A few days ago Starbucks had a special gimmick for a morning - you got a free coffee if you introduced yourself to the staff. This was advertising the fact that from now on they'll be taking customers' names, so that each hot drink can be matched more easily to the person who ordered it. Being a privacy-loving, sporadically misanthropic kind of person, that was enough to make me resolve to avoid buying coffee in Starbucks in future (which will save me all of about £3 a year). Still, this post won't debate the respective merits of big chains and small coffee shops, but will focus on a new(ish) Oxford establishment which is definitely worthy of your custom.
The Old Fire Station used to be a slightly shabby theatre with a nightclub at the back, but about a year ago it metamorphosed into a venue run by Crisis, the homeless charity, and another charitable group, Arts at the Old Fire Station. The change is remarkable: the once-dingy OFS is now a pristine, light space with an art gallery and shop (as well as a theatre and other studios). There's also a cafe which, according to the website, 'is a social enterprise providing accredited on-the-job training and routes to employment for Crisis Skylight members'.
It's clearly an admirable venture, but I was pleased to discover that the cafe measures up to - if not surpasses - its profit-making counterparts. I stopped in one afternoon for a cappuccino (£2.15) and some coffee cake (£2, I think). The drink was fine - a little milky, but with a spot-on coffee to foam ratio. My criteria for good coffee cake are quite childish (buttercream, not too many walnuts) and this generous slice fulfilled them amply. It was very sweet - I wouldn't eat this every day - but enlivened by chopped nuts in the mixture. There were plenty of other cakes on offer too.
On another day I came back for some lunch. There are plenty of soups, quiches and sandwiches on offer, but I tried a 'beef and red onion burger with mature cheddar, served with chunky double baked chips' (£4.95) from the specials blackboard. The burger was rather small (though note the price, and I would prefer this to the large but tasteless specimens often found elsewhere), but had a good beefy and oniony flavour. It was cooked well done; still, there was enough juice to soak into the delightfully light ciabatta bun. The chips looked unlike any chips I've ever seen - more wedges of baked potato with a fluffy interior - but were very tasty, with a real 'home made' flavour. Other specials included pea and cream soup, Somerset pork with mousseline and spring greens, and stuffed butternut squash. When I arrived a large group was just finishing and from what I overheard they had tried and really enjoyed some of these.
So, as well as being worth supporting for other reasons, the OFS cafe is a lovely destination for delicious food. Even better, on both visits the staff were warm and genuinely friendly, but none of them asked what my name was. This is fortunate, as I'd like to go back.
Crisis Skylight Oxford cafe
40 George Street, OX1 2AQ