It’s easy to see why Cambridge is a relentlessly popular destination for 8 million tourists each year: stunning architecture, the picturesque River Cam, the opportunity to take a boat trip down that river while being told spurious facts about the city and its architecture by the local guides. It’s less easy to see why such a phenomenal city would fly entirely under the radar as a dining destination, despite the presence of excellent food. This is a city of chubby jiaozi, impeccable gelato, soupy xiao long bao, French bistronomy, natural wine, Nigerian stews, peerless coffee, custardy pasteis de nata, fragrant tagines, and so much culinary wealth if visitors look beyond the spires.
The influence of the colleges plays a part. In the popular imagination, Cambridge is largely defined by its student population — despite the fact that the vast majority live in the city only around 24 to 28 weeks of the year — and the university provides subsidised food, instead of self-catering accommodations that would encourage cooking and exploratory shopping. It also controls vast amounts of the city, acting as landlord as much as educator, allowing it to decide who can open a restaurant and where.
But for all the global love of its academics, Cambridge is also a place where people live year-round. While restaurant workers always knew this, one of the rare positive impacts of the otherwise horrific COVID-19 pandemic is that it has given local operators a chance to strengthen their relationships with locals and with one another. The pandemic temporarily removed many of the students from the city and shifted the usual dynamic, enabling restaurants to reconfigure who and how they served.
It’s clear now that Cambridge is a food city as serious as any other, one visitors can enjoy too if they’re willing to park some preconceived notions and, perhaps more importantly, treat Cambridge as bigger than its historic university centre.Read More