Charming if slightly try-hard addition to the Oxford restaurant scene
The Ivy’s arrival in Oxford was announced with much fanfare and trumpets. A decked-out double-decker bus paraded around town advertising its coming, and overall there was a slight whiff of a messiah complex. Much has been said about the dominance of the ‘London metropolitan elite’ over the last few years. There is an idea that London thinks it knows what is best for the rest of the country, whether the rest of the country thinks so or not. Responses are split between defiant and usually justifiable insistence that actually, no it does not, and fawning welcomes for everything and anything that would make the place ‘more like London’. Oxford, unsurprisingly, falls into the latter category. The North London student population (be it at the colleges or at Oxford Brookes) is delighted to have something familiar out in the wastelands of Oxford (which only recently got a John Lewis), while locals are pleased to have something that justifies the city’s sometimes fragile sense of superiority.
So it was with some trepidation that I watched the arrival of the Ivy. Being somewhat provincial myself, I hadn’t attempted any of the existing London outlets, and was skeptical that it could really live up to the hype. But my curiosity won over my cynicism, and I booked a table. The menu was slightly suspiciously broad, with dishes from all over the globe, but a dedicated vegetarian and vegan menu is a cheering sight, and offered plenty of choice. Thought it opened in the run up to Christmas, all the lavish decorations were gone by the time I dined there, leaving behind a ‘tasteful’ mix of art deco and arts and crafts, with nods to the local setting in the form of wallpaper print reproductions of University scenes. I was a little dismayed to read on the website that The Ivy has a ‘smart casual’ dress code. With most of my shoes in a shipping container headed for the other side of the world (more on this in another post), I struggled to find shoes I would deem ‘smart casual’ (whatever that horrendously ambiguous term means). On consulting with my sister, who was to join us and had been once before, my green Supergas were thought ‘too trainery’. I settled on black boots, and we headed out.
Of course, I needed have worried: hipster diners were wearing distinctly tatty trainers, and interpretations of the dress code varied wildly. The general ‘vibe’ of The Ivy is of ‘aspirational’ dining. On the door one is fairly insistently encouraged to leave one’s coat in the ‘cloakroom’ (a niche in the porch), and the clientele is a mixture of middle class adults sipping wine in expensive basics and students dresses to the nines flirting over cocktails. All with decidedly ‘rah’ accents. I must admit to feeling a bit awkward in such company (which has made my experiences in Oxford, shall we say, varied?). But the restaurant thoroughly redeemed itself with friendly and attentive staff and delicious food. I went for the Keralan sweet potato curry (a swap from the main menu’s duck), which accompanied by lots of coriander and coconut rice made for a very flavoursome dish, full of depth without being too rich. For desert I scoffed down the malted banana ice cream with chocolate brownie. A curry is difficult to present in an artistic fashion, but the desert was pretty enough. My sister raved about her chocolate pudding, which involved hot sauce poured over a thin dome of chocolate, to theatrical effect. I steered clear of alcohol, but the peach and elderflower iced tea was wonderfully refreshing. Though the main menu was not particularly expensive, the vegetarian menu offers a more budget-friendly option.
So in the end I was quite happy to overcome my doubts, and find that, for all its pretensions, The Ivy is much like any other popular restaurant chain, in that it offers good food and (fairly) reasonable prices, and if you can get over the not particularly varied company, you will find a happy addition to the somewhat limited Oxford restaurant scene.
Have you visited an Ivy restaurant, or even the one in Oxford? How do you feel about chain restaurants having dress codes – is it an unnecessary snobbery or a nice excuse to dress up a bit? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below!