Gluten-free Oxford

I left Oxford about a month ago (at the end of January 2016) and have been feeling nostalgic, so I thought I’d put that nostalgia and what knowledge I have to use. When I first arrived, I found little information about eating gluten-free in Oxford and what did exist was dated. Things don’t appear to have changed much, so here’s my own effort at a guide.

I should say that I didn’t eat out a lot, so despite having spent two and a half years there, my knowledge isn’t encyclopedic. It’s also biased towards central Oxford, since that’s where I lived. But hey, that’s the area people visit most, so it may not be a bad thing. So, without further ado, here are my top 10 places to eat out gluten-free in Oxford. Further down, you will find restaurants to avoid and also where to shop gluten-free in Oxford. Please note, this page doesn’t particularly consider where to eat low-FODMAP.

Top 10 Gluten-Free-Friendly Restaurants and Cafés in Oxford: A Guide

1. The White Rabbit

Hands down, THE best gluten-free pizza I’ve ever had, anywhere. My kids loved it too. The staff are super well informed about celiac (coeliac) disease and if you order gluten-free pizza, they will ask if you need it prepared with full celiac precautions. The pizza crust is thin and crispy but soft and pliable enough even for my three-year-old. The choice of toppings is outstanding. My favourites were the Regina, which came with sundried tomato, chorizo, goat cheese and fresh rocket (arugula) sprinkled on top, and the Lumberjack, which seemed a strange name for a pizza with porcini mushrooms, speck, and truffle cream. My kids usually got a Margherita with ham as an extra topping. One pizza cut in half was the perfect size for the two of them, aged six and three when we left. If you’re going with kids and/or want a quieter meal, go early. The place is a pub that fills up with drinkers as the night goes on.

2. The Perch

Part of the joy of going to the Perch is the process of getting there. It’s located off Port Meadow, which is a gorgeous, tranquil meadow where cows and horses graze – in central Oxford. It makes a great walk, long enough to make you feel like you’ve earned the food and drink at the end. The pub itself is one of the oldest in Oxford, which is saying something. Inside, there’s lots of stone and low timbered ceilings. Outside, there’s an expansive lawn where kids are welcome to run around under the ancient trees. Further from the pub are picnic tables, great for a drink on a summer’s day. Closer to the pub there is a sheltered outdoor area where you can be served from the full menu.

The menu changes with the seasons so I don’t want to get too into the specifics but the Perch makes a point of including plenty of gluten-free choices. In fact, the last few times I went, more than half the mains were gluten-free! The staff all seem well informed about celiac disease and gluten intolerance and are happy to advise. The food is quite upscale and beautifully prepared. It is pricier than typical pub fare but not ridiculous. And in this case, it’s definitely worthwhile.

There is a kids’ menu and my kids have only ever ordered one thing: the cheeseburger with chips/fries. Almost miraculously, the “triple cooked chips” are fried in an uncontaminated fryer, and they are some of the best chips I’ve ever had. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, never tasting like the sad frozen things you often get elsewhere. The staff are happy to put the burgers, which are made without gluten, on good gluten-free bread or buns. The kids’ meals come with dessert, which for my kids was always ice cream, though the fruit salad would also be gluten-free.

Getting to the Perch

If you’re going to walk, the following is the best way to get there. It’s a longish walk, probably 25-30 minutes from the train station, but a beautiful one. You can bike it too, just as beautifully but a lot faster.

  1. From the train station, go away from the main road and onto a footpath that runs beside the Saïd Business School. Go through a small housing complex until you get to a footpath beside a canal. Turn left, then cross the bridge that goes over Rewley Road.
  2. Turn left and take the footpath that goes under a low bridge. Tall people will have to duck. Trust me, it’s worth it.
  3. Follow the footpath beside the river. It goes more or less straight for quite a long time. You will know you’re at the entrance to Port Meadow when you start to see some boats and later on, a boatyard.
  4. Keep following the path by the river until you see the sign for the Perch. There is a path that goes to your left, through a little archway. It’s like entering a secret world.

If you’re starting in Jericho, you can go down Walton Well Road and cut across Port Meadow. If you don’t want to walk or cycle, you can drive up Binsey Lane, off Botley Road. Binsey Village, a tiny village within the city, is adorable and well worth visiting. But the walk/bike ride described above is better.

3. Dosa Park

In contrast to the Perch, at Dosa Park you don’t get historical architecture, stunning nature, or beautifully presented plates. What do you get is fantastic dosas and other gluten-free-friendly Indian food, quite cheap, at a no-frills eatery. For those not in the know, dosas are South Indian crepe-like creations made of fermented rice and lentil flour. The ones at Dosa Park are everything a great dosa should be: big, crispy, slightly sour, stuffed with yummy things (my favourite was the masala dosa, a vegetarian creation largely consisting of spiced potatoes), and accompanied by a selection of fantastic spicy chutneys. Also well worth trying, and all gluten-free, are the curries, the idly, and the uthappam. The fried items aren’t safe, though.

4. Vaults & Garden Café

The Vaults & Garden Café is very touristy, yes, but not a tourist trap. It’s across from the iconic Radcliffe Camera (part of the Bodleian Library of Oxford University; you can only visit the interior if you take an extended tour or are a member of the university), so you can admire the gorgeous circular building if you sit in the garden. If you go inside, you will be in what used to be Oxford University’s Congregation House, where I believe the governors of the university met starting in the 14th century, although the vaults make it look more like a medieval monastery. Adjacent is the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Before or after your visit to the café, be sure to climb the tower. There are a lot of steps but the views and the gargoyles make it worthwhile.

Location aside, is the food any good? Yes! The Vaults & Garden offers a selection of several hot dishes, some of which are always gluten-free (clearly marked) and tasty. Some dishes are dairy-free, vegetarian or vegan. There are also gluten-free dessert options.

5. Itsu

It’s not often that a largely takeaway chain would make it onto a list of mine of good places to eat. Itsu is an exception because it’s an exceptional chain. The location in Oxford is on the main pedestrian shopping street, the food is great and it’s fairly reasonably priced. There is plenty of sushi and sashimi, which is mostly gluten-free if you avoid the soy sauce. I don’t even recall seeing any of the gluten-filled and in any case awful artificial crab that plagues so much sushi (though I may have missed it since I wasn’t looking for it). If in doubt about any dish or ingredient, ask the staff – they have a binder full of all nutritional information. The salads are great and they have a lovely green herb dressing that is gluten-free. Most (if not all) their soups are gluten-free as well. I especially liked the chicken Jaipur and chicken coconut soups. They are inexpensive and healthy but not very filling so I usually got both some sushi/sashimi as well as one of the chicken soups. The one thing that’s too bad is that Itsu doesn’t provide gluten-free soy sauce. You can bring your own or you can use the hoisin sauce or the hot sauce, which are both surprisingly gluten-free. My kids liked the panda boxes, which are cute and contain rice, gluten-free grilled chicken, and edamame. Although everything is packaged for takeaway, there are two floors of seating. Unfortunately, you do pay a bit more if you’re eating in.

6-7. Art Café and Greens Café

I am grouping these two cafés together because they appear to be owned by the same people and they offer very similar food. They are both fantastic for the gluten-free crowd in that almost everything has a gluten-free option. You can get any sandwich or panini on gluten-free bread, you can get gluten-free pasta, and I believe all or almost all their jacket potatoes (baked potatoes with a topping) are gluten-free. They offer a great selection of gluten-free baked goods and their omelettes and salads are good. Some of their hot dishes are gluten-free as well. The staff seem generally well informed about gluten intolerance/celiac disease and will make a special effort to reduce contamination risk upon request. The one reason why these gluten-free paradises don’t rank higher on my list is that the food, although tasty, isn’t what I’d call creative or exciting; it’s mostly standard café fare. (The one exception I can think of is the salad with sweet potato and goat cheese – highly recommended.) Of the two, I slightly prefer Art Café for the regularly changing art exhibitions and its opportunities to people-watch from the upper floors overlooking the middle of Oxford.

8. Makan La

A small Malaysian restaurant tucked away in a quiet corner of downtown Oxford (6-8 St Michael’s St), Makan La (if memory serves from my trip to Malaysia years ago, this means roughly “Eat, Yeah?”) has very authentic and delicious Malaysian food, much of it gluten-free. You will have to quiz the staff about dishes that contain soy sauce but I did find quite a bit of safe selection. The curries and the seafood are great.

9. Will’s Deli

Will’s Deli is run by the same people as the Vaults & Garden and they also offer a selection of hot dishes at lunch, always with some gluten-free options. You can create a customized salad plate as well. The staff seem pretty knowledgeable about avoiding contamination. The soups are good and I believe they are always or at least usually gluten-free. You can ask for gluten-free bread to accompany the soup. Unfortunately they don’t cater very well for children with picky palates.

10. Thai Orchid

On St. Clements Street going away from central Oxford, I didn’t visit Thai Orchid until close to the end of my time in Oxford but my one visit left me impressed with the delicious, authentic and reasonably priced Thai food. A lot of Thai food is gluten-free, though you will have to quiz the staff carefully about ingredients. If I had visited multiple times and continued to be impressed, this place might have ranked higher on my list.

Other Places Worth Trying

  • From Perú To You – Full disclosure: this market stall in Gloucester Green is owned by friends of mine, Choco and Kelly. However, I would put it on my list even if I had no idea who owned it. The ceviche is seriously the best I’ve ever had, and I spent a year of my university studies in Ecuador, where ceviche is a common dish. They also offer regular pop-up restaurant nights at Will’s Deli (see above), where they serve pizco sours, possibly the most delicious cocktail I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, I have reason to believe Choco and Kelly may soon be leaving Oxford for Glastonbury, so visit while you can. From Perú To You would totally have made my top 10 if it were a standard restaurant.
  • 4,500 Miles From Delhi – Part of a chain, but some of the dishes go beyond the standard Indian fare you get at most places. Other dishes are more ho-hum. Indian food always offers a lot of gluten-free choices.
  • Edamame – For whatever reason, I never did make it to Edamame but I’ve heard nothing but good about it. It’s a small, authentic Japanese restaurant offering homestyle cooking. They have a limited selection of gluten-free dishes marked on their menu. One night a week they do sushi, which should be gluten-free if you don’t use regular soy sauce.
  • Chiang Mai Kitchen – Again, I never did go but I’ve heard great things about this Thai restaurant.
  • Jam Factory – The Jam Factory is the place on my list with the least gluten-free selection but it’s still well worth visiting for its fantastic and ever-changing art exhibitions, its quirky and homey interior, the friendly and child-friendly atmosphere, the drinks, and its special events. Food-wise, they always seem to have at least one gluten-free square or cake, and some of the mains are gluten-free or can be made so upon request. You will probably have to carefully instruct them on avoiding contamination, though.

Places To Avoid

  • La Tasca – On the good side, La Tasca offers a menu with many gluten-free choices clearly marked. On the bad side, it’s truly, remarkably awful. I love tapas and was so impressed by the menu with all the gluten-free choices, I gave this chain more chances than I should have. But in nearly every dish I tried, there was always something deeply wrong. Paella that was poorly defrosted and stone cold in the middle (and yes, obviously mass-made and defrosted in the microwave), salad that was composed almost entirely of mayonnaise, chorizo that tasted like cheap breakfast sausage… I could go on.
    UPDATE: It appears La Tasca Oxford has recently closed. Good riddance, I say. I’m not sure how their other locations in the UK are but I wouldn’t be in a rush to try them.
  • Kazbar – On the good side, beautifully decorated, vaguely Middle Eastern-inspired tapas-ish hipsterdom. On the bad side, food that sounded good but tasted bad. Again, there was an instance of mass-produced food served cold in the middle.
  • Bella Italia – On the good side, family-friendly menus with gluten-free choices clearly marked. On the bad side, SLOOOOOOWWWW service finally bringing disappointing and bland mass-made food. If you must go to an Italian chain on George Street, Zizzi is slightly better, though nothing fantastic. It too has GF choices clearly marked on its menu.
  • Yo Sushi – On the positive side, Yo Sushi (I refuse to write Yo! Sushi as they do) will provide gluten-free soy sauce upon request. On the negative side, the food is ridiculously expensive for the poor quality provided. The staff don’t seem to know what’s in a lot of the dishes. The fish portions were meagre and didn’t taste very fresh.
  • Mission Burrito – At this chain, you can get a “naked burrito” that is in theory gluten-free. It might even taste pretty good. However, although I told the staff I was celiac and although they told me they would take precautions to prevent cross-contamination, I was still really sick after eating there. Not just a little, as I would have been if I’d been exposed to trace levels of contamination, but really, really sick, which tells me that no matter what they told me, they had probably previously been taking no precautions whatsoever with things like mixing utensils or holding flour tortillas over their supposedly gluten-free meats, beans and salsas.
  • Organic Deli Café – Organic Deli Café is the least bad place on my “avoid” list. It might not have made the list at all if it weren’t so pretentious and expensive… but it is. It boasts plenty of gluten-free choices but all are rather underwhelming. If you don’t mind spending a lot on mediocre food, I suppose there are worse places than the location in central Oxford but there’s no point in trying the location on Botley Road because it offers no gluten-free choices at all.

Shopping for Gluten-Free Foods

The best way to get safe gluten-free food is, of course, to make it yourself. Fortunately, in the UK, supermarkets offer a pretty good selection.

  • The best one by far is Ocado, an online-only supermarket that delivers to your door for a very reasonable fee or even free if you choose certain off-peak times. It has an amazing selection of pretty much any gluten-free food you can imagine. Prices for individual items range from cheap to extremely pricey but overall, shopping through Ocado doesn’t cost any more than shopping at the major chains.
  • Ocado is owned by Waitrose, a physical supermarket (though like most UK supermakets, they also deliver) with a rather upmarket selection and prices to match. They do offer a good gluten-free selection.
  • Also in the upmarket/pricey category is Marks & Spencer, but they do have an excellent selection of sometimes unusual and always tasty gluten-free foods, like baked beet crisps/chips with apple cider vinegar.
  • Tesco and Sainsbury’s are the major middle-market chains. Both offer decent “free from” aisles at their larger locations. Tesco’s gluten-free cookies/biscuits taste better than the Sainsbury’s ones but often feature gluten-free oat flour, which not everyone can tolerate. Tesco offers the slightly better selection of GF foods but I’d say Sainsbury’s tends to offer better service, both in their physical stores and for delivery.
  • Uhuru Wholefoods (58 Cowley Road) is an independent health food store with a limited but high-quality gluten-free range. Also a good source of natural-ish beauty care products. Rather expensive, though.
  • Holland & Barrett is a major health food chain offering a limited gluten-free range. It offers middling prices most of the time but occasionally a good sale will make shopping for certain items quite worthwhile. You can get big tubs of nut butters there.

Hope this helps!

 

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