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The Cartoon Bar@ The Randolph Hotel

Hidden Gems: Oxford’s Secret Bars

Champagne flute enthusiast Jeremy Smith exhorts their virtues of the haunt upstairs at Phoenix Picturehouse and the Randolph’s Cartoon Bar
"Since I had nowhere to go and no one to talk to, I took the first stair with a sense of limp indifference."

Upstairs Bar @ Phoenix Picturehouse

Put it like this: it’s the kind of place where, alone or in company, you might, over a crisp Prosecco, muse over just which films would make it into your top five.

Upstairs Bar @ Phoenix Picturehouse


Naturally, since I first ventured in 12 years ago, my choices have changed but what hasn’t is my love and appreciation for this gorgeous little jewel in Jericho’s carat rich jewellery box of drinking holes and eateries. But first of all, let me state my seasonal preference - I adore the bar in winter, and maybe because that’s when I first wandered in back in 2004, three days after moving lock, stock and barrel to the city. I was renting a room in Walton Well Road, just finding my feet and preferring, after work, to wander into somewhere warm and murmuring with the frisson of eager conversation than a lonely room and shared bathroom.

It was a cold, wet November night and standing outside the cinema at about 6.30pm, I realised its films had already started screening. And so was just about to trudge on resignedly to bedsitville when a small, chalk sign caught my eye and indicated that maybe all was not lost. “Bar” it said. “Upstairs. Now open” and thinking ‘oh what the hell’ I wandered into the foyer proper. Truth? It didn’t look promising, but since I had nowhere to go and no one to talk to, I took the first stair with a sense of limp indifference. Obviously, it’s hardly a classic cinematic twist to reveal one hour later I was comfortably ensconced in a lovely old beaten brown leather sofa, a cognac and ginger ale in hand (my third I think) and listening to those patrons who had already started their drip-drip entrance prior to the evening’s main screening.

And God did I feel good. Sixty minutes earlier I’d been cold, dejected and feeling a tad sorry for myself, but now here I was warm, cosy, exchanging a few ‘brilliant’ observations (I was on my third Cognac...) with complete strangers. And pretty strangers too, I might add. Did I feel then that maybe life in Oxford was going to turn out all alright after all? Yes, and the proof clearly is still here in the pudding. I’m still living in the city, or its edge, Kidlington, enjoying a true love affair with everything Oxonian (or does that just describe its residents?). Either way, I owe so much to that chance encounter that now almost seems to belong to another life. I’ve changed that’s for sure, but has the atmosphere and magic of that small little bar altered one iota? No. It’s just the same – crumpled and easy with the ‘corked’ buzz of an audience either waiting to see that night’s Main Feature or having just streamed out of its early evening showing. Damn, it’s a delicious vibe and not one I ever take for granted.

Sure, in the summer it’s just as nice, just as Simon Pegg-ish, but for me it will always be the little light that twinkles invitingly in the cold of coming winter. For years I’ve thought, keep it secret, but now I realise how selfish I’ve been (as hugely rewarding as that has been). Go on, take a sip, it’s heady stuff.

The Cartoon Bar @ The Randolph Hotel

The Randolph may be Oxfordshire’s grand old bird of hospitality but having had her feathers severely charred last year, it seems now she’s risen up out of those flames a little less chintzy and a lot more chic, and I for one am delighted.

Not only has its formerly regal restaurant received a sublime facelift, but so too has a new bar emerged, as cool as its Morse Bar is traditional. Christened The Cartoon Bar and with an entrance straight out onto Magdalen Street, it’s a ‘Destination’ lounge, the kind of place you want to dress to impress in order to look and be looked at. Its contours are willowy and elegant as opposed to sober and clipped and refreshingly it has steered away from the faux opulence favoured by so many of London’s hotel bars.

Instead, it sticks exquisitely to the basics – fine lines, a sharp but not showy bar and crisp service, making it a perfect port of call for any first date. Prices are premium but not excessive – think “reassuringly expensive” – and its bar food sublime and suited to a younger, affluent audience. Now I’m neither young nor affluent but I loved its buzz, it’s aspirational kick. And finally there’s now a swish haunt in Oxford’s city centre that isn’t Oxford Castle-centric. Madame Randolph, please take a bow.

- Jeremy Smith


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