[Note: this page was created in 2012. While many of the recommendations are still current, it's always worth checking current reviews before you visit these places in case things have changed!]
It was pointed out to me recently that, while I have a page devoted to extolling the very best highlights of the Oxford restaurant scene, my blog is sadly lacking in culinary recommendations for Cambridge.
In case you're wondering: yes, I grew up in Cambridge and then went to university in Oxford. The amount of people who have pointed out this crazy paradox to me as if a) it's wildly unusual that I'd want to leave the small town where I'd spent eighteen years of my life for somewhere new and b) I didn't realise this fact myself is slightly ridiculous, and it kind of pains me to have to put on a forced smile every time it's pointed out to me and be like "yes, well, I quite wanted to go somewhere new".
Oh and, in answer to the other inevitable question, I support Oxford in the Boat Race.
There is a reason that I have a huge list of detailed restaurant recommendations for Oxford and not Cambridge. Cambridge is widely acknowledged to be the place where gastronomy goes to die. It has the highest concentration of chain restaurants out of any town in the UK, apparently. You're hard pressed to find somewhere to eat that isn't a Cafe Rouge or a Pizza Express, and generally the standard of independent restaurants is pretty appalling, especially when compared to Oxford.
The other reason why I've never bothered writing a list is that I don't really go out to eat in Cambridge, seeing as all my friends have basically left and I am stranded with very little social life. Hard times.
However, there are a few places that I would recommend, should you be on the hunt for somewhere to eat moderately well in this wasteland of culinary ingenuity.
A Cambridge institution, Fitzbillies is most famous for its Chelsea Buns - soft, sweet rounds of dough twirled around an impossibly sticky, sweet, cinnamon-spiked filling. It also offers a wide array of excellent cakes and is perfect for a spot of quintessentially British afternoon tea. On the savoury side, they offer hearty, rustic lunch dishes such as mushrooms on toast and delicious soups and salads, as well as more exciting combinations like venison pâté with toast and quince compote, or rare pigeon salad. They are now open on Friday and Saturday evenings for dinner. I can't comment on dinner as I haven't yet been lucky enough to go, but the food at lunch is thoughtfully prepared, and simple yet delicious. Just make sure you have enough room for one of those buns and be warned: sharing one is not an option and you will need to wash your hands afterwards. Don't even attempt to eat it with a fork.
The Oak Bistro - 6 Lensfield Road
If you know me, you'll know I've worked here as a waitress on and off for three years. This may make you claim I'm biased for putting it up here, but I would suggest that it's actually the opposite. Working in a restaurant often puts you off the food they serve, either because you just can't stand to see another plate of confit duck waiting at the pass for you to pick up, or because you see the dodgy stuff that goes on behind the scenes, like using ready-made ingredients out of a bag, microwaving things, and - god forbid - spitting in the food of annoying customers. Fortunately, none of these apply to The Oak.
Instead, I go and eat there on a regular basis as a paying customer. Why? Because it's one of the best restaurants in Cambridge, by all accounts. The atmosphere is always buzzing (there's a lovely outdoor garden seating area for that brief two-week period in the British calendar when it's warm enough to dine al fresco), the staff are fantastic (obviously), and it's not too expensive; a three-course à la carte meal will probably set you back around £30-£35. Often fully-booked (best to call in advance if you don't want to be disappointed), The Oak serves hearty, gastropub style food with a bit of a twist. Think Cajun-spiced swordfish on a mango, green bean and walnut salad; crispy pork belly with a mustard and apple compote; fillet of sea bass with palm hearts, tomato and coriander. They also do simple, big flavours very well: braised lamb shank with winter vegetables; crispy confit duck leg with red cabbage and mash (the mash is so soft, unctuous and creamy you could sleep on it); salmon fishcakes with tomato salsa; wild mushroom and truffle risotto. Apparently, their steak is the best many people have ever eaten; it comes with a melting slab of flavoursome truffle butter, chips (The Oak does incredible chips...my favourite ever shifts were the ones where the chef would make a bowl of chips for the staff to eat) and is always cooked to perfection, however you order it. I once asked the chef if he's able to tell when the steaks are cooked just by touching them, and he scoffed at me, with a look that said 'Of course I can, you idiot. In fact, I can tell just by looking at them from the other side of the kitchen.'
I always struggle when customers ask me to recommend something from the menu, as it is honestly all delicious, but highlights are the Cajun swordfish, the seared scallop starter, the king prawn starter (the smell of it emanating from the kitchen is one of the most beautiful things in the world) and the mushroom risotto. It has such an incredible depth of flavour - you can have it as a main course as well as a starter; I always order it as the latter and then wish I could cancel the rest of my order and just eat that sweet, creamy, earthy plate of heaven for the rest of my days. Leave room, however, for the melting chocolate fondant that has never moved from the menu because, quite simply, it's worth making a pilgrimage for.
Cotto - 183 East Road
OK, I've worked here as a waitress too. But again, it only made me more likely to pay for the food. Chef and chocolatier Hans Schweitzer is an absolute genius in the kitchen, taking simple ingredients and turning them into something utterly fabulous. The emphasis at Cotto is on well-sourced, high quality produce, treated simply to maximise its potential. Thursday to Saturday, they serve a set three-course dinner menu for £45; while on the expensive side, it's widely acknowledged to serve some of the best food in Cambridge. Again, it's often fully-booked, so call in advance. Mouthwatering dishes from the past include salt marsh lamb with a garden herb crust, pan-fried fillet of turbot with hand-dived scallops, and a trinity of wild sea trout. If that's outside your budget, you can go for lunch, tea or coffee on Tuesday to Friday. As you might expect from a restaurant whose chef is a chocolatier, Cotto produce some incredible cakes and desserts; when I worked there the Tunisian citrus cake, plum crumble tartlets, Mocha layer cake and fruit custard tarts were always popular, and the creme brulée was so good that even I, a creme brulée hater, had to try some. What really stands out in my mind, though, is the chocolate dessert he used to produce, featuring a mini grand piano made out of various textures and types of chocolate. It had to be seen to be believed. The lunch menu is prepared with the same care as the dinner offerings, and is a cheaper way to sample Hans's excellent cooking. Don't leave without trying something sweet.
Dojo - 1-2 Millers Yard, Mill Lane
Cheap and cheerful, Dojo dish up absolutely whopping plates of noodles, rice and soup for ridiculously low prices. The ingredients are fresh, the flavours perky, the menu extensive and exciting, and the atmosphere buzzing. It's not big, so arrive early or book a table to avoid queuing. Try the yakisoba, one of their recommended dishes (although it comes in about ten different varieties), or work your way through the mouthwatering menu, divided into noodle dishes, rice dishes and soup, and helpfully categorised according to levels of spice.
Charlie Chan - 14 Regent Street
Charlie Chan is a Chinese restaurant in the heart of Cambridge. If you go for dinner, you can sit upstairs in their quaint, old-fashioned dining room, where some of the tables have lazy susans to make reaching for your favourite dish a little easier, and there's live jazz at weekends. They serve an extensive menu of meat, fish and vegetable dishes, as well as a selection of complete noodle and rice dishes. My favourite, however, is the dim sum menu served at both lunch and dinner. For an incredibly low price, you can enjoy a succulent array of tender steamed or fried dumplings, filled with rich and intriguing flavours. My favourites are the cha siu steamed pork buns, a pure white, cloud-like fluffy dough encasing a tangy, sweet, sticky pork filling. Also excellent are the 'half-moon' steamed prawn dumplings, the fried taro croquettes (like a potato croquette, but with a juicy meat filing) and the minced pork and prawn dumplings. For about £15, you can completely stuff yourself with dim sum and jasmine tea to the point of collapse.
Efes - 80 King Street
Efes serve classic Turkish food in a small, buzzing restaurant painted with charmingly gimmicky frescoes of ancient ruins. The place is dominated by an enormous grill, on which they cook everything from lamb kebabs to swordfish. The menu is a homage to the best of Turkish food; start by ordering a mezze selection and tuck in to classics like taramasalata, hummus, stuffed vine leaves, feta cheese, stuffed aubergine, falafel, red pepper puree and lots of warm pitta bread. Proceed to a kebab which, far from resembling hideous drunken student fare, involves tender grilled meat or fish - mostly lamb and chicken - served with deliciously fragrant basmati rice and a selection of crunchy salads. For dessert, you have to have the sweet, syrupy baklava, a perfect antidote to all that rich meaty fare. For £18.75, the set menu is great value and comprises a mixed hot and cold mezze, a mixed kebab and salad, baklava, and coffee. Serve is always ultra-friendly and the atmosphere is great. Perfect for a convivial meal with friends.
The Hole in the Wall - Primrose Farm Road, Little Wilbraham
Run by Masterchef finalist Alex Rushmer, The Hole in the Wall serves exquisite food in beautiful and relaxed surroundings. It has a lovely cosy country pub feel, with rustic wooden tables and simple yet elegant tableware - there are little plants on each table and the butter is served on a wooden slate, sprinkled with sea salt. Everything I ate was delicious, from the soda bread and sourdough we slathered in said butter, right through to the incredible dessert. I had a perfectly-cooked fillet of wild sea bass on a bed of pecorino tortelloni with asparagus and pea puree. The tortelloni were the best I've ever had - the pasta was perfectly al dente, giving way to the rich cheese filling within. The asparagus was fresh and crunchy, and the sea bass meaty and delicious. My boyfriend had the roast sirloin of beef, which arrived so beautifully pink I could have cried with joy on his behalf. It came with two perfect Yorkshire puddings - the right balance of crispy and gooey - and the best duck fat roast potatoes I've ever eaten. They were so crispy you could hear one being cut into across the other side of the restaurant.
For dessert, I agonised over a choice between the lemon and passion fruit tart with pineapple sorbet, or the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding. Yes, that's right - not sticky toffee or bread and butter pudding, but both in one. Why have I never thought of that before? I told the waiter about my dilemma, and he actually laughed at me for being so ridiculous as to even have a dilemma. He rightly pointed out that I would hate myself if I ordered the tart. I saw why, when my pudding arrived.
It was a quivering, custardy square of gooey bread and juicy raisins. It came drenched in a molten puddle of sticky toffee sauce with more of those plump, caramelly raisins. There were blobs of passion fruit coulis. There were two little strawberries for decoration. There was a scoop of - wait for it - clotted cream ice cream, perched atop a crunchy biscuity mixture. The texture of the pudding was just sublime - you couldn't detect the individual bread layers, as it had all melded together into one tender, creamy mass, slightly gelatinous and subtly sweet. The raisins gave a perfect bite to the whole thing, and the toffee sauce was so fabulous that I nearly picked the plate up and licked it clean. The coulis gave a welcome sharpness to the whole thing, and the clotted cream ice cream helped lift the richness of the sticky sauce. When the waiter came to collect my plate, he actually laughed at me and said "How insane were you, thinking about having a different pudding?"
Alex Rushmer is a genius. Go and eat his food now, while you can get a table. Service is really friendly, the atmosphere is fantastic, and the food is beautiful. And don't even think about ordering the lemon tart over the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding.
De Luca Cucina & Bar - 83 Regent Street.
Want Italian food in Cambridge? Please don't go to Zizzi, Ask, Bella Italia or Pizza Express. Go here, where the food is slightly more interesting, unusual, and thoughtful. From chorizo arancini (deep-fried risotto balls) to fillet of beef with gorgonzola sauce and calves liver with duck pâté crostini, this is a decent independent restaurant and much nicer than your bog-standard chain. The inside is classy and they offer a range of good-value menus offering genuinely interesting food.
Other recommendations include Yippee Noodle Bar (in very much the same vein as Dojo, above) and La Margherita (another nice independent Italian). I've heard good things about the Cambridge Chop House and Backstreet Bistro. Cafe Massara on Regent Street does some of the best coffee in town, CB2 offer hearty pasta, wraps, burgers and panini in relaxed surroundings, and the Belgian waffle stall at Cambridge market is not to be missed (as if you could miss it - the smell wafting from it around the city is enough to reel you in and make you part with your cash in exchange for a sumptuous, buttery waffle topped with anything from nutella and bananas to strawberries and cream).
You can see, at the top of the page, me eating one. I always made my boyfriend swear he'd never upload this photo to the internet, so I've decided to pre-emptively do it myself so I won't be embarrassingly surprised should he do so one day. I have pink hair. That might distract you from the gaping enormity that is my greedy open mouth.
And finally, a couple of others. I can't personally vouch for these as I haven't been (though I'd love to give them a try, if someone would lend me a lot of money), but I know they're generally well regarded.
Midsummer House is the obvious choice for Cambridge dining excellence. With two Michelin stars, it has received rave reviews, and chef Daniel Clifford recently made it through to the final of Great British Menu with his amazing and inspired deconstructed modern dishes. It hurts me that this restaurant is literally 200 yards from my house, but I have never managed to get there. One day, perhaps. If you're looking to splurge, the food is apparently amazing and the service faultless. Set lunch starts at £40 for three courses, going up to £95 for the 'Taste of Midsummer' menu (that's without the optional accompanying wines).
Alimentum is Cambridge's attempt at a classy, fine-dining establishment. I've heard mixed reviews but generally it seems that the food is worth a try; though not cheap, the set menu seems pretty good value, and the food is certainly different to anything else you'll find in this city.