The Great British pub, that most celebrated of institutions, has clearly not been faring too well in recent times. Tax rises, a decline in traditional community, competition from supermarkets and suffocating beer prices from the corporate breweries all play a part in boarding up the two pubs that now close in Britain every day. Such statistics are hard to digest, but it is not all doom and gloom as we also see a number of old boozers reinvented and brought into the contemporary market as something more palatable. While you may reminisce dreamily on the times when a pub was a ‘real pub’, with jukeboxes, dart boards and at least one token violent drunk propping up the bar, a conversion to something more modern and more gastronomic may well be essential if the pub is to avoid extinction.
We have seen successful makeovers in a number of locations around the county, and it is great to see dilapidated public houses and coaching inns developing a good trade having taken a different direction. Oakman Inns have been doing some good work around the south of England in creating restaurant standard food in historic locations. They now have six sites and one of them, The Blue Boar, opened in December in Witney.
The Blue Boar is situated in the historic centre of an historic town. Witney has been on records since the 10th century, and is notable for its industrial past in blanket production. The final production site was closed in 2002, but before this blanket mills had been churning out quality textiles since the 13th century in Witney. The building that houses the Blue Boar also enjoys a proud heritage. The site had operated under the name The Marlborough Hotel since 1819, but some 30 years before this the original title of the Witney establishment had in fact been The Blue Boar Inn. Oakman Inns are harking back to its distant past in its recent renaming; a fact that implies that new owner is committed to treasuring its long history.
Unfortunately, as soon as I walked into the dining room, it became clear that the renovation had been undertaken without tastefully tipping its hat to the past whatsoever. Modernisation was clearly essential, but the interior looks more like a spread from a budget modern interior design catalogue. Overly gleaming imitation wood covers the walls while unsightly semi-circular green sofa booths border the room. £3 million has been invested in the renovation of this historic site, yet we could have been in a much humbler building without being any the wiser.
While I don’t start on the most positive of notes, the restaurant was definitely busy on the lunchtime when I decided visit. I suppose on the surface there may be something chic about this new eatery, the nature of my role demands that I look around a little more closely than most otherwise would and besides, we all have different tastes.
Luckily, the food and the service were both very agreeable. The floor staff were all smiles and the place exuded a warm informality. I must say that I do take issue with any menu that covers the food of more than five countries. Add the specials options to the à la carte and you are taken on a whacky world tour through a rather large menu. There needs to be some refinement here, but as each plate came out, my experience continued to improve. The Chef knows what he is doing and my starter of chicken livers with pine nuts and a balsamic reduction was swiftly gobbled up, while my lunch companion enjoyed a bowl of fragrant mussels. We continued with a hearty dish of slow cooked lamb shoulder and a delicious crab, fennel, tomato and chill tagliatelle. The lamb shank was perfectly cooked – collapsing chunks of succulent goodness, but perhaps lacked a slight oomph, unlike my partner’s pasta which was one of the best I have tried on this island. Al dente egg noodles dressed with sweet crab, a hint of anise from the fennel, and enough garlic to make an Italian housewife blush came together to create a fantastic pasta plate. Our desserts were good too; a super sweet treacle tart and a creamy lemon crème brûlée both rounded things off nicely.
So while I entered the Blue Boar with one acutely raised eyebrow, I left smiling. A large glass of Malbec had even helped those green booths appear less offensive.
This article appeared in the Oxfordshire Guardian on March 22, 2012.