I first reviewed The Boxing Hare pub in Swerford, North Oxfordshire in January 2018, when it was so new the signage hadn’t even been put up (literally, I watched the workman on ladders as I lunched). The team creds, though, were firmly in place – new owners Antony Griffith Harris (The Canal Brasserie; First Floor in Notting Hill) and his PR-savvy partner Stacey Elder as owners, who had enticed head chef Nicholas Anderson, a two time Michelin star and 3 AA rosette winner, away from The Bell of Hampton Poyle.
Since that first review, The Boxing Hare has steadily grown in popularity with who are attracted to the informal, warm, service, spot-on food and phenomenal portions (let’s just say you’re not pushing solitary peas around a plate here.) Only five miles from Chipping Norton, and a 15 minute jaunt from private members club Soho House, there’s a tantalising steam of celebrity diners amongst the in-the-know locals and foodie day trippers that make up the clientele.
Buzzy, confident, well-heeled – these guys know what they’re doing and it shows. Griffith Harris and Elder both actively work in the pub and make an interesting double act – Griffith Harris elegant and tweeded-up and giving refined service and Elder, glamorous and mischievous, cracking jokes, flirting with ‘the boys’ (two charismatic gay waiters and partners who are central to the energy of the pub), and generally giving The Boxing Hare a personality that so many refined pubs somehow lack.
Style-wise since Griffith Harris and Elder have taken control, there’s been much improvement to the main building – the skeleton was there, with its arched windows, wooden beams and fireplaces, but now the ‘garden room’ has become an inviting hops-strewn dining space that can work for private parties as well as extra seating on busy days (spoiler alert: all days are busy here). Tables and chairs are kept simple and wooden, but occasional quirky touches lift the look – flamingo lampshades, modern photography on the walls, and of course a giant hare that greets you before you even step through the front door.
During Covid, The Boxing Hare did what all self-respecting, survival-hungry pubs and popped up the obligatory garden pods, as well as a heated verandah with table seating that looks out onto the large garden. Until a few weeks ago I had pondered that the pod dining concept in general might quietly drift away – we’ve all been so happy to socialise properly! – but with Omnicron waving its grim wand, outdoor service will no doubt come into its own once more.
You can have charming pubs that succeed with average food and scruffy pubs that succeed with amazing dishes, but it’s not that easy to run a charming pub with relentlessly superior gastro offering but The Boxing Hare does it all brilliantly, and without pretension.
The menu errs towards restaurant fare, particularly with the à la carte, though there’s still pub crowd-pleasers (albeit with a fine dining sheen) – the likes of monkfish scampi with string chips, 8oz steak burger in brioche bun, or bavette steak, not to mention the roasts, which have deservedly become the weekend calling card. I ate on a Sunday afternoon, and it was packed to the rafters.
However, the gastro showboat here remains the 50 day Longhorn dry aged beef, on show in its futuristic-looking dry ager opposite the bar – its popularity has required an additional two dry agers in the kitchen since my 2019 visit.
All that said, children are well catered for here, with their own menu (up to 12 years old), with macaroni and cheese (£7) and sausage and mash (9) as options along with the roasts (£9.50), burger and scampi.
One thing I think the team continues to do well here is navigate the sweet spot between the premium quality and value for money. The steak burger is £15.50 and roasts start at £18.50 – seriously, that’s a steal. There’s also a bar menu offering the likes of a simple sausage roll with the chef’s ketchup (£3.50) or a Provençal fish soup with gruyere croutes & rouille (£6.50).
On the day I ate here Sunday roast was the overwhelming winner on our table of five, with three of us ordering the roast shoulder of Cotswold lamb. It came with a Yorkshire pud the size of a boulder, and generous roasties and veggies – it feels very homely in that way, there’s no pretension about the roasts here. Apologies in advance for this photo – it was dark outside and very candle-ish at the table, not the best conditions for a shot.
My two sons went for the bavette steak, equally well received, cooked to a medium rare perfection and apparently the chips are awesome (I can’t vouch, I wasn’t offered a single stick).
Dessert was tiramisu and a total triumph – rich but not cloying, the sponge was light and moist but not soggy, and as it’s the favourite dessert of all my children (and they’ve recently returned from a trip to Italy where they ate the damn thing every day) it’s not light praise when I tell you they thought it’s the best tiramisu they’ve ever eaten.
I was driving so it was just a glass of red for me, but the wine menu can take you from entry level bottles at £23 through to the serious £60-80 Burgundy territory. Again the axis between quality and value feels sound.
AROUND AND ABOUT
We’re on the Oxfordshire side of the Cotswolds, so there’s no shortage of lovely things to see and do. Chippy Norton is just around the corner, the National Trust beauty Chastleton House (one of my absolute local favourites, and made famous by Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies) is a few miles further. Soho Farmhouse is a 15 minute chug up the road if you fancy a posh, celebrity rubber-necking overnighter. Daylesford Farm is 10 miles away, and then it’s a hop and skip into the Gloucestershire side of the Cotswolds. If you want to keep it truly local, there’s a charming 5 mile walk from Swerford (check out the gorgeous church) to the pretty village of Wigginton, though it’s not circular so you’ll have to either retrace your steps or get a lift back.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Everyone really. The food is fab, there are enough crowd-pleasers to suit little palates, the pub has a pleasing number of different areas and nooks and crannies, and it works equally well for locals heading in for a well-priced G&T or destination foodies searching for the perfect Sunday lunch. Parents can fling their tantruming toddlers into the garden and those on a budget will still manage a superior meal without selling a kidney.
Not for: Those strongly averse to roadside pubs – though once inside I should point out that you can’t hear the road at all, and the lovely garden to the back of the pub is large and feels protected from the road too. Dogs are permitted with prior notice and in certain areas – don’t just rock up with your Great Dane and expect a seat. The informality is a breath of fresh air for me, but may not appeal to those who like to be left to their own devices.
£££: Reasonable for the quality. Starters mostly around £7.50-10; mains around £14-20; 10oz rib eye steak £32; side orders £4; puddings £8.
The Boxing Hare , Banbury Road, Swerford, Oxon, OX74AP. Tel: 01608 683212.