The Hideout Kafe

Best Part: Crisp Chips
Price for 2 diners: £18.3
In and out within 1 hr: Yes
Where: Hidden next to Thompsons
Rating: 6.5/10

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The Hideout Kafe has been a St. Albans resident for about a year now even though they can’t seem to spell their own name properly. It is a very cute little place operating on the former site of Sunnyday blinds, bringing a little ray of sunshine to us all. Annoyingly on the day we visited it was far too cold to eat in their little courtyard garden so we had to squeeze inside. It really is a very tight fit with only 4 tables but as most people seemed to be taking their food away that didn’t seem to be a big problem. Our table by the window was so arranged that I had to sit with my legs akimbo but I could distract myself with people watching.

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On to the food. They have a classic cafe menu with an Asian theme e.g samosas and chips, alongside daily specials. I fancied something simple on this occasion and had a very pleasant mushroom omelette and side salad. It was sensibly priced and presented.

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Mr M-W pursued the Eastern path, going for the chicken biriyani. It was a very presentable biryani, especially considering what I assume are their limited cooking facilities. It was actually very good comfort food, considering it originated on a continent where grey depressing windy days are fairly rare, and reminded me slightly of kedgeree in it’s creaminess. It was served with a slightly perfunctory but at least in this case it was dressed.

To add to the warminess we went for hot drinks (this being a café after all). As this was still in the seasonal time when winter flavourings were everywhere I went for a gingerbread hot chocolate. It was hot, gingery and chocolatey and an interesting flavour combination with the biriyani. Not necessarily one I’d want to repeat, but definitely interesting. We also went for chips because it’s hard not to go for chips. They were lovely and crisp and were probably the high point of the meal, as you would know if you’d read the very first line of this review.

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I would like to return to the Hideout Kafe when the weather is warmer to enjoy their quiet courtyard garden. I might also return if a wanted a good takeaway lunch to eat in the nearby sensory garden.

Blacksmiths Arms

Best Part: The Pizza Innovation
Price for 2 diners: £20
In and out within 1 hr: Yes
Where: Opposite the Cock
Rating: 8.4/10

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We had been saving our visit to the Blacksmiths Arms for the Summer, as they have a very pleasant outdoor area. This week, however, we really fancied somewhere snug and comforting and it turns out that the Blacksmiths Arms is a pub for all seasons. According to whoever decorated the pub it was already the season to be jolly when we visited, despite it being only the 14th November (which gives you an insight into how long we spend deliberating/forgetting about this review). Now you could quite justifiably point out the fact that I had a Pigs in Blanket roll last week, but I don’t necessarily want it shoved in my face this early. Bah Humbug.

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The menu here was extensive, too extensive one might say, and I found myself getting lost in the seemingly endless possibilities. Then my eyes rested on two words, two simple words that are relatively innocuous but together are absolute dynamite. ‘Pizza Cone’. For those who have never experienced this, and that included me until this point, a Pizza Cone is a pizza, rolled up into a conical shape and filled with chips which are then covered with cheese sauce and bacon. This looked very impressive and drew admiring glances and comments from our fellow diners, which is the main thing I want from a meal. Regarding the secondary consideration of eating it the concept falls down slightly. Due to it’s vertical unsupported nature the only way that you can eat the pizza is by pulling chunks off it, which isn’t the most sophisticated approach. It was a good pizza, none-the-less, but the chips were a little lacklustre. The sort of chips that would have been acceptable in a Wimpy in the 80s, but things have moved in in chip technology since then. There was a nice final treat at the end, though, as the cheese, bacon and grease had congealed into the tip of the cone, like a savoury cornetto.

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Mrs midweek lunch enjoyed a vegetarian pizza and beer lunchtime deal. She wasn’t expecting much from the pizza but was absolutely delighted with the base and toppings. The  only thing that annoyed her was not be able to season her pizza with freshly ground black pepper. It has been increasingly and surprisingly  common to only have the option of that horrible powdery stuff from the 1970s even in eateries like this that serve super food. There must have been some court case a few years ago (probably American) finding it was hygienic. However I like it and it’s not as likely to make you sneeze corona virus germs all over your meal as the grey dust everyone seems to be serving these days.

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The Blacksmith’s is a good place to come for lunch. The food was very prompt, and good value. £9 would buy you a pizza and a beer from their extensive selection, and they had a number of other lunch deals. On a Thursday it was quiet but not enough to make you feel self-conscious. I look forward to returning during one of the 8 days in the year that we could actually use their beer garden, and trying out one of their more usual-shaped dishes.

 

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.