Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Best Lunch and Tea in Oxford

To break the solitude of writing, I meet my husband or a friend for lunch once a week. There are a lot of cafés in Oxford, but the quality varies. Some like Edamame (above) are hard to find. Only the Japanese sign marks this small restaurant on Holywell Street. It seats few so expect to share a table.

The food at Edamame is good, especially the specials, and it’s the only authentic Japanese restaurant in Oxford. My one criticism is that the chicken always comes fried. Still, it’s a tasty soup on a damp winter day. Tea is refilled for free during non-peak time. The Brits like to eat lunch at 1:00 or later so go early to avoid the crowds. Edamame is shut on Mondays and Tuesdays.

High Street in Oxford

The Rose on High Street has the best lunch food in Oxford (shut on Mondays.) Ingredients are fresh and organic, including the hot-out-of-the-oven bread. They make the best soup in town and a great club sandwich. The atmosphere is sunny and bright (when possible) looking out on the University Examination Schools. Groups of students filtered by after lectures. A graduate student in the café pored over her dissertation with tired eyes.

Our waiter was a graduate student too. Alex Stewart was doing a DPhil in medieval literature at St. Anne’s. His knowledge of tea was as well learned. Like a sommelier, he offered suggestions on which teas would match our meals. With a laugh, he threatened to kick out anyone who dared to put milk and honey in Oolong. He steered me towards a fine Ceylon to compliment the lemon cake.

Alex suggested the Oxford Covered Market as the best place to shop for tea. The centuries old market is also a good place to grab a quick lunch. I’m a fan of the Pieminister: savory pies with a side order of puns. I especially like the Chicken of Aragon pie with a side of “mash” (mashed potatoes). I wasn’t so convinced about the “mushy peas,” basically warm baby food. My English husband loves the stuff.

Up Market Street from the covered market, is Wagamama, a Japanese-style noodle place that’s more western than Asian, but it’s good and fast with a broad selection. It’s part of a chain, but not a bad one. If you want to get elbow to elbow with students, go there. I’ve also seen a lot of students at the double-story Starbucks on Cornmarket Street. Sadly, chains are spreading through old Oxford as discussed in the comments on last week's blog post.

Vaults and Garden is the most scenic place for lunch or tea, and the hot-cooked, organic meals are superb. There is always a delicious vegetarian selection as well as a meat or fish pie. Not much choice, but everything is good. They also serve soup and pastries and are known for their fresh-baked apple strudel. My son gives the studel two thumbs up. Lunch isn’t ready until 12:15 and by 12:30 there is a long queue (line in American.) It’s worth the wait for the opportunity to dine in St. Mary’s vaults.

On a dry day, take tea in the gardens overlooking cobblestoned Radcliffe Square. I can’t think of a better setting. My kids enjoy the many gargoyles on St. Mary’s. After lunch be sure to climb the church tower for the spectacular view. That’s the café garden way below and All Souls College.

An affordable warm lunch can be found in the Modern Art Oxford museum. The setting is nicer than a typical basement with white walls and black leather sofas. It’s rarely crowded and serves English lunch basics like a baked potato with fillings and assorted side salads. It’s a good bargain. You always see mothers with pushchairs (strollers) as well as middleaged academics.

Perhaps the best known place for a healthy lunch is the Nosebag on Michaels Street. It’s been around since my husband was a student in the 1980’s. I imagine it fronted the vegetarian craze. The setting in an old wood-beamed building with big windows is so Oxford. The food itself was disappointing: prepared ahead of time and reheated. The salads were limp and cottage cheese, instead of ricotta, was in the lasagna.

In general it’s best to avoid Italian food in England although pizza has gotten better. I remember disgusting cheddar cheese pizza back in the 1980’s. Now you can get Domino’s pizza delivered, but it costs twice as much as would in the USA. Only the kids like it. Good for homesick Americans. I prefer a wood-oven pizza at The Trout in Wolvercote, our local pub.

I haven’t included pubs in my list of good lunch spots in Oxford center. That’s a whole separate blog. Sorry, I believe that’s the second time I’ve promised a pub blog. I’m working on it but enjoying the research too much to stop! Expect plenty of pub scenes in A MATCH FOR EVE. It’s what I miss the most about England when I’m in the USA.

If you know of any other good lunch spots or tea houses in Oxford, please comment below.


Anonymous said...

Good list. I'd add Brown's Restaurant in St Giles, which does a great Steak, Guinness and Mushroom pie. It's not to be confused with another famous hang-out, Brown's Cafe in the Covered Market. (Simpler food, but was featured in Hugh Grant's dreadful first movie "City of Dreams" about handsome young Oxford students).
For Fish and Chips to eat outside, you can't beat the Carfax Chippy! They still slather the chips with salt and vinegar, but sadly they no longer wrap them in newspaper.

rpkelly said...

I like that place that does panini down Friar's Entry, next to Borders - a little French or Italian bistro? Maybe run by a Brazillian?! Good value, I thought, in a cute atmosphere. And I like the Jericho Cafe, too - good soups and desserts.

kate said...

If I ever visit Oxford again, I think I would like to try out several of these restaurants.

As I was reading your post, I wondered if you have visited the botanical gardens. I read a blog post and saw photographs recently of the many incredible plant specimens the gardens house.

Sarah Laurence said...

Good additions to the list, Ruth and Pieman. Thanks Kate, I’ll check out the Oxford Botanic Gardens in the spring. It looks like they are right across the street from Magdalen College, the main setting for my novel. Kate has some beautiful botanical images on her blog.

Deb said...

Paul and I just tried The Lemon Tree on Woodstock Road. Really incredible food, if a bit pricey. I had a goats cheese salad with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and small bits of beets and pear along with a lunch serving of a butternut squash and sage risotto. Paul has a salad with duck and I can't remember his main course--I was too busy oohing and aahing over mine. And the wine list was really nice too.

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