The friendly staff at a new-look city pub gave KATHERINE MACALISTER a Gaelic-infused lunch to remember.

If I had to pinpoint when George Street began to change for the better, it would have to be with the advent of Jamie’s Italian.

In his usual indomitable style Jamie Oliver rewrote the rules and began a domino effect that has had a radical effect on what had become a monotonous, predictable street of chain restaurants in central Oxford.

But the last man standing was O’Neill’s, whose blue, Irish- themed pub stood its ground.

Until now that is, because its newly-refurbished interior is unrecognisable from the Gaelic stereotype of yesteryear.

And it was bursting at the seams when we visited on a weekday lunchtime, proving that you approve of the changes as well. Instead of the twee interior and matching Irish themed menu, things are sleek, bustling and above all friendly.

This was largely down to our waitress, the wonderfully cheerful Shannon from Limerick whose smile and friendly demeanour made an enormous difference to our meal, proving how vital that old cliche ‘service with a smile’ really is.

In fact, looking back, you wonder if the staff are all given happy pills for breakfast. The lovely manager kept bounding up asking in his Irish burr whether ‘everytin’ was alright, before bounding off Tigger-like to the next table. And, like Snow White in Disneyland all the staff were geared up to making sure we had a good time without being obsequious and, as a result, we did.

On reflection, the food was good, but not brilliant, and yet it didn’t matter because the atmosphere was so thriving that ‘pretty good food for great prices’ was enough.

We had a bit of everything, starting with the Irish onion soup with Cashel blue cheese croutons (£3.25). The soup was a bit concentrated for me, and the blue cheese replacing the gruyere was clever in a ‘we’ll-get-the-Irish-element-in-there-somewhere-if-it-kills-us’, kind of way, but I prefer the original Alpine version, sorry.

The garlic, chilli and ginger prawns (£4.95) were much more of a success and “so succulent you wouldn’t believe”, but on toast? Apparently it was a corker of a starter, so I’ll hush down. The beer battered mushrooms with Ballymoe tomato relish (£3.50) (because we don’t do ketchup over here) was also a nice, if predictable, addition.

Next up, the Guinness battered fish and chips with mushy peas and tartare sauce for £7.50 which was fabulous.

The fish was generous, despite the bargain price, the batter hot and crispy and the chips were so fine we all fought over the last few. Good chips are hard to find believe me. The salmon Caesar salad (£7.95) was another interesting take on a classic but a delicious one and the shared box-baked Camembert with caramelised red onion chutney and toasted ciabatta (£5.50) was fun.

Portion-wise we were far too stuffed to try pudding and waddled home genuinely surprised and delighted to have had such a good time. But then that’s the Irish all over for you, always overwhelmingly generous with their hospitality, or as they would put it: “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, then you’re lucky enough.”

* O’Neill’s is at 37 George Street, Oxford, OX1 2AY. Call 01865 250708.