Marks & Spencer Cafe

Best Part: The Pants
Price for 2 diners: £22.10 (incl Cake)
In and out within 1 hr: Yes, less in fact
Where: Top floor of M&S, by the toilets
Rating: 5.9/10
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Today we only had half an hour for lunch. This posed quite a problem. There wasn’t time to wait for an order so we needed to find somewhere with pre-made lunches and indoor seating, the weather being inclement. This was surprisingly difficult. There are plenty of places to get a good takeaway sandwich like Simmons and Wenzels but very few with seating.

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This is how we found ourselves in the M&S café. We were lucky enough to get the last table. At 12pm it was still full of shoppers having elevenses. Let’s take a moment to consider those shoppers and what they want. People go to M&S not to buy something cheaply made and cheaply priced but a good quality, reliable item at a reasonable price. Therefore, in keeping with the brand one would expect their café to look good and serve above average food. This was confusingly not the case! The furniture and cutlery looked on the cheap side and the lunch choices were basic. The interesting broccoli and Stilton soup I ordered was not available and the replacement tomato and basil was basic. I didn’t even finish it.

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Even worse was the layout. Admittedly they have to be careful to not use up too much retail space, but every time I wanted to get from one part of the café to the other, which happened quite a lot as it was all self service, I had to do a complicate route involving identifying where there were unoccupied seats or avoiding when people where starting to stand up. It was frustrating and did not add to a relaxed dining experience.

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Mr Midweek lunch got his premature Christmas vibe on with a Pigs in Blanket roll (despite it only just being November). This is a concept that was new to him, and the reason became quickly apparent. Pigs in blankets are very tubular, and as a consequence roll very easily. A roll is in no way sealed and as such does a very poor job of restraining the pigs, which were spilling out every time I picked it up. Spilling possibly suggests more pigs than the 4 I actually ended up with, maybe I should just stick with rolling out of the roll. Taste-wise it was all pretty good, but could have done with some mustard which was not present.

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On the plus side, their tea and cake was very good. I enjoyed my first mince pie of the season and was pleased that the tea was provided in a pot. Mr Midweek lunch had something, along with a black forest hot chocolate (or schwarzvaldkircheheißeschokolade) which was a) super awesome and b) something I have never experienced before. In this area at least M&S filled the brief.

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To conclude, we think M&S should consider bringing their café in line with their overall brand. Some of their own lovely dining furniture would set a good tone and serving some imaginative food from their own food hall would be the icing on the cake. However, they were full during our visit (and not just with people queuing to use the toilet) so perhaps no one else minds.

 

St Albans Museum + Gallery Cafe

Best Part: The Building
Price for 2 diners: £26 (incl Cake)
In and out within 1 hr: Yes, and we had a look around the museum too
Where: Right in the middle of town, you can’t miss it
Rating: 7.5/10

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For many years the old town hall building was frustratingly underutilised. It hung out at the top of St Peter’s Street, occasionally letting people into the old court room for book sales or open days. You could feel the wasted potential, so when the announcement was made that it was going to be refurbished we were incredibly excited. We still miss the sweet old museum on the Hatfield Road, with it’s fish and actual exhibits, but you really can’t argue with the impressiveness of the space in the new place.

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This is especially apparent in the café. To be fair, the café actually takes up the larger part of the building. We should probably more correctly refer to it as the St Albans Café + Museum + Gallery, but it does solve the problem of how to keep the impressive courtroom space intact but not waste it. It is also really nice sitting in the room whilst you each your lunch. It is bright thanks to the lovely ornate skylight, you can see people walking past and peering in from the elevated corridors on the first floor and coming up excitedly from the cellars below. There is also a nice range of people sat around in the café itself, which gives you the lovely feeling of being part of a community. The only real drawback is the seating. You have a choice between stools with no backs or chairs that are too low, neither of which is great for prolonged sitting and eating.

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But enough about the space, what about the lunch? The food options are not diverse. You can have meat or veggie roll, or meat or veggie sandwich. Both options come with a choice of two (out of three) salads. I went veggie sandwich, which was a really nice brie and pesto focaccia. Every aspect of it was thick and delicious and tasted of healthy freshness. For the salads I went potato and rocket (separately). The potato salad was great and had some lovely capers and prompted me to come up with a very good joke that is unfortunately too esoteric to share here. The rocket was where they let themselves down. It was undressed, and was just a bit boring to slog through. We learnt later that those in the know could ask for dressing to be added, but it seems like this is something that should be offered to all not just the elite few.

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We accompanied this with home made lemonade which was just too bitter. I know lemons are bitter in their natural state but when you’re having them in lemonade you expect sugar to form part of the proceedings somewhere.

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My companion went for the veggie roll, a spinach and feta affair, with the same choice of salads. It was pleasant enough but a bit on the dry side for her tastes. The serving staff were extremely friendly, and very helpful when it came to assisting with dietary requirements.

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Because there was literally no waiting at any stage of the process we decided to have tea and cake. This is where the café really comes into it’s own, as you might expect really. There was a much wider selection than for the savouries. We had a super coconut, cherry and chocolate cake. I’m assuming they were going for flavour combinations here rather than alliteration but either way they nailed it. The chocolate was a big solid slab of dark, and the cherry and coconut on top were the cherry on the cake (sorry). There was enough to be happily shared by two.

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This is a really special place, and we are lucky to have it in St Albans. They could have bumped there mark up very easily by adding a bit of olive oil to the salad and a bit of sugar to the lemonade, but it really is at it’s best for a quick cake and hot drink as you take in the gorgeous surroundings and maybe even an exhibition (We saw some great woollen sheep afterwards). Don’t leave it all to the tourists, no reason they should have all the fun.

Inn on the Park

Best Part: The Location
Price for 2 diners: £22 (incl Ice Cream)
In and out within 1 hr: Sort of
Where: On the Park
Rating: A Frustrated 7/10

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The Inn on the Park is superbly positioned for those needing refreshments at the museum end of Verulamium Park. This monopoly could make it lazy but the discerning dog walkers and families just keep coming back. So what makes TIOTP so special?

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Firstly the ambience; everyone is welcome . Inside there are plenty of high chairs and outside, dog water bowls. It is quite the community hub, holding plenty of events from Summer Shakespeare with Breakaway Theatre Co. to half term children’s workshops.

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Stopping for lunch on this occasion I was sad to see their famously delicious nachos are no longer on the menu. However there were still plenty of tasty vegetarian options and I opted for a roasted vegetable and halloumi pitta. The flavours were very well balanced but the pitta bread wasn’t quite robust enough for the filling so I had to use a knife and fork. My pot of tea was just right as ever.

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Mr Midweek Lunch had a tuna and cheese panini after his initial choice of a Greek salad was unavailable. It was a reasonably good panini, but one thing that irked him (and the Inn on the Park are definitely not alone in this practice) was that there was a napkin betwixt the sandwich and the plate. What possible reason is there for this? The napkin is rendered fairly useless for hand wiping as it is already translucent from cheese fat. Is it to keep their plate clean so they don’t have to wash it up, or possibly to keep the panini clean because they don’t wash the plates up? Whatever the reason it is annoying and leads to the danger of napkin fragments being consumed with your food. There was also some side chips that we shared. These were somewhat underdone which we considered ironic given the time they had to cook them in (see below).

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We have only two criticisms. Firstly the service was uncharacteristically slow. We had to wait over half an hour for our lunch, watching diners who came in after us being served first. Secondly we don’t approve of their self service tap water system in which fiddly, leaky disposable paper cones are used instead of reusable cups. These cannot be placed down meaning you have to either take just a single gulps worth then dispose of them, or spin them really quickly like a top between sips. On the whole a very good lunch that was let down by the slow service. We didn’t even have time for one of their lovely cakes, although my husband bought an Oreo ice cream to keep him going for the 2 minute walk to the car park.

 

Sushimania

Best Part: The Deal
Price for 4 diners: £33
In and out within 1 hr: Oh dear me, no
Where: Next to the Pudding Stop
Rating: 3.5/10
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Sushimania is dedicated to the constant flow of Sushi, to satisfy even the most craven sushi-maniac. There are two Sushi Pricing structures. if you feel you have a high capacity for sushi consumption then you can go for unlimited sushi for £17.80. For those who feel there is such a thing as too much sushi you can order individual items (including non-sushi) from the menu. Even better, if you do this at lunchtime then everything is half price, leading to some fairly spectacular prices.
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Whichever way you do this you will have to download and order through their app. This has some benefits, firstly you don’t really have to interact with other humans which is always a bonus, but you also get a running total of how much you are spending (not very much if you’re there at lunchtime). It could be confusing if you are a technophobe or have a rubbish phone, but theoretically this is a pretty sweet system (although slightly redundant as by the time the waitress has finished explaining it you could actually have ordered normally). In practice, as we shall see, this is very much a beta version of Restaurants 2.0.
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As it was the Summer holidays, we had the full Midweek Lunch clan with us. The pricing and menu was good, all of us could find things that we wanted and were able to eat which is quite a small section on the Venn diagram these days. Very quickly we were presented with our drinks and some wasabi and pickled ginger. Everyone else went for adequate fruit juice but I alone plumped for iced green tea, which I declare to be the most refreshing drink known to man.
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The first round arrived. They have a good mixed menu, and this was reflected in the range of dishes we have. There was edamame beans and ramen, pumpkin croquettes and vegetable udon. All of these dishes were well presented, generous, and most importantly incredibly tasty. Appetites piqued, we waited for the second half of our order.
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And waited. And waited. People all around us seemed to be getting plenty of sushi and we glared at them angrily. What made them so worthy of sushi? How had we displeased the sushi gods? It wouldn’t have mattered so much if the dish distribution had been uniform. If we’d all had something substantial we could have weathered the sushi drought. I actually did quite well as all my choices were delivered in the first sushi tranche. Youngest midweek child had a big bowl of noodley soup to slurp upon. But pity the poor eldest midweekling, who had naught but edamame beans to quell his hungry belly. He was not in a good mood.
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When a human person came around to refill our water we asked him how long the rest of our order would be. He assured us he would go and check and disappeared. The next time he was doing the water rounds we asked the same question and he asked if one of his colleagues had spoken to us. We told him they hadn’t and he wandered off looking perplexed. Still we waited. Eventually we were able to grab a slightly more senior member of staff as they dashed past. She went off to check for us, and came back to tell us that the printer in the kitchen had broken, hence us only receiving half of our order. Luckily we had the app to show her everything that we were missing and she went off to arrange it. This time the food actually did start to appear, to general rejoicing. It was good, but certainly not worth the wait.
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Another aspect of the app is that we could request the bill whenever we were ready, and this we did as soon as the final sushi arrived. We were well over our allotted lunch period, and were starting to get a bit sick of the place and were stressed about getting to our next appointment. This is quite a good feature, saving you having to catch someone’s attention to pay for your meal, but it shares the same flaws as the ordering system. E.G. it didn’t bloody work.
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Once again we waited and waited, all food consumed and dishes piled up. Someone came to collect the empty things and we asked them for the bill verbally. They took our plates but still no bill appeared. We tried the lady who had sorted out the order before, on the basis that we knew she got results, but apparently producing a little piece of paper with the amount we spent on it was beyond even her powers, even though we could already see it on the app. We were a hair’s breath away from walking out of the place without paying. The only thing stopping us was that this review might have been fairly conclusive evidence against us. Eventually I stood by the till and glared at everyone until they bought the bill to me. And it was the wrong bill. I asked for the compulsory service charge to be removed, only the second time in memory that I have done this.
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All in all, we were there for about 2 hours, and of that about 30 minutes was spent consuming food or drink. I really wanted to like Sushimania, the food was very good and in the lunch deal very cheap, but the service was abysmal, the worst since we started writing this blog. When you are so reliant on technology there will obviously be errors, but it is how you deal with the errors that really marks you out as a top class restaurant, and in our experience Sushimania were strictly Vanarama League South.

Crepeaffaire

Best Part: The Crepes
Price for 2 diners: £20
In and out within 1 hr: Yes
Where: Opposite the Museum
Rating: 6.1/10
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It’s always nice to welcome a new-comer to St Albans, especially in a spot that was not previously dedicated to filling stomachs. Crepeaffaire, situated on the street corner next to Argos that used to be a phone shop, fills the pancake gap that has blighted the city since Claude’s Creperie on Holywell Hill closed down, many many years ago. To be fair the Waffle House and Hatch have done good jobs servicing our batter cravings in the meantime, but if you find waffles to be not flat enough for your tastes then you’re in luck.
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It’s not a particularly memorable name, and in fact I had to look it up again whilst writing this review. Crepeaffaire seems like it should be a pun of some sort but if it is it’s gone completely over my head. When you first walk in it seems really small, but the seating then just goes on and on out the back, even stretching upstairs. However we didn’t notice this on entering so leapt on one of the small and slightly uncomfortable tables by the front window. This would have provided good people-watching if I hadn’t been using the window to provide the support lacking in the chair, so instead I settled for Gelato watching.
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They have a reasonable selection of sweet and savoury crepes, and indeed waffles if you swing that way. I went for a crepe called ‘Le Goat Deluxe’ (literally ‘The Luxury Goat’), containing Goats Cheese and Red Onion. I only noticed the well-stocked fridge of soft drinks by the time I had ordered a milkshake, which I initially regretted but actually worked out for the best for reasons that I will relate shortly. The Crepes came fast, so fast they beat my wife who had popped to the toilet immediately upon ordering. The drinks were the opposite, and in fact didn’t arrive until after we had finished eating. Luckily they had free water that your could help yourself to, some of it with squished up lemons inside to make you think you’re not just drinking water, which is all commendable. They slightly let themselves down by having it served in disposable plastic cups but there you go.
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The crepe was very nice, tasting fresh and full bodied with a powerful onion kick. The crepe itself was more of a delivery system than an integral part of the meal, but it would have been weird to order a pile of cheese and onion on it’s own so it fulfilled a vital social purpose. It was also all rather slight, a thin circle folded in quarters, and disappeared very quickly leaving me feeling not quite satisfied. It had not been priced at snacking level, but that was how it left me feeling. I considered one of their enticing looking cannolis on the counter until I looked closer and saw the flies walking all over them, which made them seem less enticing. Luckily at this stage the absent milkshake made an appearance so that filled the pudding hole reasonably well.
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My midweek lunch plus one went for a Superveg crepe. She was pleased with the vegetable filling, it was well balanced and flavourable, but was likewise non-plussed by the quantites. She went for the milkshake’s evil healthy brother, the smoothie, and thought it was quite nice.
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It is nice to have a creperie in town, if only because I now get to say the word creperie more, but I do think Crepeaffaire has a few teething troubles to work through. For example, during her visit to the toilets whilst our food was being delivered my companion was pleasantly surprised to see a large quantity of free nappies available. She was surprised again, less pleasantly this time, to discover that whilst over-endowed with nappies the toilet did not actually possess any toilet paper. We were also regularly dripped on by the air-conditioning unit under which we sat.
The staff were all very friendly and polite, and the decor is pleasing but I would possibly suggest you take your crepes (or waffles, I won’t judge) to go. This removes the chance of getting dripped on and the food is quite a bit cheaper as take-away, possibly at a price more in keeping with the actual quantity of sustenance received. However, if you run out of nappies you’re on your own.

Mad Squirrel

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Best Part: The Downstairs
Price for 2 diners: £20
In and out within 1 hr: Yes
Where: The Cursed Corner by the Vintry Gardens
Rating: 8.3/10

St Albans midweek lunch tried to review the Mad Squirrel its first day of opening but timings didn’t quite work out as they were originally only serving food from 1pm. This week however they were ready to serve us early bird customers with a very enticing lunch deal- 1 pizza and a half of beer (really all you need at lunchtime, whatever your sozzled brain might tell you) from the standard menu for £10 each.

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For those of you not familiar with The Mad Squirrel, it is on possibly the unluckiest restaurant spot in St Albans, previously home to the Bakehouse, La Vista and  No Moo Moo (which didn’t even stick around long enough for us to review it). However we think that the Mad Squirrel might be the one to crack it, and here’s why.

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Firstly it has tapped in (pun fully intended) to the trendy love for craft beer. The pedant in me would like to point out that it isn’t true tap room as it is not physically attached to a brewery. However it is attached in spirit (I am a pun machine today) to the actual brewery in Berkhamsted, which is at least only 9 miles away.

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The décor is modern and moody. They have updated the lovely bright space to look very en trend but in my opinion should have stuck to using the grey and maroon as accent colours only as it felt quite dark. Unlike the Slug and Lettuce, this establishment is probably aiming for the masculine end of the market. All the same, I am a woman and I really like beer, and I would have appreciated a little bit more frilliness. A little more standard level dining seating downstairs might also be useful, as it seemed a bit sparse. This is potentially the issue that continually does for the residents of this spot. The upstairs and downstairs are very separate, and I know of a few people (myself included) who have assumed it is not open when they look at the completely empty upstairs. Balancing this, however, is the lovely garden with a smashing view of the Abbey and the Rose Window in particular. I can see this being quite the hot spot during the 6 days of the year when outside drinking is possible.

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The fabulously shiny menu was short on food but rich on beer and spirits. The food was not an issue – there were only 5 pizzas but one of these was a build your own option called “Save the Squirrel” (for reasons that weren’t entirely clear, unless they are relying on punters not choosing squirrel as a pizza topping). The final option, which changes monthly, is a locally sourced seasonal choice. We fully applaud this yet neither of us fancied goats cheese this time. I built my own including mushrooms, rocket and pine nuts and was thrilled with my choice. The base was thin and crispy, just as I like. Overall it was almost as good as the authentic Italian pizza from Bellaccino’s two weeks ago. Mmmm, I love pizza.

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Mr Midweek Lunch also used his expert pizza designing skills to come up with a masterful effort, with jalapenos and pink onions that were out of this world in their sweetness. The beer was as good as you would expect, given that this is their main focus. There was a great selection on tap (although only 3 cask beers) with more still in their well-stocked beer fridge. They were also served in very pleasing glasses that were so good we enquired about buying our own set (then retracted our enquiry very quickly when we heard the price).

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Overall we had a great lunch. We were in and out within the hour, having been well fed, watered and served and only spent a total of £20. The vibe was cool, a bit hipster but not in a way that alienated us. It was quite quiet on our visit, an odd selection of babies, old people and dogs, but when we have passed it since it has been heaving with customers and we hope our review will only add to this.

A few teething problems, certainly, but it was very early days and they’re off to a great start.

Slug & Lettuce

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Best Part: Of the two, I’d have to say the lettuce
Price for 2 diners: £18.24
In and out within 1 hr: Yes
Where: Victoria Street, by the bus stop
Rating: /10
I have spent more time than I would care to admit at the Slug & Lettuce, though largely not due to choice. It was a constant choice for work nights out and leaving dos in my previous job, combining the merits of being close and almost entirely devoid of ambition. It sells alcohol to get you drunk, and food to stop you falling over too quickly and that is pretty much it. It’s a popular St Albans venue, though, and is at least clean so we thought we’d give it a go for lunch.
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The Slug has had refurb recently (well, in the last 5 years at least), and is now rocking a look that is best described as busy. Every available space is chock full of mirrors or plants or wavy lines. There is also a separate gin bar and cocktail bar. In the evening, with mood lighting and packed with people, it would probably be delightful. In the harsh light of day and with only a handful of other punters it just seemed a bit crazy. Also very feminine, which might explain why the refurb doesn’t appear to have made it as far as the men’s toilets which are as plain and functional ever. No little bouquets here. The taps stopped very quickly as well, necessitating multiple presses per hand wash. Good for the environment, no doubt, but pretty irksome.
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However Mrs midweek lunch found the interior delightful. She particularly liked its colourful floweriness because the external day was grey and rainy and it cheered her up. She believes there is a definite place for a frilly looking bar that sells pleasant, sensibly priced food served by pleasant  sensibly dressed staff. The almost entirely female clientele would no doubt agree with her.
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This sense of style over substance extends to the food. When it arrived it had obviously been designed to be thoroughly instagrammed before a bite was taken. I am aware of the irony of saying this underneath a picture I took of my food when it arrived, but this was for illustrative purposes only. Leave me alone. Anyway, I went for scampi, which is like small fish that has been deep fried. To illustrate it’s method of cooking it was served in a fryer basket. Presumably at some point they needed to transfer it from one fryer basket to another to serve it, but it all seemed somewhat redundant. Also impractical, for a couple of reasons. When served the scampi was perched on top of the chips, so to apply vinegar I first had to reposition it to allow access. After the vinegar obviously I needed to go for a condiment, but fryer baskets are difficult things to place dollops of sauce on. I therefore had to dollop onto the side of the plate, but it didn’t take long for it to seep under the fryer basket. The food was pretty good, I guess, though after all that trauma I found it hard to focus.
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Our own personal female clientele chose the halloumi and avocado wrap with a side helping or gorgeously crisp fries. The wrap could have benefitted from the contrast of some sweet chilli dressing or perhaps a red onion chutney. Otherwise she was very content.

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We wrapped it all off with a side of onion rings. We had tried to order chips until the waitress very kindly pointed out that both our dishes came with chips. And do you know, I think she was right. That would have been too much chips. The rings were good, but they were very structurally sound onions, meaning that if you tried to bite into one you ended up having to suck the entire onion content out as it refused to separate.
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Not a bad place, then. Pretty nice food, at a reasonable price, but possibly not at it’s best during the day. If I could sum up the Slug and Lettuce with one fact, it is that there is an entire page in the drinks menu dedicated to variants on the Pornstar Martini. If you find this enticing then this is very definitely the place for you.
6.9/10