Before the coronavirus pandemic, Oxford students who wanted to catch infectious diseases had to venture into Cowley. Back in the ‘old normal’, Temple Lounge – an Oxford institution in much the same way that Man vs. Food is an American one – was a mecca for signet-ring-sporting rugby players, tin-toting footballers, ever-so-slightly-awkward subject gatherings, and (bizarrely) the occasional family of four with young children – that is, if Mecca were a medium-price curry restaurant with a shisha bar attached.
Surprisingly little has changed. The walk across the Magdalen Bridge and into Cowley still has all the aesthetic charms of a walking tour through the centre of Birmingham. Once we had arrived, the food was up to its usual standards: the hummus and pitta was as flavoursome as ever, while one of your correspondent’s co-diners found the umami of white wine poured into a bowl of red curry very interesting. The yellow chicken was yellow, which is, at least, better than salmonella-pink. Likewise, the drinks did not disappoint. There was a wide array of wine on offer: the Echo Falls White tasted every bit as good as it looked; the citrus and peach notes of the McGuigan Estate Sauvignon Blanc were complemented especially by its presentation in a plastic cup; and, at the more expensive end of the scale, the Yellowtail Chardonnay lived up to its promise of ‘bringing a smile to everyone’s lips’, as well as bringing problems to their gastrointestinal tracts. For non-oenophiles, a mini-keg of Doom Bar offered a balanced and moreish alternative in sophisticated packaging. Meanwhile, one fresher, opting for a bottle of Glen’s vodka, ended the evening looking paler (and less healthy) than a vampire Matt Lucas. In other words, all the ingredients for getting up close and personal with the inside of your toilet bowl were present and correct.
Indeed, the ambience – ‘the atmosphere of a Persian bazaar’, as the website improbably claims – was only slightly diminished by social distancing. Awkwardly long slightly wobbly tables have made way for weirdly small slightly wobbly ones. Distance has increased the decibel level, if not necessarily the quality, of conversation. Although pennying is now banned – those wanting to find out what it was like in Stalingrad in 1942 will have to go elsewhere – much is the same. The lighting remains surgical, the service anything but. The artwork on the walls still has all the charm and idiosyncrasy of a Premier Inn built in 1997. Lap dances are permitted (provided masks are worn). Similarly, clothes-swapping is tolerated: those wondering how a six-foot-two man looks in an Urban Outfitters tube top, New Look miniskirt and A-cup push-up bra need look no further. Fortunately, shoes continue to be among the more hygienic drinking vessels available. When I woke up the next day, it felt like my brain was being used as a hamster wheel. Oxford hasn’t seemed more ‘normal’ before or since.
Food: Edible, technically
Atmosphere: 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, 1% Vomit odour
Value for Money: Undoubtedly
Overall Rating: 10/10