Fine food and a fantastic atmosphere keep Katherine MacAlister returning for more at The Oxford Retreat

Spend too much time in fancy restaurants and gastro pubs and you forget that a more exciting world goes on without you. Which is why certain premises are turning the tables and accommodating all their customers under one roof.

The Oxford Retreat is the perfect example. Until 2006 it was the run-down Antiquity Hall when Drew Webster turned it around, introducing a tasteful dining room overlooking the river at the back, a gastro style menu and matching chef. I’ve spent many a lunchtime dining in style there.

But as Webster’s pub is in party central, the bar is also doing a roaring trade, and with Spring emerging, the outdoor seating area is now coming into its own. This weekend was the perfect example, Oxford being packed with what seemed like the city’s entire population out celebrating the weather, white limbs bravely exposed. Come evening though, when they wanted to sit outside, chew the cud and hang out, they headed down to Hythe Bridge Street for some of Webster’s famous hospitality.

Whether you want a great meal, sharing platters to enjoy with some cocktails before a big night out, or just a night on the beers, he caters for all. So with a birthday to celebrate on Saturday night, the Oxford Retreat was the obvious choice. We thought cocktails, dinner and then on, but it was a good job we’d booked because the place was rammed.

This might be down to the new chef, Matt Elliot, courtesy of Coco’s, who’s raring to go with his new Spring menu, all seasonal, and as much of it local as possible. However good his food is, my friends seemed more intent on the cocktail menu, clearing all the water glasses and ordering the sharing platters, while the rest of us managed to sneak in a selection of dishes which included the salt and pepper squid with chillies, spring onion and caramelised lime wedge (£4.95) and the pan fried thyme mushrooms with a cream reduction and toast (£5.25) both of which were sensational.

The two tasting platters arrived consecutively, offering enough food to feed a small army, and while my friend ploughed into her succulent cassoulet main course we got stuck into the mountains of food included in both the charcuterie platter (£14.25) and the mediterranean sharing platter (£12.95).

The delicious cured meats, pickles, rocket salad, onion marmalade and pitta bread were ideal for the occasion, the piccalilli a personal favourite, while on the other side of the table the olives, humous, roasted red peppers, marinated artichoke, onion rings, salad garnish and pitta bread was piled so high we could scarcely see each other. By now the Oxford Retreat was firing on all cylinders and while the sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream and tarte au citron with raspberry coulis (4.95) were enormously tempting, the night had moved on and we relocated outside to enjoy the people and atmosphere. What a great spot.

We were well stuck in when our taxi arrived to take us down to The Mad Hatter, and reluctant to leave even though the new speakeasy bar off Iffley Road, which is open late, is always a guaranteed great night out. You have to book a table in advance to get in, but it’s well worth the trek to the former Cricketers Arms, where a prohibition style experience awaits, with live bands, DJs, cocktails served in teapots, bar staff in top hats and a fantastic party atmosphere, where we danced until the small hours. Top night, top place, top pub. Oxford has it all.

The Oxford Retreat, 1-2 Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford 01865 250309


The Mad Hatter, 43 Iffley Rd, Oxford 01865 604959