A quaint two-story building off St. Michaels Street with a bicycle stuck to the front of it is home to the Handle Bar which officially opened its doors in 2015.
The name ‘Handle Bar’ came from Oxford’s oldest bike store, which is on the first floor of Handle Bar to the right of the restaurant.
Inside the cozy two-story building you will find the smell of freshly poured espresso hitting your nose alongside friendly staff greeting you as you walk in.
Each table in the Handle Bar has a cozy atmospheric vibe that compliments the fantastic food offered.
The owner of the Handle Bar is 45-year-old Celine De La Roche, a strong independent French woman who inspires everyone with her hard work and fun attitude.
When Handle Bar first opened back in 2015 it was far from being the go-to brunch spot it is today.
“It was really organic actually. This space used to be a bike showroom. This big room was all bicycles and there was a tiny little coffee shop in this room. The guy who owned the lease to the building came to find me at my pop-up coffee shop off in Ports Meadows. He said the pop-up coffee shop was going well and that they wanted to do some food and offered for me to come to cook lunches,” said De La Roche.
She further explained how she had never cooked professionally, “ I came every day to prep early in the morning since I wasn’t a proper chef”. This experience would lead to the creation of the iconic brunches.
This opportunity opened the door and made the options for Handle Bar endless. This has led to an impact on the community and students here in Oxford.
“Handle Bar has really brought a community to the streets of Oxford which is based around good food, good drinks, and very chill vibes. I think this city centre has always been a struggle for small independent businesses; there are big outlets and rent is super expensive. I am blessed with very good landlords who have given me this opportunity to flourish,” said De La Roche.
The mission behind Handle Bar is to create a social atmosphere for people to have these “exchanges” of ideas, listen to music, and gather in a way that allows them to leave their worries at the door.
“On Thursday we have the Catweazle night which is a wonderful music club that’s been going on for 25 years. It’s like a folk, jazz, and poetry evening. They started back here in November- December and it’s just completely wonderful – they are bringing new breeds of people to the place,” said De La Roche.
Handle Bar offers a unique atmosphere that comes with a fun experience that appeals to students, although that hasn’t always been the case.
“We have had our ups and downs. Back when we first opened up in 2017 there were students with laptops everywhere, there was zero atmosphere until one day I came into work and I just had a meltdown and banned laptops completely (for 5-6 months). This is a social space where I want people to chat and interact” said De La Roche.
Again the importance of having a social exchange and a fun atmosphere can be seen at the heart of the Handle Bar’s existence.
De La Roche further explained, “We are in the city centre and there are students everywhere of course and they are our bread and butter. We come to work and we want to interact with you guys. We don’t just deliver food.”
Handle Bar aims to be a place of diversity in their food, music, and social exchanges. The staff itself is comprised of foreigners from all over, each bringing with them a unique perspective to Handle Bar.
“For me, a place doesn’t have to be one thing. I have always struggled with that in that cafe is cafe or restaurant is a restaurant. I love the idea of just having space that is open for all, all day long. Which is a very French thing” said De La Roche.
This type of approach expands into the diversified influences on food depicted on the brunch menu.
“I don’t see the point in hiring a chef and telling them this is the menu, this is what you will cook. Happy chefs are best when they can be creative We had a great Spanish chef so we used to have great tapas, ” said De La Roche.
This unique element of having chefs culturally influence the menu is also tied to allergy preferences. Handle Bar is extremely good for students with allergies!
“I have a couple of allergies. I grew up in a very foodie family and environment in France and it was strict with what this is what you get and that’s it. Whether allergies or intolerances are real or not since there is an ongoing debate on that. I think anyone who suffers from any of these allergies should be able to enjoy the same food as everyone else,” said De La Roche.
This authenticity and vibrancy shown in all aspects of Handle Bar make it stand out from any other cafe or brunch spot.
“I think it’s just the authenticity, we are one of Oxford’s first brunch places and we have stayed true to ourselves. We don’t try to copy or imitate. We just carry on with our vision and our trends. It’s all down to the chefs in our kitchen, they have a lot of agency,” said De La Roche.
This creation of Handle Bar has led to some full-circle moments for De La Roche and is a real-life achievement for her.
“When we first started the adventure I had a business partner who is now on the other side of the planet. My husband, it was very long hours when we first started. Hundred-hour weeks non-stop and I just had my second baby. If you believe in something you just throw yourself and I believed in us so much and it’s the domino effect isn’t it,” said De La Roche.
She continued to say, “the fact that it always feels like home and I am happy to come in. The food, and people’s enthusiasm about being here”.
The inspiration derived from being an owner at Handle Bar has helped transform the lives of other women and even her own 11-year-old daughter.
“Last year or the year before it she came to me and said ‘mum are you the boss here’ and I think it’s really inspiring. At any level where you can be a role model it’s amazing and be able to help other women” said De La Roche.
Handle Bar is not just the go-to-brunch spot, it’s a place of inspiration, cultural influences, and women empowerment, all served with smiles and an amazing atmosphere.
Image description: De La Roche smiling in the Handle Bar cafe.
Image credits: Alexis McCaffrey