Faux Food and Cambridge

Last weekend I had a visitor from London come and stay with me in my humble serviced apartment in Cambridge, and we went for a wander into town. Parts of it were nice, mostly those parts you could only look at through heavy iron railings unless you were a student at the university. We wandered across a sheep field which some daft sod had put in the middle of the city, then down by the river where I watched people playing on boats that were in dire need of an outboard motor. If this was in Thailand they’d have mounted an old V8 truck engine on propeller shaft and they’d get where they were going quicker than the current arrangement which requires a long pole and a hipster telling lies about what they’re sailing past.

Cambridge is probably nice in the summer but it didn’t do a whole lot for me. It seemed to do a lot for China though, as a third of its population was there taking photos. The good news is I’ve found a bluegrass jam session and bought a second-hand guitar so I could join in. I went along last night and had a great time. There were two or three professional fiddle players there, and I got them to play Soldier’s Joy, an old civil war tune which you can hear a superb rendition of between 6:14 and 8:49 here:

Our jam sessions in France often lacked a fiddle, and it’s not quit the same without one. It appears the banjo is the rare instrument in Cambridge bluegrass circles, whereas we had plenty of them in France. Good job I brought mine with me, then. All I need to now is learn to play it properly. Sadly, this group only meets once a month so I might have to look for another one.

The one thing I am really missing about France is the food. Boy, the food in Cambridge is bad, bordering on inedible. In the early afternoon on Saturday we got hungry so found a pub and asked them if they served food. They said they didn’t, but the barman recommended a place on the edge of the city centre where he said the food was excellent, especially the burger. We went there and ordered the burger. It was tasteless and came on a plate beside a huge, wrinkled lettuce leaf which looked as if it came off a rhubarb plant. Whoever was masquerading as a chef that day had put on top of it large dollops of thousand island dressing, coleslaw, and ratatouille all in a row. What effect he was going for, and what national cuisine he’d drawn his inspiration from, I have no idea. The chips, which were extra, had been fried in oil which should have been chucked out a month ago. The next day we tried another pub. I ordered a piece of chicken which the chef had tried to make taste of something by piling bacon and barbecue sauce on top of it until its thickness was doubled. My companion ordered a pie the size and shape of a half-brick and about as edible.

Now I know what everyone’s going to do. They’re going to list all the amazing places one can eat in the United Kingdom and how with a little effort involving a week of research and driving to Dundee, I can get a perfectly good meal provided I don’t mind booking in advance and paying through the nose. So let me say yes, I know you can get good food in Britain. The problem is you have to know where to go. You can’t just wander through any random city, spot a joint, and go in and expect something edible. But in France I did just that for 6 years, including in Paris. I’d just walk into the first place I stumbled across and 99 times out of 100 it would range from good to superb. I never looked up anywhere and ignored recommendations, and I frequently ate in the tourist spots in Annecy. It seems in Britain I’m going to have to maintain a list of recommended eating spots and avoid anywhere else. As soon as I’ve got my own flat sorted out – a plan which has hit a small hiccup – I’ll start cooking for myself again.

It’s not all culinary doom and gloom, though. We have a canteen at work which, while not of the same standard as that of an oil major in Paris, isn’t bad at all and is absolutely free. They even have puddings with custard. It’s like being back in school and I’m there every lunchtime.

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44 thoughts on “Faux Food and Cambridge

  1. My two local cities, Exeter and Plymouth, are no better than Cambridge. Outside of London it’s a tough ask when it comes to food.

  2. I am well acquainted with the culinary offerings of 2 pubs, 2 hotels, and 1 sandwich shop in Cambridge. Plus everything in and around the station.

    It Is all unadulterated crap, and much of it is like a time warp to the 1980s.

  3. Yeah. Gotta say that my solution to the “English food is merde” problem was to import my own French chef who lives with me.

    He’s constantly amazed by how cheap the food is, but also how shit the cooking (outside of our apartment) is.

    Is this winning?

  4. “ I’m going to have to maintain a list of recommended eating spots and avoid anywhere else.”

    Yep, that’s what I do now. I’d rather eat out less often and better quality, than suffer the dreadful dining experience that is 90% of the high street. The Michelin Guide lists eight restaurants in Cambridge; I’d start with those.

  5. Tim, try Hotel du Vin in Cambridge. Or walk out to Grantchester to the Rupert Brooke or perhaps the Red Lion. The Tickell Arms in Whittlesford can be good, as can the Cock in Hemingford Grey.

    As for renting, try an agency like Redmayne’s. And look for somewhere west of Hills Road…

  6. T’was ever thus.

    When our host was considering moving to “that Lundun”, I sent him a list of good places to eat there. The point being, pot luck rarely works out well, even in the capital.

    In my experience, most “prix fixe” places in Paris and other major French cities are excellent in quality and value. More rural French locations, not so much.

    Now that Tim has bottled it and made the ill-advised decision to live in the provinces, he’s going to have to suffer the consequences though and work his way through the Brake Bros. catalogue.

  7. Absolutely true. I have had bad meals in France, mostly in tourist spots, but I remember spending some summers in the Charente and could recommend every restaurant I went to.

    It’s all the fault of the British people. Somehow, we lost the pleasure of food. I’d like to blame Jamie Oliver and those bastards at the BBC who turned food into awful lifestyle shows, but we accepted it. We stopped going to bistros that served pleasurable food like chicken marsala or coq au vin, and went headlong running after faddy, Instagram-worthy “funky” places that put chips in buckets.

    So almost everything now is casual dining: pizza, steaks, burgers or pasta. If it’s not that, it’s people trying to cook all sorts of food from all over that they really don’t have a clue about, and cycling around cuisine. I’ll eat Thai food if there’s some Thai grandmother cooking it, or a really skilled chef.

    The French don’t have this because they value the quality of the food. It doesn’t matter if the Lion d’Or is still serving roughly what they did 20 years ago. It tastes great.

  8. “It seems in Britain I’m going to have to maintain a list of recommended eating spots and avoid anywhere else”

    I write a brief review of places I really like on Tripadvisor. Partly, I know it helps the places, but mostly as my log. I also use TA as my guide. It’s not perfect, but pick from one of the top 5 places and it’s normally at least fairly good.

  9. Frequent visitor to Cambridge here – am based in London but often in Cambridge for work. Most of the pub food is nothing to write home about, sadly, and the city centre is home to the same disappointing and overpriced identikit chains that you get in every British city now. There used to be a really genuinely great veggie cafe on King’s Parade that even this carnivore would happily visit, but it closed last year. Basically, if you want decent food, in most cases you need to go for something non-European in style, with a couple of honourable exceptions.

    The best places to eat in Cambridge in my experience are on Mill Road. It’s a bit of a trek from the town centre (depending on where exactly you are based) but it’s worth it. Don’t be put off by the slightly run-down appearance.

    Vanderlyle (https://www.vanderlyle-restaurant.com) is supposed to be excellent. It’s run by a former Masterchef finalist. It can be hard to find as it doesn’t have a sign – it’s between 5 Blends Coffee and the Penguin Dry Cleaners. I’ve never been yet as it tends to be booked out miles in advance.

    Bedouin does fantastic North African food. There’s a tiny Korean place – not much more than a hole in the wall – that does excellent bibimbap (appropriately named Bibimbap House). Quite a few curry houses – I’ve not tried any of them yet but I hear good things about them. I can recommend Hot Numbers Coffee on Gwydir St for good coffee, brunch, and live jazz on weekends.

    Pretty much all of the above are on the portion of Mill Road nearer to the town centre. However, the portion of Mill Road further away from town, over the railway bridge, has a decent fish and chip joint, a good Italian deli (Limoncello) that does simple, good-quality meals (although note that it often closes quite early), and a great Chinese restaurant, Liutauo, next door to the Italian place (opposite the Co-Op). There’s also a great cocktail bar (196).

    Note that quite a few of the Mill Rd restaurants are cash only! I won’t speculate as to reasons…

    Mill Rd is also home to a great butcher’s shop, a decent wine shop (Vinopolis – not to be confused with the now-defunct London venue of the same name) and a variety of Middle Eastern / Chinese / Korean supermarkets which are relatively cheap and probably the best places in town to find proper ingredients if you want to cook anything yourself 🙂

    I can also recommend Yim Wah Express (Chinese), The House (Thai – often a bit quiet but still good), and 7 Days (Chinese), all on Regent St.

    As for the centre – as I said, it’s a bit of a culinary wasteland unless you want to pay over the odds for a faux-London-club atmosphere at the Ivy. However, the ice cream at Aromi (just off the market square) and also at Jack’s Gelato (next door to the Eagle pub) is to die for.

  10. Also, venture into town for the market on a weekend (or even on a weekday if you have the time – though I don’t know which stalls are there on which days). Aside from being the single best place to pick up fresh fruit and veg, there is plenty of good street food; my personal favourites are Hallouman and the nameless Russian stall (look for the babushka-type lady serving borscht, stew, dumplings, etc – and note that she tends to sell out quite early on!). There are also plenty of Latin American, African, Thai, no-holds-barred-uncompromising Chinese, etc. options. Xuecam do excellent Colombian coffee, too, and will grind it for you to take away if you’re so inclined.

  11. Final one from me! Al-Amin (Middle Eastern grocery store on Mill Rd) has a counter tucked away at the back with a variety of curries prepared in-store for you to get boxed up, which are miles better than most take-aways.

  12. @occasional cantabrigian

    One of my exes was the niece of the owners of one of the Mill Rd Chinese (and general East Asian) supermarkets. Turns out the family running the joint was Singaporean/Malay (Peranakan). I think people cleverer than me can work this kind of thing out by close inspection of the Chinese writing on the signs, or conversationally by the smattering of Singlish and Malay phrases. That the origin of much of the stock was South East Asia rather than PR China might have been a giveaway too, though perhaps that’s just the way it’s done for produce safety reasons, or Chinese Chinese goods getting rebadged as Singaporean Chinese in that great entrepôt. I should have enquired in more detail at the time how the trade works, as it might well have changed my shopping habits. I tend to stick to the major UK supermarkets out of blind faith their massive sourcing operations must surely be fairly well quality-controlled, when they’re not selling us horsemeat at least, but if I better understood the pros and pitfalls of the proliferation of “ethnic” supermarkets, I’d likely be eating a greater range of ingredients and dishes.

    Anyway, good times, and great food, especially home-cooked. Can heartily recommend the John Galt Solution to the culinary crisis.

  13. In re: your general point. Absolutely. Most British restaurants and pubs serve overpriced bland mush. Of possibly spicy mush if Indian.

    There are, I think, 3 countries where I expect that pretty much any restaurant I enter will give me good tasty food: France, Italy, and Japan. I’m sure there are exceptions in all three and, in Japan particularly, the price of the meal is not always an indicator of its tastiness (though the expensive ones are rarely bad, just not as good as they should be for the price). I believe France has a similar problem in trendy Michelin restaurants but I’ve never enjoyed snooty French waiters so I tend not to frequent such establishments.

    Other countries. You read trip advisor, google etc. and get advice from people you trust. Also (and this is particularly true of the UK and USA) just because a place was great last time you visited several years ago that does not mean it still is. Take the Compleat Angler in Marlow for example. Some fifteen or 20 years ago it was an absolute gem. We were there this time last year and the restaurant was understaffed, overpriced and desperately trying (but failing) to be trendy nouvelle cuisine. Fortunately the bar had an excellent selection of gins to try to take the taste away.

    As for Cambridge. I don’t think I’ve eaten there outside a college hall for a long while. The general advice above about Mill road is about what I recall as are the Chinese places on Regents St. One of them (and I forget which) does excellent Dim Sum.

    Finally when I was an undergrad we reckoned The Wrestlers Pub on the Newmarket road had the best Thai food in addition to excellent real ales. I just checked google and it appears to still offer the same. No idea whether the quality is as good or not (see above) but it looks like it is the same family running it so it probably is

  14. Yes you dont go to Mud Island for the tucker, food snobbery is prolific there as well and they pay big money to be ripped off by the current snobbery of the month fad.

    My biggest concern eating in the UK is the appalling hygiene standards on display, cleaning tables, staff and customers touching cutlery, plates and inside of glasses, open shared salt containers and the like. It beggars belief how bogging the kitchens and kitchen staff preparing the food behind scenes are.

    2 out of 10.

    Some joints actually consider their differing baked potato filling options as something to be proud of. If it wasn’t for the three packets of Wotsits for a quid at the servos, I would never go back.

  15. A hint for bachelor cooking: rather than becoming expert, learn to cook just four balanced meals well.
    Prepare three quick, simple recipes in bulk, have each for two days. Suggestions include burritos, stir fry, pasta with veggies and protein, some kind of fish, or steak.
    The fourth is your one fancy thing you can cook for lady guests.

  16. @Nikolai,

    My sons have been taught that, if you enjoy eating, best you learn to cook rather than relying on someone else to be around with the knowledge of your favourite meal.

    I’m sure our host can cook expertly but there is something quite amusing about otherwise intelligent people who are unable to follow a recipe. If it was titled “Standard Operating Procedures” or “Owner’s Manual”, they’d be all over it!

  17. A hint for bachelor cooking: rather than becoming expert, learn to cook just four balanced meals well.

    I can do an awful lot more than that. 😉 I love cooking.

  18. I spent three years transporting daughter one from the provinces to Cambridge and back and agree the food is generally dire but must point out it has the best Waitrose I’ve visited. I always loaded up before the home journey to the benefit of home cooking.

  19. Question for you Tim. Did you complain to the restaurant about the food? You didn’t? And there’s the reason you can get good food in France nearly everywhere & almost nowhere in the UK. Brits don’t complain. The French do.
    I suspect it’s because Brits, culturally, have little experience of dining out. There was a whole period when it was the exception rather than a common occurrence. I remember when I was a kid in the 50s & early 60s, there were hardy any restaurants to go to. A “special occasion”. And Brits are reluctant to spoil a “special occasion” with a “scene”. It’s still firmly embedded in the culture. For the French, dining out has always been an everyday thing. Routine. They expect good food & good service & complain if they don’t get it. I always enjoyed eating out with my French ex in the UK. And the bafflement of waiters & waitresses having to deal with her.

  20. In my experience of eating out, the UK does two modes of restaurant food – the Brake Bros version mentioned above, and overpriced ‘cuisine’. You can have the mass produced frozen and microwaved slop, or you can pay through the nose for exquisitely produced plates of hardly anything that leave you needing another meal afterwards. The UK seems incapable of doing the mid ground, whereby restaurants cook their own simple but good food, that is also cheap enough to eat regularly rather than a special occasion.

    In a blatant plug I would recommend my friends restaurant in Tim’s home county of Pembrokeshire, The Georges in Haverfordwest, that inhabits that exact Bermuda Triangle of UK restaurants, simple inexpensive food cooked on the premises from local ingredients.

  21. You’re only an hour or so away from me now. If you want to come over sometime we’ll cook you a good meal, or take you to a good country pub.

    Ooh thank you, I’ll be sure to take you up on that!

  22. @Jim – “or you can pay through the nose for exquisitely produced plates of hardly anything that leave you needing another meal afterwards”

    Roger Verge endorsed and sponsored one of the first French Nouvelles Cuisine styled restaurants in London back in the early eighties. It was called Cafe Pelican on St Martins Lane right across the narrow street from all of the main theaters, it was perfectly located for the well-heeled theater set. Other than the manager, I was the only non-French staff member and worked as the bartender par excellence. It was basically a rort, big plates, tiny servings, with artistic food layout, it had a brasserie and long bar and mostly table setting for eating, some used to eat at the bar and when they would enquire which wine I would recommend I had two to decide from the most expensive red or white, depending on their meat. I upsold them every time and they always complimented me on my perfect wine selection and a generous tip, yes a tip in London.

    I met many actors in there, they were regulars just for a coffee and pastry between sets, lots of Beeb dudes and journos as well, great spot, long gone now.

  23. I second Theo on the The Cock at Hemingford Grey, although it must be several years since I’ve been there. The large pub in the middle of Grant Chester, can’t think what it’s called, but you can’t miss it, is/was also quite good. There’s also a Loch Fyne and a Brown’s opposite The Fitzwilliam/Peterhouse. Predictable, but reliable.

  24. I guess my palette had been ruined by UK restaurants as I find most of the chains and pubs the commentators here dismiss fine, but then I’m equally happy with a cafe fry-up or Macdonald’s.

    I also find the ‘foodie’ types insufferable and stuck up, and don’t get the point of gastronomy- at the end of the day it all ends up in the same place.

  25. I bet those places you tried had solid Tripadvisor ratings and reviews… mediocre establishments propped up by our culture of low expectations.

    In-spite of the influx of ‘global cuisine’ – purportedly one of the main benefits of our great multicultural experiment – the food in this country is indeed still total shit.

    Still, at least after we get brexit, we can do away with all this foreign muck get back to our tripe, trotters and turnips.

    Hey Tim… top tip: if you like French food, you should try that Café Rouge 😉

  26. Fall-back approach — tag on at the end of one of those groups of Chinese tourists following a guy with a flag on his backpack. They usually end up at a Chinese restaurant which is cheap & tasty.

  27. Hate to introduce a sour note to this foodie fest–but how about not bothering about pandering to your belly. The “terrible” food you speak of would have been a dream beyond dreaming to most of our forbears –and will be again if we don’t put down the left and the leftist controlled state. Just be glad you are not in some socialist shithole like Venez trying to chase down a poor doggie for his/her thin carcase.

    If the eateries don’t please you make yourself some sandwiches and/or practice the character-building Stoic virtues and choke your dinner down. Not good it may be–literal shite it is not.

    We should spend more time on thinking about and acting towards the destruction of our swarming enemies. Not arsing around trying to indulge in a luxury lifestyle that they daily move closer to taking away from us forever.

  28. Question for you Tim. Did you complain to the restaurant about the food? You didn’t? And there’s the reason you can get good food in France nearly everywhere & almost nowhere in the UK. Brits don’t complain. The French do.

    You know I didn’t complain. I fully agree with your analysis, but we’re way past the point that mere complaining would have any effect. Do you think the tattooed heiffer who served me would transfer a message of dissatisfaction to the spotty halfwit who chucked the thing in the microwave who would in turn pass it on to his management who would somehow get the menu changed in corporate marketing HQ? My mistake was eating there in the first place; the remedy is to not do so again.

  29. We should spend more time on thinking about and acting towards the destruction of our swarming enemies.

    Fella, I run a blog which dissents against progressive, corporate BS under my own name. What else do you want me to do, go on a shooting rampage?

  30. They usually end up at a Chinese restaurant which is cheap & tasty.

    There’s a decent Chinese just over the road from me. Unfortunately, my companion spends months of the year in China and Hong Kong and said she’d murder someone if she saw one more chopstick.

  31. “Fella, I run a blog which dissents against progressive, corporate BS under my own name. What else do you want me to do, go on a shooting rampage?”

    Appreciate that–unless we are careful– by the time Marxist eco-freakery is finished with us lots of folk will be looking to re-eat their own shite. That is a vastly more pressing issue than you not being able to find non-industrial food.

    Nothing personal.

  32. Andy in Taiwan,

    “I guess my palette had been ruined by UK restaurants as I find most of the chains and pubs the commentators here dismiss fine, but then I’m equally happy with a cafe fry-up or Macdonald’s.

    I also find the ‘foodie’ types insufferable and stuck up, and don’t get the point of gastronomy- at the end of the day it all ends up in the same place.”

    It’s not about being a “foodie”. In fact, the worst cookery is pretentious cookery: people trying to be clever rather than good. I know places in France where the food is quite simple, but they get the basics right, like what flavours you put together, how long you cook vegetables.

    It’s like when you go to a Cotswold tea rooms, they’re just right. They serve tea and drinks, maybe some sandwiches, some home baked cakes. None of it is ambitious. But it’s done right. They’ve been baking bread and victoria sponge for decades.

  33. I once went for afternoon tea at the Ritz, because, hell, that’s just the kind of guy I am.

    The ham sandwiches had, … [the gagging horror] … processed ham.

  34. I’m now working much of the time in Cambridge, and so far in the very centre have found…

    If you a feeling (very) flush, there’s Daniel Clifford’s Midsummer House. I’m a fan of this sort of establishment, but this one was significantly over-priced for the experience. Very good food, though.

    Otherwise, ‘Trinity’ and ‘Varsity’ are good restaurants, and excellent on particularly good days (same owner), though not really priced for the everyday. Honest Burger does a decent one. Smokeworks (off Bennett St.) enjoyable if that’s the type of food you want that night, and Bread & Meat good for a lunch bowl. Pint Shop is variable, but often has very good dishes.

    A number of other folk in the centre have recommended the market but I haven’t yet explored it. And if you haven’t found Bould Brothers for coffee then I recommend that you do.

    When visiting London on the right days there’s a market outside KGX with a few decent bits of grab’n’go grub.

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