With weather last Sunday as perfect as you could ask for it seemed like as good a day as any to check out what Oxford has to offer. We'd been aware of The Gardeners Arms for a while, so it made sense to go for a wander then have a meal there afterwards. Oxford is about a 50 minute drive, door to door.
Though I've been to Oxford several times on business and to visit people, I'd not really ever been to have a look at its shops. The only shop I had been in in the past decade is Central Furniture (opposite Oxford University Press, where I once had a meeting). This perhaps gave me a somewhat skewed belief that perhaps Oxford contained many independent shops worth visiting.
How wrong could I be? The Oxford we saw was almost exclusively chainstores - grotty ones at that. The few independent shops we found were mostly closed (I guess it was a Sunday).
Mid way through our shopping fail we found a branch of shakeaway, who make overpriced but reasonably pleasant soy milkshakes (they charge 99p per shake extra for soya). The first took 10 minutes to come, the second 5 minutes later. The music playing was overloud (I'm all for loud music, but not that loud), the staff had colds and upon finishing one of our 'vegan' milkshakes we found gelatine containing non-vegetarian marshmallows in the bottom.
I wrote to them afterwards and they seemed genuinely apologetic. I don't however feel inclined to ever go back.
I'd like to say I like The Gardeners Arms, but I'd be lying if I did. It's down a cute, narrow road near the town centre, in an area known as Jericho. The closest free parking on a Sunday is a few streets away (other roads are residents only). The building is character packed, but poorly furnished with very few decent tables and a leather sofa (an odd choice for what describes itself on its website as being Oxford's Premier Vegetarian Restaurant). The table we got was way too small to eat comfortably at.
The food is not restaurant standard. It's pub food, which being a pub is understandable. Why market it anything different? Most of their food can be prepared vegan, though they have no vegan puddings on their menu. The prices don't reflect the quality - for £9 a main-course you get a lot better in most other vegetarian restaurants.
They don't seem to sell starters, so we got a couple of side dishes whilst waiting. The chips were fries - almost certainly bought in frozen and pretty tasteless. The garlic flatbread was kind of tasty, but weird and oily (impossible to eat without getting melted 'butter' all over your fingers). We both chose the special, which turned out to be a standard mushroom pie but with roast potatoes instead of non-roast.
The pie's pastry was excellent. It was very yorkshire pudding-esque and the best thing about our experience there. The pie filling was OK - nothing special but edible. The roast potatoes were seriously some of the worst I've ever had the displeasure of eating. The red wine gravy tasted like standard bisto. All in all it was pretty disappointing - we felt robbed.
I never like to say bad things about a vegan friendly business, because i genuinely want the few that we do have to succeed. The Gardener's Arms however needs a good kick up the arse if to gain us as customers or recommend other people to visit. Either they need to improve the seating, quality and choice of food, or cut prices and market it as pub food not a 'premier restaurant' (I realise that as Oxford's only vegetarian restaurant they can do this). If I were out on the piss and found the pub I was in could make me vegan food I'd be delighted. I wouldn't however ever go back there only for the food, unless I was pretty desperate.
So, all in all, it didn't quite work out :). Oxford itself is a pretty place with lots of old buildings. I'd certainly give it another go, with guidance from someone who knows their way around.
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