Food for every taste
From eateries in Oxford’s continental and arty Jericho, to the fine-dining at Eynsham Hall or Raymond Blanc’s Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, there is something to suit everyone’s tastes in Oxfordshire’s diverse collection of restaurants.
The Oxford Wine Café on the corner of Walton and Little Clarendon Streets is ideal for relaxing with a glass of bubbly, red or white and a bowl of olives before you go out to eat. A few metres along on the same side of the road is Branca, with its mix of music, cocktails, Italian-influenced food and fashionable clientele. Cross over and take advantage of the excellent value set-menus at Brasserie Blanc or fish and seafood restaurant Loch Fyne.
The Rickety Press in Cranham Street is a firm favourite with local residents, mainly for its wonderfully welcoming shabby-chic interior and tasty stone-baked pizzas. Leaving Walton Street, head up Little Clarendon Street which is the ideal place for anyone struggling to make up their mind what type of cuisine they want to try. This narrow lane is crammed with a myriad of venues including Italian restaurant Carluccio’s, French bistros Pierre Victoire and Café Rouge, tapas bar Al-Andalus, Japanese sushi bar Moshi and Gail’s bakery which serves more than 40 types of bread, filled rolls, soup, coffee and cakes.
When it comes to number of restaurants per square metre, George Street wins hands down. Running parallel with Queen Street, this road is also packed with every type of cuisine you can think of, including Italian, pizza, French, Thai, Japanese, Jamaican and burger places. Just off George Street is Gloucester Green where there are two stand-out venues.
Anyone who enjoys a good mental workout will love Thirsty Meeples but be warned, with more than 2,000 board, card and dice games to choose from, drinks and food on tap plus smiley staff who are happy to explain the rules of any game, you may find it difficult to tear yourself away. It’s not unusual for the clientele to be still pondering over a strategy game three or four hours after they rolled the first dice.
Games are suitable for all ages, and there’s also the option to buy many if you can’t bear to part with them. Once you’ve paid the small cover charge of £2.50-£4.50 per person, depending on the time of day, you’re free to play as many brain-teasers as you choose. There’s no pressure to order any food or drink once you’ve stumped up the cover charge but there’s a superb choice of craft beers and ciders, wines, coffee, tea, gourmet sausage rolls, sandwiches or nibbles such as nuts, crisps and sweets.
The Rickety Press in Cranham Street is a firm favourite with local residents, mainly for its wonderfully welcoming shabby-chic interior and tasty stone-baked pizzas
With all that sightseeing to do, sometimes eating on the hoof is just right. Try El Mexicana, also in Gloucester Green, where you can design your own Mexican wrap. It’s also worth heading to the Castle Quarter, where there are regular craft markets, an open-air theatre, cinema and a plethora of bars and restaurants, all centred around the castle.
The pop-up Bitten Street market, which has been running since 2014, is a huge hit with locals and tourists. Held on the first Saturday of each month from 11.30am to 4.30pm, it’s a vibrant mix of street food, music and beer. There are a myriad of mobile restaurant stalls selling delicious concoctions from home-made Italian ice cream to Spanish tapas and Tibetan cuisine. Diners are also spoilt for choice when it comes to permanent restaurants at the Castle Quarter, with a mix of well-known names such as Prezzo and The Slug and Lettuce through to 1855 bar and bistro and Malmaison hotel with its brasserie and visitor’s bar.
The latter is a reminder that the Norman medieval castle was used as a prison from the 18th century until the mid-1990s and this was where relatives came to see the prisoners. There are still has many original features throughout including original iron doors, prison walkways and landings. It’s also the perfect place to sample a few cocktails.
The other place to find a fabulous selection of food and drink is at the newly revamped Westgate shopping and leisure centre next to the Castle. With a roof terrace, foodies can feast at New York inspired Dirty Bones, cocktail bar The Alchemist, Pizza Pilgrim, fish and chip/seafood restaurant Salt ‘n’ Sauce, Vietnamese street food outlet Pho, Nando’s and more.
No trip to the city would be complete without visiting the Randolph Hotel. The elegant steps leading to the entrance of the Grade-2 listed Victorian Gothic building have appeared many times in episodes of the popular TV series Inspector Morse. The hotel, recently given a £6.5m facelift, includes The Morse Bar, the part of the hotel most closely associated with the famous murder mystery series and its successful spin-offs Lewis and Endeavour. Scenes are still filmed in this room, with its cosy armchairs and waiter-service and while sipping your drink, expect to spot at least one well-known actor or politician. On site is also a Champagne bar and the Acanthus bistro, where the menu ranges from oysters or confit duck leg to eggs Benedict and steak sandwiches.
Alternatively, opt for afternoon tea in the sumptuous drawing room. Across the road, fine dining and views to die for are on offer at The Ashmolean’s top-floor restaurant. Peruse a few of the museum’s treasures before relaxing over a mid-morning coffee or lunch and, if it’s sunny, opt to sit on the roof terrace and gaze out across the city’s rooftops. If dining there in the evening, you’ll find the museum’s giant front doors in Beaumont Street firmly closed, so use the side entrance in St Giles where a lift will sweep you up to the top floor.
The latter is a reminder that the Norman medieval castle was used as a prison from the 18th century until the mid-1990s and this was where relatives came to see the prisoners
Dining by the riverside
Another great place to soak up the city’s atmosphere is The Grand Café on the High Street, known locally as ‘The High’. This ornate building, on the site of England’s first coffee house according to Samuel Pepys’ 1650 diary, is something of an Oxford institution. While studying at the University, it was one of Chelsea Clinton’s favourite haunts and she took her father, Bill, there for lunch. For the rest of us, it’s an ideal spot to eavesdrop on academic glitterati while tucking into patisseries, sandwiches or afternoon tea, washed down with a fresh pot of tea, coffee or a refreshing glass of bubbly.
A few doors along, another favourite with locals and visitors alike is Quod brasserie at The Old Bank Hotel. Crisp white tablecloths and vaulted ceilings make it feel more expensive than it is. Here you will find parents taking undergraduate offspring to lunch, families coming together, friends catching up over brunch and romantic couples dining tete a tete. Open all day, it offers pretty much anything from a simple coffee and a Danish pastry or full English breakfast, through to three-courses with wine.
Oxford has a burgeoning ethically-produced and organic food scene, so if you want to enjoy good food with a clear conscience, look up the Turl Street Kitchen in Turl Street. As a social enterprise, all profits go towards supporting a local charity. Food provenance is also a big deal for the owners of Organic Deli Café in the narrow Friars Entry lane which runs between Gloucester Green and St Giles. Slabs of soda bread, crafted in the in-house bakery, are delicious served with mounds of cream cheese and smoked salmon. Or go for one of the all-day breakfasts, washed down with excellent coffee.
Oxford is surrounded by rivers and canals, so is the perfect place to grab a drink or something to eat while gazing out across the water. The most central is The Head of the River pub, which, as its name suggests, is located next to the Cherwell on Folly Bridge. Meanwhile at Cherwell Boat House in Bardwell Road, off Banbury Road, hire a boat to take punting on the river before or after tucking into the delicious food. If you’re not feeling that energetic, relax and enjoy the views while watching others make their way along the river.
The Perch Inn in Binsey is five minutes down a rutted lane off Botley Road but well worth making the effort. Its location on the banks of The Isis, as the River Thames is known where it flows through Oxford, is nothing short of gorgeous. This quaint 17th-century thatched pub’s home-cooked menu makes it a good choice at any time but it’s on sunny days that it really comes into its own. Thirsty students, hungry walkers, families and muddy dogs all pile into the huge garden to make the most of its shady trees and river views.
Oxford is surrounded by rivers and canals, so is the perfect place to grab a drink or something to eat while gazing out across the water
Another wonderful waterside pub is The Punter on Osney Island, so-called because technically speaking there are rivers, streams or canals on every side of this stretch of land behind Botley Road, to the west of the City. It offers good value for money and a chance to watch boats making their way through Osney Lock. And if you are a steak lover, make sure you make time to visit the Porterhouse Steak Grill in Mill Street, just a stone’s throw from the main rail station. Not only do they have a huge selection of the finest, dry-aged and hand-butchered steaks but there are fine ales and some of the friendliest service in Oxford.
East Oxford is the most fashionable part of the city, with its mix of buzzy and slightly edgy bars and restaurants. Its reputation for being foodie heaven is mainly due to places such as the Magdalen Arms on the corner of Magdalen Road and Iffley Road and The Chester in Chester Street, just off Iffley Road – particularly praised for its steak. One of the best-kept local secrets is small bakery and cafe Silvie, tucked away down Iffley Road and offering scrumptious freshly-baked bread and cakes.
Try the Rusty Bicycle pub on Magdalen Road for gourmet burgers and hot dogs, pizzas and real ales and a notably great atmosphere. If you’re after something spicy, head for critically-acclaimed Chinese restaurants Zheng in Walton Street or Sojo in Hythe Bridge Street. For Thai, you won’t go far wrong with the Chiang Mai Kitchen, off the High Street, and if you have a hankering for a good curry beat a path to Chutneys in St Michael’s Street, which runs off Cornmarket.
Summertown has its fair share of eateries including The Oxford Kitchen in Banbury Road, known for its fresh, seasonal home-cooking and ethical approach to food. Feel part of the Oxford academic set by enjoying a sumptuous lunch or dinner at Gee’s, with its unusual glass-house looks, or the ivy-clad The Old Parsonage, both of which are on Banbury Road.
Try the alternative, hippy-style OxFork Café in Magdalen Road for cheap and tasty brunches or lunches, including excellent vegetarian selections
Ye olde pub lunch
If you enjoy art and history, pay a visit to The Jam Factory, off Frideswide Square, so-called because it is on the site of the old Coopers Marmalade factory. It has free exhibitions of art and photography, cosy sofas and an airy, light glass-roofed feel which is perfect for lingering over a latte or beer.
The Muddy Duck in Hethe near Bicester has sparked much praise for its mix of rustic-meets-chic by way of lamb shoulder, duck breast, venison and much more. Put The Plough in Kingham on your ‘must visit’ list because this lovely pub, serving mainly traditional British dishes with a twist, has been featured in several TV food series including Hairy Bikers and Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food. Owner and head chef Emily Watkins competed in the TV series Great British Menu and won with her fish course.
The Fleece, looking out over the village green and The Hollybush in Witney are the pick of this charming market town which was once a centre of the wool trade. While you’re in the area, take a look at Eynsham Hall a couple of miles further on which recently opened a new brasserie. In summer, take your drink on the terrace looking out across the beautiful grounds, or hole-up in the Gunroom on cooler days.
Another great place for superb pub grub is The Lamb, tucked away in the tiny hamlet of Crawley near Witney. Other gems in the west of the county include The Crown, The Feathers and The Bear in Woodstock. With all three a stone’s throw from Blenheim Palace, they offer a chance to walk off lunch, while admiring the stunning Capability Brown-designed gardens owned by the Duke of Marlborough.
Talking of royalty, Oxfordshire’s own celebrity chef Raymond Blanc’s beautiful country hotel, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, is in Great Milton near Thame. Prices start from £82 per person for the five-course tasting lunch at the two Michelin-starred restaurant but many agree it is the ultimate culinary experience.
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