Be honest with me. Have you ever really enjoyed a kebab while completely sober? It’s probably our nation’s most popular drunk food, and I remember my fair share of post-After Dark doners, but have you ever stood up at one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and thought: “what I really want for my lunch break is a kebab.”? Well, that’s what German Doner Kebab hope will happen with their new Friar Street restaurant, which is open all day, doesn’t sell alcohol and, for the moment, doesn’t do late nights.
That German connection in the name seems pretty tenuous, until I tell you that the kebab as we know it was invented in Berlin. Back in 1972, Turkish street food vendor Kadir Nurman apparently started putting grilled meat inside a flat bread, instead of on a rice platter, to make it easier for all those busy German commuters to eat on the go.
That sparked the rise of the kebab shop in Berlin where this German Doner Kebab chain started in 1989, before franchising its way across Europe, the Middle East and Canada. The Reading branch took over from the former Buzz Gym site (possibly an indicator of our town’s priorities – I, for one, approve) back in March. It announced its intentions on the existing late night kebab shops of Reading with its smack-talking neon sign hung in the window which declares: ‘Kebabs done right’.
To test out that sober theory, my colleague and I paid German Doner Kebab a visit on a Tuesday lunchtime, hoping to answer the question: ‘Will these kebabs be good enough for a lunch break?’’.
Inside, it feels more like a restaurant than most kebab shops I’ve visited, but it still has a fast food edge – think more McDonald’s than King’s Grill.
Surprisingly, it’s quite inviting. It helps that the counter is at the back, so you’re drawn into the restaurant, and the seating area is wide and spacious, not like a corridor pressed up against a kitchen.
The long, narrow room is bright, shiny and, dare I say it, almost design-focused, There’s white and orange walls, black pleather booths, hanging Edison light bulbs in geometric lamp shades and a large black and white wall print of the Brandenburg Gate. It has more than a faint air of an ‘80s bachelor pad about it.
You order just like any other fast food shop, from the illuminated sign up behind the till. My friend jumped in first and bagged the classic must order, the Original Doner Kebab. Unusually, there no lamb doner meat here, so he choose the mix of beef and chicken to fill his kebab and opted to make it a meal.
On the side of your main, the standard side is, of course, chips, but there’s also onion rings, or you can upgrade to Flaming Fries, which seem to be chips with paprika on them, for 50p extra. There’s also a salad, which I had already decided I’d order to balance out our meat-heavy lunch. When our server told us it was an extra £1.50 though, we glanced at the pre-made salad in its plastic tub, looked back longingly at the picture of chips on the menu, and decided, in for a penny, in for a portion of fries.
The kebab already spoken for, I eyed up the other, more unusual items on the menu. As well as a wrap, there’s also a doner burger, a doner salad box, doner meat on cheesy chips and a quesadilla, which is, you guessed it, doner meat and cheese in a tortilla. I briefly considered ordering that for the intrigue factor, but it didn’t look as filling as the other options, so I decided on the chicken meat wrap instead.
Still wanting to explore the more uncommon items on the menu, I also asked about the Lahmacun off the ‘Nibbles’ section. ‘It’s basically a Turkish pizza’, our efficient server announced. Still not really the wiser, but deciding it was worth the risk for £2.99, I added that to the order.
After we’d paid and nestled into one of the empty booths I was able to watch the chefs preparing our dishes from scratch, as we were luckily first in the queue. The kitchen, and the wheels of doner meat, are kept behind a corner wall of glass, so they’re not out in the open and everything looked pretty spotless to me. I watched sizeable portions of chicken and beef get shaved off the doner and noted happily that none of it looked even a touch grey.
After about 15 minutes of gazing through the glass, our orders were brought over individually on paper-lined trays by our enthusiastic server.
My chicken wrap was first to hit the table. It was densely packed with a hefty amount of thinly shaved chicken, garlic sauce, red cabbage, chopped tomato and crunchy iceberg lettuce. None of the salad was remotely wilted and it tasted fresh and zesty with a nice balance of lemon juice. The chicken didn’t really have a notable flavour on its own, but pulling little bits out to nibble on I noticed it was well cooked and juicy, like a faint memory of roast chicken. The garlic sauce added just enough of a kick to bring flavour but not be too overpowering.
It was lacking pickles or chillies, but the menu board told me I could have ordered those as extra fillings for 99p extra, which my server didn’t mention and felt a bit of a cheeky up-sell really. As I chewed I thought it lacked the punch of flavour of the chicken wrap at Bakery House for example, which has beautiful marinated chicken with crisp, slightly sour pickles for added zing, and it’s £2 cheaper. But overall, I was quite impressed. Not at all greasy, the doner wrap felt filling and tasty, moist and packed full of freshness.
The main draw of the meal, the kebab, came out a couple of minutes after my wrap and was so large it was spilling out all over its tray. It was encased in a triangular pocket of a thin but fluffy flatbread, instead of its poor relation, the doughy pitta you get at many late night kebab shops. It had been put through a waffle press so it was crisp and golden, perfect for holding all the meat in. “I like this bread,” my friend said in between bites. “It’s fluffy and tastier than a miserable pitta. This is more like the kebabs I’ve had in France, it’s much better.”
Just like my wrap, the kebab was bursting with salad and it looked possibly the healthiest take on the dish I’d ever seen. We had to ask for (plastic) forks to literally take a stab at it, before my friend could attempt picking it up. The lack of lamb meat meant the kebab didn’t really have a particularly strong flavour on its own. The beef in the mix tasted gentle and looked appealing, but when I pulled a few slivers out to sample, I was left debating what flavour I was meant to be getting. If anything it was slightly anemic.
As if reading my thoughts, my friend looked up and said: “this doesn’t taste much of anything in particular, and yet I really like it, especially with this red sauce on top.”
Alongside both of our main dishes we each got three thimble sized pots of sauce: a chilli, a garlic mayo and, in the words of my friend, a ‘pretty ineffectual burger relish’.
The brick red chilli sauce was the best of the bunch; it was thin and didn’t burn with fire like some kebab shop chilli sauces, but it had a pleasing tingle balanced with a slightly sweet tang from the herbs dotted throughout. Added to the kebab and my wrap it brought the punch that was missing from the lack of chillies or pickles and lifted both the meals a lot.
On the side, the cardboard tub of fries were good, if not particularly notable. They didn’t feel limp, but they weren’t as good as McDonald’s fries either – but then they are ‘the holy grail of fast food fries’, according to my friend.
Slightly annoyingly, our ‘nibble’ came out last, while we were already halfway into our meals. The Lahmacun, or Turkish pizza, is traditionally a flatbread topped with minced meat, usually lamb, and herbs and spices. Ours was an almost paper-thin oval flatbread, a bit bigger than a dinner plate and folded in half.
The outside was all bubbly and crispy with delightful dark spots from the grill. The bread tasted perfect, not too doughy, not hard like a crisp, and with a slightly smoky flavour. Inside the parcel though, there was a meagre layer of deep red rub, which looked more like a smear of pesto across the bread.
It was so thin, I really didn’t taste any meat at all, in fact I still can’t be sure there was any, but it had a deep, rich aromatic flavour from the herbs and spice paste. We tore into it for a few bites, but it turned out to be the least successful of the three dishes, and as it came out last, we were already so full we didn’t summon up the energy to finish it all. It wasn’t bad, and I’d probably have enjoyed it more first. But it wasn’t really needed on top of our meal, and simply wasn’t quite tasty enough to tempt me to overindulge.
So, are they ‘kebabs done right’? As we left our booth and headed out the door, I asked my friend if he thought it passed the eating while not drunk test: “Well, I’d definitely come back here sober,” he instantly replied. He pondered and added, “Well, we just did, of course, and I was quite impressed, so it passes my test.”
And I agree with him. None of the individual flavours wowed me, but I really enjoyed German Doner Kebab and will be back. Altogether it felt like a tasty, complete and surprisingly enjoyable meal. I left feeling satisfied, and didn’t once have nightmares about grey slivers of meat. It’s also a much more comfortable place to sit for a lunch break, or even a quick dinner than most fast food chains.
I was surprised to see how busy German Doner Kebab was at lunch time on my visit. While we sat and ate, a queue longer than anything I’ve seen outside of Zorba’s at 2am had snaked almost out the door. I counted two big groups of co-workers, three or four couples and quite a few solo diners already seated and lots of people coming in for takeaway. Clearly a lot of us do want to eat fresh, tasty, fast kebabs while sober, and it looks like German Doner Kebab is the place to do it.
German Doner Kebab
Lunch for two with soft drinks: £19.97
Address: 106 Friar St, Reading, RG1 1EP
Open: 12pm-11pm daily.
Get there: It’s a five minute walk from Reading Station and almost every route on Reading Buses stops on Friar Street, just outside.