Katherine MacAlister visits The Varsity Club to find out if the food rises to the occasion
It’s a funny old place Oxford mid-August, the city centre being eerily quiet at night save for a few tourists tiptoeing around wondering where everyone has gone. Without the students it lacks the eccentric punch that the legions of foreign visitors loitering outside McDonald’s can never hope to replicate.
It also means you see the centre through fresh eyes, Bonn Square seeming rather tawdry, the only inhabitants at 7pm are people begging for money, the colour of this vibrant city seeming to seep away with its holidaying residents and endlessly transient population.
The trick is of course, knowing where to go, and yet tapping along the deserted High Street I nearly wavered in my intent, despite my insider knowledge, so quiet was the venue as I approached. And yet if you stood still and craned your neck, you could hear the sound of revelry echoing down from above.
Arriving at Whistles I nervously scouted the next door joint like Columbo, resisting the urge to turn up the collars of my trench coat, because nestling inside the entrance to the Covered Market is what looks like a nightclub with bright pink lights gracing its entrance. Dare to venture into The Varsity Club, climb the endless steps and travel down its rabbit warren corridors, following endless signs leading you up-and-up-and-up, you finally pop out panting, into what is Oxford’s newest and sexiest place — the TVC’s roof terrace. And there, complete with bar, outdoor furniture, cocktails and beautiful people, you can see Oxford in all its glory.
The vista is absolutely stunning, only rivalled by the Benugo rooftop restaurant at The Ashmolean, the views levelling with St Mary’s Church tower, Oxford panning out around you in all its glory through the glass walls, stretching as far as The Ridgeway in the distance. And at once you feel better about things, because when the weather is good, this really is the best place to be. It’s been an enormous labour of love for Jake and Yvonne Oppon, who spotted TVC’s lofty potential and have spent months bringing their dream to fruition. The results are really quite startling and it’s a wonderful new addition to Oxford’s bar and restaurant scene.
Having sampled the cocktails there on several occasions, I can vouch for their novelty and the fantastic vibe of the roof terrace, but hearing that TVC had introduced food gave me a good reason to return.
The limited menu didn’t put me off. Look at Polpo in Soho, Russell Norman slowly transforming the capital’s repertoire with his small, simple plates of superbly good food. So it was with excitement that I viewed the menu with two friends while sipping a refreshing Under The Quilt (Tanqueray gin, lemon and lychee juice, mixed with cucumber syrup with a lemonade top), which was quite delicious.
In fact, I’d moved on to my next choice, an OX4, (Appleton rum, Amaretto, coconut, passion fruit puree, fresh lime and a dash of pineapple) before we’d even ordered. The menu — a selection of tapas for starters and some salads and boards, was all a bit predictable. Compared to the cocktails which dazzled with originality, the food didn’t follow suit. It’s wasn’t the sparseness of the menu that bothered me, just the selection of dishes: Greek salad or Camembert with bread and chilli jam, roast vegetable salad, nothing that really excited or got the tastebuds going, but I perhaps still hoped that The Varsity Club would serve chi-chi food to match its artfully presented terrace.
It didn’t, is the short answer, and, as a committed regular there, disappointing to admit.
Introducing food is the obviously way forward for TVC. It makes sense to have a few nibbles on standby for anyone sitting watching the sun go down who gets a bit peckish. And the food wasn’t bad; just out of keeping and hugely unoriginal.
Tapas wise (the term tapas it seems is no longer reserved for Spanish sharing dishes, but now covers any international starters) we chose three dishes: the halloumi in beer batter — which was fine I suppose, although a bit calorific for the whippet-thin clientele; the chicken skewers with satay sauce which were slightly ungainly; and the calamari, only so-so despite the £15 for three dishes price tag.
And as we nibbled and chatted and drank, I crossed my fingers that the mains would blow us away. The £8.50 nachos though were a big letdown — a huge plate with piles of grated cheese and dollops of sour cream slopped on the plate, it seemed more suited to a student bar than a high-end roof terrace. No design, no finesse, and despite the addition of jalapanos and guacamole, really unappealing. The duck salad with crispy shredded duck with noodles, hoisin sauce, orange, cucumber and spring onion (£8) was more of a success.
As the dark descended and Oxford’s buildings lit up around us I pledged to stick to eating olives and drinking TVC’s marvellous cocktails in future because once the sun goes down and Oxford’s lights start twinkling, there’s no place I’d rather be.
The Varsity Club
9 High Street,
Oxford, OX1 4DB
01865 248777 tvcoxford.co.uk
Opening times: Food served 6-9pm weekday evenings and all day at weekends.
Key personnel: Jake and Yvonne Oppon
Make sure you try the... Deli boards featuring charcuterie (£12.50), vegetarian (£12.50) or cheese (£9). And remember it’s happy hour Monday-Friday 5pm-7pm
In ten words: More of a top notch drinking hole than a restaurant