Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Cafes of... Oxford (part 2)

The Rose, High Street

Decent tearooms are very hard to come by in 21st century Britain. As is a decent cream tea and decent pot of tea. The Rose satisfies all three of the above and has become my haven away from home. Not only do they serve a fantastic range of black and herbals teas – Lapsang Souchong, Keemum or Assam are my three on rotation – but teas are made with loose tea and one can get three large cups out of their generous tea pots: the ideal excuse to linger for that extra bit longer. The walls are painted a luxurious red colour that pairs excellently with wooden floorboards and a modest but well selected choice of prints on the wall. It is open for breakfast, lunch – it serves a delicious and inventive menu of salads, hot dishes and sandwiches – and afternoon tea until 6pm.

Their buttermilk scones (like all their food, they are home made using locally sourced ingredients) are the apogee of teatime vice and come served warm with all the required extras. If you are vain (like me), have one scone and share a piece of cake with a friend. The moist lemon cake is near-perfect and the Apple Pie is a good option if you want something a bit ‘healthier’. If you are hungry, opt for two scones and two shared pieces of cake with a friend. Follow with a long walk around the wonderful University Parks.

The best time to visit The Rose is during a weekday afternoon where you are almost guaranteed a position at its best tables that sit by the wide windows overlooking the stone edifices of University College and the motley crowds that pass up and down the High Street. Sunday afternoons see The Rose do a roaring trade, and so it is advised to arrive early in the afternoon before they run out of their scones. Which they always do.

Ideal for: student watching, reading, catching up with old friends, tea with mummy

George & Davies, Little Clarendon Street

Known as G&D’s, I have been going to this ice cream café since I was a kilt-wearing Dragon School student. During my teen years, G&D’s would be where I would go when in need of a break from the underage drinking and smoking that went on in “shitty parks”. Residents are probably overjoyed that Wellington Square has since had its act cleaned up by the council. G&D’s is where my friend A-K and I would spend evenings doing the crossword over tea. Nowadays, I go there at least once every ten days to eat in, and once every three days to take out the delicious ice cream. (Oddly enough, the original and smallest branch of G&D’s always seems to attract a lot of very anorexic girls when I happen to be there. And what better way to fatten up!)

The cream used in the ice cream comes from cows who live a happy existence on a farm in nearby village, Marcham. As well as their staple flavours (Super Chocolate, Daim Bar Crunch, Vanilla among a lot of others), every few days they introduce a couple of “petition” flavours, as requested by customers in their petition book. Soweto Crunch (coffee ice cream laced with crushed dime bars and Kahlua), Salted Caramel and Chai Tea are three petition flavours that I wish would become main stays. The waffle cones are crisp and fresh and the rich chocolate fudge sauce topping has the consistency of magma.

G&D’s serves excellent made-to-order bagels, has an exemplary baked goods offering and its opening hours – 8am-Midnight, 365 days a year – make it ideal for the café-addicted. The atmosphere is informal, the walls are covered with cow-themed artwork and murals and the staff are young and friendly. Half litre tubs (pre or hand-packed) are available at just under a fiver to take home and devour… usually in one sitting.

Ideal for: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and all snacks in between, doing the crosswords, perusing the papers, great music

George & Delia, Cowley Road

G&D’s most recently opened cafe is based alongside the eclectic Cowley Road and is its most spacious branch. None of the intimate and independent charm of its Little Clarendon branch is lost through higher ceilings and more seating. All the ice cream and baked goodies (the muffins rank very high up in my World Muffin Rankings) are cycled over in the G&D’s bike from Little Clarendon Street to this branch, and to the branch on St Aldate’s – George & Danver. George & Delia lends itself just as well to socialising as it does to studying, a meeting with your tutor or – my perennial habit – reading. The music choice is always spot on and obviously lovingly selected: Jimi Hendrix, The Stones, Beirut among many others. A glass façade creates a wonderful feel inside and also provides a view onto Cowley Road outside… a feature, it seems, that many excellent cafes have in common. My choice of which G&D’s to go to depends on where in Oxford I am, but both provide me with the pleasure I seek from any café pilgrimage.

Ideal for: sunny days, lounging on the sofa, people watching – the world outside and the customers

The Vaults & Garden Café, Radcliffe Square

The Vaults is attached to University Church, in a cobbled square off the High Street and next to the Radcliffe Camera. It is very easy to walk straight past the old-fashioned bicycle that heralds the café entrance: I only discovered this amazing nook a few weeks ago. The inside is filled up with long wooden tables and chairs, the walls are white and bare and leave the old stone vaulted ceiling to speak for itself. Everyday a full selection of hot dishes is prepared from a range of local ingredients (pork chilli sausages, anyone?) and for just under ten pounds you can treat yourself to a home cooked meal served with scrumptious potatoes, vegetables, soup, bread and more. The selection of home baked cakes is enough to make you wish you had multiple stomachs to manage it all after the main course. Service is done school-dinner style and queues grow in size very quickly around the lunch hour.
From 2.30pm lunch is cleared away and the afternoon tea spread is laid out which includes the full cake selection and freshly baked scones. Hope that the weather is good enough so that you can enjoy your meal outside in the garden. Don’t be put off by the gravestones.

Ideal for: cake cravings, a decent lunch, quiet reflection (before midday only), basking in Oxford’s architectural beauty
Said bicycle

Blacklisted: The Blenheim Buttery, Woodstock

The one to avoid is the beguilingly good-looking Blenheim Buttery, a 2 minute walk from one of the gates of Blenheim Palace. The bay window seats make the Buttery seem like a delightful place to take tea – and it is… if only the food, tea and service matched up. The scones were dry and definitely didn’t even taste as if that “little old lady from up the road” had baked them. The server looked positively galled when I asked her to toast the scone – to make swallowing it easier. “No. It won’t fit in the toaster.” I reframed from instructing her how to toast under a grill. The lemon drizzle cake tasted as if it had never met a drizzle in its life: probably a result of the arid existence under the unloving care of the server. The tea was made using a Twinning’s tea bag. Enough said. After a 20-mile cycle, I felt a little short changed especially after all the fantasising I had done about how perfect afternoon teas would necessarily be near Blenheim Palace. However, I am aware that my requirements are slightly higher than those of Average Joe’s. If you don’t mind dry scones and continental abruptness: enjoy!

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