May is local history and community month. Oxford certainly has more than its share of history, it is literally everywhere and one thing that is guaranteed to start a discussion with a flood of memories, is asking locals what their favourite restaurants used to be. With that in mind and a long mental list of places I miss regularly, I asked around to see which Oxford restaurants of the past were missed…
The first place to be mentioned from pretty much everyone of a certain age was Bretts Burgers. Back in the days before Said Business School and Frideswides Square, when a car tyre place occupied the old LMS railway station, there was a small green shed, from which emitted the most dribble inducing smells of charred meat, freshly fried chips with generous lashings of salt and vinegar. Bretts was the place to go, whether it was on your way home from work or the pub and for me, it had to be a burger with aioli. Just make sure whoever you were taking home ate the same mouth-tingling garlic! For a while, there was a Bretts on the Cowley Road too, but it never reached the same dizzy heights of the train station shed. Many a tear was shed when Bretts finally closed its doors.
A close second to Bretts is, or was, Peppers Burgers in Jericho. Another venue that chargrilled its meat patties to order, there were queues out the door most nights of the week. Living in the pub next door, I was a regular and sampled pretty much every sauce they did, always accompanied with a paper-wrapped bundle of steaming vinegary fries. Peppers is still going now, but they do pizzas too which seems wrong to me! A friend recently posted on Facebook the definitive question, Bretts or Peppers? I’d choose Bretts, as did many of the other responders but they were all happy that we now have Atomic Burgers to sate our need for burgery goodness! There was also a few memories shared of the old Wimpy in St Giles, which was on the corner of Pusey Street, where the Oxfam bookshop now is. Of course, that’s just a few doors away from St Giles Cafe, no longer a tobacco-stained greasy spoon!
I remember Wimpy being in Cornmarket Street where Burger King now is, the front left of the restaurant was given over to Baskin Robbins 31 Flavours – the height of fine dining for a kid whose ice-cream highlight had previously been an Arctic Roll!
Going back even earlier, what is now HMV had been a haberdashery and before that, it was the Cadena, with a bakery on the ground floor and upstairs a proper palm court tea room with a string quartet playing in the afternoons. Or there was the Carfax Tea Rooms on Cornmarket, now Pret a Manger, to be served tea by ladies in black dresses with white broderie Anglais aprons and headbands. If you didn’t fancy being quite as proper, you could have had your pie and a scoop of mash at Crawfords in Queen Street, a restaurant owned by a local family that has now become Maxwells. Crawfords was the place you would go to as a teenager in the late 50s, early 60s to share lingering glances over your ice cream sundae!
Jumping forward a few decades, teenagers in the 80s would meet on their way to or from the ice rink at the oddly popular Don Millers! A bakery with a damn good line in sugary jam doughnuts, hot chips in cones with a puddle of vinegar at the bottom and sausage rolls with suspiciously pink fillings, it would be full of kids in their pastel polo shirts, Sergio Tacchini light jackets artfully arranged off the shoulders and BK trainers. Not that much different to the current tenant in that spot – BHS!
Over the road from Don Millers, around where the Levi store is, was a stereotypical French bistro. Underground, it had the ubiquitous checked tablecloths, wine bottles with candles in and stuck in my mind as being the first place I ever ate frogs legs!
Back a generation to when Restaurant Elizabeth in St Aldates was regarded as THE best restaurant in Oxford, now Shanghai 30s. It had started as a French fine dining eatery in the mid 1950s and in 1966 the owner moved on, leaving the restaurant in the extremely capable hands of his Spanish head waiter, Antonio Lopez who brought a more Mediterranean menu and kept the restaurant as a pinnacle of fine dining in Oxford for more than thirty years.
At the other end of town in the 1970s, a new era of fine dining was to begin as Raymond Blanc opened his first restaurant Les Quat Saisons. That restaurant was so successful, he decided to open a little place in the country, with bedrooms. We all know how that turned out! Staying in Summertown, La Dolce Vita was a dated Italian restaurant that became Florios and is now The Oxford Kitchen.
Students went for dinner at Luna Caprese for many years, my boss remembers taking dates there when he was a student a few decades ago and Samantha Shannon, a successful author who graduated from St Anne’s last year also has fond memories of it. A fellow food blogger doesn’t have such good memories and judging by what she found in her dessert, it may have been a good time for that one to close. A new restaurant is in the process of moving in, and as always we will keep you informed!
Into Jericho, where the Big Bang no longer exists. It is of course in its new home at the Oxford Castle, but that just doesn’t feel the same… Jericho was renowned not so much for its food, with the exception of the aforementioned Peppers everywhere else was standard Indian restaurants, but for its pubs. Back when I was growing up in Jericho, there was pretty much a pub on every corner of those terraced streets. Nowadays, there’s the Rickety Press, but then it was the Radcliffe Arms with Bob and Ann as the landlords and the biggest Alsatian dog I’ve ever known, Brandy. Across the street was the Harcourt Arms, which hasn’t changed much at all, and down a bit was the Globe. Then there was the Bakers, the Carpenters Arms, the New Inn, the Crown and the Plough & Anchor. The Bookbinders is thankfully still going and was always worth a stop off on a Friday night for their meat raffle. Back out onto Walton Street and there was the Walton Ale Stores, the Lord Napier in Observatory Street and the Horse and Jockey on Woodstock Road. Good times!
The Varsity Club in the High Street was until recently a pretty dodgy nightclub/bar but prior to that, it was a pretty good bistro and cocktail bar known as Hemingways, the late-80s to mid-90s. Going back further it was Burlington Bertie’s, cocktails, milkshakes, burgers and wonderful garlic mushrooms! Over the road is the old police station in Kemp Hall, now housing Chiang Mai. Between the police and the Thai, there was the Kemp Hall Tea Rooms, an Anglo-Chinese restaurant, an Indian and then La Sorbonne for over twenty years. Widely regarded as the second best restaurant in Oxford, just beaten by Restaurant Elizabeth, its first chef was Raymond Blanc who left to set up that restaurant in Summertown!
Other places gone but not forgotten, include the original Opium Den, which is now Nando’s, Gashi Gashi, Munchie Munchie in Park End Street, Lan Kwai Fong and La Capannina which then became Fratellis and is now Atomic Pizzas!
** UPDATE I’ve now discovered that Bretts Burgers is alive and well and housed in a mobile military bomb disposal unit but serving burgers at events in and around Guildford! Only tasting will tell if it lives up to the memories, the addition of truffle and parmesan fries does make me wonder… You can find out more at www.brettsburger.com