Inside Oxford’s Invite-Only Guest Dinner

What? St John’s College Guest Dinner

Where? St John’s College

When? Twice per academic term

Price: £30

Star Rating: ★★★☆☆

I’m not one for dressing up for a fancy meal. Maybe it’s a class thing, but I always feel awkward and out of place.

Growing up in Rotherham in working class family, I never got taught the social codes that come along with formal dining. Four courses in our house was rustling through a cereal bar before dinner and sneaking in a slice of toast before bed.

The guest dinner at Oxford is hardly ‘fine dining,’ but when you’re surrounded by intellectuals and grand buildings, it’s easy to feel intimidated. 

How did I get here?

No, I didn’t go to uni in Oxford (they rejected me immediately.) However, my best friend is in his fourth year at St John’s College. 

Twice a term, students can invite family and friends over for a four-course meal and, more importantly, lots of wine.

When I was invited for the price £30, I jumped at the chance. 

I’ve been to guest dinner once before. But, to be honest, I drank so much red wine that I can hardly remember any of it.

So, hopefully, I can recollect a little more this time. 

The dress code wasn’t too strict. The term ‘black tie’ was thrown around, but I managed to sneak in with my floral tie no questions asked. To be honest, I think I saw one girl in pyjama bottoms!

First, we gathered in what I can only describe as a glorified cupboard for pre drinks. The room was packed full of baby-faced students eager to dive in to some free prosecco.

The theme of the evening was ‘Starry Night’ after Van Gogh’s painting. But there was little attempt to follow through with this concept, with the exception of some fairy lights.

Two drinks down and we were ushered into the great hall. The hall itself is impressive. It’s a cliche to say that it looked like the Hogwarts dining hall – don’t worry, I’m not that basic – but there’s definitely something ‘magical’ about it. 

Fittingly, I’m reading Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials at the minute, which is set in Oxford. When I sat in the hall, I could almost imagine Lyra and her daemon hiding under the tables or getting up to mischief in the kitchen. So there’s definitely a feeling of child-like wonder that I experienced there. 

First on the menu was parsnip soup with truffle oil. Despite being covered in pepper, which masked some of the flavours, it was delicious. 

Next up was the fish course. I’m a vegetarian, which was a mystery to no one, as I was given a big green card with ‘VEGETARIAN’ written in bold. They might as well have asked me to come in a green suit to single me out. 

Anyway, I had risotto with mixed vegetables. It was light and the veg was perfectly cooked. 

By the time the next course arrived, I was already full up and two more glasses of white wine down. 

If you’re lucky enough to be invited, pace yourselves. I learned the hard way the first time with a raging hangover…

The main dish was somewhat of a disappointment. I was given stuffed peppers with sweet potato mash. The mash was soft and creamy and there was little to complain about in terms of the quality of the food.

However, it completely lacked any imagination. Stuffed peppers is what I cooked in my first year of uni. With the grandeur of the great hall surrounding us, I expected something a little more impressive.

The showstopper of the evening was the dessert. We were given warm apple tart with chocolate and ginger ice cream – the perfect way to end the meal.

After all the food was served, we made our way back into the cupboard. 

The night rounded off with some port and Baileys and, finally, we were ready to head back home.

Verdict:

To be honest, Oxford’s guest dinner isn’t half as fancy as you’d expect. Take away the grand surroundings and you’re left with a decent, well priced meal and generous servings of alcohol – no advanced etiquette required. 

You can attend St John’s guest dinner by invite only.

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