Reading’s top 10 budget eats

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Royal Tandoori

There is plenty of proper cooking going on at the Royal. Dishes are fresh, its curries properly differentiated, flavours are distinct and full-bodied. The weekday set lunch, ?6.99 for two courses, is a boon for the budget traveller, but, if there's a few of you, using your notional ?10-a-head to share a selection of small dishes from the street food menu might be the more adventurous way to go. Personally, I prefer a lighter lime pickle or a pointedly tart tamarind-led bhel puri – the Royal's was rather sweet and dense. But this perfumed, multifarious salad of, among other things, puffed rice, green mango, peanuts and pomegranate, was, nonetheless, mighty tasty. As was the pav bhaji, which partners toasted bread rolls (think: ghee-sweetened burger buns) with a slow-cooked vegetable curry.

Curry lovers who are really counting every penny, may prefer to hunt out Cafe Madras, a simple all-day curry cafe, a mile or so out of town on Whitley Street. It specialises in mildly spiced, often coconut-based south Indian food of reasonably good quality, that rarely breaks the ?5 mark. There is a long list of filled dosa to choose from (?2.40-?4.25. 73-75 Whitley Street, 0118-975 8181,
• Street food dishes, ?3.95-?4.95, main with rice, ?7.90-?12.90. 4-8 Duke Street, 0118-957 2717,

Alan Rosenthal has already taken his one-pot recipes from a farmers' market stall to supermarket shelves. Now, alongside his Stewed! ready meal range, he plans to open a number of hot food kiosks. The first is located outside Reading Station. Over the day, the menu evolves from porridge and a bizarre-sounding English breakfast pot, to take-in various curries and stews (beef in ale, three-bean chilli, goulash), served over rice, mash or couscous. A pot of pomegranate-laced Persian stew was vastly superior to anything you would normally find on a station concourse. To further prove that quality can coexist with major transport hubs, nip across the road to Oakford Social Club (pint from ?3.20, 53 Blagrave Street, 0118-959 4267, This bar, kitchen, music venue and hipster hotspot (when I was in there, a bloke was wandering about idly strumming a ukulele), serves several real ales and US craft beers from the likes of Anchor Steam and Flying Dog.
• Breakfast pots ?2-?2.95, others ?3.95-?5.50. By Reading Station entrance, 07864 812439,

Now, this is an odd one. Ostensibly a pie shop, selling an unusually large variety of flavours, hot, to hungry passers-by, Sweeney & Todd is also a restaurant, of sorts. Past that pie-counter, up a few steps, you'll find a long room seemingly unchanged since the 1970s, and which, with its adverts for old music hall shows and tilework recalling such brands as Brasso and Pears, seems to be harking back to an even older era. Pies, all made on-site using meats from Sweeney & Todd's sister business, WM Vicars butchers, are the main draw, alongside ploughman's lunches and roast dinners. A sample steak'n'kidney – served with a derisory hillock of iceberg-based salad – was thick with flavoursome meat, in a somewhat one-dimensionally peppery sauce, the base a good larded pastry, crisp without, moist within. The Black Sheep was only in so-so form, but with four real ales available at the bar (pint from ?3.40), what's not to like?
• Pies, takeaway, ?3.25, eat-in ?6.50, meals ?5.30-?9. 10 Castle Street, 0118-958 6466

The Global Cafe, the public face of the Reading International Solidarity Centre, aims to foster understanding between cultures, not least on the plate. Its kitchen is led by Tutu Melaku, born in Addis Ababa, but now converting Reading to the spicy delights of doro and keye sega stews. If you happen to visit on a weekday lunch, the ?5.80 platter, two dishes and injera (a kind of pancake whose pleasing lemony sourness creeps up and clobbers you in the mouth), is a good way to dip your toe in. Both the misr wot, a fruity red lentil stew, and the alicha begg wot, a rich lamb dish in which the meat is simmered in kibae, a spiced butter, had great warmth and depth of flavour. The lamb was aromatically savoury in that heady way that berbere-spiced dishes tend to be. The cafe has a good beer selection, too (bottles from ?2.95). It ranges from lesser-spotted global brews (Kenya's Tusker lager, Jamaican Dragon stout) to Sam Smith's organic beers and various ales from West Berkshire Brewery.
• Mains with injera and tasting platters, ?7.40-?9.95. Global Cafe, 35-39 London Street, 0118-958 3555,

This busy, colourful deli-cafe – all hanging baskets and obligatory Union Jack bunting – is your best independent bet in the centre of town, if you want to grab an interesting sandwich (say, homemade pesto, taleggio and beef tomato), a posh salad or a slice of first-rate cake. The couscous in my salad box could have done with more than the few scarce pieces of olive and roasted vegetable it was seasoned with, but, for ?3.90, it was a fair portion that came with decent fresh hummus and a generous amount of high-quality mild chorizo. Even better was the almond macaroon for dessert. A perfect browned crisp shell gave way to a moist, gooey, profoundly almondy centre, that, winningly, was still warm. Excellent.
• Takeaway prices, sandwiches ?2.99, salad boxes, ?3.50-?3.90. 5 Butter Market, 0118-958 9292,, second Picnic at Reading Climbing Centre, Unit 33, Robert Cort Industrial Estate, Britten Road, 0118-975 7980

The Oracle shopping centre, which straddles the river Kennet, features many of the usual chain suspects, but also a few smaller operators of note. The San Fran-inspired Mission serves sound burritos, tacos and salad bowls. Its carnitas, very slowly cooked pork, seasoned with thyme, bay leaves and orange zest, is every bit as good and juicy as that sounds. Wash your burrito down with a bottle of dark Negra Modelo (?3.50). If you don't fancy Mexican, then just across the water Tampopo does a very similar pan-Asian thing to Wagamama (The Riverside, Oracle Shopping Centre, 0118-957 5199,, but its zingy noodle soups often pack a bigger punch. Its two-course express lunch, ?7.95, looks great value, as does the two-course menu, ?9.95, Mon-Fri 12-7pm, at the cut-above French bistro chain, Cote (9 The Riverside, Oracle Shopping Centre, 0118-959 1180,
• Dishes from ?5.45-?6.95. 15a Riverside Level, The Oracle Centre, 0118-951 1999,

Things have changed a lot since the eponymous Bill Collison opened his homespun grocer-cafe in Lewes, in 2001. Now, his baby is a nine-strong chain, which seeks to retain some of the original's allotment chic, while giving you the hard sell. Barely have you sat down (on a seat cushion fashioned from an old potato sack), than your waitress is pressing a menu into your hand, from which you can tick-purchase the cordials, oils and tinned olives stacked on the nearby shelves. However, in its core business, food, Bill's remains a pretty decent proposition. A breakfast of bubble'n'squeak, ham, fried eggs and a loosened, sharp hollandaise sauce, is tasty and so filling that, even at ?7.50, it is good value. The bubble is closer to grain mustard-spiked colcannon perhaps, but the ingredients (ham with a fine air-dried texture, seriously sunny eggs) are very good. A huge two-bag pot of tea is also a bargain at ?1.85. Of course, the enamel teapots are for sale (?9.95), but ignore that and concentrate on the food. Throughout the day, various mains, from a fish finger sandwich with fries to a pea and mint risotto, come in under ?10.
• Breakfast, ?2.50-?7.95, mains ?8.25-?12.95. St Mary's Church House, Chain Street, 0118-939 1365,

You will find this Sardinian restaurant on Queens Walk, an unlovely spur off a bewildering, deeply ugly 1970s concrete complex, that also includes the Hexagon Theatre and Reading's council offices. To complete the Life On Mars effect, Pepe Sale itself is a period piece of salmon pink decor and marble tabletops. Thankfully, good cooking is timeless, and chef-owner Toni Sale – a man who makes his pasta fresh each morning – can clearly cook. From a lunchtime menu of ?5.50 pasta dishes, a (huge) plate of spaghetti with radicchio is fantastic. Italian food's simplicity, its ability to achieve a sweet chorus of sing-song flavours with a few high-quality ingredients is often overrated, but this – just pasta, oil, plenty of garlic, a little chilli, preserved lemon and bitter radicchio – delivers.
• Lunch, pasta dishes ?5.50, lunch and early bird (before 7pm), one course, ?9.90, two ?13.40. 3 Queens Walk, 0118-959 7700,

A short drive or a 15-20-minute walk from the town centre, this bright, homely Portuguese-Brazilian deli-cafe is, for curious foodies, well worth the detour. The creditable food ranges from simple warm snacks: salt cod fishcakes, deep-fried, braised chicken coxinha, moreish potato and cheese croquettes, Iberian samosas, to hot daily specials such as a vegetarian feijoada stew or the exotic bobo de camarao, prawns cooked in palm oil and coconut milk, the sauce thickened with cassava puree. Owner Evie Pierce will happily guide you through the dishes. Round off your meal with a pastel de nata, wrapped in properly layered, rosebud-like pastry.
• Savoury snacks from ?1.30, main meals from ?7.50. 89 Mount Pleasant, 0118-975 2333

Tucked away in a cobbled courtyard, in the same building as the George Hotel, this basic, utilitarian space – bare boarded walls, a few coffee bean sacks for decoration – is where Reading's coffee geeks congregate to coo over Workhouse's own-roasted beans, at least eight varieties of which are available as ground-to-order drip-filter. A sample flat white didn't quite bowl me over – texturally, the milk needed a little more steam wand magic, it hadn't quite reached that superlatively smooth consistency – but the complexity of the darker roasted 1756 blend, which rounded off with an almost aniseed tang at the end, shone through. The Workhouse food, which is all homemade, runs to a small but good-quality selection of wraps and ciabatta, Moroccan-spiced pasties, sausage rolls and fantastic cakes. A smoked salmon bagel was a solid B-grade sandwich. A cinnamon swirl, topped with a lush layer of icing, was a big, fat, daisy-fresh doozy. Second West Reading branch at 335 Oxford Road.
• Food items, around ?1-?5.20. 10-12 King Street, 07427 450652,

• Rail from Manchester to Reading was provided by Cross Country Trains

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