As the holidays approach and 2020 draws to a close, people find themselves reflecting on the past year. When the global pandemic sent the world into a tailspin in March, people were forced to do all sorts of once-unthinkable things, like commute from their bedroom to the dining room to go to work, plan drive-by birthday parties and convert tailgating plans into home-gating plans. But while negative stories seemed to dominate the headlines, there have been countless – often untold – tales of a dogged resiliency, tenacity and resourcefulness exhibited, particularly within the hospitality industry. Oxford, Miss. is leading the charge in safely and creatively welcoming visitors back.
At the height of the pandemic, particularly in the midst of stay-at-home orders, one of the hardest-hit industries undoubtedly was the restaurant industry. No diners. No happy hours. And no way to pay employees. Many restaurants quickly adapted to these changes and began offering online and curbside orders, and Oxford restaurants were no different. Local favorites like City Grocery, Big Bad Breakfast, Snackbar (all part of the City Grocery Restaurant Group), Saint Leo, Tallahatchie Gourmet, Oxford Grillehouse, Jinsei and others changed their menus to fit a curbside audience. Many that had never offered online ordering quickly set up an online system to offer contactless ordering and pickup. The City of Oxford did what they could in relaxing the normally strict signage rules, as well as reserving premium parking spaces for each downtown restaurant so patrons could pull up and receive their order without having to pay for parking.
After the curbside parking spots were such a hit, the City began to think outside the box for other ways to help local restaurants. Even before the pandemic, outdoor dining was a popular, if not controversial, topic of discussion in the downtown Oxford Square, and it was often met with road blocks and red tape. However, this time, Oxford found a way to increase restaurants’ footprints– and, therefore, their capacity– during what is normally the busiest time of the year, football season. Restaurants “rented” parking spaces to allow diners to sit outside and enjoy food and libations. News traveled fast in the small town and local citizens and organizations stepped in to donate money to cover the monthly “rent” for the restaurants for the 3-and-a-half-month period starting in September through December. While the outdoor dining will go away during the winter months, talk is already underway on bringing it back for the Spring in Oxford.
Our Restaurant Recommendations
City Grocery is the flagship restaurant of James Beard Award-winning chef John Currence. This classic Oxford restaurant offers a variety of ever-changing items on their menu, but a few things never change: their famous shrimp and grits, for one. What’s changed since COVID? The upstairs “bar” has become additional dining space with white tablecloths and a full menu available to patrons.
Emily Blount, owner of Saint Leo Restaurant, which was nominated for “Best New Restaurant” in 2017 by the James Beard Foundation, swapped her eating and lounge areas to better accommodate more diners in a COVID-friendly way. Their Italian menu features a variety of wood-fired pizzas, as well as marinated olives, chickpea crepes known as farinata and seasonally changing pastas, among other delicious favorites.
For mouthwatering comfort food, Ajax Diner is another long-standing Oxford establishment. After shutting down early in the pandemic, owner Randy Yates took the opportunity to complete long-overdue renovations to the kitchen. While these extensive updates prevented Ajax from feeding locals and visitors until late July, once they got the green light, they quickly set up online ordering for curbside service and were met with a hungry brood. Since then, Ajax has reopened their dining room and is back to serving lunch and dinner.
No meal is complete without dessert and Oxford has a new local favorite! The Oxford Creamery is a locally owned ice cream shop with fun and unique local flavors, like banana puddin, sweet corn and blueberry crisp, garden basil and the kid-friendly favorite, milk and cookies. Can’t decide on just one? Get a flight! This local shop also recently opened their newest venture, High Rise Doughnuts, which uses croissant dough for their beloved breakfast bites. They fuse some of the most popular ice cream flavors into their craft doughnuts, while also offering the more traditional yeast and cake doughnuts in glazed or chocolate frosted.
Other places to try include Volta Taverna, Proud Larry’s, South Depot Taco Shop, the Oxford Canteen, Jinsei Sushi and Handy Andy BBQ.
Oxford’s Best Sips
Oxford’s bustling bar scene befits its status as a college town, but these cocktail menus cater to more than just co-eds. Just off the Square is longtime local fave Snackbar, where mixologists pour creative takes on classic cocktails (like an Old Fashioned with bacon bitters) alongside an ever-changing selection of seasonal options that feature ingredients as fresh as their quirky names. And while Saint Leo, a 2019 James Beard Foundation “Outstanding Bar Program” semifinalist, is best known for delectable wood-fired Italian cuisine, their list of libations is truly luscious. Each option is intentionally crafted down to the most delectable detail, but the Prosecco Pop—a raspberry and mint popsicle topped with Adami prosecco—is the perfect way to toast to a weekend getaway.
Where to Stay
Want more Hotty Toddy? Located on either end of the Square, you can lay your head at either The Graduate Oxford or the Chancellor’s House Hotel. Both properties offer unique amenities like The Graduate’s rooftop bar, The Coop. Or enjoy a beverage at the Chancellor’s Lounge before spending a luxurious night in one of their 38 rooms. Want the full college experience? Stay right on campus at The Inn at Ole Miss, which recently added a bar and grill to their playbook, McCormick’s Bar & Grill. Other stay options include the Courtyard Marriott, Hampton Inn & Suites, Holiday Inn Express, TownPlace Suites, Home2Suites and a brand new La Quinta, all with easy access to the local Oxford happenings.
When you are ready to travel again, we will be ready. For help planning your next trip, as well as for information about Oxford’s Covid-19 protective measures, click here.