Guest post by Hannah Bond
London is one of the food capitals of the world, and Oxford is a culinary outpost of London. Alright, fine, Oxford’s more than that. There are libraries and stuff. But as far as food goes, if London’s the trendsetting big brother – the first one to get a girlfriend and discover the bands no one has heard of – Oxford is the eager tag-along younger sibling, desperately trying to be just as cool.
The truth is that Oxford is a small city. (Personally, having been raised in London, I still have trouble calling Oxford a city. You can walk across it in forty minutes. One cathedral does not a city make). As a foodie destination, many people have loudly and publicly complained that it falls short, despite being full of money and people with money and institutions with money. You will constantly hear residents and incoming food critics alike bemoaning the fact that you have to go out of Oxford to find a decent meal – perhaps even all the way to London.
London is the place where thriving food empires are born: Oxford is the place they come to play once they’ve made a name for themselves in the capital. It makes sense. Once you’ve established a successful culinary business model in London, you might find that coming to Oxford makes you the proverbial whale in the paddling pool.
It seems that Julian Metcalfe has done just that. You might not know his name, but if you’ve walked down Cornmarket Street with your eyes open at any point during the last six months, you will have noticed that his baby, itsu, has taken up residence. Metcalfe plans to expand the brand and will settle on nothing but world domination (alright, so that’s not exactly a direct quote), but Oxford was the first place he took it to once he’d established a successful London base – just one example of the ‘restaurant chains invasion’. His emphasis on healthy, light fast food is very much of the moment – Metcalfe describes it as ‘all quite cutting edge’. And it’s flourishing here, probably because of people like me: I am far too lazy and disorganised to bring my own lunches to work and we don’t have a canteen in our building, so I need to eat out and eat quickly. Although I could quite cheerfully eat a burrito the size of my head from Mission followed by a bag of Ben’s Cookies every day, the nagging desire not to let my natural gluttony drag me into an early grave forces me to intersperse these carb-chasing pursuits with visits to itsu for sushi and chicken soup. And it’s all really quite delicious.
But itsu is just the city’s most recent chain invasion, opening its doors in September 2013, but Bill’s joined us in March 2013 and Byron came along in July 2012. Although its first incarnation was in Sussex, Bill’s now brings us London’s hipster food-scene vibe. That might sounds derogatory, but I really don’t mean it to be: Bill’s has got a buzzy atmosphere and a menu full of tasty modern British food. I really don’t mind the faux-industrial pipes in the ceiling or their engineered shabby-chic look. And they’re perfectly pleasant about letting you order toast and then continue to sit there ‘working’ for three hours, making abundant use of their free WiFi. It’s another place that’s successful because it’s taken a business model that’s been a hit in London and brought it to Oxford, where people appreciate the fact that the place is open for wonderfully extended hours and doesn’t mind if you use it as an office.
Byron, again, is bringing Oxford a London trend a couple of years late. Ten years ago, ‘grabbing a burger’ was probably something that involved either McDonalds or a kebab van and copious amounts of alcohol. Now, burgers have been given the gourmet treatment and all things kitschy and American have become established food-staples in restaurants and gastro-pubs alike. Pulled pork, slow-cooked ribs, and fancy onion rings are near-ubiquitous, but nothing has won Britain’s meat-saturated hearts quite like the posh burger. So, accordingly, Byron trotted in to take up residence on George Street and break the seemingly-endless procession of Italian restaurants. Recently, Cleaver has trundled along in its wake.
So, what does this mean for Oxford? Well, it means that if you want to know what’s going to be coming to town in about two years you should have a look at what’s thriving in London now and then impress all your friends by pretending to be psychic when it arrives here. But more generally, is the London Invasion a positive thing for Oxford?
Personally, I’d argue that it is. I think that itsu, Bill’s and Byron are all good additions to the Oxford food scene, and if London’s winning the foodie capital award then it’s nice for us to at least get the shine reflected off the trophy. Bear in mind, too, that those are three fairly random examples: I’ve not mentioned places like the Magdalen Arms or Quarter Horse Coffee that have been opened by people who had previously run London enterprises before trying their luck here.
People might worry for Oxford’s independents, but personally I think there’s room for everyone. Atomic, Oxford’s burger giants, don’t seem to have suffered following the arrival of Byron for example – try getting a walk-in table there on a Friday night and you’ll see my point. Generally, healthy competition is to be encouraged as it drives up the standard as a whole. And if Oxford starts being taken seriously in the food world, maybe we’ll get more people from London coming here to start up independent venues such as the aforementioned and much acclaimed Magdalen Arms and Quarter Horse Coffee. And that can only be a good thing.