Back in the day when bridge jumping was still legal, and considered a plausible way to spend an afternoon, the Head Of The River was the place to be seen. The best location in Oxford, it boasts a river frontage, central location, a vast outdoor dining area, and is wonderfully picturesque, almost clichéd as the punts slide past and the weeping willows dip their branches into the river.
But then came its demise, and what had been fantastic in the 90s became run down and distinctly unattractive, all sticky bars, swirly carpets, fruit machines, old-school pub food, dark wood interior and shabby furniture.
In short, it was in need of a massive overhaul and locals left it to tourists who didn’t know any better.
Fast forward to April 2017 and the transformation couldn’t be more stark.
What a difference! The dark, cluttered interior is now a sleek, sophisticated, contemporary, cool, calm, lofty space, with Ercol style luminous yellow chairs complementing the blue hues and wooden accents.
Book shelves, lighting, plants, windows you can see through framing the river, views, all create a lovely spot for lunch.
We arrived early, as the sun was beginning to warm the vast decking area outside, now complete with brightly painted furniture, canvas awnings, long communal benches, cushions and pastel shades all providing a platform from where you can admire and enjoy an essentially quintessential Oxford view.
But what of the food? Would it match or had Fuller’s thrown their all into the décor, while palming us off with something much more mediocre from the kitchen?
No was the resounding answer. The menus matched the weather and our penchant for more adventurous, lighter, food, with an especial emphasis on the Middle East, had been noted.
Seated in the sunlit, elegant dining area, we started with some smoked salmon and the soup of the day - a mushroom and tarrogan – which sounded rather tasty.
In the olden days this would have been a gloopy, tasteless, bought in concoction, but the smooth, deep, beautifully flavoured offering I was brought was just what I’d hoped for.
The accompanying London Porter smoked salmon with horseradish cream and pea shoots wasn’t radical but a damn sight better than anything that came before, with a generous amount of fish for its £8 price tag.
Then two salads, simply because they were original for once, and with the sun shining outside I didn’t want anything heavy. It was refreshing not to be faced with the old Caesar salad, goats cheese and beetroot, pasta or tomato and mozzarella options.
Instead we were spoilt for choice with a zingy fennel salad, the roast artichoke or a roast aubergine with flatbread, so we ordered all three, spurning the sardines and croque monsieur which also beckoned.
The chargrilled fennel came al dente with sliced courgettes, hazelnuts, orange, mint and parsley, unadorned by lettuce, leaving the ingredients to speak for themselves. It was a modest portion for £10, but perfect for lunch.
The grilled artichoke with bulgur wheat and herb salad (£12), came with pickled heritage carrots and a yoghurt dressing, and as exotic and delicious to boot.
The aubergine dip was smoked like a baganoush, flavoured with lemon and tahini, and speckled with pomegranate seeds and disappeared without a trace.
The service was a bit haphazard, our waitress being very helpful, friendly and apologetic, if slightly amateur. But it’s such early days I’m sure she will get in the swing of things soon.
And as we paid our bill, £22 each, (without booze) and wound our way out through the packed outdoor area, which had come alive in our absence, we both rejoiced that finally one of Oxford’s most famous, beautiful, central and accessible pubs was at last somewhere to be proud of, spend long lazy summer days, bring guests, envy the tourists, sit back, eat and relax.
So welcome back – it’s been too long.
Folly Bridge, St Aldate's, Oxford OX1 4LB