Review: The Lighthouse
Given that Oxford is essentially as far inland as it’s possible to get, you’d be forgiven for wondering where The Lighthouse gets its name from – a canal-side bar serving up fresh tapas in one of the most landlocked cities in the country doesn’t exactly scream “nautical”, does it? But in the choice of name for this charming Park End Street joint comes an intriguing piece of Oxonian history…
Park End Street itself gets its name from the tiny village of Parkend in Gloucestershire. Prior to the 1840s, the canals served as routes by which coal was transported into the city on barges, and the building where The Lighthouse now stands – which used to be The Duke’s Cut, and before that Rosie O’Grady’s, and before that The Queen’s Arms – stood as a place for exhausted canalworkers to congregate with a drink after transporting their sizeable load the whole 68 miles from their origin. The building, therefore, stood as a beacon of hope for those weary workers some 200 years ago. Hence – The Lighthouse.
This cute piece of Oxford heritage is all well and good, but in 2016, is the place actually up to scratch? Tapas bars in Oxford have always been a little hit and miss (the glorious Kazbar notwithstanding), so I’m very pleased to report that it’s now possible to enjoy a high-quality bowl of gazpacho or plate of Serrano ham croquetas within spitting distance of the coach or train stations. The nautical theme of The Lighthouse’s name continues onto the menus, boasting of belonging to “a serendipitous setting for social navigation”, and whilst I’ve never been the biggest fan of that kind of cutesy self-applauding promotional material, it’s difficult not to be seduced by the gorgeous steampunk-themed bar, wood-burning fire, affable staff and strong selection of beers. This is the kind of place that would work just as well on a summer’s afternoon on the terrace as it would on a cosy winter evening sheltering from the elements with a plate of patatas bravas, and The Lighthouse is certainly doing its best to inject some personality into a street that sorely needed it.
Most importantly, the food is really rather good. The aforementioned gazpacho has the perfect hit of cucumber and red pepper, with a gorgeous balance of flavours in a dish which is very easy to get wrong. Likewise, garlic and white wine prawns pack a proper punch of flavour and their take on cordero estofado is particularly good – the slow-cooked lamb meat falling apart to the touch and served with buttered carrots that keep a firm crunch. On my visit the accompanying baguette was served cold, which is missing a trick so obvious that it shouldn’t really have to be pointed out, but when you’re paying £7 for slow-cooked lamb as flavoursome as it is at The Lighthouse it does feel like splitting hairs to criticise.
The pricing remains reasonable across the board – the most expensive individual dish on the menu comes in at £7.20, with charcuterie boards reaching the less-than-dizzying heights of £12.90, which means that bringing a couple of friends with you pays dividends as you can order one of everything and inevitably fight over the last pieces of pollo al chilidrón. Oxford has been crying out for a good independent “small dishes” place like this for a while – find yourself a place on the outdoor terrace whilst the weather holds out and try it for yourself.