The Magdalen Arms has just celebrated its tenth birthday and, if you really think about it, how many of Oxford’s independent food businesses have made it past the 10-year mark?
Recently, The Rusty Bicycle and The Missing Bean have hit a decade and there’s also Clinton Pugh’s trinity of Café Coco, Tarifa and Kazbar, plus Edamame, Pierre Victoire, Chiang Mai, Al-Shami and doubtless a couple more classics, but not that many.
I make no bones about loving this pub. It’s been by my side through some genuine life events. From working in the kitchen to hosting my wedding reception, and my first outing with a new baby. It’s not to everyone’s taste (and that’s kind of the point) but it does have soul, character and love at its heart. Here’s my story with this place, which I hope illustrates why I think it’s made it to a benchmark birthday.
I lived on nearby Percy Street prior to Florence Fowler and Tony Abarno’s takeover of The Magdalen Arms. This huge chasm of a pub had a reputation that proceeded it for all the wrong reasons – for those of you who don’t remember it was a sticky-floored-sports-bar-cum-den-of-inequity, genuinely to be visited at your peril!
When it closed we couldn’t quite believe that anyone was prepared to take such a big space in East Oxford. “How on earth will they fill that?!” we all thought. The newly opened Rusty Bicycle was doing well, but surely there wouldn’t be enough local folks to fill both of these spaces?
How wrong we were.
It took a while, I remember there being about a dozen people inside when I first tentatively stuck my head around the door. But soon word started to spread about the great food, interesting wine list (easy to forget that it was unlike anything else in Oxford at the time) and good (but not without character) service.
Me and my crew loved going hooling-up there early doors – all in our late 20’s and early 30’s then, we devoured the food (I can still savour the first time I tried many Magdalen classics) and drank copiously. Many of us had recently shifted back to OX4 from East London and the vibe seemed to suit the kind of aesthetic we’d embraced in the city.
We got to know and love everyone who worked there – some great characters that Flo and Tony had brought from their stints at The Olde Bell (Hurley) and sister-pub The Anchor and Hope (Waterloo). It was a very small-knit team to begin with, you would never believe that a space that big would run on a core staff of eight, but it really did for a time. In fact, two of the originals, partners Attila Fulup and Suzy Czako, have remained along-side the Abarno-Fowler partnership helping to keep its foundations strong.
I loved the fact that the menu changed as often as twice a day and there were sharing options, both concepts new to our city, which for some it took a while to get accustomed to – sometimes it felt like the entire menu could change mid-dinner on Fridays and Saturdays, it was exciting. I fully embraced that this is the kind of place you’d be as welcome in if you rolled in on a Sunday after a massive night out or coming for a birthday dinner with parents, and visited frequently for all of the occasions.
My time at The Magdalen Arms as a punter was fairly short-lived, I was fresh out of cookery school, Tony offered to teach me how to butcher down a whole lamb and soon after I clambered on to the payroll. Alongside my trusty pal Becky we worked the starters, bread and pudding sections of the kitchen as it steadily got busier and busier. Both new to the busy service game we’d often both be shuddering on the cusp of the busy weekend dinners, double and triple-checking our lists and numbers of dishes, by the end we’ve be so exhilarated/parched that we’d drink a couple of pints of Sagres (affectionately nicknamed Smashy-Smashy by my partner Tom), and stumble off home (or more likely to the last pub still open!).
With the benefit of ten years, I can safely say that I learnt more about cooking in that kitchen than I have done anywhere else. I was also able to admire and learn the level of dedication and hard graft it took to run a successful food business. My experiences here left me fully braced for the rollercoaster of long hours, ecstasy and heartache I would experience as I struck out on my own a year or so later.
There are quite a few reasons that make the Magdalen kitchen different from others I’ve worked in, and here are a few of them.
That lovely salty restaurant bread we all love? That’s made from scratch, by hand (no mixers involved) a couple of batches a day and anyone who learns the recipe is sworn to secrecy. Tony has great relationships with suppliers and works directly with a few farms so that animals are bred and fed especially for the pub. Many of the animals served come in whole or just partially butchered. This is so that absolutely everything can be used in the break down (the fact that faggots were standard Saturday lunch for me for a year was a testament to this). If it isn’t in season, they don’t cook it, Tony and his family all bring in allotment produce to serve in the pub, and speaking of family, most of that delicious pasta (capunti, oricchetti, etc.) is made in-house by Tony’s Mum, Maria.
One of the reasons I’ve continued to be a regular is that, as I’ve grown up, this place has grown with me – from wild nights to after-work meetings, date nights to NCT get-togethers. Many Magdalen regulars have popped out a child-or-two (as have Tony and Flo) and this has changed some of the core output of the pub. There’s Supper Hour (5.30-6.30pm, Monday – Friday) – a great, cost-effective way to take your kids out and introduce them to a proper restaurant experience, fear not though its still great for mates and dates after the kids have fled.
The Magdalen Flea was once an occasional hurrah, but is now a once a month family-friendly market, replete with breakfast, buns and coffee plus some excellent eclectic ephemera. Flo is an avid collector and seller of vibrant and vintage pieces, you can buy her furniture and homeware finds for sale dotted in and around the place making it look lovely, but never the same twice.
I was so thrilled earlier this week to pop in and celebrate with so many old and new friends, ex-colleagues, our families, regulars and – it wouldn’t be The Magdalen without – some randoms.
Congratulations to Tony and Flo, here’s to many more successful years for you, your staff the pub and its friends.