Apparently the site of the first coffee house in England (as claimed by Samuel Pepys), these days the Grand Café is all gilt and mirrors. Classic in style it may be, but it's certainly no historical relic: it's quietly buzzing at all hours of the day. Its petite proportions could be overshadowed by its imposing neighbour the Examination Schools, but the colonnaded front and swish interior of the Grand Café hold their own. Open daily for brunch, light lunches, afternoon tea and cocktails, it's certainly a multipurpose venue, but there's something about its slightly overblown interior that just suggests indulgence to me.
Served from 2-5pm, afternoon tea is one of the Grand Café's mainstays, if the scone-laden tabletops around us were anything to go by. The Grand High Tea (£16.50) reads like the perfect reason to ignore government guidelines for calorie consumption: sandwiches of the smoked salmon & cream cheese and egg mayonnaise varieties, scones served with jam and clotted cream, handmade chocolate truffles, a glass of champagne and of course, tea (or coffee for the less traditional). Just a couple of hours after our picnic lunch, neither of us could quite find room for this decadent delight, so we both ordered the more modest-sounding cream tea (£7.50) of scones and err, tea.
Modest wasn't really the right adjective to describe the two-tier cake stand that appeared: laden with four sizeable scones, it's not to be recommended for those without an appetite - in fact, two could easily share. We delved straight in though, smearing the warm scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Two scones were plain and two studded with currants, catering to all preferences. There wasn't quite enough clotted cream to cover four scones to an indulgent degree, but once we'd caught the waitress's attention, this was quickly rectified.
Twenty minutes later, my spring cream tea craving was happily satisfied. The Grand Café's definitely a good place to indulge: although their brunch and lunch options sound tempting enough (fillet of salmon with a soft boiled egg and green beans, for example) they look lean and sophisticated rather than true treats. The setting enhances the experience, too: elegant without being too imposing, its mirrored walls, marble columns and splashes of gilt all help to make a visit to the Grand Café feel like an occasion. The service is undertaken by pretty young things rather than austere waiters in starched uniforms, adding a touch of informality. All in all, this is real 'treat yourself' territory.
The Grand Café is at 84 High Street, OX1 4BG. Tel: 01865 204463.