AN elegant red beacon at the top end of Walton Street, the Jericho Café has long been at the heart of its community – with a loyal clientele attracted by good coffee, wholesome breakfasts, fun brunches, well-cooked comfort food and some of the best cakes money can buy.

The café is a survivor. Opened in 1988 as a simple coffee shop and sandwich bar, it has outlasted almost all its former neighbours. Shops and restaurants have come and gone, but the Jericho Café remains, quietly getting on with the business of providing a bolt hole to hungry and thirsty passers-by while, around it, everything changes.

The pandemic has brought more unwelcome change, with yet more local businesses closing, but café owners Johan and Ruth Dorso are not rolling over,

They have remained open throughout, calmly adapting to each new wave of rules and restrictions, and are still safely dispensing welcome takeaways to grateful punters.

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And as they prepare to celebrate their 20th anniversary as owners, they have also stepped up the menu, recently launching authentic New York-style bagels, which are going down a storm with regulars and new customers alike.

Ruth Dorso, owner of Jericho Cafe, Oxford. Picture by Tim Hughes

So what is the attraction of the Jericho Café?

“The thing that makes the café so special is that it holds a really important place in the local community,” says Ruth, a former teacher at St Alfred’s, Wantage, who has been involved in the life of the café since her Breton-born husband took over as manager in 1988, shortly after arriving from France. The couple bought the place outright in 2001.

“We have seen most of the neighbourhood come through our doors at some point or other over the last 20 years,” she says.

“We’ve watched local kids grow up from tiny little things who could barely see over the counter to fully grown adults. We’ve actually employed quite a number of them as staff at the café as they’ve had their first Saturday jobs with us or worked with us after finishing school or during university holidays.

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“In fact, two boys who worked with me in the cafe kitchen while they were still at school right back at the beginning 20 years ago, have gone on to open their own highly successful restaurants – which we think is brilliant.”

Jericho Cafe, Tim Hughes

Jericho Cafe, Tim Hughes

So what makes it so special?

Ruth smiles. “Aside from the friendly staff, we have the most amazing local producers who keep us stocked with everything from our organic house coffee beans, roasted right here in Oxford at The Missing Bean Roastery, to the delicious pastries, sourdough and brioche buns made for us by The Natural Bread Co using only 100 per cent natural ingredients,” she says.

“We have also worked for many years with Fellers Butchers of the Covered Market who supplies all our meat and Mayfield free-range eggs.

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“One of our favourite people to work with is Julia at Happy Cakes in Summertown, who always brings a bit of fun and laughter to the café and who has become a good friend over the last 15 years since she first started supplying us with her gorgeous, yummy cupcakes.”

Taking on the café was the realisation of a dream.

“We worked together in many restaurants while I continued my studies,” Ruth recalls. “Johan was mainly behind the bar and I worked in the kitchen. We dreamt of opening our own place together and eventually we were in the right place at the right time as the owner of The Jericho Café decided to sell in 2001 – and we have been running the café together ever since.”

Jericho Cafe, Oxford. Picture by Tim Hughes

Jericho Cafe, Oxford. Picture by Tim Hughes

Being at the heart of fashionable Jericho – regularly declared one of the hippest urban areas in the country – it is not surprising that it has strong links with the city’s music scene, with members of Foals – now one of the world’s biggest alternative rock bands – and folk-pop band Stornoway working shifts, and some very familiar faces dropping in for coffee.

Ruth says: “Probably the most auspicious visit we’ve ever had though happened around 2002 when no less than Bill and Hilary Clinton came to eat at the café with their daughter, Chelsea, who was studying in Oxford at the time and was a regular.

“There were secret service agents lining the street and word went round Jericho like wildfire. It caused quite a fuss! We had American customers for years to come who somehow seemed to know that Bill Clinton had eaten in our café. I can reveal it was a Moroccan chicken salad which we should probably rename ‘Bill’s salad’!”

Jericho Cafe bagel - the Scandi

Jericho Cafe bagel - the Scandi

Their signature dishes include acclaimed breakfast and brunch treats - fabulous breakfast baps of thickly-cut bacon, split Cumberland sausage and perfect fried egg in a light and spongy brioche (£6.45); and filling quartered waffles – with just the right amount of bite and crunch – topped with eggs 'your way' (try them poached!) and sprinkled with shards of bacon and, of course, maple syrup. (£7.95).

More wholesome types will love their generous take on trendy avocado toast, served on thick Oxford sourdough, with cherry tomatoes, pesto and seeds (£6.95).

Also fabulous are the new bagels, which offer a true taste of New York. Best are the the New Yorker _ a Big Apple-style 'Reuben' combo of salt beef, balanced by tangy pickles and sauerkraut, smooth emmental and sweet homemade Thousand Island sauce (£7.50); and the 'Scandi' - an epic slab of beautifully fragrant, good quality smoked salmon with cream cheese and capers (£7). The bagels are freshly springy and deeply satisfying.

There's even a Jericho bagel - an appropriately hipster-ish symphony of humus, falafel and roasted red peppers (£6) as befits trendy Walton Street.

Best of all is the calamari, with generous rings of squid dipped in tempura and lightly fried. They are sweet and tender with bite and texture but none of that rubbery chewiness. They come topped with a wedge of lemon, with shoestring fries and a creamy homemade tartar sauce.

Waffles Jericho Cafe, Tim Hughes

Waffles Jericho Cafe, Tim Hughes

Ruth says: "Our signature dishes are our café breakfast – rated second best brunch in Britain by The Sunday Times, our new, authentic, and locally produced bagels – which are made the traditional way by an American living in Oxford, which we then fill with more delicious locally produced fillings like salt beef from Feller’s."

The bagels - easily the best in town - have certainly gone down a storm with word spreading quickly. But where did the idea come from?

Ruth says: "Back in the first lockdown a customer contacted us online to ask if we did a Reuben sandwich - a salt beef or pastrami sandwich served with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and pickles usually found in New York delis.

"And as I have always loved the freshly baked bagels to be found in the East End of London, where I was brought up, I became obsessed with sourcing the best ingredients we could find locally to make the perfect Reuben bagel.

"We worked on perfecting our delicious salt beef recipe, our homemade sauerkraut as well as our Thousand Island sauce, and soon we were almost ready to go. "We tinkered with making the bagels ourselves but just found we couldn't quite get them right.

"It was during the last November lockdown that we first heard of One Daily Bagel, an ultra-local bakery run by Esme Howard and Patrick Baker who had moved to the UK from Los Angeles just over a year ago. Esme had discovered that a good, much less mediocre, bagel could not be found anywhere within a 35-mile radius so had decided she needed to learn to make her own and set about working on an amalgam that yielded the Perfect Bagel.

"Esme's bagels really are the real deal - we believe they are the best bagels to be found this side of the Atlantic: they have a crisp outer shell, a perfectly soft and chewy interior and are absolutely full of flavour, nothing like the bagels you can find in the supermarket.

Ruth Dorso, owner of Jericho Cafe, Oxford. Picture by Tim Hughes

Ruth Dorso, owner of Jericho Cafe, Oxford. Picture by Tim Hughes

"Once we'd made contact with Esme and Patrick, we simply perfected our new range of fillings, including such classics as The Scandi; smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers but also our own creations like The Californian; bacon, avocado, cream cheese and chill jam and launched our new menu of filled bagels.

"The day the third lockdown was announced, we were in a huge quandary as we had literally just taken delivery of over 10kg of organic cured beef from Fellers and we had more than 100 bagels on order. In the end we decided to take the plunge and stay open and the bagels have so far been a huge success, as far as anything can be at the moment!"

They say the pandemic has presenting the biggest challenge to the business so far.

“When we closed our doors for the first time back in March of last year, we were devastated," says Ruth. "It came completely out of the blue and we thought we would not survive the months of closure, that we’d lose everything we had spent the last 19 years building up.

“Like many other local businesses, after a few weeks of blind panic, we decided to open up again and to see how we’d fare doing takeaway only.

“If we’d known back then the roller coaster ride we were going to have for the next 10 months and the fact that we’d still be in lockdown a year later, we would have been horrified. However, 10 months on, we are still here and it’s in no small part thanks to the massive support we have received from our local community.

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“We would not be here today were it not for the support and encouragement given us this year and we are hugely grateful to each and every one of our customers, friends, staff and producers who has helped us.”

"The last 10 months have have definitely been the most difficult and challenging of our lives as owners of a small business, but we are tentatively hopeful now that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that we will get through this nightmare and still be around to celebrate our 20th anniversary this summer.

"We'd love for our bagels to become as legendary as our breakfasts but ultimately, we just want people to be able to rest, relax and reconnect in a friendly, warm, and positive environment. We are so looking forward to the day we can throw open our doors again and give all our amazing supporters the warmest welcome.

"Be safe, visit us if you can, and pre-order through our website to click and collect to make it even easier!"

* The Jericho Cafe is in Walton Street, Jericho, Oxford. For menu and opening times see Call 01865 310840


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