The Grand Cafe in Oxford claims proudly on the front window that it is the 'first coffee house in england 1650'. For this reason alone, we decided to take afternoon tea there. We wanted it to be a fond memory of our visit to Oxford, and we didn't mind paying what we expected would be inflated prices.
Up a couple of steps, and through a door with a charming kettle counterweight - so far, so good. A sign asking us to wait to be seated, suggesting a certain refinement. The man behind the bar indicated that we didn't have to wait, and could sit anywhere.
When I sat down, I found that a long bit of dried willow had escaped from the back of the wicker chair and was tugging at my clothing. No matter, this was faded grandeur, after all, with marble columns. As we looked around, we saw that little attention had been paid to the surroundings for some time. I'm not sure when the smoking ban came in, but one wall at least was heavily stained a smoker's yellow/brown. Most of the varnish had long since decided to quit the table tops, and our table was in need of a wedge under one of its legs.
The waitress attended us promptly, and we ordered a cream tea, with Assam for me, and Blue Mountain coffee for my partner. If you are a coffee drinker, you will know that Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee commands a very high price, and so I was not surprised to see that there was a supplement for this choice. After taking our order, the waitress came back in some confusion and said that the price of the Blue Mountain was not included in the cream tea. I pointed to the menu where the supplement was mentioned, and said I was happy to pay this. This seem to have escaped her notice. Call me old fashioned, but I expect waiting staff to be acquainted with their own menus.
Our order was brought promptly - two large scones each (excellent scones), a small pot of cream, a small pot of jam, and our coffee and tea. It seemed to me that if we had ordered just one cream tea, they would have brought the same amount of cream and jam - they certainly couldn't have brought less. There was not enough - it's as simple as that. We come from Cornwall, and therefore have quite a lot of experience of cream teas. Compared with other offerings, the scones were generous, but the cream/jam were miserly. We asked for more, and the little pots were re-filled without protest, and without any supplement appearing on the bill.
The tea cup was, to be frank, dirty, so we asked for another. This too, was a little grubby, and also chipped. I have no idea whether these were machine or hand washed, but they would not have been acceptable, even in the cheapest of 'greasy spoon cafes'. The tea strainer still had some tea leaves in the bottom. The coffee was pretty weak, too.
When we asked for a bill, the waitress began to clear the table, and balanced the two cups and saucers on top of the tiny cream and jam pots on top of the plates, all in one wonky tower. Young people are amazing, and sometimes surprisingly skillful, so I thought that maybe she was a circus performer and could pull off this balancing act. No such luck. There was an explosion of cascading crockery and It all shot off in different directions. To give her her due, she managed to prevent any of it flying off the table completely, but it was by now evident that she was new to the job.
The bill came to just less than twenty pounds, including that supplement for the Blue Mountain coffee. This is a bit steep compared with other establishments, but it would have been OK if we had taken away a fond memory.
This is a lacklustre, down-at-heel establishment that needs a good clean, better staff training, and more generous portions. At the moment, it is trading on its position in the high street and proud claim to the first coffee house in England. I don't mind paying for a memorable experience, but not one like that. I would not go there again.
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