KATHERINE MACALISTER is impressed with a venue that walks a fine line between pub grub and gastro pub, The Retreat, and negotiates it with ease.

Webster is such a maverick name, a bit like Dirk or Brett. Think 1950s American detective with a trilby, rugged jaw and Danger as a middle name, and you’re on the right track.

But sadly, the individual in question can rarely live up to such high expectations, turning out to be a shrivelled husk of a man with as much in common with Sam Spade as Ann Widdecombe. Luckily Webster, right, manager of The Oxford Retreat, lives up to his reputation, oozing bad boy persona from every pore, and it’s fascinating to see how this rubs off on the opposite sex.

My friend had real trouble ordering her meal, until I realised her stammering and blushes had more to do with Webster, than the menu itself. When he asked if he could help her choose, things went from bad to worse, and she had to have a hefty gulp of her Appletini just to get the words out.

Webster of course doesn’t even notice the effect he has on his female clientele, but brought us some fabulous cocktails, and explained the specials.

To set the scene, The Oxford Retreat on Hythe Bridge Street, was heaving on a cold Wednesday night. But nestled in the corner, the restaurant is set aside from the busy pub, and it was obvious why Webster’s place has just celebrated its fourth birthday while other eateries fold like packs of cards. Because it’s fun, and when you venture in, you’re greeted with the quintessential English scene of people eating, drinking and making merry. And let’s face it, with temperatures like these, it’s got to be worth venturing out for.

Webster has geared the menu around pub classics, as well as catering for a more ambitious customer. So you can tuck into the house burger with all the trimmings (£10) and wild boar sausage and mash (£9), or opt for more refined dishes like lambs shank (£14) or smoked haddock, poached in milk and served with mashed potato, spinach, peas and chervil, with a cream and wholegrain mustard sauce (£14), all of which we sampled on the night.

To start we tried the garlic field mushrooms on toasted bread (£5), which was a huge portion, the battered calamari drizzled with lemon and garlic mayo (£5), which didn’t look pretty but tasted fabulous, the arcini with mozzarella served with pepperlarte sauce (£5.50) and the roast pigeon breast with sauteed wild mushrooms, spinach, red wine jus and port syrup (£6.50). Washed down with lots of red wine. Delicious.

So what was the verdict? We had a really memorable evening although there were some schoolboy errors. The arcini sauce was freezing cold, which rather set your teeth on edge, and the burger was overcooked for ‘rare’, but essentially the prices are so reasonable, and the food here so many belt notches above your standard pub grub, without veering over into the gastro market, that I think Webster has found the perfect middle ground.

As we burst back on to the quiet, cold night to catch the train home, and watched the warm glow of the revelry inside, I knew where I’d rather be.

* The Oxford Retrest is at 1-2 Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford, OX12EW. Call 01865 250309.