Brown’s Bar & Brasserie
Opening hours: 9am – 11 pm, 11:30 pm Fri & Sat, 10:30 Sun
Location: 5-11 Woodstock Road (Just north of Little Clarendon)
Here at the Omnivore we’re not professionals and, as any of our previous reviews show, we’re not impartial. (But then, who wants to read impartial?) We do, however, base our reviews on multiple visits to a restaurant, preferably carried out over an extended time period of 6 months or more. Whilst this doesn’t guarantee you’ll share our views, at least you know that a duff review was not the consequence of a single “off day” at the establishment or a particularly strong hangover. Likewise, you know a good review does not mean that we think the waitress fancies us. After a few visits we KNOW she does…
Of course, the restaurant business being what it is, some places may not even make it to 6 months. Whilst this is a cruel state of affairs, it is scrupulously fair — give the customer what they want or you’re doomed. Surely, then, places that are still going after years and years and years must be doing something right?
Well, maybe. Browns restaurant has been with us since forever, occupying a large site on Woodstock Road a few paces from Little Clarendon Street. This reviewer’s first experience of the restaurant was in 1991, when pasta dishes were sold on the basis that, if you cleaned your plate, you got another plateful for free. Ah, happy times for a nutritionally challenged student!
I was reminded of these days when sat enduring a frankly woeful lunch at Browns last month, hot on the heels of another poor food experience there a few weeks before. Was it always this bad, I was asked? Well, I don’t know, I replied: the thing is, Browns has never really been about the food. For example, the chicken schnitzel I had just eaten tasted of nothing and had a processed, spongy texture that made turkey twizzlers seem like haute cuisine; a swordfish special was a good cut of fish but with absolutely no seasoning and a dressing that consisted of just olive oil, a combination described as “strangely unpleasant” by the lucky recipient; vegetables were nothing special, although sides of chips were OK. But did we have a good time? Yes, we did.
This wasn’t because the service was any good either — our waiter had a sort of passive aggressive thing going on, resulting in all requests being met with equivocal responses that frustrated or offended. For example, after he had cleared away a baby spoon that belonged to us, the waiter announced that he must have thrown it in the bin and asked us accusingly whether we wanted him to go “fishing through the rubbish”. My response that that was exactly what he should do was drowned out by my embarrassed companions.
More baby related fun was had when an 8 month old (admittedly, the fattest baby in Oxford) was put in a baby chair that collapsed, eliciting a lightning save from her typically un-agile father and no apology whatsoever from the staff who had provided the death trap. Really, as I write this, I wonder what they could have done to make the experience less comfortable. Electric shocks in the chairs perhaps? Cavity searches?
So why would you visit Browns? I’m genuinely not sure but, when organising to meet someone a few days later, I was amazed to find myself suggesting Browns. Why? Well, despite the poor food and service, I can’t help but like it. It is surely one of the most welcoming dining rooms in Oxford, airy and light and full of people who, against the odds, seem to be happy to be there. It’s easy to find and, for out-of-towners, it’s as much a part of the Oxford experience as the Randolph and overcharging. You see, we love Browns despite what it sells. Go there and be disappointed — you’ll enjoy it.
~ Hungry Horace