Two historic Cambridge restaurants make the gourmet grade

The Varsity and the revamped Parker’s Tavern both deserve gastronomic first-class honours

Pan-roasted chicken thigh with crayfish and a curry foam is a highlight at the Varsity
Pan-roasted chicken thigh with crayfish and a curry foam is a highlight at the Varsity

As a cradle for The Gannet’s abiding love of restaurants, 1980s Cambridge left much to be desired. The Varsity Restaurant, opposite Emmanuel College, was the archetypal Cambridge bistro: every main course (moussaka, goulash, even spaghetti bolognese) was served with rice and chips, aimed squarely at carb-loading rowers. 

No longer. The Varsity now esteems quality above quantity: dainty fritters of feta and courgette with a tangle of salad and ribbons of pickled cucumber; properly crisped pork belly with blobs of apple gel; pan-roasted chicken thigh with crayfish and a curry foam. Gels and foams? Hardly enough calories to make it out of the boathouse, let alone challenge for Head of the River.

Tristan Welch’s menu at Parker’s Tavern, in the smartly renovated University Arms Hotel, has more to offer the ravenous rower: rib-stickingly rich spaghetti bolognese (described, tongue‑in-cheek, as a “British classic”), for instance, with excellent chips and a fine, homemade brown sauce. 

An air of nostalgic warmth and wit pervades Welch’s clever, comforting menu: coronation chicken, potted shrimps and Cambridge burnt cream rub shoulders with locally inspired dishes: tandoor-roast Norfolk quail, Saffron Walden lamb braised with saffron and cumin, and – from the trolley on Thursdays – Huntingdon fidget pie, made with bacon and apples.

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Welch likes a little spice. The quail – a flavoursome, perfectly roasted specimen – is served with a cucumber, mint and coconut raita and a spoonful of excellent clove-scented yellow mung dhal; the shrimps have been potted with mace and a generous pinch of cayenne pepper, their buttery juices soaking through a substantial slice of toast. 

“Great British sashimi” arrives as button-fresh slices of chalk stream trout, king scallops and mackerel, with slivers of pickled radish, punchy horseradish and a dipping sauce made with mushroom soy and a distinct tang of Marmite; suckling pig is meltingly tender, both satisfyingly gelatinous and crisp-skinned, with vinegar-spiked braised fennel a fabulous foil for the unctuous meat. The “burnt cream” arrives as a rich, silk-smooth custard hidden under a vast wafer of crisp caramel, set at a rakish tilt. 

Welch has created a thoroughly English brasserie, ably assisted by designer Martin Brudnizki, whose interiors chime perfectly with the menu: there is a convivial, clubby, boathouse aesthetic to the handsome room, with Cambridge-blue panelling and tall, glorious windows overlooking Parker’s Piece, the 25 acres of turf where Jack “The Master” Hobbs, perhaps England’s greatest ever batsman, learned his trade, and the rules of Association Football were first drawn up. 

Those long-gone sportsmen would, I think, have repaired very happily here after their exertions. Nostalgia, so they say, isn’t what it used to be: in the case of Parker’s Tavern, it is a great deal better.

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