Pub review: The Dairy

Three months ago I wrote about the quiet revolution taking place at Reading University’s bars. Park House, always one of Reading’s best kept secrets for an al fresco drink, underwent a surprising but convincing transformation this year: out went the cheesy chips and in came a menu that made all the right noises – listing suppliers, talking about provenance and using both local producers and the university’s own beef. 

I went, I tried it and I was pleasantly surprised – so much so, in fact, that when I put together my updated list of Reading’s best spots to eat outdoors Park House bagged a place. Some people missed the cheesy chips, apparently. But there’s no accounting for taste: some people are going to miss Boris Johnson. 

But could lightning strike twice? That was the question Zoë and I asked ourselves after I met her from work and we ambled to the Dairy on a golden midsummer evening. We strolled past the Turks Head (you can tell it’s glorious weather when even sitting outside the Turks looks tempting), past the sedate, leafy thoroughfare of Kendrick Road, and I thought to myself that it was moments like these I should be storing up in my head, so I could turn them over in my mind when the clocks went back and the feeling of sun on my skin was a distant memory.

The Dairy also revamped its menu in 2022 and makes the same claims as Park House when it comes to where they get their ingredients from. Bread from Waring’s, eggs from Beechwood Farm, all the right noises, all that jazz. But I was particularly keen to see if the Dairy had raised its game because, to be honest, it could easily have done so just by buying in some ready meals from M&S. 

Or, for that matter, Asda. My previous visit to the Dairy on duty, back at the start of 2019, had been a grim experience with lukewarm, chewy curry and a chicken burger which, underneath its modish charcoal bun, was as wan and tasteless as Jacob Rees Mogg. So, did lightning strike twice or was it more a case of fool me twice, shame on me? I can honestly say I approached the Dairy with no real hunch as to how this one would play out. 

On another day I would have sat indoors – the Dairy has a lovely room off from the main bar – but as it was so sunny we plonked ourselves outside. I’d hesitate to call it a beer garden, but out the back of the Dairy it has plenty of tables which catch the sun nicely. They’re big tables, with deep benches which can even accommodate a rear as sizeable as mine, so they’re more suited for bigger groups than a tête-à-tête, but we weren’t going to let that stop us.

The Dairy’s dinner menu is relatively compact and in three main sections – stuff from the grill, burgers and hot dogs. But the main thing that jumps about it, from a casual reading, is how cheap it is. The dishes from the grill are about six quid, burgers are nine pounds and hot dogs are seven. Rather confusingly the cheapest dishes come with a couple of sides and a sauce, the more expensive ones with a single side. If there’s logic there I don’t see it, although most of the sides only cost a couple of pounds anyway. I don’t see how it can’t be subsidised, and I’m not sure how they make money on it, but you would struggle to rack up a bill here. 

It’s only later, when I was back home and leafing through the Dairy’s Instagram feed, that I realised this menu has been slimmed down from their launch menu at the start of the year. It’s especially a shame because it’s almost like someone looked through the launch menu, marker pen in hand, and struck a big black line through anything that looked particularly fun: so farewell to the jerk plantain and halloumi skewers, the beef burger topped with smoked pork belly and blue cheese, the brined fried chicken with pickled watermelon and the fish dog with crispy fried goujons, tartare sauce and chilli crushed peas. 

See what I mean? What was left was the menu equivalent of the Golgafrincham B Ark, and I’m hoping at least a few of you will get that reference. But none the less even if dinner turned out to be a mistake it at least wouldn’t be a costly one. And besides, the Dairy still has an amazing range of local beer with options from Wild Weather (the excellent King Street Pale), Siren, Phantom and Academia lager from Double-Barrelled, which is brewed exclusively for the university.

I went up and ordered our food, along with a half of cider for me and a half of Take Nothing For Granted, a Siren collab with Brew By Numbers, for Zoë (she loved it, by the way – if you see it, try it). The whole shebang came to just shy of twenty-two pounds, which is crazy money for dinner and a drink. I did feel though that the chap behind the bar didn’t understand the menu all that well and it was a bit of a struggle to explain what sides we wanted with what dish. 

“Don’t I get to pick a sauce to go with mine as well?” I asked. 

“It comes with barbecue sauce” he said. 

“Should I take cutlery or do you bring it out?” 

“Either is fine.” 

I didn’t have unwavering confidence that what we’d ordered was what would turn up – and it wasn’t, entirely, including that barbecue sauce which was nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. I’d gone for grilled, smoked chicken thigh which comes with a couple of sides – and because I’d had a big lunch that day I decided to eschew the carbs, picking chipotle slaw and Boston beans with bacon to go with it. Now, the first thing I should say is that they brought me chicken breast by mistake, as you can probably tell from the photo underneath this paragraph. But the second is that I promise it wasn’t quite as boring as that photo makes it look.

I mean, I was hoping that it would come with the skin on, all crispy from the grill. While we’re at it, I was hoping that it would taste or feel like it had been grilled at all, which this didn’t really. I was also hoping it would taste as if it had been smoked (over hickory wood chips, according to the menu), and this was resolutely a smoke-free zone. Instead it was a slightly pale, largely naked chicken breast speckled with a few sesame seeds. And yet despite all that it wasn’t unpleasant; if you came at it with low expectations, which I sort of did, you’d probably quite enjoy it, especially at the low price of just over six quid. It really could have done with some barbecue sauce, mind you.

The Boston beans made up for that, and were one of the high points – a mixture of beans, chickpeas and peppers in a sweetly tangy sauce with big slabs of bacon thrown in for good measure. If you eat at the Dairy after reading this review (and you might) these are well worth tacking on to whatever you order. They do a bacon-free version too, and actually though the bacon was nice enough it would have largely been the same dish without it. The chipotle slaw, on the other hand, was not good. I don’t really mind whether coleslaw comes in mayo or vinaigrette, and a chipotle mayo would have been lovely: but raw shredded veg with neither, just shrouded in acrid dust, doesn’t do it for me. If I’d known it would be like that, I’d have risked the fries.

Zoë had gone for the brie and bacon burger, and visually it looked decent – a tall stovepipe of a thing with a thick wodge of fridge-cold brie sandwiched between two patties, the whole shebang resting on a sturdy slice of tomato which Zoë fished out in short order. 

“They don’t tell you it’s going to be two burgers, the menu doesn’t really tell you a lot” she said, with a hint of suspicion, probably because she was mulling over the risk that they’d also smuggled in some unwanted gherkins. “I know what you’ll say about this – you’ll say that the slice of brie is too thick and it hasn’t melted.”

“Not at all – nobody ever complains that a burger has too much cheese on it. What’s it like?”

“It’s not bad. It’s not an Honest or a Smash N Grab, but it’s okay for nine pounds. The texture’s a little strange though, a bit dry and crumbly.”

Again, it wasn’t until later when I was looking through the Dairy’s Instagram that I saw their writeup for this dish. In it, they say this burger is “made with local beef and part mushrooms” and “more sustainable than any burger you will try” – but what did that mean? Was it cut (or, rather, diluted) with mushrooms? It would explain the slightly spongey texture but again, why did the menu omit this detail? Was this about sustainability, or cutting corners? A nine pound burger is all very well, but most people would pay more to have the real deal. It was all very odd. Even the bun looked like a bog standard bap rather than the promised brioche: maybe they’d run out.

Zoë had cannily picked the most expensive side, the smoked macaroni cheese (four pounds on its own, fact fans). And again, it was quite pleasant with a good golden crust. But smoked it wasn’t. Better, I thought, was a nibble of macaroni bites – four hefty breadcrumbed spheres of macaroni cheese which were deeply enjoyable and provided the spritz of fun my dinner badly needed, given the naked chicken and dusty coleslaw (and these, by the way, did come with some barbecue sauce). Not in the same league as the same dish at Bracknell’s Blue’s Smokehouse but, crucially, bigger and a darned sight cheaper. Next time I’m drinking at the Dairy I might order some in preference to a packet of Piper’s.

All this added up to a slightly underwhelming meal, a mixture of inconsistency, inaccuracy, basic errors and wasted opportunities. And it was a completely different experience to eating at Park House in the spring: by contrast it felt like like the Dairy had got the hang of writing a menu that read well, even if the most attractive dishes had gone missing in action, but that they perhaps hadn’t realised that the dishes then had to live up to the promise of the words. 

Very few of them did, but I do have to say in the Dairy’s defence that if something seems to good to be true it almost always is. The Dairy is one of the most aggressively priced restaurants I can think of in Reading, and if you aren’t sure how they’re making their money something has to be going on. Whether that’s adding mushrooms to your burger mix, or making coleslaw without mayo, something is always going to give. 

And if the mark at the bottom of the page isn’t quite as low as you’d expect it to be, that’s precisely because the Dairy is a cheap and cheerful option and I’m partly judging it on that basis. It could arguably be more cheerful, but it couldn’t be much cheaper. And as Zoë said at the time, whatever you thought of the food it did at least feel like a Brakes lorry hadn’t played any role in proceedings.

Never the less, I’m sure I will drink at the Dairy again before the summer’s out, and even if this meal wasn’t stellar I thank my lucky stars that it was nowhere near as harrowing as the one I had at the Dairy back in 2019. But next time I might grab dinner at Kungfu Kitchen first, before meandering down the hill for what remains an excellent selection of local beers in what’s left of the sunshine. In that respect at least, the Dairy is still hard to beat.

The Dairy – 6.7
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/the-dairy/

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The Dairy

Click here for a more recent review of The Dairy from July 2022.

It was love at first sight when I first laid eyes on The Dairy. I’d been paying a visit to the MERL on 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/