Katherine MacAlister visits The Red Lion in Eynsham and finds it utterly transformed

ANYONE who has visited the recently regenerated Jolly Postboys in Florence Park will have an idea of what’s in store for them when venturing into the Red Lion in Eynsham, because they are run by the same people.

And while Florence Park is an Oxford housing estate and Eynsham a well-to-do village, both now boast revamped pubs which would otherwise have been boarded up.

It means they have narrowly avoided becoming another statistic in the sad trend of hostelries closing across the UK, in town and gown, city and countryside.

The only silver lining to this terrible downturn is that people are fighting back, many buying and running these premises as community pubs such as The Abingdon Arms in Beckley, and independents are enjoying a similar resurgence in popularity.

The Red Lion is the perfect example, because despite being placed on a pub company disposal list, its future looking bleak, it has since been rescued and given a new lease of life.

Its gleaming paint, outdoor wall mural, welcoming square side tables, funky decor and contemporary feel, all herald a new day for this village pub.

It feels loved and is already attracting throngs of local businessmen eating lunch in the sunshine, pensioners meeting up and mothers with children enjoying the family-friendly atmosphere. In short, it has become a village meeting point.

As it was a hot sunny day, where to sit was our only conundrum, outside where the pub frames the square from where you can take in the bustling village life, or venturing inside, away from the heat?

Eventually we opted for a lovely little alcove inside boasting bright art and pastel painted seats.

We also veered away from the standard starter/mains/ dessert formula, instead choosing the delicious looking tapas we’d seen carried aloft outside.

The hipster manager Tommy Higgs, whose sock collection is legendary, was another delight and guided us through the sharing boards, as we ordered the halloumi fries with harissa on the spot and some beer battered gherkins, washed down with some ice cold rosé.

Both appetisers appeared imminently, the gherkins with crispy salad, but crying out for a dip which we had to secure. We then devoured the lot, the batter crispy, the halloumi piping hot.

What to add to our huge sharing platter though took up a good part of our lunchtime, choosing proving almost impossible, especially with the option of two dishes for £8, four for £16 and eight for £32. Abstain or pig out?

Pig out of course, mainly because ‘Minos’ mum’s aubergine parmegiana’ was an absolute must (we should have ordered several portions, the slow cooked, oily, soft cheesy, tomato offering hitting the spot immediately).

The chicken liver pate had us batting our toast soldiers at each other like The Three Musketeers in an effort to scrape up the last ounce.

The peanut chicken skewers disappeared faster than Paul Daniels could say ‘you’ll like this, not a lot’ so I can’t tell you how good they were because I didn’t get a look-in.

But sadly the food wasn’t all consistent. The mushroom arancini were rather bland and lacking any mushroom, or the blob of mozzarella inside – we know because we looked – and the whitebait was a tad dry.

As for dessert, there was a sumptuous array of cakes waiting on the counter/bar, a favourite with the locals apparently who pop in for coffee and a slice.

We were tempted instead by Tommy’s recommendation, as he boasted that no one made a better bread and butter pudding than the chef (foolish man), a mantle that was impossible not to snatch up immediately.

Except he had misjudged his clientele, because my mother makes the best bread and butter pudding in the world, creamy with custard, home-made bread, crispy on top, soft and yielding inside, peppered with raisins and vanilla - it’s a family favourite.

And with so many alternate variations from brioche to pain au chocolat to play around with, it was a brave and foolhardy challenge. But waste not want not eh?

We did waste and want not as it turned out. One mouthful and we stopped in our tracks, rosé left hovering mid-air as we contemplated what had gone wrong.

It just wasn’t bread and butter pudding, more of a spotted dick type scenario or a sponge pudding with custard, more school dinners than anything replicated at home.

But that’s not to detract from what the Red Lion has already achieved or will accomplish; to restore not only a local, but a restaurant, a new venue to attract out-of-towners, and to rescue a village pub from certain ruin.

Judging by the locals, their new pub is already hitting the spot, and if the menu is given some fine tuning, will become a place to write home about.