Oxford - UK

Oxford might be the city of dreaming spires, academics, and future world leaders who now stumble drunk from college to pub. But it is nonetheless part of England and the culinary choices leave no doubt that food is not the priority in this part of the UK. This can be seen by the abundance of kebab trucks, a fond spot of respite for the inebriated student on his or her way home. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a kebab as much as the next guy, but the kebabs in Oxford are something else. Literally, I mean something else - I have never seen meat coated in wax and sliced into impossible long strips. 

We lived in Oxford from September 2011 to July 2012, and even though British food is not great, we found few places where the food was good. Relatively speaking.

Shanghai 30's

Located at 42 St Aldate's, just across the street from Christ Church College, Shanghai 30s has a lovely decor, well accented by period furnishing and yet not overly tacky. And the food is delicious, the original menu will spoil you for choice - no simple Orange Chicken here. In fact, they even have a separate menu for the more "authentic" (read: Spicy) dishes their chef offers. Every time we ate at Shanghai 30s, we tried new dishes and we were never even once disappointed, whether it was a noodle dish (like their home made knife shaven noodles) or a sauce-based dish (like their Pineapple "Gu Lao" chicken). Their spicy selection was very well balanced without being too hot, one could appreciate the nuances of garlic and ginger being used as spice elements to complement the chillies.

The staff at Shanghai 30s was always polite and friendly, in the passive Chinese way of staying away from you unless you call. You won't get bothered very often, but when you do ask for something you will be greeted with smiles and and eager disposition.

Bangkok House

Bangkok House is located at 42A Hythe Bridge Street, and is a great Thai restaurant with a delicious menu and a great selection of authentic Thai dishes. The usual Thai curries, red, green and padang, are all excellent as are their appetiser plates of egg rolls and dumplings. One thing to note is that rice is not included with the curries or stir fries, it has to be ordered separately and there is a choice of normal, fried and coconut rice, which goes fantastically with the aforementioned curries. As a bonus, their dessert choices include the delicious fried banana and pandan cake.

It is a bit pricey, especially on a student budget, but it is totally worth every penny. The staff is nice and friendly, and the crackers they provide in the beginning are absolutely amazing. If you order a beer, it will come nice and chilled ... which is already more than most of England can manage. 

Jude the Obscure

Located in the pretentious Jericho neighbourhood of Oxford, Jude the Obscure is one of the pubs that seems to have resisted the Oxford pollution. Despite its location right on Walton Street, it remains a nice, charming pub with a regular clientele of slighter older locals. One of the pleasant surprises here is the friendly staff, they are happy to swap a joke or two and seem to actually be eager about making you feel happy to be at Jude the Obscure.

Another happy surprise is that the food at Jude the Obscure is quite decent. Stick to the simple - burgers and sandwiches are done well - and you won't be disappointed. You can ask for your burger to be done medium if you like (but if you don't say anything it will be well-cooked). After trying the duck-wrap and vegetarian chilli, it seemed best to stick to the burgers and sandwiches so try the rest of the menu at your own risk.

Their beer selection is typical for a pub, a few English ales and a handful of chilled beer on tap, along with some special brews, such as Crabbies, in bottles.

They offer a fantastic deal for lunch, either a burger and a beer for 8.95 or a sandwich and a beer for 5.95 (as of this writing, please double check the prices at the pub) and they don't skim on the quality just because it is a lunch special. 

Bella Italia

This UK chain of Italian restaurants is consistently pleasing with little variation in the cuisine between restaurants. The food is good, and very reasonably priced, leaving little reason to spend more at other fancy Italian restaurants. Generally, all the pasta and meat dishes we have tried have been quite good, but the pizza leaves something more to be desired. We had the Pollo e Spinaci, rigatoni pasta with chicken, spinach, and mushrooms in a gorgonzola sauce, and enjoyed it so much we ordered it a few times. They also do some great non-pasta dishes, such as their Pollo alla crema, a baked chicken dish with a white wine sauce.

However, this Bella Italia in Oxford does leave a little wanting in the service and general ambiance areas. While the staff is polite, you don't get the same warmth and friendliness we have encountered in other Bella Italias.

This specific restaurant is not very big, but one gets the impression that they tried to cram too many tables in there. While this is also true of the Bella Italia in London, on Martin's Lane, in Oxford it leads to a noisy and chaotic atmosphere that can be quite disagreeable to a romantic date or quiet dinner with friends. However, the side booths work quite well to hide from the din, so try to score one of these when you make a reservation. Which brings me to my next point - make a reservation, especially on a friday or saturday.

Atomic Burger

If you crave a good burger and have been slowly dying every time you have a burger at a british pub, Atomic Burger is your elixer of life. This little joint is in East Oxford, at 96 Cowley Road, which makes it a bit far off if you are in the center or north of Oxford. Honestly, if we had known about Atomic Burger before arriving in Oxford, we would have only looked for accommodation within a food-coma zombie walking distance of its colourful doors.

They have a great selection of classic and original burgers and a choice of normal or awesome fries, in portions big enough to satisfy that hankering you have had for a real burger. And to wash down the meal, you have to try one of Atomic Burger's milkshakes - and yes, they do malted shakes!

The staff is extremely friendly and casual. They will take their time to sit and explain their menu and address any questions you may have about their offerings. When you are in doubt about what to choose, they will even be glad to make recommendations and they come back to make sure that your burger was done the way you wanted. It is almost like North American customer service here!

The staff and the atmosphere in general are quite funky in a off-pop sci-fi kind of way, quirky but not Kirky. Unfortunately the place is quite small, so you ought to make a booking. The first time we went, we were told there would be a 45 minute wait. While we deliberated on what we were going to do, a burly man who looked like he had just finished his foodgasm walked out and - noticing our lack of enthusiasm for waiting 45 mins to eat - solemnly nodded at us and told us with a straight face that it would be the best burger we have ever had. We waited, and we were not disappointed.

The Old Bookbinders

A seemingly lost pub in Oxford is The Old Bookbinders. When I say "lost", I mean it in the sense that it is trying to find its identity amidst all the student bars and quaint old pubs filled with old-time regulars. Their menu is heavily French influenced, due to the owner and chef's background, and features charcuterie, moules-frites, and crêpes. This might be the only pub in England where you cannot have Fish-n-Chips.

That being said, they excel in making French-fries, or chips. They do the thin-cut, crispy kind, while most other pubs take the lazy way out of serving thick-cut wedges. Their fries are really something amazing, and competes for deliciousness with their house cole-slaw. This is coleslaw like you have never had, it tastes freshly made with crispy cabbage and carrots you can actually taste, rather than the white gooey lump offered at most other establishments.

Fortunately, the fries and coleslaw come as sides for their burger, which is equally fantastic. The one you must have is "Le Benicàssim", which is a beef burger topped with bacon, cheddar and a sunny-side-up egg.

The crêpes are disappointing for a kitchen with a French chef. At The Old Bookbinders, one single type of crêpe is used for all the crêpes, both sweet and savoury. This is not at all how crêpes are normally made and it simply comes across as being a lame attempt at taking a shortcut rather than making crêpes the way they are supposed to be made.

The prices are quite high and the staff's attitude is kind of a hit-or-miss: they are not really friendly, even a bit snob.


We wouldn't recommend at all:

Nando's on George Street. Nando's is a restaurant specialized in chicken dish. The food was not good, we were a table of five and nobody ate at the same time, even worse: 15 minutes after 2 people at our table had been served, we had to ask where the rest of the dishes were, and were told, in a nonchalant tone, that they were coming. Finally when the rest of the plates arrived, we realized they screwed up one of the orders and had to wait another 15 minutes. Also, the staff is not friendly and the food is awful.

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