Going out of town the second weekend in December is a pattern my husband and I seem to have fallen into over the past few years. It is the first Saturday in months with almost no college football games, so we are finished making the most of that fun season and the houseguests it brings. Plus, because my family lives so far away (and I work in education so I get more days off around the holidays than David does), we’ve always spent Christmas apart: him with his family and me with mine. I know that will change one day and of course I miss him, but I just hate for either of our families to be without us on a holiday that is both our parents’ favorite. So, going away for a mid-December weekend became a chance to celebrate the holidays, spend some quality time together before I fly out, and sometimes give ourselves the gift of a trip instead of typical presents.
This year we made plans to revisit Oxford. We’d gone a couple of years ago on the day of the Alabama-Ole Miss game to check out the fantastic tailgating on The Grove. I returned last spring because one of my very best friends, Karen Russell, had a writers’ conference there and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see her only a 3-hour drive away instead of the usual flight into crazy, crowded, overwhelming NYC. In short, Oxford is a small college town with some cute shops, semi-interesting restaurants, tree-lined residential areas, and a few historical sites, such as William Faulkner’s house.
We stayed at The 5 Twelve Bed and Breakfast, because I have been lusting after their stylish, contemporary rooms since I found them on the internet a year or two ago. It was an absolutely perfect location on a quiet residential street, just a few blocks from both campus and downtown. The breakfast wasn’t anything to write home about, but they did happily serve me perfectly-cooked oatmeal and fresh fruit when I requested them in place of the typical heavier items. The furnishings were lovely- sophisticated, modern, and eye-catching.
One the places we remembered from our first visit and eagerly returned to was the Bottletree Bakery. To me it feels like stepping off of Van Buren Avenue and into Portland, Oregon. We stopped by on Saturday for a coffee, and again on Sunday morning on our way back from an early-morning walk to pick up a loaf of their rustic whole wheat bread.
That was when it happened. We cheated on our bed and breakfast.
I really believed we were just going to buy a loaf of bread and leave… but there were blackberry whole wheat muffins, and pear-pecan croissants… and we were hungry. We hadn’t had a croissant since France, and I swear, this one was better. The pear and pecan flavors were very subtle, and the rich, flaky, chewy pastry stole the show. The muffin was delicious too- tender and breadlike with a pleasing whole grain taste, and not overly sweet, moist, oily, or fruity. The Bottletree’s breakfast menu isn’t that exciting and they managed to mess up our orders both times we went, but we enjoyed having it just a short, pleasant walk from the B&B.
We made a point to go shopping on the square, because two years ago we bought my mom a bookmark that looked like an oil painting, and she still comments to this day about how much she loves it and how unique it is. We were hoping to find the same gift-giving magic this year, and I think we did! Miraculously they had restocked the bookmarks, and we also picked up a few other goodies at Square Books and Off-Square Books, Oxford’s noteworthy independent bookstores. Of course, there are several shops with home decor, seasonal items, and fun gifts that seem to cater to young, stylish women. Don’t miss the rear section of Neilson’s (the South’s oldest department store)- it reminded me of Anthropologie. If you walk around the square, you’ll find other enticing storefronts, like The Lily Pad. Don’t forget to walk a bit down the streets that shoot off from the square, like South Lamar, Van Buren, and North Lamar; other shops are located just a block or two outside the main downtown area.
The residential areas around the square are nice to walk through too. We noticed enclaves of new, contemporary condos and townhouses, but many of the homes are older with character. It seemed like everyone had a Christmas wreath on their door or window, and we even saw a house with a large, stately, old-fashioned carriage porch- what a beautiful way to greet guests. We love the flickering gas lamps that are typical of old Southern cities as well; you also see those in Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans.
We narrowed down our restaurant choices and planned our meals carefully to take advantage of the interesting menus and vegetarian options we hunted down online. A lunch at City Grocery was enjoyable and satisfying. I had the sweet corn and grilled squash soup (which was quite peppery) with cumin and paprika crackers, and a salad featuring roasted white and purple cauliflower (which was very salty). I liked that the restaurant had a special soup, salad, sandwich, and entree of the day, to add variety to the menu. The waitstaff was friendly and attentive, and I liked the atmosphere- a big room with a classy yet comfortable white-tablecloth-and-wooden-table feel. The dessert menu looked fantastic online (homemade donuts with a red wine-apple compote, pears poached in green tea or baked with fall spices), but there were only two more basic choices at lunch. This turned out to be for the better, since both were resistable. :)
We had dinner at 208 South Lamar. My husband was intrigued by creative options on the menu like the lobster nachos, and I was interested in the seasonal bruschetta and flavor combinations like white beans and fennel. Now, I don’t fancy myself to be a restaurant critic and I don’t like to be negative. But I do like being honest, and I would strongly encourage you not to dine at 208 South Lamar. They were kind enough to make me a plate of three vegetarian side dishes as my meal (bok choi, spinach, and risotto). The bok choi with tomato accent was delicious. But, the bruschetta was soggy and flavorless. The shiitake “risotto” turned out to be a dry, drab, button mushroom pilaf. David says the lobster nachos weren’t anything special. We overheard our waiter snapping sarcastically to whoever was preparing the food. The super modern interior design was not appealing or cohesive, a diner them with a few Asian accents and lots of red, black, white, and gray. 208 South Lamar was disappointing, unsatisfying, and very overpriced considering the quality of the food. I wish we would have tried Ravine (which has a nightly vegetarian offering and also guest rooms and a cabin for rent) instead.
Oxford is small, and by Saturday evening we felt like we’d done everything we intended to. That was okay with us though, because some down time was much appreciated after how busy fall had been. This quiet and quintessentially Southern town is a nice destination for a laid-back weekend of Christmas shopping or a festive Saturday of tailgating.