Everything about the University Arms is visually impressive, from the outside it’s classic Georgian architecture through and through, big multi-paneled windows, extravagant proportions, stone columns and doors tall enough for the BFG to walk straight in.
As you enter, there’s little doubt that this is somewhere special. A building packed with heritage that goes back over 200 years. A building that looks in the prime of it’s life, resplendent in it’s beauty and proud of its heritage. And so it should be, having recently undergone a major refit that saw the site completely closed for over 4 years, it’s as shiny as a new antique pin, polished and much loved and to be admired.
We’re seated for dinner and first impressions…it’s busy. This is a cold, Tuesday evening in early February and the dining room is buzzing. We settle down and soak in the atmosphere. A mix of art deco with the odd dash of minimal contemporary design, something that’s so easy to get wrong, but they’ve been very restrained and it comes together perfectly. The furniture is dark, almost black woods with contrasting white marble. From the parquet floor to the huge, they must be almost 2 meters wide, chandeliers, this is great British pomp at it’s very best – restrained and refined.
We dive into the menus, there’s a host of local produce in simple, honest dishes. We start with some cheese straws and an apperitif. The straws arrive promptly and we’re pleasantly surprised to find them warm to the touch with a subtle warmth after every mouthful from the delicate chilli sprinkles.
You can’t go to somewhere like this and not have bubbles can you? Especially when you’re out for a major milestone birthday – not mine this time, phew! With the bubbles selected we make our selections with some help and advice from the waitress.
I’m keen to try the local smoked Salmon and my wife goes for the Langustines. The salmon is served with capers. There’s a real sweetness in the smoke and the slices are, like the building, opulent. Simply melting on the palette, for me this is the perfect type of starter, a dish packed with flavour that’s light and not too big. As I look across the table there’s an element of food envy. It’s always tricky knowing which dish to go for, and we often both select things that are quite similar, prioritizing flavour and visual presence. The Langustines have this nailed, they’re precisely cut in half and presented beautifully.
After a brief rest and the opportunity to explore the artwork that adorns the walls – an eclectic collection that reflects some of the lesser known Cambridge themes, obviously there’s bikes and quite a lot of cycling references, this is Cambridge’s calling card after all, but there’s quite a few motorsport references and I’m inclined to think that they’ve been included for their artistic style rather than their substance, the nearest motorsport to Cambridge that I can think of is Lotus and that’s definitely in Norfolk.
The main course arrives, I’ve opted for the Sea Trout, served with flaked almonds and purple sprouting broccoli. I had selected New Potatoes to accompany by meal, but I was encouraged by get the chips by my wife, I could see why, there’s a lot you can tell about a restaurant from the chips - I kid you not, they’re a great barometer for what’s going on in the kitchen. However the main motivation for the chips on this occasion was my wife’s dish, a ‘Cut and come again’ pie. Something that neither of us had heard of, it sounded delicious - a pork pie with mash top and onions. I should point out that my wife isn’t a big fan of mash, she’s got hang ups from school dinners, scaring her for life. So the fail-safe was ‘my’ chips, if the mash doesn’t pass muster the chips were on hand.
Thankfully they were not needed, result for me! The pie was a great success, mixing light fluffy, truffle mash with succulent Pork and a dark, rich onion sauce. Mrs B was impressed and so was I, a full portion of chips to myself…almost who am I kidding.
After the mains we decided some breathing room was in order before dessert, taking the time to breathe in our surroundings and enjoy the vibe of the place. The waiting staff were that nice mixture of informative and fun, they know the menus and were happy to advise about allergies and other important stuff, such as cucumber, something that we both hate in equal measure. Don't ask, for us it's the devil's food.
The dessert options were broader then I had envisaged stretching across three neat A5 cards.
Card one - a selection of 5 sweet desserts and 2 savoury options including teas and coffees.
Card two - the ice cream options - I kid you not, a full min menu of ice creams and toppings.
Card three - dessert wine, Sherry and Port.
The ice cream selection had both of us, mainly because of the fun and frivolous way in which it presented. You choose how many scoops from a range of locally made flavours and then you have your own little tick box of options to work through. There were nearly a dozen topping options, including peanut brittle, salted caramel sauce and lots of other tasty treats.
When our creations arrived they didn’t disappoint, simple brushed silver cups with the ice cream hidden under the layers of the toppings we’d selected. This is a real statement dessert and more than worthy of it’s own menu card. If you’re going to eat at Parker’s Tavern, make sure you leave room for the ice cream, it’s a thing of great joy.
With the meal over we returned to soaking up the atmosphere, the place was still buzzing, when we left through the ajoining bar I had to pinch myself, it too was buzzing, not in a crammed hustley bustley way, but there were no spare tables, people we enjoying bar snacks, cocktails and other drinks…on a school night in February. Needless to say I’m sure that we’ll be back and I’d like to thank all the staff for a memorable evening, marking a special birthday for a very special person in my life.
Parkers Tavern is situated within The University Arms, Regent Street, Cambridge, CB2 1AD