And you thought dragging yourself to lectures was bad enough, thanks to Exam Schools’ new cafe, now you have to force yourself past the delicious smell of hot coffee every morning. Accompanied by my friend Peter, I battled through the snow to find out if this new little café could stand up for itself against the caffeine peddling big dogs of the High.
Occupying a former lecture room, the cleverly named “The Café” has been set up to offer students and lecturers a place to grab a cup of coffee in that irritating one hour gap between two lectures. When we visited at around midday, 5 of the 9 tables were occupied. However, most were occupied by individual students wired into their laptops (taking advantage of the eduroam) meaning the ambience wasn’t exactly bustling.
The counter at the far end boasted the usual array of Twirls, pre-packed granola bars and posh crisps (who knew Warburtons made “baked pittas”?) while under glass domes lay a slightly limited selection of cakey type things such as flapjacks, brownies and carrot cake. Sandwiches were available from a cooler and fresh soup was being dispensed from a tureen. Sticking out from the standard crowd of snacks were the “Varsity Snack Packs”, a bespoke series of nuts and berries designed to detox, improve your mood and give you “raw energy”.
Nevertheless, I plumped for the brownie and a latte while Pete went for leek and potato soup (he’s from the North) and hot chocolate. The “Eros” coffee is a good strong blend and comes from sustainable Fairtrade sources if you’re the caring kind of person. However, thanks to being made with a button push bean-to-cup machine, the coffee was not quite hot enough to survive a decent length of conversation.
Sadly, the soft leather chairs were already taken but the random plants in the centre of the tables made up for it. The homemade brownie was that most hated but accurate of adjectives, “moist”, and just the right consistency, with large chunks of good quality dark chocolate inside. The soup apparently “warmed the very cockles” of Pete’s heart and was thick enough to suggest it was blended from fresh veg.
While it’s not the most luxurious of experiences in some respects (the coffee is served in paper cups and the cakes on paper plates giving it the feel of a children’s birthday party/refugee camp), the high ceilings, marble fireplace and numerous paintings do manage to make up for it. There are very few places in Oxford where you can eat a flapjack while being watched disapprovingly by the 200-year-old Bishop of Calcutta.
After a good chat punctuated with flashbacks to exams sat next door, we said goodbye to this quirky café. Will it survive surrounded by old timers The Grand Café and Queen’s Lane Coffee House as well as modern clone drones Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero just up the road? With the slightly limited selection of foods it offers, it might struggle to draw in people wanting a choice of 15 types of muffin, but choices like the soup and snack packs will keep those looking for a quick lunch happy. Its real secret weapon however, is the sheer cheapness of a visit to The Café. With hot drinks at around one pound a cup and cakes all less than two, a debilitating cappuccino addiction won’t have to break the bank any more – just make sure they don’t catch you sneaking them into lectures.