Oxford – full of history, gowns, lectures, and some of the nicest dining spots in the country.
The Oxfordshire countryside is often better associated with culinary ambition. Old, crooked pubs and sweeping hotels that under solid beams dish out the county’s finest meat and veg. These are often frequented as retreats, perfect for enjoying after wandering the city’s streets, marvelling at history and architecture sublime.
In the city centre, there are old favourites such as The Randolph Hotel, new formal settings, too, like the dining spot on the top floor of the famous Ashmolean Museum.
But there are also well-known city haunts that are worth negotiation the traffic for. Or little gems down the quieter streets that take a little finding. Here are the ten best.
Probably the best Thai food outside South East Asia, perhaps even Thailand itself. Everything is evocative of the country – fragrant and salty, punchy and complex. The rice is fluffy, and the Chang beer washes it all down nicely.
Brasserie Blanc is celebrating its 21st anniversary this year as the Oxford Venue first opened its doors in 1996. Led by Raymond Blanc, this restaurant is all about the french cuisine (‘honest food, cooked with the heart’ is his motto) – and the best of it. Their menus are seasonal and this autumn you can have a two course set menu complete with a specially priced glass of wine. We will see you there because this looks fantastic!
3. Old Parsonage £££
The Old Parsonage Hotel and its restaurant are a somewhat swankier affair entirely. It’s where the socialites of Oxford hang out in town before drinking zombies at Lola Lo. The restaurant is less formal than its sister outfit Quod, though, and focuses on afternoon teas and all-day dining. But I think it’s more interesting as it has grounds to veer further from the safe bet of confit duck with red cabbage. There’s veal, for example, Cornish sole, and a good rabbit pie.
I’ve got to include this place. Oxford’s food aficionados believe this used to be the best restaurant in the city. When the magnificent Charles Michel was still about town, he’d frequent the pub. So too did the Oxford Gastronomica lot, who know a thing or two about eating. When it launched, the Rickety Press was a low-key, food-focused restaurant with fine cooking and ideas you’d struggle to match unless you went out into The Cotswolds, or down to Henley. Now, it’s had a bit of a makeover and it seems to be more geared towards a crowd that wishes it were in London but still has a year at university to contend with. Pizza and burgers – but good ones.
Probably the most Oxford restaurant ever conceived is the Cherwell Boathouse. It’s what it says it is, and you dine next to a particularly tranquil spot on the Thames, all ducks and sunshine. The regular menu is a bit fussy and can sometimes be a little too ‘parents taking you out for a nice meal but forgot to book somewhere properly amazing’, if you know what I mean. But go for a tasting menu, where Cornish fish soup is paired with things like Sancerre, and Brixham scallops are served alongside a 1999 Meursault.
6. Sojo ££
You might’ve heard a Times food critic rave about this place more than once. Well, he knows better than me. But yes, it’s really quite wonderful – the food is powerful, the service calm and relaxed. Eat the dim sum. All of it.
7. Kazbar ££
Kazbar, on the Cowley Road, not far from where David Cameron once lived, fuses Moroccan and Spanish tapas. Think hummus and warm pitta, patatas bravas, rich octopus in tomato sauce, butter beans braised for just enough time to soften, but hold a little bite. The mojitos are better than most, the service friendly, and the decor is a sight to behold as you tuck into your third bowl of spicy meatballs. I love meatballs – much better than burgers.
This pub was hyped around half a decade ago. And rightly so – the chef sourced food from patrons’ allotments. If you brought in a handful of carrots, the team would buy them off you, cook them, and serve them back. Or offset the cost when your bill arrived (which was large). Recently, the excitement started to fray, as it does, and at times the menu lacked focus. But it remains a solid place to dine, with an intriguing blend of European influences and solid flavours. Above all, the meat is always great quality, and cooked in crowd-pleasingly rustic fashion. The wine list is admirable.
9. The Perch £££
Another Oxford pub with a ‘gastro’ concept is The Perch. Tucked away next to the canal, cycling here on a warm day is quite special. The food is very simple – don’t expect anything majestic. But if you’re in need of some fish and chips and a pint of ale, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better.
Finally, The Oxford Kitchen, which offers ‘relaxed fine dining’ and, for the most part, delivers. The menu is usually short and considered – traditional French done well. Sometimes that’s all you want.