Everyone knows all the clichés about Oxford: the dreaming spires, the punting, Inspector Morse, Radiohead. What few people know is that — stealthily — the city’s previously basic dining scene has been invigorated by a stream of interesting, innovative restaurants, offering great cooking at a price that anyone from a rock star to a student can counsel. And at just an hour’s train journey from London Paddington — or slightly longer on the well-patronised coach services the Oxford Tube and X90 — it’s the perfect distance from the capital for a culinary day trip.Read More
Where to Eat in Oxford
A buzzing French bistro, some serious Thai cooking, and the classic pubs worth visiting
1. Oli's Thai
This Thai restaurant, situated in a residential side street off east Oxford’s diverse Cowley Road, proudly boasts that diners need to book three months in advance. There’s normally a couple of seats at the bar held back for walk-ins. The food, from chef Laddawan Thurston, specialises in innovative takes on traditional Thai cuisine, and the confit duck panang is justly famous, although make sure to leave space for an exquisite Portuguese-influenced custard tart.
From the owners of Oli’s Thai, would-be hipsters and adventurous diners alike beat a path to this tapas bar, which offers an ever-changing menu of Spanish dishes. These range from old favourites done extremely well like chorizo or slow roasted pork belly with mojo verde, to innovative plates seldom seen outside of Spain. The cocido montañés is a particular delight. Seats can be hard to come by, but there’s normally space at the bar if waiting isn’t an issue.
3. Magdalen Arms Oxford
An old and undistinguished boozer about half an hour’s walk from the city centre was taken over by the people behind London’s esteemed Anchor and Hope, so regulars there will know roughly what to expect. The hero dishes are the ones to share: Hereford steak and ale suet crust pie, or the slow cooked lamb shoulder. Those with less gargantuan appetites — or, it has to be said, wallets — can take advantage of a good-value set lunch and early supper deal.
Chef Pascal Wiedemann worked at London institutions Racine and Terroirs before deciding to head to the north Oxford suburb of Summertown with his wife to open a restaurant inspired by French provincial cooking. Arguably the most successful mid-price place currently functioning in the city, it serves up an array of charcuterie, along with mouthwateringly accomplished fish soup and lamb chops. A prix fixe menu at lunchtime brings in a crowd who otherwise might pass this fine place by.
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5. The Oxford Kitchen
Most restaurants awarded a Michelin star make a big deal about it, but the Oxford Kitchen, on the main road going through Summertown, literally has its award painted on its front. Just as well, then, that ex-Rhodes at W1 chef Paul Welburn knows exactly what he’s doing inside; fans come out raving about the likes of Cornish squid ragù and mackerel and buttermilk. Sometimes, perhaps it’s worth being a bit ostentatious.
6. Turl Street Kitchen
‘I’ve got an essay crisis!’ Students of all ages can usually be found at this excellent and stylish city centre bistro, which gets extra points for having Oxford’s most unusual brunch: try the crumpets with marmite butter or the broccoli and goat’s cheese with split peas. It also gets kudos for being run as a social enterprise, meaning that it and the sister business, the Oxford Hub, are ploughing profits back into charity; a side-order of goodwill with an excellent onion and asparagus tart.
7. Gee's Restaurant & Bar
In the heart of north Oxford, this elegant Victorian conservatory houses local hotelier and restaurateur Jeremy Mogford’s most upmarket establishment. It’s usually packed every lunchtime and evening with a mixture of students and their parents celebrating or commiserating exam results, well-heeled residents of the million-pound mansions nearb,y and curious gourmands attracted by the Mediterranean-influenced menu, which includes wood-fired guinea fowl, nettle and wild garlic risotto and the most comprehensive paella imaginable.
8. Cherwell Boathouse Restaurant
This venerable and much-beloved institution recently celebrated its sixtieth birthday, and, if happy to walk the twenty minutes or so into north Oxford, diners are rewarded with a comfortingly dependable menu, with favourites like gin confit sea trout, pork belly with broccoli puree, and chocolate arctic roll. Those in the know order something a bit special from the well-chosen and extremely good value wine list; when the weather’s nice hire a punt and go along the Thames.
The ever-trendy Jericho might traditionally be home to writers and artists, but this Chinese-Malaysian restaurant draws people in from all over the city, and beyond. When ordering, ignore the usual staples and go straight for dishes like crispy cereal king prawns, mango chicken and Sichuan style lamb brisket. The Sichuan dishes in particular can bring diners out in a chilli-flecked sweat, but that’s just part of the fun.
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When Branca opened nearly two decades ago, this big, brash Jericho Italian restaurant had the feel and energy of something in Manhattan. Thanks to a big recent refurbishment, it’s now got a brilliant delicatessen and extra space in the bar, and the cooking’s grown more confident. Gnocchi and goat’s cheese and smoked haddock risotto are dependable standbys, and the pizzas have always been popular, especially the ‘half and half’ option that allows diners to create their own doughy behemoth.
11. Antep Kitchen Oxford
Walk down the Cowley Road and be rewarded with this smart Turkish restaurant, which has the deserved reputation for serving utterly enormous portions of ocakbasi staples; the yogurtlu adana, minced lamb grilled on skewers and served in a yoghurt sauce, is the stuff of fables. Don’t be tempted to over-order; there is no way that anyone with a normal-sized appetite needs more than one main dish here.
12. The Punter
This riverside pub, situated a little way from the station, is one of the city’s best-kept secrets, along with its sister restaurant round the corner, The Porterhouse. The menu offers brilliant Scotch eggs — as good as the esteemed Harwood Arms in the capital — along with seasonal mains such as venison steak and juniper butter and wild boar and lentil pie with celeric mash. An excellent-value £7 lunch special is sadly no more, but it’s hardly bank-breaking amounts even now, and the double gin and tonics for £3.50 are the best value in Oxford.