Benito’s Hat

Best Part: It’s s Mexican Restaurant! In St Albans!
Sing hosannas to the highest of high, the long stranglehold on St Albans by Italian and Turkish restaurants has  finally started to be loosened. We have an actual (well, not actual) Mexican restaurant, with burritos and neon cacti and everything!
To manage expectations, Benihana’s Hat is a friendly, fun place rather than an upmarket dining establishment. But unpretentiousness and a relatively small amount of seating should not put you off. Neither should the fact that it is on the site of two Jamie Oliver failures; Jamie’s Deli and Jamie’s Pizzeria. The whole mood is generally of street food, but indoors. It’s perfect if you’re in a rush and thus an ideal mid-week lunch spot. I would call it a non-destinational eating establishment like Wagamama’s, if it wasn’t for the fact that we had made it our destination as soon as we were aware of it’s existence.
The set-up is a bit like Subway. You choose your filling and your casing and your sauces and they assemble it then and there. To my mid-week-wife this was something of a problem, as she suffers terribly from decision paralysis. All the many options thrown at her, in a new environment and with loud background music and a quiet waitress, made it quite a stressful experience. It was only when we sat down and I expressed surprise that she had not gone for the Jackfruit that she realised that the option had ever been on the table.
I had no problem as I just went for the biggest thing on the menu, the El Presidente. This monster, over half a kilo, contained all the different type of meat thus taking away any of the agonies of choice. It was so big that the burrito attendant struggled to roll it up, which is how I like my burrito. The meat was all beautifully juicy and beautifully melty and possibly a little under-spiced, though I could have gone for some hotter sauce so it’s on me as much as them. It felt good to eat, and was incredibly warming on a very un-Mexican day. There were a few tortilla chips on the side that tasted slightly stale but still had a load of salt so were by definition great.
My companion went vegetarian and thus was entitled to a 30% discount for Veganuary, despite having cheese and sour cream which are not traditionally vegan. She decided against the grilled vegetable filling favouring the tofu which didn’t quite work in a burrito. The accompanying vegetables and fixings were delicious however. Our meals were washed down by eye-catching, one might say lurid, imported Mexican pop drinks (see picture).
There is a danger when you have anticipated something for so long that when it does finally turn up it is something of the disappointment. I have wanted a local Mexican restaurant for a very long time. Now I have one. I don’t care that it is a chain, and that it has a somewhat limited menu. If I am in town and I want a burrito I can now get a burrito without having to go to Wetherspoons. I am therefore #blessed.

Waddington Road

Best Part: The Independence



There are times when a midweek luncher just wants to go to a café. An independent café that doesn’t claim to be something it isn’t, a café that doesn’t look intimidating. Well if you are shopping in town and feel the same way we would encourage you to gander up the side street that houses Panda cards (another marvellous St. Albans business) and a few shops down you will find Waddington Road café. Interestingly this road is called Waddington Road, which speaks to the imagination of the café owner.



A few years ago these premises were the site of a greasy spoon café which has now come under different management. It is now a clean, modern, smart café with an excellent lunch menu and lovely décor. However it has not got above itself – the staff and cliental are friendly and the delicious menu reasonably priced. It is the perfect spot for restorative tea and cake or a lunch (either a simple or imaginative.) My vegetarian options were almost overwhelming. If the old greasy spoon seeker had returned after a few years, possibly forgetting he had sold his café in a drunken haze, he would still be able to buy a cheese omelette. But the owner assured me these are now made with free range eggs and they have halloumi in. I have had one here on another occasion and was very pleased. Even my children, one vegan and one fussatarian were happy to eat here.



This time I had a halloumi and tomato ciabatta which had a good balance of flavours and textures. Although they serve tea in a pot (as everyone should), I was tempted by the homemade fruit smoothies. I opted for a banana and blueberry one and it certainly perked me up after an unpleasant morning.


Mr Midweek lunch was new to Waddington road and was in a festive mood. This was perhaps premature as we were not far into December, but he does get over-excited about these things. One of the reasons he gets so excited is the Christmas sandwich, as long time reader may remember from his series of vignettes on different Christmas sandwiches a few years ago. He therefore went for a Turkey and Stuffing panini, and it was pretty good. Nowhere near the majesty of an actual Christmas Sandwich made from leftovers from an actual Christmas Dinner, put pretty good. There were a few crisps on the side, but they weren’t real crisps so we won’t discuss them.


Luckily we had brought some proper crisps as a starter, as we were very hungry on arrival, so the fake multi-coloured non-potato crisps were less egregious.


Waddington Road is one of a small group of great independent St. Albans cafes where you can be sure of good food and service that doesn’t break the bank. There aren’t many of them and you have to look hard but I now consider this one to be my friend and will be there again soon. Why not give it a try too?


Prae Wood Arms

Best Part: The Gentrification
I always get a slight buzz from visiting the Prae Wood Arms. When we would occasionally visit back in the day when it was a carvery, and not a very classy carvery, it felt that so much could have been made from the wonderful space. Not that eating endless piles of dry chewy grey meat wasn’t fun in it’s way, but now that it is being run as a proper gastro-pub it is a delight. 
Literally seconds of googling was not enough to determine what this house was originally used for (A Dower House? A Hunting Lodge? A home for the eccentric Viscount’s collection of mint biscuits? Who knows), but it has embraced it’s current pub destiny with aplomb. The many nooks and rooms give a nice contrast between communal dining and a bit of privacy, there is a lovely sweeping staircase and the toilets are a joy to behold. There are even naked men in the ladies toilets, although not real ones, my wife assures me. There are also apparently ghosts – one for each floor although we didn’t see any this time.
We were dining early, and it was pretty much deserted on arrival, but it soon picked up and by the end of our meal was packed. There is clearly a market for midweek dining at lovely country pubs. Despite the lack of dining competition initially we did struggle somewhat to get served. It seems churlish to raise it as the waitresses did seem to be having a lovely chat, but there was a fair amount of conspicuous neck craning before we were able to place our order.
I started with Cider-Braised Pig Cheek, with celeriac puree and sour apple dressing. It looked delightful when it arrived, and the initial flavours were promising, but I soon found myself perversely thinking of school dinners. This was more down to texture than flavour. It was so unremittingly squidgy that you could serve it to the toothless quite happily.
My journey around the pig continued with Roast Pork Belly, served on borlotti beans and chorizo. It was a nice stewy mix of flavours, but the reason the main worked so much better than the starter was due to the rainbow chard. This not only added a bit of visual flair to the dish (although I think calling it rainbow chard is overstating it’s multi-coloured nature somewhat. Two-tone might be more appropriate), but it added some much needed crunch. This offsets the soft belly and melting beans to give you the sharpness you need.
Mrs Midweek lunch opted for an intriguing layered savoury trifle in a shot glass. It comprised  mackerel, samphire, horseradish cream and beetroot jelly in layers and layers. It looked beautiful and although the individual flavours were lovely she felt that not all the textures complemented each other well. 
Her Butternut squash tortellini was very creamy and satisfying but the accompanying sun blush tomato dressing was a little too sharp. True, it needed a counterpoint but there needs to be a bit more experimentation with the piquancy of this dressing before it is truly amazing.
It all came to a fair whack (more expensive than the Aylett’s café, you may not be surprised to hear), but on the whole it is worth it. The place is just a joy to walk around, there is a great garden for when it isn’t recreating a Siberian winter outside and they have a good selection of beers including their house brew. There is even a suggested walk with accompanying pamphlet if you want to try to work of some of the large quantities of pork fat that you have just consumed. This only works, however, if the eccentric Viscount has not closed the footpath as happened on our visit. Possibly he was taking his collection of mint biscuits for a walk.


Best Part: It made us feel so young! (comparatively)

IMG_1962Now, while St. Albans Midweek lunch has generally focused on city central dining opportunities, we decided to open things up a bit. Hopefully in going a little further out than the city station, we will discover a range of exciting new dining opportunities and tap into a wider reader base. We will of course still eat in St Albans and only during the week!


This time, we decided to try a very popular luncheon avenue; the garden centre cafe. What? Yes, you heard correctly, we are going full on garden centre this week. My husband does not like garden centres and therefore I have generally only lunched in such establishments with my retired parents and my then pre-school children. It turns out that since those days, the client demographic has remained stable. To make a cursory observation, if the diners were not over 55 years of age they were generally under 2. Mr Midweek Lunch and I are pretty much the average of those two ages but most people had the good manners not to stare.

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Ayletts garden centre is conveniently situated off the North Orbital, only a short walk from a pet supermarket, a shed emporium, the fish place and more excitingly the new Loaf store (which we did not visit). As well as selling a range of garden goods and boasting a popular sinister moving Christmas display, it has a large cafe offering a range of hot and cold food. Keeping the horticultural theme this is named the Dahlia Coffee House, but I would be surprised if it has ever been referred to as anything but the Ayletts Café, other than by the most dedicated of garden centre marketeers. Although I would generally visit for afternoon tea I was pleased to see plenty of very reasonably priced lunch options on the menu.

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Mr Midweek Lunch had a Homemade Grannie’s Bake. Whether the Granny or the Bake was homemade was not clear from the menu, though thinking it through it does seem much more likely that it was the former (people having a much greater sense of propriety back in those days). Putting such matters to one side the dish was a sort of cross between a Moussaka and a Gratin (possibly the Granny in question hailing from Greek/French parentage, which does maybe undermine my previously reasoning on the location of her conception). It was gratifyingly cheesy, possibly gratin-ifying, but was rather let down by a limp side salad. A good stodgy choice when the weather gets brisk, anyway.

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I had a toasted goats cheese ciabatta slice with side salad which was pleasant but not exceptional. It needed a little piquancy to offset the cheese, perhaps a sweet chilli jam. However, while we may not have made the best choices on this occasion, I must point out that our lunch was extremely good value for money, the total bill coming in at around £16, and therefore I was well satisfied. Remember of course that Ayletts is not just a cafe. It provides a happy afternoon out for those who get their twisted thrills from browsing round plants, planters, garden structures and interesting gift ideas. It is a great place to take pre-schoolers who like to climb inside the larger planters while their poor parents have paused to consider the polyanthers. The Christmas display will also be a draw for those wishing to traumatise their children.

The Ayletts cafe is worth a lunch time visit if you have garden/leisure business to attend to. It won’t break the bank and you can be sure of a proper cup of tea served from a pot. This alone is a draw for me.


The Plough at Sleapshyde

Best Part: The Bonus Starter!
The Plough is the new outpost of Dylan’s at the Kings Arms, located in a lovely country pub at the difficult to pronounce, spell and find location of Sleapshyde, just off the big fast road with the terrible staggered roundabout. It’s a nice place with beautiful views of the countryside, but I can’t imagine it picks up much passing trade. Having said that, whilst we were there a few people did just drop in, and apparently didn’t like what they found as they almost immediately left again. This seems odd because a) they’re not going to find anything else to eat other than roadkill nearer than Tyttenhanger and b) this place is dope.
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It doesn’t have a wide menu, and slightly confusingly my dining companion and me had slightly different menus (one was yesterday’s I think), but you don’t need a long menu just a good menu. My pescatarian companion was unsure about the main courses but luckily was very interested in the starters and so decided to double up. There was a long wait for the food, and we were just starting to wish that we had got some crisps to keep us going when they appeared. Unfortunately 50% of the starters arrived not as ordered. Instead of the gratin there were some roast potatoes. Both of these contain potatoes, admittedly, but the presence of beef fat crumb on the roasties meant that Mrs Midweek Lunch could not accept them as a substitute. They were very good about their mistake and were taking away the offending potatoes when I expressed regret as they looked so nice. Very gamely they let me keep them.
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And I’m very glad they did, as they were the highlight of the meal. The potatoes gave a good central seam of stodge, but covering them was a lovely buttery sauce, the aforementioned beefy crumbs and a couple of super salty anchovies. It was all rather Jansson’s Temptation-y, and all the better for it.
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The main course was nice, but not mind-blowing. According to the menu it was smoked pork loin, fried hen’s egg and triple cooked chips but according to the kitchen as I walked past it was ham, egg and chips. Either way, it was a fine example, with some very good homemade brown sauce dolloped on the side. At the end of the day, though, it was nothing more than a very good ham, egg and chips, whereas the starter was something transcendent.
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Mrs Midweek Lunch’s first starter was sublime in its flavour, texture and presentation; a creamy mackerel pate on a tasty homemade crumpet. She was reluctant to give me a taste and all too soon it was over. She was looking forward to balancing on the creaminess with the broccoli and celeriac gratin (accepting of course that cream might be involved again) but was disappointed. It was both over and undercooked. The top was too rosy but the celeriac too hard. There was no broccoli to be seen. The chef was obviously in a hurry to sort out the wrong order. Such a shame because the previous starter was truly amazing.
Other than the rather long wait for the food the service was friendly and attentive. They had a reasonable selection of ales, and it was only after I had ordered one that I noticed they also had a wall of taps, a la the mothership on George Street. My companion who was more observant than I went for an unfiltered lager. The place was a bit chilly, as they have not yet managed to get their wood-burner operational, but we huddled together for warmth. What they have got bang on is the feeling of a proper country pub, with beams, hops around the disfunctional fire-place and an old-fashioned sturdiness.
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Make the effort to walk here if you have the time and the energy, and you will be rewarded with a fine destination that potentially just has a few teething problems to get through.

Return of the Lunch


Hello again! We had rather longer of a break than expected but never fear, we are back again to eat lunch and give scores. And we’re all out of scores.

Normal service will be resumed shortly, but in the meantime I just wanted to pay our respects to those eating establishments that are no longer with us, most of them occupying the same 3 locations. So let us take a moment to remember these late lamented friends, in order of lamentedness.

The Bakehouse
Number 23
Juice Pharm
La Vista
Brasserie Blanc
BHS Café
Jamie’s Pizzeria

Of those past reviewees that are still with us, the following are our favourites. Will anything arise to challenge their pre-eminence?

The Fleetville Larder 9
Thompson 9
The Cock 8.9
Lake Restaurant 8.8
Dylans 8.6

Come back soon for more luncheon fun!

The Speckled Hen

Best Part: The Dripping!
This is another expedition out of the centre of St Albans. The Speckled Hen is on the Hatfield Road, but quite a way past Morrisons which is generally accepted as the furthest limit of civilisation. It is ideally situated to pick up the passing trade from both Oaklands college and those involved in building houses on the playing fields of Beaumont School, and no one else. Despite this it was surprisingly busy on the Monday lunchtime that we visited on, by which I mean that there were people there other than us.

The vibe is part country pub, part place where you can dine safely in the knowledge that you won’t be challenged by the menu either culturally or financially. It is generally clean looking and non-descript, with a smattering of Christmas decorations already up. There was enough choice on the menu that I could have happily ordered a few things, but mainly because they were all combinations of cheese, burnt ends and carbohydrates.

The particular combination I went for was the Burnt Ends Burger and it was adequate. The meat element was not too dry and had a detectable element of flavour to it, and there was cheese in there somewhere, though not too aggressive in making it’s presence felt. I mean, it was nowhere near the similarly beef on beef experience I had at Craft & Cleaver, but that would be the definition of unrealistic expectations.

Something that I had not come across before, and which really made the meal for me, was the gravy boat of beef drippings that it came with. It was thick gloopy meat flavour with no messing around with extraneous details like solidity and salad, and I thoroughly enjoyed dipping my chips in it. I could have done with a few more chips, to be honest, the portion size for this particular element was pretty stingy, especially considering it is basically just potato. I blame Brexit.

My vegetarian wife found the smell of my beloved beef dripping off putting. However she still found her falafel wrap with chips and drink for £6.99 quite passable. The falafel was a bit pasty but in places was crisp and yummy. It was certainly good value for money, was delivered in a timely fashion and filled her very hungry tummy well.

Special mention must also go to the condom machine in the toilets which offered alongside the usual prophelactics many other necessities for your pub-visiting man, including Tic-Tacs, Lynx and novels by Dostoyevsky. I’m not sure what they sold in the Ladies toilets, possibly shoes. Ladies like shoes.

It’s certainly not worth a special journey to the Speckled Hen, especially as there are so many fine quality pubs in the centre of town. But if you find yourself in the vicinity, which you are very unlikely to, then why not pop along.  The food was good value and the service pretty good. If you live thereabouts you’ve probably worked out your own feelings on the place by now.