Oxford is not an easy city to homogenise; but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. I found a vast shopping centre where the Westgate used to be, looking as shopping centres do: lonely, despite its similarity to every other shopping centre. This was confirmed by the signage. New York City loves and misses you, said a sign, which I doubt: surely New York has things to worry about beyond the citizens of Oxford being unable to shop in New York City if they cannot get what they want at the Westgate? Still, I like the idea of shopping centre lamenting shopping centre across the ocean; it expresses the fashionable neurosis that objects are sentient, and worthy of compassion. Oxford is an ideal place to believe this, because the stones are the most convincing thing here.
What restaurants are thriving under pandemic? That is easy: restaurants sited where there are people with money who are unafraid of dying. I have decided that people with money are afraid of dying in Mayfair, but not in Soho. They don’t seem frightened of dying in Oxford either, probably because they are already dead. Don’t write in to complain: I stole it from T.S. Eliot.
In Oxford the ’Bab van is reanimated like Doctor Who, but meat and the Mitre on the corner of Turl Street has closed. I thought of dining at the Eastgate Hotel, which is a sort of monument to repression amid repression — Tolkien loved it — but instead I break a sacred vow and go to the Ivy on The High.
I don’t like the original Ivy, because it exists under a PR enchantment, which is the worst kind of enchantment: it made diners think they could not get a table because they were taken by Donald Sinden and Daffy Duck on a rare trip to Europe. Then the Ivy reversed the spell and became a chain so you cannot miss them. There are Ivys in Bath, Norwich, Cambridge, Harrogate and Royal Tunbridge Wells; in Blackheath, Wimbledon and Richmond; and now in Oxford too.
This Ivy lives in a tall, neo-Gothic palace opposite the lately dead Mitre. It used to be a bank. It is called The Ivy Oxford Brasserie, presumably to differentiate it from the Ivy Oxford ’Bab Van and the Oxford Comma.
It is interesting that the fashionable decor in restaurants matches the fashionable politics outside: it is all Art Deco as the liberal media counts backwards to 1933. It is beautiful. Art Deco needs scale not to look like jewellery, or feminine disappointment, and the room is vast: it sat 182 before Covid-19. There are tiled floors; orange banquettes as at 45 Jermyn, which it resembles; much glass and silverware; wild and colourful art which conspire to make it look like a tropical garden. It is filled with those students not walking around Oxford in sombre crocodiles of subfusc, which makes them look like weirdly sexless vampires. These ones seem cheery — and why not? They study in a city of defensive walls.
After taking our temperatures for admission — evolve or die — it swiftly and kindly delivers from a generic international menu good sirloin steak, a wonderful tomato salad and some chargrilled halloumi cheese. This replica Ivy is better than the original: in this case, expansion suits it. The food is better — any restaurant selling itself as exclusive when the food isn’t superb fails, and the original Ivy killed itself with that. I couldn’t accuse it of having a soul but, with a restaurant as functional and well-funded as this, you can only imagine that is deliberate. If they had wanted a soul the designer would have provided one; and it is Oxford. There are many souls about.
The Ivy Oxford Brasserie, 120-121 High St, OX1 4DD, tel: 01865 416333.