[Note: this page was created in 2011. While I can verify, after recent trips to Oxford, that many of the recommendations still stand, it's always worth checking current reviews and menus before you visit these places!]
I created this list when I lived in Oxford as a response to the constant stream of people who would always ask me, "Oh, so where is good to eat in Oxford, then?" Now, it's not that I could ever get bored of discussing food, but rattling off the same litany of restaurants time and time again did get a little bit tedious, particularly as I knew they would forget all the names and locations straight away, and carry on eating at Pizza Express for the rest of their student days. So I decided to just direct them here. These are, in my opinion, some of the best places to eat in Oxford. I've attempted to vaguely group them by cuisine.
La Cucina - 39-40 St Clements Street. Probably my favourite Italian since Dante. The interior is relaxed and cosy, the staff are great and the food is excellent. It's not particularly expensive - no more so than your average chain Italian - but the dishes are better and more inventive. They do a lovely pasta with duck sauce (as well as classics like bolognaise and carbonara), great pizza (the goat's cheese and roasted vegetable is really good, as is the parmesan and parma ham with rocket), and a really good range of starters - the goat's cheese salad with roast pepper and balsamic is delicious, and the baked mushrooms stuffed with smoked cheese are sublime. There are also a good range of antipasti and breads to choose from (the foccaccia is really good). My favourite thing about the restaurant is that, if you sit in the back room, you can watch them making pizza in the open kitchen. It really does feel like a family-run trattoria in the heart of Italy.
Marios - 103 Cowley Road. A bit of an Oxford institution. If you haven't been, you haven't enjoyed probably the best pizza outside Italy. It's a cosy little place, run by Italians, with a proper pizza oven, and you can tell. What I particularly love about Marios pizzas is how generous they are with their toppings. I was once outraged when, upon ordering a leek, roasted vegetable and blue cheese pizza in an Italian chain restaurant, I was presented with a small piece of dough topped with a thin layer of tomato sauce, three blobs of cheese, and three pieces of dried up leek. The mark up on pizza in these restaurants is about 800%, and it's not as if leeks are going to break the bank. It's similar with a lot of chain restaurants - they're just so stingy with their toppings. Not so with Marios. When you order, for example, the 'Pizza Mario', ten minutes later a gigantic flying saucer of cheese and tomato will appear in front of you, groaning under the weight of spicy sausage, ham, artichokes, olives and anchovies. You're given proper pizza knives to eat it with, and it's probably about five times the size of your head. This is how pizza should be. Another absolute gem is the pizza topped with bresaola (cured beef) and gorgonzola. Sounds a bit of an odd combination, but it is incredible. Mind you, they're all good, and you can make your own topping if you don't fancy a combination on the (extensive) menu. As well as that, they do very good pasta (spaghetti with clams is delicious) and selections of cheese and meat antipasti. But to be honest, you won't need them - it's all about the pizza. They also do takeaway.
Jamie's Italian - George Street. To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of chain Italian restaurants (see above rant about stingy pizza toppings). But if you're going to go to one in Oxford, you could do a lot worse than Jamie's. It's big and bustling with a decent atmosphere helped by the open kitchen (which happened to have just produced a plate of luscious lemon meringue cheesecake as I walked in - a very effective advert for their dessert menu...see below...) and partitioned dining room, upstairs and down. The menu features some interesting dishes that you wouldn't find in your standard chain Italian: mushroom arancini appetisers, for example, or prosciutto with melon (a classic in Italy and one that I love, but that doesn't seem to make it over here much). I tried the lovely crab and fennel bruschetta, which is a far nicer idea than your average watery tomato version, featuring substantial chunks of sweet crab meat with crunchy wafer-thin fennel and a hint of chilli on rustic, flavoursome bread. They also offer big sharing boards or 'planks' with a variety of breads, meats, cheeses and pickles, though I find the serving of them balanced on top of big tomato tins a bit gimmicky. Mains offer a good range of protein - fish stew, steak, Italian burgers, lobster, turkey Milanese - and salads with an Italian twist (the 'Superfood Salad' is served with a fennel blossom Sicilian harissa, for example). Points for featuring calves liver, a classic Venetian dish but one that you don't often find on chain menus here (are we too squeamish?) The pasta menu does offer a couple of interesting dishes - I enjoyed my rotolo of spinach, squash and ricotta with toasted breadcrumbs, which wasn't too dense or flabby as that sort of thing can sometimes be - but the rest aren't hugely exciting, mostly just your standard bolognese, carbonara, tomato sauce and seafood spaghetti. I was hoping for some ravioli, which I always order in restaurants because it's such a faff to make at home. I did, however, really enjoy the sausage pappardelle, which is a little bit different and reminded me of some incredible sausage pasta I enjoyed once in Bergamo; again, it's not something you find in most chain Italian restaurants here, despite being really delicious. I found it a bit strange that the osso bucco (pork not veal or beef, for some reason) came with no accompaniment: it was literally just two huge slabs of braised meat in a bowl, and definitely needed something to break the - albeit tasty - monotony. Often the downfall of really good Italian restaurants, even in Italy (especially if, like me, you don't like tiramisu or panna cotta), the dessert menu has a good bit of variety - lighter dishes like macerated pineapple or chocolate and pear pavlova sit alongside heavier classics like the chocolate brownie (I do wish they wouldn't refer to it as 'Epic', though), and they offer a nice range of ice cream flavours. One of my pet hates in restaurants is when dessert menus offer 'a selection of flavours; ask your server' and the flavours always seem to be strawberry, chocolate and vanilla. We had a choice of salted caramel, honeycomb and coffee, to name a few, which came with a selection of toppings. I really enjoyed the lemon meringue cheesecake, although I question the need for the meringue on top; it looks pretty, but doesn't really add anything to the dish apart from a rather blandly sweet foaminess. The lemon curd and blackcurrant accompaniments, though, were delicious and the perfect tart foil for the creamy cheesecake. Although it does offer several dishes that you'd find on any chain Italian restaurant menu, Jamie's is a good introduction to some of the other less well-known flavours of the country, simply and rustically presented, and provides a fun, bustling atmosphere in which to enjoy them.
Olives - 42 High Street. The only place worth going for a brilliant baguette. Olives is a tiny independent sandwich bar run by Frenchman Christophe, and will satisfy any gourmet or hungry student with its array of delicious sandwich fillings. The Olives 'favourite' baguette is a combination of buffalo mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes and parma ham with rocket. It's not cheap at a fiver, but neither is it your everyday baguette - this is something special. The focus of the shop is its deli counter, home to all sorts of enticing charcuterie, breads, pates (they once had a lobster terrine on offer) and cheeses. You can have a sandwich made up for you incorporating any combination of these, though there are pre-existing combinations on the blackboard on the wall behind the counter. A personal favourite is the goat's cheese with roasted vegetables, onion marmalade, and rocket. When you choose a filling, you can choose (for free) from three of the following: onion marmalade, rocket, cucumber, tomatoes, roasted veg, chutney, and a few other things that I've forgotten. Baguettes are fairly good value, too, ranging from about £2.50 to the £5 extravaganza that is the aforementioned Olives 'Favourite'. Olives if not a one-trick pony, though: it also sells excellent real Italian ice cream in the summer, very good coffee, pastries, a range of panini and soup, and the Olives 'baguette of the week', which has included the amazing combination of roasted pork, thyme-roasted onions, brie and plum chutney, or roast beef with horseradish and blue cheese. There's a small selection of deli-style items on sale as well, like jars of duck confit, a chocolate absinthe cake (delicious), various chutneys and sauces, and pasta and bread. Oh, and as you'd expect, they also sell olives.
The High Table - 71-3 High Street. I want to call this a hidden gem, but it's not exactly hidden, being smack bang in the middle of Oxford's busy High Street. For some reason, I hardly ever see it more than half-full. This is a shame, because the entire dining experience really is excellent. The interior is beautifully decorated and feels a lot more luxurious and expensive than the menu would suggest. Upon ordering, you're given a basket of wonderful bread (several varieties - the walnut one is particularly good) along with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. This alone makes it worth a visit. However, even better is their amazing value set lunch and dinner menu (12-7pm). You can have two courses for £10.95, usually with three options to choose from for each course. You don't get given small portions or inadequate food for that price, either. I've had an amazing beef burger with thick cut chips, a beautiful roast rump of lamb, some exquisite haddock, sausages and mash, and a very good pea and mint risotto. The food is always stunning, like something you'd find in a Michelin-starred restaurant. They do an interesting array of ice cream flavours for dessert, too (basil and strawberry, rum and sultana, apricot, white chocolate, pineapple, lychee...) along with delicious classics like lemon tart or spiced poached pears. The a la carte is a bit more expensive, but again is good value for money - there are a range of soups, pastas, salads, and grills. Prices range from £4-6 for starters, £9-16 for mains, and desserts for around a fiver. Again, I can't understand why this place isn't always full - the food is beautiful and the service excellent. You feel like you're in a posh London restaurant, but for a fraction of the price, and it's a great place to take parents or friends for special occasions (I went there on the day I finished my finals, which is perhaps why I have such fond memories of it). It deserves more custom. Maybe I'll regret publicising it on here one day...
Door 74 - 74 Cowley Road. I don’t know whether it’s the name, the small and cosy interior, or the splendid cooking, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that while eating at Door 74 I was sitting in somebody’s living room, somebody who would disappear back to the kitchen every now and then and return bearing delicious dishes they had prepared earlier. Perhaps it was the lovely rustic presentation of the food, the generous portions and the comforting nature of it all. This felt like good, old-fashioned home cooking, rather than pretentious restaurant food with ludicrous garnishes and tiny servings. The interior is on the small side, but nicely decorated. Everything exudes calm and relaxation, from the single waiter who managed to pay attentive care to all the tables, the fairy lights on the dark purple walls, to the small menu that suggests carefully chosen ingredients and flavour combinations. The starters are just big enough to whet the appetite without making you doubt your capacity for dessert: aubergine and lamb wraps; asparagus with egg mimosa; sardines on toast. Main courses are a feast for both the eyes and the tastebuds: the marinated chicken with panzanella salad was zesty and tender, but it was the accompanying salad that really made the dish: big chunks of toasted ciabatta, ripe tomatoes, cucumber, caperberries, olives and red onion in a lovely tangy dressing that soaked into the bread. It was colourful, full of flavour and a superb lively accompaniment to the chicken. The potato cake filled with mushrooms, pine nuts and halloumi cheese was an excellent meat-free option. Desserts range from the classic (meltingly delicious chocolate pudding with ice cream) to the more exotic - lemon meringue ice cream served with fresh mango, or a white chocolate and mango cheesecake. I've also found myself wanting two desserts on several occasions, especially when they listed a banana bread on the menu. Definitely a winner in terms of both food and atmosphere, Door 74 guarantees a thoroughly enjoyable dining experience.
Fishers - 36-7 St Clements Street. A seafood restaurant, as you'd expect from the name, Fishers' menu changes daily depending on what the restaurant receives directly from fishermen and markets throughout the country. A particular highlight is the seafood platter (hot or cold versions available), placed ceremoniously in the table and accompanied by a bizarre array of silver implements for extracting the various bits of seafood from their exoskeletons. When I went, I had prawns, langoustines, clams and smoked salmon, garnished with parsley and lemon and a pot of tangy mayonnaise. The bucket of bread to go with it is wonderful - dark and nutty, it's a perfect match for the sweet seafood. It's a good conversation starter, as well, if you're there on a date that's going a bit awkwardly - nothing like snapping the heads of defenceless crustacea to get the romance going. The main courses share a common theme: fish as the centrepiece, minimally adorned to let its quality shine. I've had a very good turbot, with mash and mushroom cream sauce, and a lovely lobster thermidor. For dessert they offer gastropub-style classics like sticky toffee pudding, and a nod to the classic fish and chip shop dessert, banana fritters with toffee ice cream. Decor is fun and nautically themed, and service is friendly but can be on the slow side as it's often busy. Seafood of this standard, however, is something to enjoy lingering over. It's on the expensive side (£10-18 for mains), but they do several cheaper set menus, and it's definitely a place to come to treat yourself or a fellow seafood-lover.
Moya - 97 St Clements Street. This is normally the first place I mention when asked where to eat in Oxford. It's brilliant. Definitely a hidden gem, it's not that noticeable when you first walk past. It's half restaurant, half cocktail bar (try the 'brain haemorrhage' or the 'choc-chip mint cookie'), and the dining area is quite small. The food more than makes up for that though, both in flavour and in portion size. It's Eastern European, which is interesting in itself because you don't find much of that around. I was definitely a convert after my first visit there, and can't stop going back. Traditional dishes such as goulash and dumplings are on offer, as well as a selection of tempting options for the piscatorially inclined such as trout, black prawns, sea bass, fishcakes, and – once – a special of cod cheeks. The specials board changes regularly, but the à la carte is so packed with inviting options that this may only complicate matters of decision-making. The “devil’s toast” starter has become one of Moya’s specialities; they also serve it as a bar snack. A crisp slice of sourdough toast topped with smoked sausage, onion, tomatoes, peppers, chillies and grilled goat’s cheese, it is a truly delightful combination of smoky and tangy flavours. Other options include vegetarian dumplings and a Slovak potato salad. Prices are around £5 for starters, and although they may seem small, once the sizeable main courses materialise all will become clear. The segedin, a creamy pork and sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) goulash, is lightly spiced with nutmeg, paprika and caraway. The acid cabbage provides an unusual foil to the rich, spiced meat, and the dish is served with knedla – steam cooked bread dumplings, which mop up every drop of the delicious juices. The traditional goulash – tender beef in a spicy tomato and pepper sauce, fragrant with paprika – is also delightful, the meat so tender you could eat it with a spoon. Although the mains may pose a challenge for some appetites, ensure you leave room for dessert. You can choose from an unusual selection of ice creams and sorbet – think cappuccino, almond and amaretto, dark cherry or apricot – as well as traditional offerings: a Slovak fruit dumpling, Tatras apple cake, or Bublanina (bubble cake), a light sponge studded with seasonal fresh berries. The dumpling haunts my dreams to this day. It's light and filled with apricot, a tart contrast to the dough, and covered in a sublime poppy seed and butter sauce that adds a little crunch. Seriously, you must try it - it sounds bizarre, but it's incredible. The apple cake utilises that unbeatable combination of apple, sultanas, walnut and cinnamon to great effect, encased in a flaky pastry and served with a rich vanilla ice cream. After dinner coffee is accompanied by little sugared biscuits, a nice touch, though perhaps geared more towards the eye than the appetite – after three courses at Moya, you won’t be hungry again for a long time. I can't stress enough how great this place is.
Manos - 105 Walton Street. Deli and cafe by day, restaurant by night, Manos is first and foremost concerned with producing excellent Greek food. You are at liberty to order from the counter as and when something takes your fancy, or wait for table service. The tables upstairs in the deli provide a casual cafe feel even in the evening, where proceedings are less about formal service and more about great food and company. There is no set format for dining: you can point at something in the deli counter that takes your fancy, or order from the menu. The food is often simple but bursting with fresh flavours; lemon, oregano, garlic, tomato. The best way to try as many of the mouthwatering starters as possible is to order a mezze platter. Choose from a selection of dips such as tzatziki, hummous and taramasalata, or Greek classics like dolmathes (stuffed vine leaves), marinated red peppers stuffed with feta cheese and chickpea salad with parsley and lemon. There is also a selection of olives including feta-stuffed, kalamata, and lemon and dill. A far cry from the tiny olives you can buy in jars, these are enormous, glossy, and delicious. Ensure you leave room for Manos’s hearty main courses, all of which are served with a (sometimes unnecessary, considering their size) side of hummous, Greek salad or olives. There is a good range of vegetarian options, including a spinach and feta filo pastry pie, a delicious combination of crispy pastry and tangy, creamy filling, and gigantes plaki, butter beans baked in a tomato and herb sauce. Also available are classics such as imam bayeldi (baked aubergine), Moussaka, and arni me kritharaki, spiced lamb so tender you could eat it with a spoon, served with kritharaki pasta. One of the stars of the menu is the chicken souvlaki, a gigantic flatbread filled with moist marinated chicken (or falafel for vegetarians), hummous, tzatziki and Greek salad. At £5.95 it is perhaps the cheapest route to a full stomach in Oxford. Most main courses are available as smaller portions, enabling you to try a couple. The display of desserts in the deli counter is a smart move; having eyed them covetously on your way in, you will make a point of leaving room for at least one syrup-drenched pastry. Traditional baklava is available in flavours such as almond or pistachio, as well as apple strudel and a variety of home baked cakes that are guaranteed to make you hungry all over again.
Al-Shami - 25 Walton Crescent. Located at the end of a residential street off Walton Street, this taste of Lebanon in Oxford is easy to miss. Don't. If you've never had Lebanese food before, you're in for a treat. I went there because Lebanese food is very similar to Syrian food, and I was craving some of the wonderful taste sensations I experienced there last August. It didn't disappoint - I could locate pretty much all of them on the menu, and they were just as good as I recalled. They serve an extensive menu of mezze (small dishes to share), plus lots of main courses (mainly grilled meat or fish). I'd recommend going in a group and ordering whatever takes your fancy, then diving in when it arrives, splendid looking and beautifully presented, at your table. Some highlights are the moutabel (smoked aubergine purée, an incredibly moreish and wonderful dip), the mohammara (red pepper, walnut and pomegranate dip - vibrant red and equally vibrant in mysterious flavours), the foul (a mixed bean dip with lots of garlic and olive oil - very Mediterranean-tasting), fatayer (spinach pasties with pine nuts), falafel (deep-fried spiced chickpea patties - crunchy and wonderful), kellage halloum (essentially a halloumi cheese toasty - salty and creamy on the inside, crunchy on the outside), kibbeh maqlia (lemon-shaped deep fried patties of ground lamb, bulgur wheat and nuts), and the kafta kebab (ground lamb shaped into sticks and grilled). Most dishes are served with a big basket of delicious flatbread, perfect for scooping up morsels of dip and sauce, and it's a great place to go to try something a little bit different. The baklava they serve for dessert is also amazing, but baklava normally is.
Edamame - 15 Holywell Street. I'm not sure this needs any publicity from me, as it's in most travel guides to Oxford and has a queue several yards out of the door most nights, but Edamame is as good as Japanese food (in England) gets. Often full of Japanese people (always a good sign) it's family run and absolutely tiny, hence the queues. However, they move quickly and the food is worth waiting for. You share tables with total strangers, which isn't as weird as it sounds, and the food is speedy and satisfying. The lunch menu features complete dishes, like marinated salmon, noodle soup, stir-fried noodles or chicken katsu curry (which all come with delicious and satisfying miso soup), whereas the dinner menu is more about choosing a variety of meat, veg or fish dishes and some sort of carbohydrate to go alongside. The marinated pork is very good, as is the stir-fried squid. At lunchtime, I love the chicken yakisoba noodles, or the ramen soups. The eponymous edamame beans are also a must - order them to nibble on while your food arrives, popping them out of their green pods. It's not a place to linger over dinner, as you can often see a queue of hungry diners out of the window waiting for you to vacate your table, but for a taste sensation it's excellent. The sushi on Thursday nights is also exquisite, and great value for money, and they usually offer a range of specials written on the walls.
Feel free to comment if you have any more recommendations, or disagree with me...