Actually, Maxwell’s seems to have the same idea as me- the only sign of its existence on street level is an unprepossessing metal staircase, with a red neon sign pronouncing (somewhat ironically) “Famous Since 1972”. The Oxford Maxwell’s is the founding member of a now mostly London-based franchise. Londoners, as ever more trend-savvy than us in Oxford, have embraced the diner-style food, and their Hampstead and Covent Garden branches are regularly packed with hungry and thirsty people. By contrast, the Oxford branch seems relatively quiet, perhaps because, after you make your way up the gloomy stairwell, the restaurant is pretty huge. A big, high-raftered room with a massive window overlooking Queen Street, it has room for half a dozen booths, about twenty tables, and a long bar area. The décor is simple and unpretentious, although the points they win for the cool retro-chic wall murals are lost by the silenced TVs flickering in the background- a feature of American bars which Britain could do without.
However, you don’t really come for the surroundings. They do their job, just like staff, who are friendly and relatively efficient, but at busier times seem on the verge of being rushed off their feet. One of our sides had to be reordered, but I’m willing to forgive any waitress who brings me Maxwell’s food. This is really what it’s all about. Despite Maxwell’s attempt to cater to a cocktail/nightclub set (with a 5.30-7.30pm Happy Hour and a late weekend opening), it’s the fantastic American favourites which will have me coming back for more.
Nevertheless, the cocktails are worth a mention- they’re not especially cheap (even discounted), but there’s a nice mixture of classics (like a well-muddled, pleasantly limey Mojito) and unusual concoctions; the Lemon Tree (a refreshingly fruity rum and blackberry liquor number) and Loretto Lemonade (Maker’s Mark, Midori and apple topped with ginger ale) were both particularly good.
There are no such surprises on the menu- heavy on the meat, fish and deep fryer, Maxwell’s food isn’t likely to win any plaudits for being healthy, but it could certainly get a few for being tasty. I started with an order of buffalo wings, which coupled tender chicken with a deliciously tangy barbeque sauce. My companion had the crab cakes, which she pronounced excellent- the creole mustard that came with them was certainly tasty enough to dip a salad leaf in, anyway! We shared loaded potato skins, which were not quite so wonderful, although perfectly tasty.
The mains were where Maxwell’s really got into its stride. Incautiously, I ordered a whole rack of smoked hickory ribs, and was slightly surprised when presented with what appeared to be a small pig, smothered in wonderfully sticky barbeque sauce. The pork was a revelation- tender yet firm, melting off the ribs, and wonderfully filling. The Cajun chips and coleslaw on the side were fine, but really only served to complement the fantastic meat. It was the same with my companion’s blackened Cajun salmon- pan-seared to perfection, with a great spicy flavour that didn’t obscure the freshness of the fish, but with a fairly anaemic selection of seasonal vegetables on the side. The side salad and onion rings were actually fairly disappointing- the salad dressing was a little watery, and the onion rings were slightly blackened in places.
I’m aware, as I write this, that my originally ironic warnings against going to Maxwell’s might be gaining a ring of veracity- but if I fault the side dishes, it’s only because they pale into insignificance next to the splendidly indulgent food. Maxwell’s isn’t expensive, the cocktails are good, and the food is, quite simply, fantastic- mouthwatering, stick-to-your-ribs American fare at its very, very best. So please, do go and try the best hidden gem (well, hidden diner, at least) in central Oxford- even if it means I don’t get my booth table.