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KATHERINE MacALISTER tries out a favourite old city pub that has changed hands.
It’s a brave man that takes on one of Oxford’s most ancient landmark pubs, strips out the ‘character-building’ decor, removes the £2.50 a pint menu, brings in a new chef and cleans the plate glass window at the front so people can actually see in and out.
It reopened a few weeks ago, and while the traditionalists are up-in-arms – landlord Jamie Dixon, pictured, has had his share of run-ins with the die-hard locals – slowly but surely word is getting out that George Street has finally got a decent, independent boozer. Not only that, but you can drink, eat or even pop in for a cup of tea all day, right slap-bang in the centre of Oxford’s theatre-land.
So although The Grapes has changed, it’s for the better in my humble opinion. Lucky then that Bath Ales could see past The Grapes’ old dark green decor, swirly carpets, bar pelmet, bar pillars (yes really, presumably so anyone who’s overdone it could cling on for dear life until closing time when their fingers were prised off) and see it’s potential.
The old tiles, bar and booths are still there, leaving a clean, airy room, eons away from the dense decor of yesteryear, and the gilded hanging grapes have stayed put outside, so you can’t miss it. The menu has received similar treatment – stripped back, simple and minimal but properly done.
Eight main courses, six sandwiches and a soup of the day, and while there are no starters or desserts, you can order from noon until 9.30pm every day. So choose a gorgeous brown booth, which provides privacy and cosiness when required, or one of the lovely window tables and get stuck in.
It was hard not to when presented with the wonderfully nostalgic options on offer, from beef and Dark Side ale pie with mash and gravy to the shepherd’s pie, peas and onions.
We settled happily for the slow roasted ham, mash, greens and parsley sauce for £8.95. Just read that again and try not to do it without licking your lips – slow roasted ham, mash, greens and parsley sauce. I haven’t seen parsley sauce on a menu for decades, but here it seemed perfectly at home. And it was better in the flesh (see what I did there!) than we could have possibly imagined. Curled beautifully on the white plate, the generous portion of piggy-wig was resplendent, and we all let out a little sigh.
Not for long because the SPA battered fish and chips with mushy peas (£9.50) turned up, along with the Wigmore cheese & leek pie, new potatoes and piccalilli (£7.95) in a vintage white enamel tin dish with navy piping.
You see it’s the details here that count, proving how much effort Jamie is making. Not only is the menu quintessentially English, but everything has been thought through. The piccalilli, for example, wasn’t the nasty yellow paste you usually come across, but instead a wonderful piquant concoction that included tiny pearl pickled onions, which perfectly accompanied the gentle pastry and filling of the pie.
The new potatoes were a bit much, but the side dish of peas and onions for £2.50 balanced the dish beautifully.
The fish was lightly battered and remarkably ungreasy and the chips were excellent – thick and proper – retaining their warmth until the end of the meal, when we sat contented over a coffee watching the world go by, as generations had before us. Except this time we could see it.
* The Grapes, 7 George Street. Call 01865 793380.