Oxford’s food scene has improved enormously in recent years, with the city’s cutting-edge but somewhat conservative old guard now joined by a range of bright and lively restaurants, trendy pubs where the food trumps the alcohol, and small but fantastic independents serving up authentic Asian food to eager local fans. It’s well worth venturing out of the city center to get to some of these lesser-known gems. Destination expert Etain O’Carroll shares his favorite places to eat in the city of dreamy spires.
For further Oxford inspiration, see our guides to the city’s best hotels, nightlife and things to do.
Quod Brasserie & Bar
Located on the first floor of a former bank, Quod is one of Oxford’s most popular restaurants with the student and young professional crowd, as well as dons and other Oxford dignitaries. The location is perfect – halfway along the High Street, among the colleges – and the food (pizzas, salads, fish and meat dishes, plus daily specials) is served quickly by young waiting staff. The atmosphere is buzzing with lively conversation and large-scale contemporary artworks on the walls, just right to linger over a roast shoulder of lamb served with cannellini beans, and cut through with anchovies and olives.
Vault and garden
This is one of the most unusual coffee places in Oxford, located in the lower corner of the university church of St Mary’s. With an emphasis on fresh, organic ingredients, and with plenty of vegetarian options, it’s also one of Oxford’s healthiest eateries. You can pop in for breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea and best of all you can sit outside in the churchyard and admire one of the finest architectural sites in England. If you’re feeling hungry, go for the creamy goat cheese and puy lentil gratin followed by a slice of heavenly orange, lavender and polenta cake.
Reservations: Walk-ins only
You have to queue to get into Edamame, but it’s well worth the wait to get a table at this small Japanese restaurant. This family-run business takes understandable pride in serving only authentic Japanese dishes and flavours, and has been an Oxford institution for over 20 years and for good reason; the signature edamame (baby soybeans) is heavenly, the curries and stews expertly prepared, and the sushi – served only on Thursday nights – the best in town.
Come in: Just look up
Ashmolean Rooftop Restaurant
Britain’s oldest museum is also home to Oxford’s tallest restaurant. This rooftop space has a glass wall that opens onto a terrace filled with tables, and a “lawn” where you can relax on deck chairs with a view of the rooftops beyond. The menu isn’t bad either, featuring a limited number of imaginative, well-prepared and beautifully presented dishes. The pork chop with butter beans, artichoke hearts and salsa verde is filling without being too filling, and is well followed by one of their indulgent cakes.
Reservations: Recommended (for evenings)
The old bookbinders
This distinctive pub, a fine establishment tucked away in an unassuming residential street, was built in 1869 for workers from the nearby Oxford University Press. Inside, it appears completely traditional with caramel on the shelves and beer mats and posters on the walls, until you notice the train set on the ceiling and the delicious smell of cooking. Ale enthusiasts flock to the bar and diners huddle around tightly packed tables at the back to sample the traditional French bistro menu. Its down-to-earth modesty makes its charm even more apparent.
Reservations: Important (for dinner)
Gee’s Restaurant & Bar
This stunning Victorian conservatory first housed the flowers, fruit and vegetables of the Gee family, who were the leading nurseries in the area. For almost 30 years it has been one of the city’s best (and most famous) restaurants, a North Oxford landmark that remains at the top of its culinary game. The location, with its triangular outdoor terrace for summer dining, new art gallery and secret garden is ideal. Inside, it feels like you’re at a summer garden party with the glass conservatory, mismatched furniture and hanging lamps providing a light and airy backdrop to dishes such as sea bass with roasted fennel, capers and brown prawn butter.
Yes, there is a boathouse – a Victorian one – where students and tourists hire out boats for floating picnics on the River Cherwell. But it is also one of the city’s restaurants, tucked away along a lane in affluent North Oxford. In summer, dine outside on the deck, listen to the soft splash of splash on the river and enjoy ambitious but well-balanced fare such as silver mullet with pickled Cevennes onions, rainbow chard and cheesy potato espuma (foam). In winter, you eat inside the cozy boathouse, with exposed brick walls and clusters of tables draped in white linen.
Taste of Tibet
Taste Tibet is a small place, tucked away in a quiet street in East Oxford, serving ‘himalayan soul food’ much loved by a legion of local fans. Transforming from a popular market and festival stall into a simple restaurant with exposed brick walls, wooden floors and long white tables, they draw in the crowds with a small but carefully thought-out menu that caters to vegans, vegetables and meat lovers. Expect curries, stews, dal and their legendary momos served with fiery chili sauce. Behind the scenes is a zero-waste operation, a thriving community-giving project and a story of a homeland lost and love found. Look out for their beautiful new cookbook.
Come in: Just look up
Disguised by an old pharmacy sign over the door, there’s something incredibly modest about Arbequina, a tiny tapas joint with tiled walls, a stainless steel counter and hardwood stools. It’s all deceptively simple, though, because as soon as you taste the first bite, you know you’re somewhere special. From nduja sliced so thin it melts in your mouth to earthy beetroot borani served with tangy feta and crunchy walnuts, it’s food so good you’ll always be tempted to order more, give in to that second bottle of vino and wonder why you never has been before.
Despite its Moroccan name and souk-like atmosphere – waxed ocher walls, old lanterns and colorful cushions – Kazbar is really a tapas bar, and a very good one at that. Just outside the medieval town, it is a cozy romantic place to spend an evening with friends or lovers. Good, mostly Spanish wines, spirits and beer, soft drinks and mint tea complement the sizzling tapas. There is also a great selection of cocktails from a sweet and sour fig and vanilla daiquiri to the Marakesh Express, a cinnamon espresso shaken with Absolut vodka and Kahlúa.
Reservations: Walk-ins only (except for groups of eight or more)
Arms of the Magdalen
A relaxed, unpretentious pub in up-and-coming East Oxford; The Magdalen Arms is the kind of place you enjoy a wet afternoon. Deep red walls add a cozy charm, the stripped floorboards and mismatched furniture encourage a relaxed country pub vibe, and the big, hearty flavors on the modern British menu brighten the grayest of days. There is no showiness, just good heartwarming food. Couples play Jenga while scooping wood pigeon and venison terrine onto sourdough toast, families dig into steak and beer pie, and others linger over wild rabbit with chorizo, chickpeas, fennel and aioli.
The porter’s house
A converted Edwardian drinking establishment, The Porterhouse oozes modern chic, with blue walls, stripped wooden floors and tan leather banquettes. Grab a pre-dinner drink in the bustling bar, then move on to the intimate dining room for a classic cut of steak, dry aged in-house, hand butchered and cooked by Bertha, a beast of a coal oven. It’s a haven for meat eaters, with only a single vegetarian option on the menu, but everything is cooked to perfection. Choose your cut from the board and sit back to enjoy the juiciest steaks, a simple salad and a dollop of Gentleman’s Relish.
Tucked away in the small village of Binsey and best reached on foot, The Perch is a 17th-century thatched pub and Oxford institution. It has lured locals across Port Meadow and down the river for centuries and was a favorite of author Lewis Carroll. On summer weekends, the garden is packed with families; in winter, muddy dogs sleep by the fire. The seasonal farm menu features classics such as roast beef cheeks or Gloucestershire Old Spot pork, although vegans and children are also well catered for. Wash it down with English wine before heading back to town.
Reservations: Recommended, important on weekends