Where to eat and drink in Cambridge

Periodically, I get asked where’s good to eat or have a pint in the fair – but slightly dull – city of Cambridge. For convenience, here’s my (occasionally sarcastic) list.

I’ll try to keep it up to date.

(Halibut with peanut and squash, at Alimentum)

These aren’t detailed, and I’ve not include anywhere I haven’t been yet, so there’s probably a few good places missing. They aren’t in any order.

 

Places to eat

Historically, Cambridge has had a lousy food scene. The horrifying cost of commercial premises in the centre means it’s wall-to-wall chains, and until quite recently, the independents have been utter garbage. I have seen people eating in The Copper Kettle, and I assume they have normal human digestive systems; I remain mystified.

Instead, have dinner at:

  • The Pint Shop
    Town centre. Great simple food, amazing selection of keg and cask beer. The menu tends to elaborately slow-cooked meats, and they are so good at pastry. Can be busy. Reviewed here
  • SmokeWorks
    Town centre. Dirty barbecue, done right, and a great selection of bourbon. Sticky ribs, succulent pulled beef, epic pickles. They keep tweaking the menu, so it’s not static or dull. New site opening in 2017.  Reviewed here
  • Restaurant 22
    Chesterton Rd. One of my favourites. A fixed-price 3 course menu that rotates seasonally, and a solid, sensible wine list. It’s small (intimate?) so book for dinner. Think fancied-up bistro British.
    (note: Still good, but cost:quality ratios are looking less rosy after a 2015 price bump)
  • Dumpling Tree
    Off Hills Rd. Ok, it’s got the atmosphere of a disused youth centre, and the tiled floor from an airport toilet. But the food is great. Fresh dumplings in a range of fillings and styles, very reasonably priced. Fast becoming a favourite. Great Sichuan style spicy beef, love the lamb & coriander dumplings.
  • Bedouin
    Off Mill rd. Try not to laugh at the decor – the food is worth it. It’s North African, so expect tagines and stews. Food turns up hotter than the sun, and in portions of similarly astronomical size. Avoid most of the wine, and bring cash because they don’t take cards.
  • The Sea Tree
    Mill rd. The best fish and chips I’ve had south of York. Not a very dinner-time setting, but fantastic fresh fish and interesting specials. Gets busy, does takeout.
  • Yim Wah
    Central-ish. Maybe the best Chinese in central(ish) Cambridge? I’m not sure, but it’s good. A little stark and lacking atmosphere, but tasty food with fresh produce, and a fair range of authentic dishes.
  • The Chop House
    Town centre. There are two. They’re slightly different. Big bits of meat done well, a classic in the “where do I take visiting relatives?” genre.
  • Yippee
    Town centre. Noodles. Noodles in soup, noodles fried with stuff, noodles served quickly and inexpensively at large shared tables. It’s a noodle bar. It does noodles. Seriously,what do you want from me here? It’s a reliable standard.
  • The Olive Grove
    Central-ish. Greek bistro with an eye on fresh produce. Good mezze selection and grilled classics.
  • Sticks n Sushi
    Town centre. Technically a chain, but only in London & Copenhagen. A solid sushi restaurant with plenty of not-fish if that’s your bag. Stylish and slightly pricey, but with some well-designed set menus. They have this great grilled cauliflower appetiser, and the spicy tuna rolls are tasty. Review here.

For lighter bites, lunch, and brunch:

  • Afternoon Tease
    Town centre. Coffee and cake. Good coffee and cake. Everything’s homemade, and the cakes are amazing. The small but tasty breakfast/brunch/lunch menu changes weekly.
  • Food Park – the obligatory “street food” part.
    Nomadic. You know how actual humans can’t afford to open shops (or buy houses) in Cambridge? That’s why the most interesting food is being served in a car park. Don’t let the phrase “pop up” put you off. FoodPark hosts a rotating selection of great food vans, the pick of which are probably: Jalan Jalan, Guerilla Kitchen, and Wandering Yak
    Partial review here
  • Aromi
    Town centre… and expanding. Sicilian bakery with good coffee. Arancini, pastries, tasty pizza by the slice. It’s bloody delicious. You won’t get a table in the main branch, but that’s fine, because they’re adding a new one every week. Good Gelato.
  • Hot Numbers
    Off Mill rd. It’s very Prufrock with a Macbook, but you can’t knock the coffee. Warning: occasional live music, frequent twats.
  • Stir
    As above, but on Chesterton Rd and a little less hipster.
  • Espresso Library
    East Road (just past Parker’s Piece). Also as above, and a little more hipster. Good coffee, and excellent if slightly pricey food. I had a transcendentally tasty roasted vegetable sandwich there once.

To go a bit more fancy:

  • Alimentum
    Hills Rd, for some reason. Look, they got a Michelin star and they deserve it. Less theatre than than Midsummer House, but still technically excellent. The early and lunch menus are shockingly reasonably-priced for the quality; simple fresh things foregrounded.
  • Midsummer House
    Midsummer common. Two stars, and food-wise rightly so. Elaborate and theatrical without compromising on actually being food. Some risk of foams, service arguably intrusive, wine strictly for the wealthy. Review here
  • Cotto
    Reopened in 2017 at the Gonville hotel.
    Although the food remains good, I can’t really recommend it as a restaurant.
    The food is priced slightly high, and the service was shabby, making it feel like terrible value for money as an over-all dining experience.

With price shifts at Cotto and Alimentum, Cambridge is now sorely lacking in the bottom-of-top/top-of-middle market. Restaurant 22 and The Oak Bistro are just about defending “three courses, squeaking in under fifty quid”, and that’s ‘yer lot.

Under “chains that don’t suck”, there’s Cau, Pho, Thaikun, Sticks n Sushi, of course, and the inevitable Byron. Oh, and the madly indulgent Hotel du Vin brunch is fun.

Places to drink

Pubs! Come on, Cambridge, you can do this one.

Cambridge has a serious ale scene, and one of the biggest, most diverse beer festivals in the country. As a rule of thumb, it’s simpler to assume there are no pubs in the town centre, and that any you think you may see have merely been painted on by the council to add a little colour.

No matter how twee or pleasant it may seem, do not have a pint in The Eagle. Go in, take that bloody photograph of the ceiling, and leave. Do not, under any circumstances, eat there.

In fact, why not take pictures of The Chronophage instead, then go straight to the Pint Shop.

(For a kinder view, check out Adam’s project to visit every pub in Cambridge)

Pubs:

  • The Pint Shop
    Town centre. As above – 10 keg beers (cough*craft*cough), 5 cask, and well north of 40 gins, with a small, considered wine list. Stylish basic decor, reasonable ambiance. London pricing.
  • The Live and Let Live
    Off Mill Rd (Mawson rd). My favourite, but bloody hell will your mileage vary. By many metrics, a dingy old boozer. But the beer is amazing. No food, no music, no sports, no fucking about. Skews to hoppy cask ale. Huge rum selection.
  • The Geldart
    Off Mill Rd (Ainsworth st). Solid all-rounder. Decent food, decent beer, decent ambience. Lots of whisk(e)y. Also Mezcal – try some of that. Mild tendency for the bar to be spatially unusable because so many people are at drinking at it, some live music, and the menu hardly changes, slightly pricey, but it’s nice.
  • The Cambridge Blue
    Off Mill Rd (Gwydir St). All the beers. Just so many. There’s a great selection of cask ales, and a lot of European and American bottled in the fridges. Service speed wildly variable, food sporadically edible.
  • The Devonshire Arms
    Off Mill Rd (Devonshire Rd). The Haymakers without the pizza and within spitting distance of the station. Try not to use the toilets.
  • The Petersfield
    Also off Mill rd (Sturton st). Another solid modern ale/craft pub with decent food. Really nicely refurbished on the site of the former Backstreet Bistro. Beers from the Brew House, plus guests. Plenty of dining and drinking space, and a pleasant terrace. If that sounds generic, well, that’s a fair cop, but it’s well executed, the food’s tasty, and the beer’s well kept.
  • The Haymakers
    Chesterton. Should have been in the food section for having the best pizza in town. A sister pub to the Devonshire, there’s a good selection from Milton Brewery, plus rotating guests. Also: board games nights, an adorable pub dog, and a sporadic atmosphere of light derangement.
  • The Royal Standard
    Mill Rd (Over The Bridge™) Reopened in 2016 with a really solid selection of cask and keg ales and a mighty stock of gin. There’s a good list of bottled Belgian beer, along with a simple menu that includes steaks or a giant bucket of moules frites, for that beery-weekend-in-Bruges ambience.
  • The Elm Tree
    Town centre-ish (Orchard St). Bottles from Belgium, and a vibe like you’re having a pint in someone’s living room. Navigationally non-obvious but worth the effort.
    (The Free Press nearby is good, too).
  • The Mill
    Town Centre (Mill lane). Ale in the centre, with a cask emphasis. Good selection, and glorious in summer when you can sit out by the mill pond and watch people fall off punts.

Bars:

  • 196
    Mill rd. We have a cocktail bar now. A real one. Also a really small one, but that can’t much be helped. They have a serious way with things bourbon-based.
  • Cambridge Wine Merchants
    Various. Two of the town centre branches (Bridge St, and at the University Centre off Mill Lane), Mill Rd, and Cherry Hinton rd now have bars. This is good. There’s wine by the glass, or you can take something off the shelf and add reasonable corkage.
    Two words: sherry, motherfuckers.
  • Novi
    I’ve only had food and coffee here, but the cocktail selection was interesting and beautifully presented. A few have fun-sounding herb and spice infusions.
  • Thirsty
    Same shtick as the wine merchants, done just a little less well. It’s a drink-in wine & beer shop on Chesterton rd. You can usually find one of the food fans outside, too. in 2017, they’re doing a summer beer garden at the Museum of Technology (which is mostly a museum of Victorian sewage processing, but I guess that sounded less enticing, and they do have giant steam engines) down by the river.

In the centre if you absolutely must, and the Pint Shop is full:

  • The Maypole
    Sports, smells of bleach, overpriced good beer.
  • The Pickerel
    Generally adequate at generally everything, twee interior.
  • The Grain and Hop Store
    (formerly “Grainstore”) Greene King’s mass-market repackaging of “craft”. Hipster as an agency brief, but huge, central and actually pretty nice when it’s not too busy.
  • The Brew House
    So much promise, such variable quality, so many popped-collar twats. Basically a restaurant in an unconvincing pub mask.

But Roger, what about The Kingston Arms?

Oh, do fuck off. Look, they have good beer and ok food, and you can go there if you want. I mean, you can open the door and walk through. You can even order a beer. But you can’t fucking sit down, because they reserve all the tables. And woe betide you if you sit at one that looks free, because you’re likely to be rudely asked to move.

It’s off Mill Rd if you really want to have a dreadful experience of good beer.

…and what about <place> in <village>?

Not Cambridge. Arbitrarily, given I live semi-centrally, it’s in Cambridge if I can walk home after a few glasses of wine, in under forty five minutes. I don’t know, two or three miles from the market square or something?

What have I missed?

New places are opening (finally), quality is changing. If something isn’t here, I either had no strong feelings about it, or haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Do tell me what I’ve missed or fucked up.

To-visit list

I’m yet to check out or form strong feelings about:

  • Millworks (Been once, pretty good)
  • Tradizioni (Had takeout once, fine so far)
  • The Old Bicycle Shop (Been once. Broadly decent)
  • Navadhanya
  • Lagona (Nice. Basically a more modern Al Casbah)
  • The Oak Bistro (been once, very credible)
  • Novi (Only had coffee and salad there, but it’s promising)
  • Mee and I (Been once, decent, need to take another look)
  • Steak and Honour is opening a restaurant, if you’re interested. Whatever.
  • Osteria Waggon & Horses (well Milton is sort of Cambridge…) Good. Really good. Review here Closed in April 2017
  • Reys Review here – nothing special Closed March 2017
  • Lighthouse Sea Grill
    Possibly the worst meal out I’ve ever had in Cambridge. Not a single right note. Shambolic service, terrible, terrible food.

22 thoughts on “Where to eat and drink in Cambridge”

  1. Might be worth having a look at The Carpenter’s Arms (Victoria Road). Under new management for a while now and getting good comments.

  2. Do you not find the Blue even more infuriating for table bookings than the Kingston? We keep rocking up at about seven at a weekend, thinking “oh cool, there’s loads of space in the back room” and then realizing that that’s because all the tables have got “reserved from 8pm” signs on them.

    1. Honestly, I have a massive issue with *any* reserved tables in pubs, but I’ll grudgingly put up with < 50%. Having no - or minimal - space for walk-in business is pretty fucking grim. I got so pissed off with the Kingston (not least after some friends were turfed off an unreserved table so they could reserve it) that I've not been back in something like two years, but I seem to recall they reserve more space than the Blue, and don't add times? They're both bad, the Blue seems massively less obnoxious about it. Mileage, as ever, may vary. It's partly the whole acting like a restaurant but pretending to be a pub shtick. Drives me nuts.

      1. that one incident was a damn shame and a very poor experience. I’ve never seen them do that when I’ve been in and will regularly sit on reserved tables until the people who’ve reserved them appear…no-one seems to mind you doing that.

        Plus they’re now serving Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss, which is fucking great 🙂

  3. The peking and shanghai family restaurant are oriental places worth trying. Personally I rate hotel du vin in the chain category. I also think that restaurant 22 has gone downhill since the management changed. Also new is bread and meat, which if I still worked in town would get a lot of my money. I would have expected the oak tree bistro on your list. Ignoring the pubs, which is open to debate In large part I agree with your list.

    1. I haven’t been to 22 in a decade since having a bad experience there. Management has changed at least once since then but I’m loathe to try again (considering the prices and the difference in quality I’d get at Alimentum for the same money) and your comment is a warning not to try.

    2. Also excellent Chinese is Hakka at the bottom of Milton Road, especially fish and seafood. I’ve not been to the Peking since it moved to Homerton St., should probably change that.

      1. Yes, in Milton. The setting is a little sparse, but the menu is a refreshing change from most Italian restaurants in Cambridge.

  4. On cafes, have you been to Urban Larder on Mill Road since it went from yoga-instructor to full-hipster? Seems decent.

    Also Urban Shed on Kings Street – if you can actually find space in amongst all the iPeople “working” over long-forgotten flat whites then you get sandwiches that seem to have come from someone who actually likes food applying a bit of creativity rather than from someone picking arbitrary permutations of mozarella, roast veg, falafel, pesto etc as usual.

  5. I’ve not been in to Urban Larder for ages, so that’s probably worth a go. I nipped in something like eighteen months ago, and it felt like the gift shop at a disappointing rural road-side attraction.

    Urban Shed I’ve only had coffee at, so possibly one for the weekend.

    1. The Urban Larder is totally different nowadays, the new owner has done a fantastic job of sorting the place out – and he actually wants to be there which makes a whole heap of difference to the customer service 😉

      Also, they now have a freezer full of Jack’s Gelato which is reason enough.

  6. Oh the brew house… Boasts the WORST service of any place I’ve ever been to, their tag line should be: ‘ you order something, and we’ll fuck it up for you, and not apologise’

    1. I am not surprised. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in, but I’ve previously found the service to be pretty haphazard, coupled with that “restaurant pretending to be a pub” shtick where they get super grumpy if you try to sit at an unreserved, empty table.

  7. Updates, 17/10/16:
    Backstreet Bistro closed, Cotto closing, Inders no longer delivering hot food. Updates to the to-visit list. Went to Lighthouse, and it’s a garbage fire. Sticks N Sushi and Dumpling Tree into the main restaurant list. Stir added to cafes. Mild sarcasm about Aromi’s expansion. Added pissy, entitled definition of “in Cambridge”.

  8. Updates, May 2017
    Cotto has reopened, and will charge you £75 for 3 courses and bored, disengaged service, with fascinatingly uncomfortable seating. Don’t.
    Added the Petersfield and Espresso Library.
    Sadly, Osteria Wagon & Horses has closed.
    Less sadly, Reys has closed, replaced by an Honest Burger.

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