A church with a cafe in a crypt that used to be the university's central congregation room? Only Oxford could produce such a fascinating building, which also remains fully functional and a great place to grab breakfast, lunch or tea. The Vaults and Garden Cafe is that rare beast of a beautiful location serving wholesome, unusual and reasonably priced food in the heart of one of England's busiest tourist city destinations. They signpost the way from the main road with menus on a bike, that iconic symbol of Oxford life. Follow the bike, and a treat is in store.
The food is excellent, there's no doubt about that. Homecooked, organic fare in generous portions tempts you across the counter. They always have a great range of salads to bulk up a simple main, but even the basic soup is always a hearty lunch, served with chunks of artisan breads which you pick up at the counter. Tagines and stews, lasagnes and rarebits, hotpots and bakes are all served, with a constantly changing menu.
After lunch a range of rich and decadent cakes appears, with scones for a traditional cream tea, or more interesting (and unpredictable) bakes. They have gluten-free and vegan options too, ready to cater for all the main dietary Vaults specialises in organic, locally sourced meat and seasonal vegetables, so you will always get something different and interesting. They pride themselves of good food, responsible sourcing and good value.
Hot and cold drinks also do justice to their homely, independent feel. They serve a good number of coffees and teas, ensuring that even fussy drinkers find something to perk up their meal. They also stock Fentinmans drinks, a fantastic collection of old-fashioned favourites, including powerful Ginger Beer and delicately favoured but perfectly sweetened Rose Lemonade. If you don't want to buy a drink though, because your thirst just needs quenching with some good old tap water, they leave jugs and glasses out with the cutlery and condiments.
Fetch yourself cutlery, condiments, a drink and even a book at Vaults
The Vaults Garden and Cafe is located in the crypt of St Mary the Virgin, the university church for the University of Oxford. Originally this was the Congregation room for the university, the place where major university business took place. Built in 1320, it ended up too small for the purpose; the university now uses the Sheldonian Theatre, for example, for such big meetings.
It's so popular that it can be hard to find a seat, and can get very noisy inside. If you want a relaxed lunch, go in early (say midday), or after the rush (say 2pm). The main problem is actually the toilets, which are hidden down a winding passage behind the counter area, and are limited and quirky rather than comfortable.
You may find yourself sharing a big table inside, or waiting for one outside. Tea in the graveyard does feel a little strange at first, but it's such a fabulous setting, in the shadow of the Radcliffe Camera, that you soon settle in. In winter they're even prepared to lend you hot water bottles and blankets. As you leave, look at the steps carefully, because there's a Latin inscription there too, a further sign of Oxford's religious and intellectual history.
Vaults really is a unique cafe. It's a basement at ground level, a crypt for the living, a jewel for local diners and visitors alike, a public place in a university space. Even if you only stop by briefly, it's well worth it.