First there was Handmade Burger Co, serving up forty-odd flavour combinations while blasting greasy aromas out across the IDR. Then came Five Guys, fast, casual Americans slinging foil-wrapped patties from the first floor of The Oracle. And last year, 7 Bone joined the party with their range of ‘dirty, sexy burgers’. Now, Reading welcomes our fourth dedicated patty restaurant in Honest Burgers, who opened on the corner of the Market Place at the end of December.
We may not quite be at London’s levels of burger chains yet (I make theirs at least 11 on a rough count), but with our growing collection you’ve got to wonder, just how is Honest Burgers Reading any different from what we already have?
Well, to put it simply, it’s the beef. The small London chain was started in 2011 in Brixton Market by two recent graduates who wanted to produce a simple burger menu inspired by homegrown British produce. In an interview with Explore Reading back in November 2017, Honest Burgers co-founder Tom Barton told me: “We thought, if we’re going to do burgers we need the best meat and then it’s going to taste delicious.”
The pair now have 25 restaurants but seem to have kept up that early ethos. They still boast they only use prime Scottish beef, they have a slim menu and all their burgers are served medium as standard.
So, one month after the restaurant has settled in, I visit Honest Burgers with a friend, slipping in on a busy Friday night after pay day, to check them out for an independent review.
As in all of Honest’s London restaurants (and let’s be honest, most new restaurants now) there’s a frustrating no reservations policy. So, arriving at 7pm to a packed restaurant, I give my name to a cheery, iPad wielding host who directs us to the equally packed bar area, where a waiter will come and call us in 30 minutes.
After ten minutes of flagging down the rushed bartender, we sample the drinks menu. I opt for a pint of the King Street Pale (£4.75), Reading’s new signature local beer, made especially for the restaurant by Silchester brewers Wild Weather. It’s light and tropical and our pub reviewer recently called it ‘alcoholic Lilt’. My friend settles on a Ruby Fizz cocktail (£6), with vodka and raspberry. It’s tangy, made with fresh fruit juice and pleasingly sour, but I spot it’s pre-mixed and shaken into the glass with ice.
The raised bar turns out to be a good viewpoint to survey the room. It’s a truly impressive space, formed of two very different buildings knocked together: half Victorian, half Brutalist ‘60s-style. With space for upwards of 70 diners, it’s one of Honest’s biggest restaurants; their original Brixton branch is basically a cupboard with chairs.
There are lofty high ceilings with the now-mandatory exposed bricks and pipes. But sophisticated design touches elsewhere make the room warm and inviting, not draughty and cold. A bank-teller-green open kitchen lines the right wall and down the centre sit high top communal dining tables. Oak-effect booths for two and four run the left edge of the room while a hotch-potch collection of sleek and sexy mid-century modern lamps hang overhead.
There’s also a whole wall of full-length windows, bringing in light and opening up the room. It’s notably a much more confident and inviting space that the cramped and fussy Botanist next door.
After a 25-minute wait we’re called to our table, noticing as we sit that it’s surprisingly narrow and tightly packed in next to our neighbours. When we’re seated, the stripped-down menu doesn’t take much navigating. There are four beef options and a rotating special, plus one chicken sandwich, a veggie fritter and a slim list of sides. Mercifully, nothing on the menu is billed as ‘dirty’.
I put those beef claims to the test with The Honest (£10.95), their classic burger. It comes with a sweet red onion relish, smoked bacon and crumbly cheddar, but, pleasingly, the beef is still the star player. The patty is chunky and well-seasoned, with a dribbly pink interior. It’s all held together by a buttery brioche bun. The whole bundle impresses on flavour not overloaded portion sizes.
On my previous visit, I sample the Tribute (£10.95), Honest’s hat tip to USA-style burgers. It comes topped with melty American cheese, bacon, a drippy burger sauce, pickles and French’s mustard. This burger arrives slightly less pink and somehow the bun is dotted with grease. The beef is still far more enjoyable than at other joints, but overall it proves a far sloppier bite.
Unique on the menu for our restaurant is the Reading Burger (£12.95), a collaboration between Honest and some of our finest local suppliers. The patty is topped with Two Hoots Barkham Blue cheese and roasted red pepper chutney from Caversham’s Nomad Bakery, along with a strip of smoked bacon. The Barkham Blue brings a gentle, not overpowering, blue cheese flavour. I get a creamy and slightly nutty taste, offset with sweetness and warmth from the chutney. It’s rich but well-balanced and a worthy tribute to our town.
Every burger here comes served with a hearty portion of rosemary-salted chips. Honest still make their chips by hand in the kitchen, and it shows. They’re crunchy, crispy and thick cut, not limp frozen fries. But sadly, the rosemary flavour just isn’t consistent. Every so often one chip rises to the surface with a potent, herby bite, but the rest lack punch.
We don’t have much room left for extras, but the onion rings (£3.95) are worth squeezing in. They’re nearly an inch tall and as wide as a bracelet, with a light but substantial coating, which reminds me a little of a battered sausage. Inside, the onion is smooth, sweet and holds together without falling apart on first bite. Also good is the bacon gravy (£2). It’s a sizeable enamel vat of salty, smoky, meaty juices and perfect for dipping your burger in, or pouring over your chips.
Our waiter, like all the staff we spot, is young, keen and bounding with energy. He’s helpful and quick to remind us burgers come served pink and to recommend the sides. Elsewhere, service is still a bit hectic. Food arrives fast, dropped off by a rotating cast of servers. We wait at the bar for our initial drink order for just too long and after we ask for our bill, staff vanish almost entirely for at least ten minutes.
But surprisingly, on my visit I never really feel like much of that matters. There’s a buzz and a bustle to dinner. Plates come out at speed. There’s no dessert menu and tables around us don’t linger long after demolishing their burgers.
The atmosphere is vibrant, fun and energetic, causing friends on both my visits to say, unprompted, “It feels a bit like London in here, don’t you think?”. And they’re not entirely wrong. There’s been a growing conversation in the past few years of whether Reading is becoming more like London, what with the arrival of London chains, sky gardens and, soon, the Elizabeth Line.
But Honest Burgers is a particularly exciting Reading opening. Not because it’s bringing London to Reading, but because it’s helping to lift Reading’s identity. They’ve resurrected an iconic building, embraced our local producers and are giving them a larger platform to showcase their wares.
The main difference I notice between Honest and our other burger chains is simplicity and confidence. There aren’t any crazy flavour combos, towering infernos of meat or something you’re going to have to unhook your jaw to eat. Honest serve up quality burgers in an enjoyable, fun dining experience. I leave feeling satisfied, not dirty, and fairly sure I’ve found the best burger in Reading.
Dinner for two with drinks: £45
1-5 King St, RG1 2HB, 0118 359 3216 View website