The Crown & Thistle
Upon approach to the Grade II listed coaching inn on Bridge Street you can’t help but breathe in its history. From its beams to its cobbles to its wisteria (that is itself twice as old as the BBC), the past confronts you with grace. As a modern pub, restaurant, hotel and function venue, The Crown & Thistle faces two challenges, both to do with balance. Firstly, how does one install a sleek and modern venue in the space without losing the antique charm? Secondly, how can the restaurant, pub and rooms function together while retaining their individual purposes? Too many times I’ve seen pub refurbishments that result in beautiful old buildings being unlovingly shrouded in MDF and linoleum, their interiors full of such novel features as ‘the barrel-cum-table’, while the menu quadruples in price and cocktails are added for the sake of it. One particular offender in Oxford even had the temerity to put a sign above the door banning workmen’s uniforms and high-vis jackets – not cool man, not cool.
The Crown & Thistle proves that these challenges can be met with aplomb. £1.8 million gets you quite a lot of tarting up, and I’m reliably informed that the old girl needed more than just a lick of paint. The pub feels like a pub should. The barn, where functions are held, is possibly the biggest triumph; renovated seventeenth century beams and bare brick surround a full glass wall – cosy, airy and stylish. The place is classy throughout, but there is a self-assuredness about it such that they’re not embarrassed to adorn the pub walls with pump clips. It’s clearly a space for everyone – tasteful and elegant, but not so self-satisfied that it feels the need to bar the working man with a passive-aggressive notice above the threshold. The restaurant flows wonderfully well. The eye is drawn from the fireplaces to the carefully placed artwork to the gorgeous open kitchen. Also open for all to see is the pizza station, with its bespoke authentic Italian wood-fired oven and trained pizzaiolo standing watch over the flames.
There’s something about the menu at the C&T that deserves highlighting precisely because they have made a conscious choice not to shout about it themselves – dotted across the extensive though not overburdened menu are vegan options denoted by nothing more than a [VE]. I had the courgetti primavera al forno with peas, kale, tenderstem broccoli and topped with vegan cheese – it was a delight. Honest Mediterranean fare at its most comforting that just happens to be vegan. Elsewhere across the menu, only minor tweaks have brought countless dishes in line with the free-from regime of today without sacrificing gusto. Even the burger list is an equal-opportunity affair. Far from the usual miserable frozen veggie puck that most menus content themselves with, (and are content to charge full price for), the C&T offers a vegan beetroot and falafel option that bursts with colour and flavour. It comes with a red pepper and garlic hummus and kale and pumpkin seed pesto – clearly not the work of a chef for whom dietary preferences and intolerances play second fiddle to the carnivores. Head chef Lucasz and the team behind the C&T have worked modestly to cater for all and have displayed a fair amount of culinary prowess in the process.
For me, the menu’s apotheosis comes at the beginning. Without realising how, I ended up with four starters in front of me. The calamari is marinated in yoghurt, lemon and chili before being simply floured, fried and served with a slightly smoky chipotle mayonnaise. The scotch egg is a nod to the Italian classic, saltimbocca, with prosciutto, sage and of course, an unctuous runny yolk. The smoked salmon involtini displays the restraint of a chef who knows his ingredients are good enough to be left mostly alone. The same is true of my absolute favourite dish: burrata wrapped in prosciutto on a simple bed of rocket and peas – utterly, stupendously, outrageously delicious.
The C&T is a blueprint for how to execute a local pub, a quality restaurant, luxurious rooms and gorgeous function room all at once without sacrificing one for any other. Somewhat like a Swiss Army knife of hospitality – wielded deftly by manager Giancarlo, head chef Lucasz and their impeccable team – this place makes loud food quietly and cares for all while still focusing on each individual. The Crown & Thistle is a true asset for Abingdon and one that deserves at least another century of trade. Next time, dear readers, I’ll try to get past the starters.