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/

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Thames Lido

Here’s something that happens quite a lot: I have friends who read the blog and some have been known to put in a request to accompany me on particular reviews. “Anyone coming with you to Taberu?” one will say, or “Next time I visit you for lunch, shall we go to Comptoir Libanais? You could write it up for your blog.”

Not that I mind: it’s nice that people take an interest, and better to be spoiled for choice with dining companions than to have to ask nicely or, worse still, beg. But some reviewing opportunities are more prized than others, and none more so than Thames Lido. It opened last year, after years of money-no-object, it-takes-as-long-as-it-takes restoration work, extensively catalogued online in a series of beautiful pictures (whatever else you might think of Thames Lido, they get social media right in a way which puts other Reading restaurants to shame).

In the run-up, there were glossy pictures and features in the broadsheets, and after it opened it received a blandly positive review in the Guardian (which described it as “just off the Reading ring road” – thanks for that). This is no surprise – the original Lido in Clifton is well-established and well-reviewed and has impeccable connections – but the overall effect is that Thames Lido is probably Reading’s first ever destination restaurant. Just don’t tell anybody it’s in Reading, is the implication, in case it puts them off.

So who to take? The decision was made for me when Kat told me, in no uncertain terms, that she was accompanying me. I said yes, because I owe Kat a favour, but she was – on paper at least – an unlikely candidate. Kat has an interesting diet which involves eating sweet and sour chicken balls in the bath, and she’s partial to a battered sausage or a Tesco all day breakfast sandwich.

“Are you sure the Lido is for you?”

“Don’t be silly, I’ve eaten at hoity-toity places before.”

The way this was said reminded me of Rizzo The Rat from Muppet Christmas Carol. Oh well, I had my angle: the irresistible force meets the immovable object, Reading’s destination restaurant meets one of Reading’s most unreconstructed diners. What could possibly go wrong?

My misgivings were exacerbated in the run-up to the visit when Kat sent me a message.

“I’ll also be packing a Gregg’s sausage roll, in case the portions are too puny” she said. “I won’t whack it out on the table or anything, don’t worry. Although, practically speaking, a Ginsters chicken and mushroom slice is more appropriate. A sausage roll doesn’t have the necessary structural integrity.”

What have I let myself in for? I thought to myself as I approached the restaurant with Kat, emergency pasty presumably stowed away in her handbag for later.

When I say “approached the restaurant” that makes it sound like an easier process than it was, on foot on a gloomy March evening. It’s a little tricky to find an entrance – down the side road without signposts or the main road without pavement? – and one of the entrances takes you in to the restaurant while the other one, the main one I suppose, takes you in to the Lido proper. Even picking the right entrance, it was a bit confusing finding our way to the restaurant (and that flair for signposting, or lack thereof, extends to the bit partway through the meal where you try to find the loo). A minor thing, I know, which only applies the first time you go, but first impressions and all that.

The restaurant itself was – as so often – a long thin room, a shape that’s mandated by its position running alongside the pool. The view was spectacular, with steam rising from the heated pool, the fetchingly retro changing booths beyond. The occasional intrepid swimmer bobbed past and, like no doubt everybody who has visited Thames Lido, I was very impressed by the quality of the restoration. It carried through into the furniture – sturdy, handsome tables, generous and roomy for two people, and the kind of chairs you could imagine settling into. It’s a high-ceilinged, airy space and thought had even been put into that, with fabric panels hanging from the ceiling to absorb noise.

If you get a table alongside the pool, that’s great. The other tables – like the one we were given – feel far less special and force one of you to forego the view and stare at the bare brick walls. We asked to move as a poolside table came available and they moved us without complaint. The menus didn’t come with us and it took a fair amount of flagging down staff before they reappeared at our table.

We started by hitting the gin menu, which is divided up on the good/better/best principle with some at £7, some at £9 and some at £11.50. Yes, you read all those right, and tonic is extra. Only two tonics are available, so you get Schweppes for £1.50 or Fever Tree for £2. That makes most of the gins more expensive than the Lido’s cocktails, and some of the gins are also very oddly priced. I was surprised, for example, to see Gin Mare, readily available in supermarkets and pubs like the Fisherman’s Cottage, on sale for £11.50. Each of the gins had modish tasting notes made up of three adjectives, although how Gordon’s tastes of “historic” is anybody’s guess.

Do I sound cross? It’s probably because I was, a little. I’ve been to lots of establishments with gin lists, from pubs to Michelin starred places, and they all make great effort to pair the gins with different mixers, different garnishes, serve them in big balloons so you can almost breathe in the botanicals. Not so at the Lido, where both gins turned up in a highball with ice and lime, nothing more. The Jinzu with Fever Tree (total cost thirteen pounds fifty) was pleasant, light, sweet and floral, but the main thing I thought with each mouthful was just how expensive it was. “Hotel prices”, murmured Kat disapprovingly. The Psychopomp Woden with Schweppes was punchier, a brutal mixture of fennel and grapefruit, and a relative snip at ten pounds fifty. You only got 125ml of Schweppes as opposed to 200ml of Fever Tree, another thing the menu neglected to mention.

The gin took a while to arrive, so we grazed on the complementary bread with olive oil. Again, I had heard great things but this was tough going – nicely seasoned but dense and heavy with no light, crispy crust, more murder weapon than appetite whetter. “I was here for the set lunch earlier in the week and the bread was so much nicer” said Kat. “It was warm, soft inside and the crust was brilliant.” I couldn’t help wondering if this was the same loaf, a few days later.

The menu managed that rare feat of being interesting and nice to look at without having anything on it that you absolutely had to order. I was expecting some kind of plea bargaining with Kat (and if they’d still had the slow cooked ox cheek in Pedro Ximenez on the menu that might have happened) but as it was, neither of us had a first choice to go into battle for. We eventually placed our orders with the waiter, a rather disengaged man who spent much of his time serving us looking around, as if hoping to speak to someone more interesting (“he’s like a really rude date” was Kat’s observation).

I was in the mood for a leisurely evening, but even so I was pleased when the starters made their way to our table. They represented the high water mark of the meal. Kat’s wood roasted asparagus with almond sauce and cecina looked like the kind of dish to provoke full-on food envy: a generous sheaf of asparagus, thinnish spears, with the almond sauce and what looked like jamon, and a hoard of toasted almonds, little grenades of flavour, hidden underneath. I assume the asparagus was very early season – although it was odd that the menu didn’t mention this – and it was terrific stuff. Kat waxed lyrical about the almond sauce, saying it was salty but with a sweet edge, in a manner which suggested I might have misjudged her after all. If I was being pedantic, I’d say that cecina is normally beef rather than ham, but that hardly detracted from how delicious the dish was.

Burrata, if not as good, was still thoroughly enjoyable. Serving it with heaps of broad beans and peas, if anything, made it even cleaner and fresher, a little reminder that spring was just round the corner, even if it didn’t quite feel like it yet. A slightly funkier note was introduced with the liberal dusting of dukkah, which added spice and edge and saved the whole lot from being just a little too nice. I didn’t get the promised yuzu, but it didn’t feel like the end of the world.

Our wine arrived almost immediately after I uttered the words “do you know what, I’d really like my wine now” to Kat. The gins were nearly finished (well, you want to take your time on something that expensive), the starters had long since been dispatched and the main courses were about to turn up. It felt truly odd that the wine hadn’t materialised by that point. The waitress who brought them – and served us from that point forward – was considerably more likeable, chatty, knowledgeable and clued up than the chap we’d been talking to before, a clear reminder of the difference between being served and being looked after. We’d gone for a Jeune Musar, a pretty entry level Lebanese red at £33 (although still about a three times markup from retail price) – I liked it, it was nicely balanced and although it started out a little tannic it opened out nicely given a little time. A shame it wasn’t given more time, really.

I’d gone for the lamb leg (Pyrenean, no less) and was generally pleased with my choice. The lamb was cooked beautifully – I could have stood it a little pinker, but it was close enough – with a lovely layer of fat and a beautiful salty char on the outside. The beans, some of which I think were pureed or mashed, added a nice earthiness. The salsa verde was packed with parsley and mint and absolutely made the meal; I could have eaten it with pretty much anything. Only the rainbow chard – pretty but tough going – misfired, it felt like it had been added for betterment rather than enjoyment.

Kat, on the other hand, picked the dud: hake, with mussels, celeriac and saffron broth. The fish was a nice piece but it was underseasoned, with only half the skin crispy. “It’s all a bit bland except the broth”, she said “and that just gets saltier the more you have of it”. I had a taste and couldn’t disagree. Weirder still was the marriage of chickpeas – which you’d absolutely expect in this kind of dish – and lashings of dill, which you just wouldn’t. Dill is a distinctive enough taste that you’d expect it to be mentioned in the menu, but no joy. Kat left some, and Kat – as you can probably tell from the emergency pasty – is not someone to leave food.

The side dish I really fancied – cauliflower with lemon and zata’ar – was sold out so we went for the crispy fried potatoes with rosemary and garlic. The taste was good, but the texture felt neither crispy nor fried. It was almost like someone had just lobbed them in a baking tray for half an hour, and there was certainly no evidence that they’d ever seen hot fat. I couldn’t help thinking how much better Honest’s rosemary fries were. I couldn’t even be sure these were significantly better than Café Yolk’s fried potatoes, and they came out of a packet. Again, we didn’t finish them. “If they’d actually been crispy you’d have had to fight me for them” said Kat.

The reputation of the Lido’s ice creams precedes it – they make up most of the dessert menu, after all – so it felt almost compulsory to order some to round off the meal. It’s six pounds for two scoops, and although many of the flavours were tempting Kat and I fancied the same ones so we decided to just go for it (with hindsight, the tasting flight to share would only have cost a little more and would have made a better option). They came in beautiful little bowls, and bringing each flavour in a separate bowl was a lovely little touch, because this is an area where you really don’t want to cross the streams.

Of the two, the chocolate and beer ice cream was by far the best, a clever thing where the chocolate hit you first and then the malty darkness of the Estrella “Black Coupage” snuck in at the end. The salted butter caramel I found less impressive – it seemed to lack much in the way of salt. Kat liked the caramel shards, I found them a tad unnecessary. Overall I quite liked the ice cream although I wasn’t entirely sure whether I six pounds liked it. The texture, although free of crystals, was gritty rather than smooth and maybe not quite special enough.

“It’s okay” said Kat, “but, like everything else, it feels about a couple of pounds too expensive. Also, and I know this sounds silly, my ice cream is too cold.”

“I know the way to fix that. You just wait.”

The glass of dessert wine we had with it – a Banyuls, like a slightly sweeter take on port – was terrific. Lovely, if a little pricey, and consequently both an excellent and fitting way to bring the meal to a close. Dinner for two, including an optional ten per cent service charge, came to one hundred and sixty-six pounds. It’s possible to eat for less, but even if you skipped the gin and the dessert wine it would still have clocked in at over a hundred pounds.

This has been a tricky review to write, and it’s a particularly difficult review to conclude. It can’t be denied that the Lido is a fantastic restoration project. What they’ve done with the building is amazing, it looks beautiful and it does make you feel a little prouder of Reading just to see it. And I can easily see that it’s an expensive labour of love, and those costs need to be recovered somehow – whether that’s through swimming, or massages, or packages, or through the restaurant.

I’m also aware that practically everything I’ve read about the Lido has been glowing praise, so I stick my head above the parapet with no great enthusiasm to say that, good though it is in places, it’s not quite good enough. The building has a wow factor the food can’t live up to, and everything feels just a little bit too expensive. The service didn’t match the surroundings either. Maybe it would have been different on a night where the dream team of Matt Siadatan (previously of Mya Lacarte) and James Alcock (from London Street Brasserie) were on duty, but as it was everything felt patchy. The restaurant was far from packed, but from the wayward service you’d think they were run ragged.

I might consider going again for the set lunch, and I can see that jumping off the train on a summer afternoon and having tapas at the poolside bar could be hugely enjoyable, but as a standalone restaurant it didn’t leave me in any hurry to return. “It’s a real pity, isn’t it?” said Kat. “I was hoping to find THE place in Reading, and I really thought the Lido could be that, but it isn’t.” Let’s not leave the last word to Kat though, let’s leave it to Kat’s pasty. I have it on good authority that she consumed it for a late breakfast at around half-ten the next morning. As a review of the Lido it’s a lot more succinct than what you’ve just read, but it’s as good a summary of the verdict as the number at the bottom.

Thames Lido – 6.9
Napier Road, RG1 8FR
0118 2070640

http://www.thameslido.com/