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If eating in central Oxford was once something endured for the benefit of glorious history, architecture and education, recent years have seen an explosion in casual, affordable restaurants with offbeat personality and a fondness for quality ingredients. While you do need to know where to look, the shoots of a very promising dining scene are hiding among the chains and takeaways that pepper the streets of this high-profile tourist city.
Ahead of the trend for cult burger bars, Atomic’s bare-bones dining room and cartoon-strip menu both drip with 1980s geekery, helping to create an infectious buzz. Burgers are about the only thing taken seriously here, with regulars hooked on an exhaustive list of toppings and vibrant flavours.
Anyone visiting for a genteel punt on the water might not realise that the Cherwell Boathouse is also an accomplished restaurant concealing what is probably Oxford’s best wine list. Expect dependable modern French cooking, carefully sourced produce, a touch of invention, and pretty views across the river.
Those tired of formulaic Japanese dining will fall in love with tiny Edamame’s celebration of authentic and affordable izakaya food. Customers sit elbow-to-elbow at communal tables, dishes come in sharing portions, they don’t take bookings and restricted opening times mean frequent queues.
Once Mr Gee’s florist, this striking Victorian conservatory set between North and South parade is a visually arresting piece of work. Food-wise, expect Mediterranean influences brought to bear on Brit-influenced bistro cooking which, combined with zero formality, ensures Gee’s status as a perennial special-occasion favourite.
Run by defectors from London’s Anchor & Hope, this suburban Oxford pub is also an eating destination with national pull. At least half the bunting-draped, wood-on-wood space is given over to drinkers; the rest is a no-frills dining room that shows off the results of impeccable sourcing and robust, intelligent cooking.
Uncompromisingly authentic Szechuan cooking in the heart of Oxford. The decor isn’t much to look at but, with full-on, mouth-numbing credentials and absolutely no concessions to westernised palates, this a terrific ambassador for affordable regional Chinese food.
As close to sedate fine dining as you’ll find in central Oxford these days, the Old Parsonage’s modern British cooking nonetheless shuns foodie pretensions. Instead, it impresses by way of a grand and intimate dining room set in a stunning 15th-century building that’s now a boutique hotel.
For a taste of the bucolic life just outside Oxford, trot along the Thames path to The Perch. Historically famous as a jazz venue, its determinedly French cooking may come as a surprise but, with refined technique on show, the results seldom disappoint. A picturesque beer garden pulls the crowds on warm summer evenings.
Since The Times’ restaurant critic sang its praises in 2009, Sojo has transformed from a local secret into something more approaching a foodie pilgrimage. And with knowledgeable staff, black-lacquered interiors, friendly pricing and a mix of westernised favourites alongside more authentic specialities, it’s easy to see why.
A newly minted landmark venue for central Oxford, Turl Street Kitchen combines a daily changing menu built on seasonal produce with great coffee, local beers, well-chosen wines, a relaxed ambience and enough quirky styling to make the whole package feel entirely natural. Pricing is incredibly keen, queues very likely.