IExcelsior Cafe: Chip Garnish & the Mysteries of East Oxford

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The Excelsior: Your choice of Meat or Other

The axis of this psychogeometrical entity is Magdalen Road, Oxford with its lefty/cosmic Inner Bookshop dating from before 'new-age' existed (but happy to diversify into selling crystal manuals to menopausal women in emotional crisis), with its resolutely wholefood, delightfully dowdy Magic Cafe, its recycled bicycle workshop, and its community printshop.

The provenance of the area as a spiritual oasis is boosted by the presence, at the North end, of a convent, and, to the south, a Buddhist centre where barefoot orange-robed baldies stand contemplatively on the concrete patio.

Take the path through the churchyard at the North end of Magdalen Road and just a few paces down Cowley Road towards the center you will discover the purest antidote to all 'positive thinking'...

The Excelsior (250 Cowley Road, OX4 1UH, Tel: 01865 248504) is a survivor, nestling defiantly in a row of nondescript takeaway joints.

Coming in from the east, it is the building where the jolly multicultural graffiti (check the view of the mosque from the window) covering the rest of the row of buildings ends abruptly in a sober blue and black-painted number with classic sign, the bottom half of the cafe frontage redecorated in 80s-seedy with kitchen tiles bearing recipes for Irish stew.

No sooner has one entered this place than one is entirely overcome by an almost toxic metaphysical gloom, way beyond what might be causally explained by the miasma of budget cigarette smoke streaming constantly from the antediluvian countenances of the regulars (everyone smokes in this place).

This is a dinginess which stubbornly resists the feeble efforts of the vintage uplighters glaring insistently down on the sweaty vinyl seating and checkered flooring strewn with small pieces of indeterminate matter.

The malignant pressure of moribundia is so palpable that one feels grubby and stained for the remainder of the day. The murk will not be easily forgotten: it's not simply seedy, it's truly sex-shop/opium-den. smutty.

The Greek Cypriot proprietor of the Excelsior, not content to fulfill the traditional role of the immigrant cafe owner as curator and keeper of the faith, demonstrates his complete mastery of the spirit of the indigenous 'English' working-class cuisine by hazarding a fiendishly innovative but entirely apposite innovation: a chip garnish (furnished with my bacon sandwich) made up of five chips scattered artfully across the top of the sarnie augurs the future advent of an authentic nouvelle caff cuisine.

As the result of some sort of spontaneous collective instinct, The Excelsior has been absorbed into the daily itinerary of a corps of starry-eyed chain-smokers in various states of addiction and/or mental and social debility ("allo Dave, been at the centre?").

As we enter, one of the tables is occupied by two emaciated young women with dead eyes, evidently too far-gone even to be welcome in this company, who have brought their own food and a plastic bottle of cider from Tesco's. It is 10a.m. A fat woman guiltily orders jam rolypoly and custard.

In his maroon blazer, instinctively striking a series of classic waiter poses, bookie's pen behind the ear, our solicitous but silent service today is to the Ritz waiter what the ragged threadbare blue hand towel over his arm is to an immaculate napkin. He greets us with a terse "coffee", not a question nor even a statement, more a profession of creed.

Whilst we sip massive espressos from the hand-pumped Astoria machine, a dispute erupts at the counter; the proprietor handling it with the implacable calm of someone who's seen it all before.

The controversy arises over what, seeming an egregious affront to the obviously inexperienced punters, is in fact the result of a mercilessly rational pricing policy dating from the years before loss-leaders and two-for-one offers: double-egg-and-chips costs precisely double the price of egg and chips. "We thought it'd be the same as that one," whines the customer, already sensing the battle is lost. "Ees not the same. Double egg you get two egg" explains Mr. Excelsior through a thin smile.

With no change of expression whatever the proprietor repeats the order back to them again. Perhaps value-hunters are better off with (from the menu) "crusted toasted double decker sandwich, your choice of meat or other".

The proprietor's tight-lipped mystique is extended adamantly, even to the enthusiast. As he rings up my immaculately scrawled bill on the hand-cranked cash till, I ask how long the cafe has been there. 'I tell you in a minute'.

Returning from delivering a tea, he rasps conspiratorially: "85".

Since 1985? I ask somewhat disappointedly. Surely this patina can't be faked.

"No, 85".

85 years? I am no less incredulous.

I wonder whether this is a routine for impertinent tourists. Sufficiently apprised of the risible nature of my enquiries, he holds all the cards and knows it, I am a green acolyte.

Foolishly, I persist: 'And how long have you been here?'.

'I tell you next time you come here.'

Of course. How could a place like this endure without a good business head at the helm?


Words/Pix: Robin Mackay



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