef I’ve ever had, and that includes some pretty dreadful beef: even overcooked into shoe leather the way my former mother-in-law used to do it at least vaguely tasted of beef. This, though, had no texture, so was just limp ribbons of the stuff, a disconcerting shade of beige and looking nothing like beef. It could have been shaved off a cow, a sheep, an actuary or E.T.: if you’d told me it was Soylent Green I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.

Normally when I put photos of a dish on the blog I do a little editing to try and make them look as good as possible: their culinary best selves, you could say. With the doner nachos I just wanted to do my best to make them look exactly as they did in the restaurant. Adding warmth and saturation would be like adding a Snapchat filter to a Tinder profile picture.

“I thought they’d be smaller” said Dr Quaff. I was just glad I only had to have one forkful.

More of the doner meat was to follow in the main attractions. I had a mixed kebab in their signature toasted flatbread, while Dr Quaff had it in a lahmacun wrap. In terms of a vessel for the meat, his was a much better plan – completely contained, easier to eat and much less messy. I also think, overall, Dr Quaff enjoyed the whole thing more than I did: he also pimped his fries so, for fifty pence extra, he got “flaming fries” which were dusted with something which contained paprika but also hints of something like Chinese five spice. “It’s funny”, he said, “because it feels strange to pay fifty pence extra, but it’s definitely worth it”.

By contrast, the toasted bread had a very pleasing waffly texture but was open, which meant that everything would have fallen out if I’d tried to eat it with my hands. This did work to my advantage though, because I managed to remove much of the beef doner meat with a fork (and to think I was always bad at Operation as a child) and focus on the chicken. It was infinitely better: for a start it definitely felt like it might once have been attached to an actual chicken, and along with the salad and red cabbage it began to feel like something I would eat from choice.

I’d paid extra for feta, because friends in the know had told me that was the thing to do, but it didn’t feel like it added an awful lot. The fries were nondescript – in the fast food hierarchy they were better than KFC fries (but so is everything else, including not having fries) but worse than McDonalds or Burger King. I didn’t really have strong opinions about any of the dips – if pushed, I guess I’d say I quite liked the burger sauce because you don’t see it often enough these days, but I’m not sure the fries made it worth going for the meal deal. Nice to have a Coke in the classic glass bottle, though, even if there weren’t any glasses provided to pour it into.

Service was functional and perfectly polite. I had to ask for a fork, I had to ask for a glass, I had to ask for a straw (I’m afraid it was plastic) when they didn’t have a glass, but all of those requests were handled nicely. It’s not the sort of restaurant, really, where you notice service unless it’s terrible, and it wasn’t. Not doner nachos terrible, anyway, but that’s a new level of terrible I wasn’t expecting to encounter in 2019. Let’s hope the year gets better from there. My dinner came to eleven pounds, while Dr Quaff’s, with his fancy chips and freakish side order, came to closer to thirteen.

After our meal, Dr Quaff and I sat there for a bit debating the merits of German Doner Kebab. He was (and is in general, I imagine) much kinder than me – I think he found things to like and could imagine going back, although I’m not sure when or how often. For me, it falls down in far too many places. It’s more expensive than KFC and cheaper than Honest Burgers, but if I wanted fast food in the town centre where I could sit down I would, without exception, pick one or the other over German Doner Kebab. And if it’s that kind of food you’re after – if you really, really need a kebab – German Doner Kebab doesn’t do anything that isn’t executed far better by either Kings Grill or Bakery House.

I could manage a chicken doner wrap there, at a push, but as a quick choice in town a lot of restaurants would have to close before it even made my top 10 (come to think of it, Nando’s is just down the road: judge all you like, but I love a Nando’s). So what – or who – is German Doner Kebab for? I’d love to be able to answer that question for you but, truth be told, I’m stumped. Put it this way: I still maintain that you don’t have to be drunk to eat a good kebab, but even if I’d emerged from a boozer several pints to the good after an evening with the author of Reading’s finest pub blog, wild horses would be unlikely to drag me back to German Doner Kebab.

German Doner Kebab – 5.4
106 Friar Street, RG1 1EP
0118 9589998

http://www.germandonerkebab.com

Feature: The 2018 Edible Reading Awards

2018 has been an interesting year for Reading’s restaurant and café scene. It didn’t have huge, big-name openings like Thames Lido or Honest Burgers, but there have still been plenty of noteworthy changes and shifts over the last twelve months. For one, the Oxford Road has become a more significant place, with Tuscany and Oishi opening this year offering properly lovely pizza and promising Japanese food, filling a gap that has been there since Bhoj moved into town and I Love Paella left Workhouse Coffee.

Another trend has been some of Reading’s street food and pop-up specialists finding new homes, so Laura from Pop-Up Reading now cooks at the Tasting House and Georgian Feast are now operating at what used to be Nomad Bakery, in Caversham, a rare gastronomic high spot north of the river. Not to mention the way street food in Reading exploded this year, with Blue Collar taking over the Forbury and the Abbey Ruins for brilliant events running over several weeks. And then there are the new arrivals among Reading’s cafés, with a second branch of C.U.P. on Blagrave Street and Anonymous Coffee firmly installed both at the Tasting House and, if you work there, Thames Tower.

Of course, the circle of life means that restaurants also fall by the wayside, some of which are more mourned than others. So this is the year that Namaste Kitchen lost its chef and front of house and I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage. Those things might well make you sad (as they do me), whereas the closure of our branch of Jamie’s Italian might bother you less. But we also said goodbye to the much-loved Dolce Vita, cafés Artigiano and the Biscuit Tin and chains Loch Fyne and CAU. The casual dining sector faces an uncertain future in 2019, so few people would bet against further contraction next year: if you like a restaurant, you need to keep eating there.

This doesn’t deter people from entering the market, so the end of the year saw two further openings – Persia House, on the far side of Caversham Bridge (in a spot many consider cursed) offering Iranian food and the Corn Stores in the iconic building opposite Apex Plaza, where the owners are hoping a very fancy refit will persuade diners to part with quite a lot of money for steak. I will of course be heading along to check both of them out in the New Year.

But before that, on the last Friday of the year, it’s time to look back in my annual awards and celebrate the best of 2018. And before we do that, I have to say a quick thank you. It’s been an incredible year on the blog: the most successful since I began in 2013, with more visitors than ever before. It’s been the year that I put out two of the most popular features on the blog (on the things Reading needs and Reading’s 10 must-try dishes), ran a competition with new kid on the block Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen and ate, and reviewed, all manner of things, from pizza in Newbury to croque monsieur in a hospital, from chip-free fine dining in Binfield Heath to wobbly shawarma down the Wokingham Road.

I’ve had help from an incredible cast of guest dining companions who have helped make every meal an absolute pleasure (even when the food was not). A total of twelve different people have joined me on reviews this year, and every one has added something different. I don’t want to leave anybody out, and listing them would probably be dull for everybody else, but they know who they are and they know that I’m enormously grateful. And actually, I ended up having lunch with a lot more people than that – over fifty people attended one of the four readers’ lunches this year, from the first one at Namaste Kitchen at the start of the year (featuring a superlative greatest hits package of seemingly everything on the menu) to the elegant and accomplished four course set menu at Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in December. It really has been quite a year.

Right, with all that out of the way let’s concentrate on the task at hand. Ready? Good.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Dak-gang jeong, Soju

I only got out my legendary 8 paddle twice in 2018, for visits to Soju and Oishi. A big part of my rating for the former came from this dish, phenomenal crispy fried chicken covered in hot and sour sauce and scattered with sesame seeds, a quite magnificent affair which became my yardstick not only for starters and small plates in Reading, but also for fried chicken everywhere. It is reason enough to go to Soju in its own right, and next time I go I might order three.

Honorary mentions go to Bakery House’s chicken livers – meaty, metallic and resplendent with sweet red onion and punchy pomegranate molasses – and Bench Rest’s cauliflower shawarma, a beautifully done dish which could persuade anybody to give vegetarian food a whirl (though not, necessarily, to refer to it as “plant-based dining”).

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I won’t get on my high horse again to deliver my regular speech about how Reading’s restaurants, cafes and bars almost uniformly fail to get social media, but let’s just say that this was, by far, the easiest award to give out. Fidget & Bob’s Twitter feed has been an absolute delight this year, whether it’s been tweeting their specials (which always sound delicious), supporting other like-minded independent businesses or talking about the comings and goings of life on Kennet Island. I love my part of town, but Fidget & Bob manages the almost impossible: it nearly makes me wish I lived close enough to be a regular.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Franco Manca

Contrary to popular belief, I do review chains (provided they offer something a little different). I was in two minds about Franco Manca when I went there on duty, having enjoyed a couple of their London branches prior to their big expansion over the last couple of years, but repeated visits have established it as a real favourite. The pizzas are always good quality, the service is usually brisk but friendly and it’s an excellent, versatile venue – suitable for a quick pre-pub dinner with friends, a solo meal on the way home or a drawn out lunch when you want a little more than a sandwich. It’s often worth loading up a standard margherita with whatever toppings are on the blackboard that day, and if you do stay for dessert both the coffee and ice cream are better than you might expect.

Honorary mentions in this category go to Cote Brasserie, which has been doing its thing for so long that you could be forgiven for forgetting how good it is, and Kokoro, which is also a perfect place to stop for a big lunch or a quick dinner, solo or with a friend.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Charsi karahi chicken, Kobeda Palace

I have waxed lyrical about this dish so often that I may have run out of things to say by now, but Kobeda Palace’s karahi chicken remains a beautiful dish and a hugely surprising one; nothing about Kobeda Palace necessarily gives away that you can get such a gastronomic treat there, but there it is. Chicken, on the bone but neatly jointed, comes in the most glorious spiced sauce, with plenty of coriander and fresh ginger. The trick, if you can manage it, is to strip it all off the bone before you start and scoop it up with the giant, freshly baked naan bread. It really is gorgeous, and I’ve introduced numerous people to it this year.

There were so many contenders for this award that even narrowing down runners-up is almost impossible: you might be surprised, for instance, to discover that Café Yolk’s incredible Breakfast Burger was a fixture on my long list. But it would be wrong not to mention Pepe Sale’s suckling pig, a dish which is never going to be in or out of fashion but remains unbeatably delicious all the same, and the instant classic that is Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s bhuna venison (I even remember a Twitter outcry this year when, for a couple of days, Clay’s ran out of venison).

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

I can’t imagine many of you being surprised by this: I’ve had regular conversations with people where they basically say something to the effect of “Clay’s is a little too good for Reading”. I think it reflects well on both Clay’s and Reading that the owners don’t seem to think so, and nor should we. To go from a standing start to being firmly ensconced as Reading’s (or at least Twitter Reading’s) favourite restaurant is quite an achievement, and barely a week goes by without somebody on social media publicly declaring how delighted they are to be back there for their umpteenth visit. I can’t say I blame them.

Bing Crosby once said that Frank Sinatra was the kind of singer that only comes round once in a lifetime, before adding “why does it have to be my lifetime?”. On a similar note, both Oishi and Tuscany can feel unfortunate not to win this award this year: Oishi was a lovely, low-key, apologetic delight, serving very good sashimi and teriyaki, and Tuscany is a superb, if idiosyncratic, pizza joint which may or may not do loads of other things, if you can ever track them down on a menu – or indeed track down a menu.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Arbequina

Oxford’s Arbequina is, simply put, one of the best restaurants I’ve been to anywhere, in ages. A little spot down the Cowley Road, basic tables and chairs, a small menu, a small kitchen and superb staff who can execute all of it perfectly. Once, after a fantastic meal there, the waiter told me that they deliberately make the menu so simple that people can be trained to cook all the dishes in a week. Nothing is complex or fiddly but all of it is truly outstanding, from toast with ‘nduja, honey and thyme to pork belly smothered in verdant, herby mojo verde. Special mention has to go to the tortilla, which will slightly ruin all other tortillas and omelettes in your mind for the rest of your days: only order one if you can cope with that.

None of the out of town venues I visited on duty, sadly, came close to being in contention for this award but honourable mentions definitely go to the Black Rat in Winchester, a Michelin starred pub which could teach many of Berkshire’s and Oxfordshire’s poseur gastropubs a thing or two about keeping it simple, and Chelsea’s Medlar which is as good an excuse as you could hope for to take a Friday off and slope over to London.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Double ka meetha, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

I often struggle to find a dessert I much like in restaurants and usually, when I do, it involves chocolate. Hats off, then, to Clay’s which has a chocolate-free dessert so fine it’s worth saving room for (itself a challenge, on a visit to Clay’s). It’s bread and butter pudding, but not as we know it – chilled, clean and fresh, sweet without being cloying, a delicate, clever thing packed with pistachio and full of surprises. A lot of the attention focused on Clay’s other dessert, a very striking and unusual rice pudding made with onion, but for me this is straight out the best dessert you can get anywhere in town.

Runners-up in this category are Pepe Sale’s seadas, pastry full of cheese and sweet with citrus (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it) and Honest Burgers’ salted caramel milkshake, because a milkshake is a perfectly respectable dessert option and, as far as I’m concerned, the sooner restaurants get on board with this the better.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Bhel Puri House

Some of my nicest lunches this year have been spent sitting outside in the courtyard shared by Workhouse and the George Hotel, enjoying a mango lassi and some of the many excellent dishes cooked up by Bhel Puri House. Everyone talks about the chilli paneer, which is every bit as good as it was when I first reviewed it almost exactly five years ago, but the supporting cast is almost as good, whether you’re having vada pav (a sort of potato cake sandwich which feels like Indian street food which has found it’s way here via Hartlepool), crispy bhajia – perfect thin slices of fried potato with a sweet carrot chutney – or classics like Punjabi samosas. They haven’t changed a thing since they started, as far as I can see, and I’m glad they haven’t messed with a winning formula. It just feels like 2018 was maybe the year that Reading (including me) started to catch up.

I might be a bit jaded with the endless parade of relatively traditional sandwiches available in Reading, good though many of them are, and so my other podium places for this award go to Bakery House (for its small plates and the endless wonder and ludicrous good value of its lamb shawarma in pitta) and Blue Collar, where every Wednesday you can make the acquaintance of Leymoun’s quite extraordinary challoumi wrap.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Pepe Sale

It’s not been the best year for the service profession in Reading. Ihor has left the Artist Formerly Known as Kyrenia, Kamal has departed from Namaste Kitchen, and Kostas, Alexandra and the rest of the crew at Dolce Vita must be plying their trade elsewhere. Not only that, but Marco left Pepe Sale to head off into retirement, splitting his time between Kent and Italy. But actually, on many subsequent visits to Pepe Sale I finally got a proper view of what Marco’s presence obscured – that all of the staff there work like Trojans, are incredibly friendly, superbly efficient and do an impeccable job of making a very busy restaurant run like clockwork. So without question, Pepe Sale is a worthy winner of this year’s award for making it all look so effortless. I will miss Marco, glasses round his neck, Larry Grayson-style, telling me all the new places I ought to try for dinner, though.

All is not lost, though, and there are plenty of other places in Reading where the service is still exemplary. The Lyndhurst does a superb job of looking after diners, with a perfect balance between attentive and relaxed, friendly and formal, and definitely merits a mention here, as does the quite marvellous Fidget & Bob.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

Clay’s reminds me very much of the quote by Robert Graves that “the remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good”. It’s much the same with Clay’s – everyone raves about it, me included, and you could quite reasonably think that it can’t be quite as magnificent as everybody claims.

And yet, when you go, it is. A restaurant which feels more like it’s been transferred in from London, with food reminiscent of high end Indian restaurants like Gymkhana, and yet which simultaneously feels completely in the right place in its spot at the bottom of London Street. The food is like nothing else you can get not only in Reading but probably anywhere in England, the execution is brilliant and the menu has already undergone a few changes despite Clay’s only having been open for six months. It’s already difficult to imagine Reading without it.

Not everything is perfect – service has been erratic since day one, and still needs work. They could badly do with a website, and I’m still not entirely sure whether Clay’s is a high-end restaurant charging middle-end prices or a really good neighbourhood restaurant. But ultimately, this stuff doesn’t matter: what truly matters is that Reading has a restaurant quite unlike any other, where the food is frequently quite astonishing, which gets Twitter and seems genuinely proud to be part of the town and part of its restaurant community. I can’t think of a better winner of this year’s award, even if I can look forward to a chorus of comments giving me the final ER Award of 2018, for Stating The Obvious.

TGI Fridays

There are plenty of reasons to take against Matt Rodda, my local Member Of Parliament. His faintly gormless look at photo opportunities, for one. His position on Brexit – I’m sorry, I went there – which contains more fudge than Thornton’s and ignores the strongly held views of his constituency. His ineptitude at social media, where he never engages with anyone and sometimes manages to post photographs the wrong way round (he used to be a journalist, apparently: an old media one, I’d guess). And of course there’s the matter of his robotic Twitter style where every description of an event starts with “Good to”: Good to show support for school meals, says one. Good to talk to Katesgrove residents, says another. I dubbed this “Rodda Syndrome” on Twitter and after that he started to mix it up – some Tweets began “Important to”, others began “Interesting to”. It’s a nice try, but I’m not convinced that Rodda’s Twitter feed would pass the Turing Test.

So yes, I have a number of misgivings about my local MP, but the biggest is that he is responsible for the review you’re reading today.

Well, not entirely, because I rather brought it on myself. It happened on the 8th June last year, election day. I headed to the church on Watlington Street to cast my vote (more in hope than expectation) and then I went home, fetched my suitcase and made for the station. I was going to Paris for my first ever solo holiday, my post-divorce present to myself and the opportunity to reclaim one of my favourite cities, to make sure it didn’t become inextricably linked to memories of my marriage. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward to about midnight and I was back in my slightly cramped hotel room, several red wines to the good having had a truly repellent meal. They’d plonked me up at the bar on a seat which might as well have borne a plaque saying “exploit the solo tourist”, the plates were small and yet the terrine, which looked like Pedigree Chum, was far too big. I grabbed some chocolate, crisps and a bottle of Orangina from a little Carrefour on my way back to the hotel and when I found the TV in my room had BBC News 24, I realised I’d be able to hear the dulcet tones of David Dimbleby and see the results come in. I’ve stayed up and watched every general election since 1992 and continuing that trend – albeit on the other side of the Channel proving how big, brave and independent I was – made me feel a little less lonesome.

By the small hours, exhausted but undaunted, I and a small number of other Reading Tweeters were staying up for one reason and one reason alone: to see if Rob Wilson would lose his seat. It was very far down the list of Labour targets, but suddenly there was a buzz that we might see Wilson deposed. We don’t have enough time to go into all the reasons why I thought that would be Reading’s Portillo moment (although let’s not forget his nine pence expenses claim for a taxi ride which was physically impossible) but, emboldened by the spirit of revolution – and clearly not rehydrated enough by the Orangina – I took to Twitter. “The exit poll has Reading East falling to Labour. If that happens, I will review TGI Friday”, I said.

Whoops.

I’ve never forgotten my promise, however hard I tried, so on a Monday night towards the end of the year I showed up at TGI’s Oracle branch to finally keep my word. Picking an accomplice for this review proved difficult: originally I had suggested making it a big party to celebrate Wilson’s downfall, but when it came to it that felt needlessly cruel to my readers (and the admin involved in writing up all that food didn’t appeal). Instead I took my friend Sam, a long-standing reader of the blog with extensive experience in hospitality and, more specifically, of working front of house in chain restaurants. Surely, I thought, Sam could help me take a fair and balanced approach to the flagship outpost of one of Reading’s most prominent chains.

“Have you seen Pulp Fiction before?” chuckled Sam as the waitress seated us in a little booth for two, all leatherette banquettes with a good view of the restaurant. Sam is an extremely amiable chap who sounds as posh as you like and, despite only just being in his thirties, can inexplicably get away with calling everybody “kiddo”. He was still sporting a Movember moustache (“it’s on a week’s probation” he told me) and the overall effect was somehow more Battle Of Britain pilot than best-avoided uncle. Actually, despite it being ersatz in the extreme I somehow admired the fit-out of TGI Friday. Everything looked polished and fake without being cheap.

A chorus of “Happy Birthday”, led by the serving staff, erupted at a nearby table. It wouldn’t be the last of the evening.

The menu made decisions surprisingly difficult, but not in a good way. I tried very hard to overcome my preconceptions when looking through it, but it seemed like such a cookie-cutter approach to American food that I found it hard to care. Burgers, ribs, fajitas and tacos were all present and correct, and there were frequent references to TGI’s “Legendary glaze”, which may or may not have been a reference to the expression of the waiter who brought us our first beers. The menu was broken into sections with names like “Rib, Dip, Hooray!” and “Love Me Some Chicken”, which was bad enough but some of the names of the dishes genuinely made me want to get up and leave. Particular offenders included the “Gravy Seal”, a burger which had had the kitchen sink thrown at it and was apparently “a tasty triple trip over sea, air and land” and the “It’s Mine, Nachos!” about which no more need be said.

“I’ve decided” said Sam. “It’s got to be the Warrior Burger.” I knew this was likely: Sam had been talking about this life choice for about two weeks in the run up to our visit. I ummed and aahed and then I saw and heard a spectacle at a neighbouring table closer to the pass which made matters more straightforward; a plate was put down in front of a diner with a sizzle audible from some distance away, and smoke filled the air. Another glance at my menu revealed that this was the “Sizzling Crispy Duck Fajita”, and so my decision was made.

“Good choice, kiddo” said Sam, necking a hefty swig of his Sam Adams. I looked at my Budweiser, one of the only draft beers on offer, and took a sip. It tasted of Budweiser. I made a mental note that more of it might be required.

At this point you are no doubt expecting me to detest every single thing that followed, so allow me to confound both of us by telling you that the first of our two appetisers wasn’t bad. The sesame chicken strips were a hit with both Sam and I: a reasonably generous helping of chicken with a little crunch, some heat from the chilli flakes and some sweetness from that Legendary (I can’t stop capitalising it, because that way it’s more obviously their word and not mine) glaze. The extra dish of dipping sauce, which I think was also glaze, was more than anybody needed, and a mere taste of it confirmed that it was Dignitas for tooth enamel. None the less, I liked this dish: the fried chicken at Soju it wasn’t, but we still polished it off in a state of mild surprise.

The other starter, loaded potato skins, had to be done; I suspect that it’s been on the TGI menu since time immemorial, a 90s time capsule in gastronomic form. The menu said they were “potato skins filled with melted cheese”, and the last time I saw a fib of that magnitude it was on the side of a bus: the skin wasn’t crunchy and moreish and barely featured in the dish. Nor did the melted cheese. Some of the skins had very little: “filled” wasn’t the right description, and “meanly sprinkled” would have been closer to the mark. The predominant feature of the dish was in fact the flesh of the potato, which means they were less potato skins and more just chunks of potato. We’d chosen to have them with bacon, but it was more like highlighter-pink indeterminate mince than lovely, crispy, salty bacon. The whole affair contained more flesh and gammon than the average Question Time audience, and was about as appetising. The sour cream gloop in the middle did nothing to improve matters, and nor did the token spring onions.

“Well, it’s not terrible so far” I said, trying to put a brave face on things as we sat there for what felt like quite some time waiting for them to take our empty dishes away. Terrible was not far away, because split seconds after they were whipped off the table in a monosyllabic fashion our main courses arrived. My duck was set down in front of me completely devoid of any sizzle, smoke or steam, a moment even more lacking in theatre than the renditions of “Happy Birthday” at the other tables (two and counting).

“I’m really sorry” I said, because I felt one of us ought to apologise for what I was looking at, “but this isn’t sizzling.”

“Oh, it definitely is” said the waitress, trying to style it out. There was a pause while I tried to make up my mind whether it was worth explaining what the word sizzling really meant. It probably only lasted ten seconds but in my mind it felt like easily five minutes of awkward silence. It was eventually broken by the waitress.

“I mean, if you touch it you’ll find it’s really hot.”

I looked at Sam, Sam looked at me. Our expressions mirrored one another, and we sat in silence while the waitress brought the rest of our food and left us to it.

“What was that about?” said Sam. “That was like hearing Trump talk about the crowds at his inauguration.”

It was true: there was something post-truth about what had just happened. With hindsight, I actually think that it might have been for the best that my duck arrived without any smoke and mirrors, because it made it easier to get right to the heart of the matter, namely that it was truly awful. It was sinewy, and a struggle to get much meat off the bone apart from the breast, which had a weird, cotton-woolly texture. It was topped with a bizarre salsa which looked a little like finely diced vomit (and, I suspect, more of the Legendary Glaze) and sat on a bed of onions which had no hint of caramelisation, on account of never having sizzled.

This was a dish that really didn’t know whether it was Tex-Mex or Chinese, so decided to fail dismally at both. There were tortillas which were thick and more like cardboard than the thin pancakes which might have worked, and shredded cucumber and spring onion to make the cognitive dissonance even worse. Finally, there was more of the gloopy Legendary Glaze, although this time it had an odd lumpy texture like frogspawn, or a very loose stool. It was sweet to the point of offensiveness, and after I’d assembled a couple of fajitas my fingers were so sticky I wasn’t sure they’d ever be clean again. It could have been worse if I hadn’t had a spoon to dish up the glaze, although admittedly I’d had to ask nicely for one of those (how exactly did they imagine I was going to do it?). By the end I was reduced to scraping all the crud off the duck, eating it on its own with a knife and fork and realising that even that couldn’t rescue matters.

This dish cost seventeen pounds fifty. I thought of all the times I’d had delicious confit duck at Cote, a couple of doors down, for considerably less money. Then I thought of what else seventeen pounds fifty could buy you in this town and I started to feel quite angry, although it could have just been a sugar rush from the Legendary Glaze.

“This is the worst crispy duck fajita I’ve ever had.” I said. “Of course, it’s also the best and, if I have my way, it will be the only crispy duck fajita I ever have. Also, this really isn’t a restaurant for diabetics.”

Sam’s Warrior Burger was no better. It managed to simultaneously be overcooked and lukewarm, which takes some doing but really shouldn’t be considered an achievement. The patties were a tad grey and nothing about the dish looked appetising.

“It’s been cooked with one purpose and one purpose alone” said Sam, “and that’s to eradicate the risk of anybody getting food poisoning.” It didn’t feel like an ambitious mission statement.

“Not a fan then?”

“No. All these whistles and bells like the mozzarella dippers are just there to draw attention away from the poor quality meat.”

“So how much of this do you reckon was previously frozen?” I asked, reckoning that Sam knew a bit about that kind of thing.

“Most of it. Probably the burgers, definitely the mozzarella sticks and probably the bread too. The fries are okay, I suppose, and that dip” – Sam gestured at little dish of what looked like mustard – “isn’t bad. But really, it isn’t good at all.”

The Warrior Burger costs over fifteen pounds. “Maybe lots of people eating here have vouchers” said Sam. Either that or a lobotomy, I thought to myself.

Unable to finish my meal, and eventually bored of the staff’s complete unwillingness to take our empty plates away, I wandered upstairs to wash my hands obsessively like Lady Macbeth until no trace of the glaze remained. The upstairs, almost as big as the downstairs, was completely empty (“there was no upstairs when it was Tampopo” said Sam, sagely, “so god knows where the staff get to change or relax or keep their stuff now”).

Coming out of the bathroom, I discovered a voicemail on my phone from TGI Fridays asking why I hadn’t shown up for my table and whether I planned to. “We’re very busy and we can definitely give the table to somebody else” said the voice huffily. I looked at the deserted tables around me and I wondered whether I’d wandered into some kind of dream sequence. Maybe I hadn’t actually gone to TGI Friday and none of this had ever happened, I thought. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to scrap the review and take Sam to eat somewhere better, like literally anywhere.

Back at our seats our crockery and cutlery was still in front of us. I told Sam about my voicemail.

“That sums this place up” he said. “It’s all so half-arsed. I mean, did you notice the state of the tables and chairs out front on the Riverside when we walked in? If this was my restaurant and the front looked like that, I’d sack myself.”

The waiter took our plates away and asked if we fancied dessert. It was tempting to see if there was anything more sugary than the food I had already had, but morbid curiosity is no justification for throwing good money after bad.

“No thanks mate” said Sam. “I think we’ll just finish our drinks and get round to asking for the bill.”

The waiter wandered off, got the bill and slammed it wordlessly on the table in front of us almost immediately. Finally we had something in common: he was as keen for me to leave the restaurant as I was. But there was one final quirk to the service when the waiter discovered that we planned to pay by card. He came over with the card machine, entered the amount and then wandered off, leaving us to stick our card in and enter the PIN. This struck me as a novel approach and different from literally every waiter and waitress I have ever encountered. Dinner for two came to sixty-seven pounds, not including tip, and it was only Sam’s generosity and good humour that meant that we tipped at all. Personally I would have just paid, departed and then left them a voicemail explaining that I wasn’t going to tip them, but with hindsight I’m glad Sam prevailed.

“The thing is though” said Sam, “the service really was poor. I know some of this is the kitchen’s fault, and some’s the menu’s fault, but the waitress should never have brought a sizzling duck dish that wasn’t sizzling.” And he was right, because even if the food had been middling and indifferent (I should have been so lucky) the service could still have improved matters considerably. It was a meal with no care factor evident anywhere.

There was time for one last sting in the tail, because as we were finishing our drinks Sam examined his pint glass. There – close to the bottom, on the inside – was a grim-looking black smudge of goodness knows what.

“What’s that?” said Sam in horror. We examined it, neither of us wanting to touch it.

“I have no idea, but when the pint was first poured it was probably even bigger. Most of it has probably, err, dissolved.” I realised immediately after I said it that this wasn’t helpful.

“Oh well, I could do with losing some weight. This just wasn’t how I planned to do it.”

Afterwards, commiserating in the pub, I told Sam that I thought that TGI Friday was like the WH Smith of restaurants: I couldn’t understand why it still existed, because you could get everything it did better somewhere else. If you want cocktails you should go to Milk and if you want burgers, you should go to Honest. If you want ribs, you should go to Bluegrass and if you want fajitas you should go to Mission. If you want crispy duck fajitas, you should see your doctor.

But it’s worse than that, because not only do other places do this food better but, without exception, they are cheaper. I could cope with expensive and mediocre, and I could just about cope with cheap and bad, but the combination of costly and diabolical leaves me baffled. Who eats at TGI Fridays these days? And one other thing: this isn’t about snobbishness, it’s about standards. Earlier in the year I went to the Beefeater on the Bath Road, with my family. It wasn’t my choice, and in the run-up I did make a few unworthy jokes about the evening that lay ahead. But actually, the service was lovely, the food was okay and the steak itself was rather nice. I went away feeling a little ashamed of myself, but at TGI Friday I just went away feeling dirty and exploited (and not in a good way, either).

So there you have it, my final review of 2018 is easily the worst meal I’ve had all year and one of the very worst meals I’ve had in over five years of writing this blog. Thank you for reliving it with me (don’t have nightmares) and I only have one last thing to say. It’s this: good to never have to go to TGI Fridays ever again. Important to avoid it for the rest of my days. Thanks a bunch, Matt Rodda.

TGI Fridays – 3.6
Unit 8, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0344 2646052

https://www.tgifridays.co.uk/locations/get/Reading%20Oracle#/