Back in November I launched the inaugural Explore Reading Food & Drink Awards to celebrate the excellence I’ve encountered in our town’s restaurant and bar scene over the past year. I originally founded Explore Reading because I was fed up with people telling me ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, and with these awards I’m hoping to de-bunk the still persistent phrase, ‘yet another chain restaurant’.
Sure, Reading has our share of national chains, but we also have so much more than that. Step slightly away from our main shopping areas and you’ll discover vibrant, small, independent, international, creative and passionate businesses all doing their bit to make Reading a more exciting place to grab a drink, eat out and spend your spare time.
Reading’s food and drink scene is growing, creative, and worth celebrating, and much of it is happening away from the centre. In 2018, we saw the arrival of new international and regional cuisines. The oft-maligned Oxford Road became a dining destination thanks to new venues like Oishi and Tuscany Pizzeria and Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen joined Bakery House to give us another reason to head south on London Street. Vegan dining took off and big names from London, like Honest Burgers, and Bristol, like The Lido, brought their expertise to town – a sure sign we’ve got a food community worth jumping into.
Our speciality coffee and craft beer crowds continued to boom, there was an explosion in our street food scene and our pubs were recognised on a national scale, with the Nag’s Head making the CAMRA UK Good Beer Guide. We also saw the loss of some much loved pop up food partnerships with pubs and cafes – a reminder that if we want to keep our exciting food options, we need to get out there and use them.
So, to help you do just that, our team of six expert judges who know the best of Reading’s food and drink scene have been deliberating over our six categories: Restaurant of the Year, Best New Restaurant, Best Cafe, Best Cheap Eat, Best Pub and Best Bar.
Each judge rated the shortlist of five nominees in each category and the results have brought us five very clear winners and five runners up. See the nominee shortlist.
Meanwhile, our People’s Choice Award was chosen by you, with hundreds of readers flocking to vote for their favourite restaurant in town.
Now, the results are in, and I’m very excited to share the best restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars in Reading. Pay them a visit, or a return visit and you’ll never have a bad meal or drink in town again. Read on to discover all the winners for the very best of Reading’s food & drink scene in 2018.
The winners by category
Restaurant of the Year
The best restaurant in town. Exceptional food, service and atmosphere, this has it all.
I first went to Pepe Sale for a family meal nearly twenty years ago. I last visited this November for a lovely lunchtime catch up with a friend and was delighted to realise that it’s barely changed in the years in between.
At a time when restaurants open and shut every couple of years, this family-run Sardinian restaurant has bucked the trend to become a veteran of the Reading restaurant scene. Its success is thanks to consistently charming service, an old-school but comfortable dining room and food quality that has never dipped over the years. Just as it has always been, the menu is full of sumptuous filled pasta, roast suckling pig, salt-baked sea bass, and an excellent selection of Sardinian wines.
Despite its hidden location, in the concrete grey block at the back of the Hexagon, Pepe Sale is a firm favourite with our judges. It’s a restaurant where you feel welcome, at home and where you can’t wait to return.
Pepe Sale, 3 Queens Walk, Reading, RG1 7QF, www.pepesale.co.uk.
The judges say…
“For twenty years Pepe Sale has been serving up terrific, unfussy Sardinian food, totally oblivious to food fads and trends, at one of Reading’s least fashionable addresses. The service is brilliant, the wine list is superb, the specials are always worth investigating and at weekends, the suckling pig is truly hard to beat.”
Edible Reading, Restaurant reviewer
Home to the best burgers in town, excellent service, a bustling atmosphere and a seriously impressive makeover on a long-forgotten Reading building. With nearly 30 branches in London, Honest are a chain now, but it doesn’t feel like one here thanks to a focus on quality of meat, local suppliers and dedicated products you can only order in the Reading branch.
Honest Burgers, 1-4 King Street, Reading, RG1 2HB. Read more.
Best New Restaurant
2018’s most exciting new opening. Innovative, excellent and welcome to stay.
Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen
Photography: David John New
Earlier this year, I named Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen 2018’s most intriguing restaurant opening. Today, the regional Indian restaurant has only been open for six months, but it’s already difficult to imagine Reading’s food scene without it.
I first heard about Clay’s when they emailed me back in March 2018 to announce they were planning to open a Reading restaurant and wanted to share the news. Instantly, I knew this was a going to be a restaurant unlike anything we’d see in Reading before. The couple behind Clay’s were endearingly passionate about their regional cuisine, wanting to share the real food that they ate back home and not wanting to compromise on quality to do it.
And that’s just what they’ve provided at their excellent London Street restaurant, which got a near clean sweep of top marks from our judges. Clay’s offers a unique menu of innovative regional Hyderabadi dishes, unlike anything you’ll have eaten at any Indian restaurant before. The menu has been designed with care and attention, using creative techniques, traditional recipes and top quality ingredients. They’ve also embraced independent suppliers – meat comes from Jennings of Caversham and they have their own collaboration IPA with West Berkshire Brewery. This is Indian dining, but not as you know it.
Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, 45 London St, Reading RG1 4PS, Read more.
The judges say…
“They’ve brought something genuinely unique to our town – really inventive dishes that have been a great addition to our independent scene.”
Glen Dinning, Director, Blue Collar Street Food
The only truly homey independent Japanese restaurant in Reading, and part of the vanguard of an Oxford Road food revolution. There is high grade sushi, deconstructed katsu curries, sizeable bento boxes and fried dumplings, all in a minimalist space served up with cheer by a family of owners. A welcome addition to Reading.
314 Oxford Rd, RG30 1AD. read more.
Top notch coffee, tasty food and a cosy place to catch up with a friend, or a good book.
Of all our Best Cafe nominees, Shed was one of the few where speciality coffee isn’t the focus. Which shows that for most of us, cafes are about more than coffee. Of course, the coffee here, and the delightful pots of tea, are good quality too, but at Shed, lunch time is the star of the show.
Shed is home to the best sandwiches in town and it’s my personal go-to lunch spot (a lot of Explore gets written in Shed). Back in our Best of Reading list last Christmas judges sang the praises of their delicious, crispy, messy, packed toasties and it was a repeat performance this year from the Food Award judges.
The cosy, but creaky wooden cafe tucked away in the Old Forge building is a definite hidden gem, and feels like home. Owners Pete Hefferan and Lydia Owen have built a friendly, relaxed cafe where they remember their customers and talk to you like friends. Having lunch at Shed is delicious, fun and cheery and the queues out the door at lunchtime prove it’s Reading’s best cafe.
Shed, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT. Read more.
The judges say…
“Who doesn’t love a hidden gem? Shed has a great range on offer and always makes a quick bite to eat an enjoyable occasion.”
Sarah Hacker, Reading Councillor
Anonymous Coffee Co
Reading’s newest cafe opening, Anonymous is home to some of the best coffee in town. Owner Phil Carter has deliberately chosen really good quality speciality coffee and a simple menu with only one filter and two types of espresso: the ‘comfort’ or the ‘adventure’ choice. Anonymous is a warm, relaxing place to sit for a coffee and a tasty pastry, and part of an exciting business sharing community growing out of Tasting House.
30A Chain St, RG1 2HXm, read more.
Best Cheap Eat
Quick, easy and affordable, without skimping on quality, taste or environment.
Bhel Puri House
Many of our judges mentioned one thing when I spoke about Bhel Puri: the chili paneer. It’s a remarkable dish, and one that captures the essence of our Best Cheap Eat winner on one plate. It’s spicy but not burning, hearty, addictive, a total surprise on the taste buds, full of flavours unlike anywhere else in town, completely vegetarian and a bargain at less than £6.
From the outside, and, if I’m being honest, from the inside too, Bhel Puri House looks pretty unassuming. It’s in the breakfast room for the Mercure Hotel at the Old George, decorated mainly with a few strings of fairy lights, but every day, from lunch time until 8pm, it serves up a brilliant menu of Indian vegetarian street food that can keep you full, satisfied and beaming with delight for less than £10.
And on a sunny day, there is no happier place in Reading for me than eating a plate of chilli paneer and a Bombay toasted sandwich or a portion of vegetable samosas in the courtyard outside Bhel Puri.
Mercure George Hotel, Yield Hall Ln, Reading, RG1 2HF.
The judges say…
“I just love the variety of small dishes to share. You can try something new every time you go and there’s fast, friendly service. The chilli paneer is not to be missed.”
James Moore, Chairman Reading & Mid-Berks CAMRA
When I first ate at Franco Manca in Brixton in 2010 it was still the best undiscovered pizza in London. Now they’ve got around 40 branches across the country, but their chewy, bubbly Neapolitan-style sourdough pizzas are still cooked to exacting standards and are full of flavour.
And they’re a bargain: the most expensive is £8.75, which is (perhaps deliberately) 20p less than the cheapest Margarita at Pizza Express. Its bustling, wood-clad Reading restaurant along the Oracle Riverside has fast become a go to for a quick, cheap meal that won’t let you down.
The Oracle, Bridge St, RG1 2AT, read more.
Reading’s most brilliant boozer: great beer, welcoming locals, friendly landlord, comfy room.
The Nag’s Head
The Nag’s Head was the only one of our nominees, across all the categories, to achieve a perfect score from all of the judges. And it’s no real surprise.
It’s Reading’s best-loved boozer, with a vibrant, bustling pub room and an incredibly mixed crowd. You’ll see everyone from students and old regulars to football fans and the darts team, and there is a reassuring hubbub of cheer most of the time. But the Nag’s real draw is at the bar, where it has the widest and best kept beer selection in town. They stock excellent craft names like Arbor, Tiny Rebel and Verdant, alongside local names like Siren Craft, Binghams and newcomers Double-Barrelled Brewery, and it’s always kept in the best condition.
And if that wasn’t enough, earlier this year it was named one the top 16 pubs in the country, winning CAMRA’s Central Southern pub pick for 2019.
The Nag’s Head, 5 Russell Street, RG1 7XD, read more
The judges say…
“Great atmosphere, varied beer selection and an exceptionally well kept cellar…what more could you want?”
Will Twomey, Head Brewer, West Berkshire Brewery
The Fox & Hounds
The winner of our reader-voted World Cup of Reading Pubs this summer, The Fox, as almost everyone is calling it, has an almost fanatical fan base of Caversham residents who love it for its friendly staff, great craft beer selection and fun crowd of regulars.
It’s a lively, buzzing, cheery place and a great spot to have a quality beer north of the river. It’s also got one of the best beer gardens in town, which becomes a tented, heated wintry cave come the cold months.
51 Gosbrook Road, Caversham, RG4 8BN, read more.
Good drinks, fun crowd, banging music. A bar you won’t want to leave.
Milk is Reading’s most quirky, exciting and fun independent bar. At the top of the stairs at the Old Forge (above Shed) there’s a seriously impressive stash of rum as well as a huge Ladybird book-like menu of individual, well-blended cocktails, including their signature drink, served in a milk bottle.
But it also feels like a big community, home to fun events such as one of Reading’s best comedy nights (a bargain at £5 for three national comedians), excellent, light-heighted disco from DJ Jim B Donovan or ‘80s nights dedicated to Mick Hucknall. Milk doesn’t take itself seriously and that means I always have fun when I go there, along with the best cocktails I’ve had in town.
Milk, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT, read more.
The judges say…
“Great cocktails, fun events, and a consistently good line-up of DJs. Last time I went to Milk, I was still there as staff packed up around me, so it’s definitely a bar I don’t want to leave”
Claire Slobodian, Editor, Explore Reading
The Purple Turtle
The Turtle is a real Reading icon. It’s been the late night dive of choice since the ‘90s and, despite its impressively slick 2014 makeover, it’s still home to that alternative community spirit.
Nights at the Turtle always turn into more fun than you expect, the garden is a place of legend and you can pretty much guarantee you’ll meet new people on a night out there. See you in the queue at 1am.
9 Gun St, Reading RG1 2JR, www.purpleturtlebar.com
The People’s Choice Award
Reading’s favourite restaurant, as voted for by you, the people of Reading.
Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen
In just six months, Clay’s has grown to be not just the Best New Restaurant in town, but also Reading’s favourite, with a dedicated following that voted in their droves for the Hyderabadi Kitchen in our People’s Choice Award.
The husband and wife team behind Clay’s have been working hard at building fans for life with their mix of wonderful food, friendly attitude, personable service and late night chats with regulars.
Their social media presence lets everyone see just how much they love food, support Reading’s independents and how much passion they have for their business. Clay’s are my favourite restaurant in Reading, and clearly they’re yours too.