I’ve come to realise that a common trope in my reviews is a tendency to praise the simple, traditional, and altogether not overly obnoxious aspects of food in this city. Throw out your quinoa salad, deconstructed oysters, and tahini that you swear you got from Borough Market because you are just that cool. Ok, I may be going a bit over the top: I like Borough Market; quinoa doesn’t deserve its own Instagram page but it’s surprisingly tasty; and I can stomach oysters. But the attitude cultivated by social media seems to suggest that this is all we, so-called generation Z, eat: avocado, sourdough and maybe an egg if you’re really pushing the boat out. Not true: sometimes I, a guy as Z as it gets (is that right?), just fancy a really big burger. There truly is only one place in Oxford such a desire can be fulfilled: Peppers.
Minus the heroin and Ewan McGregor’s hallucinogenic dreams, Peppers looks like something out of Trainspotting. Or perhaps more 1980s Brick Lane. Anyway, it’s a bruttish building, with ugly, red block letters emblazoned on the front. Good. No mood lighting designed for bloggers to peer over their meticulously constructed food is a welcome relief. The crowd is also different in Peppers. No yummy mummies – they’ll surely be in Opera Café having a latte with extra soy milk. Also there are few families – the homeliness of Mamma Mia or Branca will be far more suitable for them. Instead, Peppers attracts those with little time on their hands and big appetites.
At this point you may be envisioning Peppers to be a sort of prison, beyond the realms of normal society. Well you’d be wrong. Peppers, in fact, embodies everything great about this little, funny city. Perhaps the finest thing is the level of owner-to-customer trust. In a time where turnover is paramount and communication is mostly virtual, nothing beats a genuine smile and a friendly exchange. In this respect, Peppers is in a different league compared to most restaurants in Oxford. Don’t have the immediate cash on you? Feel free to pop to a cash point while your burger is on the grill. Ordered a drink with your food? Slide beyond the counter and take your pick. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were allowed to grill the burger yourself.
Peppers harks back to a lost era. An era when chefs would see their food eaten and could take real pride in the gratitude of the eater. Now, their work is probably manipulated into a ‘spread’ for an ‘influencer’s’ page, with 90% of the food left untouched, ordered solely for aesthetic motivations. Don’t get me wrong – food is art, and the visual element is certainly important. But when the foundation of the art appeals to the eyes more than the nose and tongue, something has gone seriously wrong.
No such problem here. Peppers couldn’t care less about presentation. Peppers probably doesn’t even know what presentation is. Instead, the first hint of upcoming delight comes from a smell of meat, vinegar and salt that smacks you upon entry, and then wafts among customers who squeeze into tiny chairs, often chatting amongst one another. Think school common room, with far superior food and less BO.
Then the food arrives and you know when it arrives because every element is gargantuan and comes wrapped up in paper in a rudimentary manner that no modern restaurant would dare to replicate. Indeed, you have to come to Peppers hungry. Really hungry. Think Five Guys offers a lot of chips? Think again. Then you bite into it and everything is perfect. Juicy, tender meat, a soft bun and crunchy lettuce and onions – fantastic. You can also choose any sauce you wish. I like sweet chilli and mint and yoghurt. Weird, I know. Nonetheless, it works: everything balances out and sets the stage for that enormous slab of meat. All this, with chips, and a drink, for £7.50 at lunch is beyond a steal.
So there you are, sauce dripping down your hands, surrounded by psychedelic posters, smiling because you forgot that in this strange, strange world, simple pleasure can still be found in a place like Peppers.