Katherine MacAlister tries out Pret A Manger’s latest outlet at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital

There were babies crying and nurses everywhere.

People with bandages or hairnets, wheelchairs, matrons, staff on lunch breaks, their ID cards flapping around their necks, the odd tear, lots of blue surgery outfits and crocs, crossword puzzles and flowers, children in prams, exhaustion.

People looked scared, or unused to their surroundings, families crowded together at tables, a granny and her grandson perched uncertainly next to us, then a woman whose two small children wailed inconsolably next to them.

But then this is no ordinary Pret A Manger.

We were in the John Radcliffe Hospital for lunch and although there are numerous places to eat here, Pret has wisely joined the throng.

It understands that the JR now boasts the population of a small town with a captive audience, and is therefore easy prey.

It also understands that with patients and their families coming and going, a snatched lunch and an all-day culture is vital, and that a well known, safe, reliable brand will be treated with the fervour usually only reserved for a life-raft in this palace of transient souls.

Somewhere to sit and just be, to gather, re-nourish, replenish, rethink, process and take a deep breath.

It also means that Oxford now boasts three Prets, two in the city centre, and the third here, having opened just last month.

Set on the ground floor of the hospital’s west wing, the new Pret is set in a light, airy space which makes full use of the glass atrium surrounding it.

It is unmistakable with it’s white painted walls, grey and maroon staff uniforms and metal cabinets stuffed with all the old faithfuls, as well as some new additions to its menu, for the adventurous or easily bored.

Because while Pret at the JR has an endlessly changing clientele to cater for, the hospital staff also make up a large chunk of its daily customers.

Pret A Manger was packed on both sides of the counter when we arrived for lunch, but with tables both inside and outside the restaurant, using the high ceilings of the JR rather like an al fresco site, there was plenty of room for everyone.

We wandered dutifully behind everyone else, trying to choose from the myriad of new flavours and ways of eating a sandwich.

The choice is endless – buns, wraps, baguettes, salads, soups, porridge. Pret now even boasts a hot plate with dishes such as cauliflower cheese on offer.

Throwing sandwiches, drinks and crisps onto our tray, it reminded me of being on a ferry, as we meandered slowly up the food chain, to the fruit aisles, god forbid we forget a food group, and queued to pay.

But as coffee shops are now as part of our daily lives as emails and trainers, we all know the score, and wedged ourselves down at a table, trying to ignore a riotously tantruming child as we settled down to eat our lunch.

Nicely packaged, my salad nicoise came with neatly sliced and cooked boiled egg, good chunks of fish, lots of lovely capers, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce and some decent dressing, which I washed down with a very strong latte.

The Oxford Times:

  • Fruit and yoghurts are all on offer at the new branch of Pret A Manger

Son number one, who’s currently completing work experience there, wolfed down a tuna and cucumber wrap, posh crisps, the most expensive pot of grapes in the world, freshly squeezed orange juice, and a fizzy drink made of cucumbers, which was like something the BFG would have concocted.

He’s not big on conversation at the moment my son, being a teenager an’ all, but the nods and grunts emanating from his direction indicated that he’d rather enjoyed it, before he scarpered back to the wards, replete, with me £15 worse off.

And while I would never detract from the wonderful League Of Friends Cafe which was doing a roaring trade in cheese and tuna rolls in the main hospital, the better of which I have never tasted, I realised that a bit of cheerful humanity, and people going around their daily tasks, eating, drinking and chatting is probably as beneficial and healthy as anything else going on here.

Pret is a little beacon of normality then in what can otherwise be a very daunting place.

It’s just the case that instead of us going to them, they now come to you.

THE PARTICULARS

Pret A Manger 
LG2 West Wing
John Radcliffe Hospital

Opening times: Monday to Friday 6.30am to 9pm
Saturday and Sunday 7am to 7pm

Manager: Linata Goh 

Parking: you have to pay if you’re a visitor, but if you’re there anyway....

Try the... coffee it’s strong enough to keep you up all night if needs be