Pub/Bar of the Month November 2015: The Oxford Bar, Edinburgh, UK
The Oxford Bar, Edinburgh, UK
How uplifting it is to find a pub full of locals in a busy city centre.
While most boozers, understandably, like to cash in on the tourist and business trades, there remain a small number in every major city that make little obvious concession to commerce.
This doesn't make most pubs bad and these others good; it's just a refreshing change to break away from the formulaic food menus and the same old pints of Doom Bar, to sit on a piece of ramshackle, time-worn furniture rather than a plushly-upholstered sofa.
What makes the experience so worthwhile – even if the comforts seem less luxurious – is the chance to mingle with the local people.
Even if you don't get drawn into conversation yourself, you can still take pleasure in eavesdropping, a sneaky little pastime from which you will learn more about the real character of a city than a thousand guidebooks.
Such thoughts crossed my mind as I sat supping a pint in The Oxford Bar. Edinburgh in August is a vibrant, bustling mass of international boisterousness, with the Fringe festival in full flow. But just a block down the hill from Princes Street, this little, white-fronted, street-corner boozer could be a million miles away.
The term no-frills could have been coined for The Oxford. There are just two rooms, both stripped back to the bare minimum of hospitality. The front room as you enter is usually packed to the gills, locals hugging the bar and everyone else working out how to get to the counter for a drink.
Seating here amounts to not much more than a couple of window recesses. No matter: there are regulars standing here who would not take anything else.
Up a few steps is a central lobby, with access to the conveniences and the cellar, leaving just about enough space to squeeze in one isolated table. Head off to the right and you can at last find a little room to breathe.
Here is a gloriously simple saloon, no more than a rectangular box lit by windows onto the street that are etched with the pub's name.
The furniture is a mishmash – church pews, chairs and tables of various vintage and origin. There's a television stuck up in the corner but you sense that it is seldom switched on, unless perhaps there's a Scottish rugby match in the offing.
The sea-green walls are broken up with a gallery of old photographs and a fan twirls lazily overhead as locals while away a carefree hour.
There is, of course, a picture of the pub's most famous regular on display. Local writer Ian Rankin picked on The Oxford Bar when he needed a watering hole for his detective character, Rebus. He's the one to blame for the regular influx of tourists, most of whom seem more interested in grabbing a selfie than a pint of ale.
On the bar, you'll find that Edinburgh favourite, Deuchars IPA from Caledonian, but also a few guest beers, generally sourced from other Scottish breweries.
Above the bar, pride of place goes to a small collection of sporting trophies, and an odd assortment of items that look as if they were casually stuck on a shelf some time ago and quietly forgotten about: a Russian hat, a policeman's helmet, a rugby ball.
Alongside, a shelf of reference books stands ready to quell any arguments. There are – you won't be surprised to learn – no electronic distractions.
In front of the bar, faces curiously peer through the front door. Many belong to Rebus fans who are just curious. They disappear as quickly as they came. But those who take the time to linger with a drink are more handsomely rewarded. They begin to understand what Edinburgh is all about.
The Oxford Bar, 8 Young Street, Edinburgh EH2 4JB.
Tel. (0131) 539 7119
Opening Hours: 11–midnight; 11–1am Friday & Saturday; 12–11 Sunday