The Tab reviews: The Orator, the Cambridge Union’s new bar and brasserie
The Union just got even better
There are few times where a student gets free professional food and drink, without having to put in the effort to find it. But on Thursday evening, The Tab was lucky enough to gain a sneak preview into The Orator – the Cambridge Union’s new bar and brasserie – which is due to open to students and the public on Monday (24th May) after two years of renovation.
Not to offend the designers of 1815 (the Union’s previous bar), but The Orator is a big step up. Not only is the brasserie cleverly named (orator means “a public speaker, especially one who is eloquent or skilled”), but it also has stylish decor and quirkily designed menus, full of quotes from ex-Union speakers.
The Orator has two external extrances, with the main one on Round Church Street. We were told that this entrance also had lifts to make the bar and the union more accessible to members and the general public.
If this review isn’t enough to reel you in, hopefully the discounts of 10% for Cambridge students and 20% for Union members will encourage you to at least try it out. So step inside with us and take a look around.
The immediate impression of The Orator is that it’s a place for all occasions. It’s easy to imagine sitting eating brunch with friends, studying with a cup of coffee, going on a date or getting tipsy post-debate (we were even informed that the Union is used as a wedding venue!)
Split into two rooms (the Blue Room and the Garden Room), the interior design was swanky, but not to the extent that you felt out of place. Brasserie Manager, Eric Mbarani, is also the man behind Trinity (the restaurant, not the college lol) – and you definitely get that fancy-restaurant-on-Trinity-Street kind of vibe from the restaurant.
The walls are also dotted with many of the famous faces that have visited the Union over its 106-year history. Admittedly, we didn’t know who everyone was, but we managed to spot Bill Gates, Emma Thompson, Chris Eubank and Phoebe from Friends, among others. If you look closely, you can also see a picture of current Union president, and BNOC, Joel Rosen. They are obviously very proud of their alumni and have even set the WiFi password to “StephenWiFry”!
The chairs were comfy (we would know – we did a lot of table-hopping), and the tables were a good height (we didn’t have to slouch, nor feel like we were in a high-chair). One coffee table did have more style than substance, but that was an anomaly, and sure to provide an amusing anecdote from a night out.
Food can also be served in the garden – great for if the weather’s looking nice. Expect fairly standard picnic tables, but in a very pretty setting that is open to anyone who passes by.
Not only is the interior design streamlined and sophisticated, the bar is kitted out with state of the art facilities. Head barman, Sam Heap, described the beer taps as “the Rolls-Royces” of the beer tap world (comforting to know your pints are in quality hands!)
Obviously the main part, and it was so good that it’s worth rating in parts…
For starters, we were given little tasters of some of the best from their menu. This included courgette and pea arancini (risotto balls for those of you who, like us, don’t know the ins and outs of the culinary world), tomato and pepper bruschetta, tempura battered squid, masala butterflied tiger prawn (with parsley mayo!) and a goats cheese, beetroot and tomato stick.
It was as fancy as it sounds, but it tasted incredible – our particular faves were the arancini and tempura squid. Although Izzy loved the parsley mayo so much she ate it on its own…
We were expecting to only be trying nibbles, so to have a main course (and, spoiler, a dessert) was a real treat. For our main, we tasted The 1815 Beef Burger (a little homage to The 1815) and, of course, some chips. The chips were great, but we are yet to have a dodgy chip in Cambridge, so they rank as average. The burger was a real treat and the sauces (bacon jam and burger sauce) were delicious!
Although Rosie is a veggie, so she had to avoid the meat, she thoroughly enjoyed the brioche bun, and we were both impressed with how the cheese was sandwiched between both the patties – something we hadn’t seen before.
The main only loses points because it was quite steaky – Izzy prefers her burgers to be a little less fancy, and a little bit easier to chew!
Although, there aren’t a lot of veggie and vegan options (3 plant based mains and 3 ‘Grazing Dishes’) the ones they do have sound delicious and the veggie brunches has the best line-up we’ve seen in Cambridge!
By the time it got to the puddings, we’d asked to see their menu and were trying to guess what we’d be served. Although Izzy was half hoping to try the apple and rhubarb fruit crumble, she was definitely not disappointed when she received a salted caramel AND honeycomb brownie, as well as a lemon pot (served with crushed rosemary shortbread).
The table fell silent to eat these, which we all know is a good sign. Izzy dived straight into the brownie (because she’s a sucker for chocolate), and it was very very yummy. In an effort to sound like Greg Wallace, she would like to say that the honeycomb melted beautifully on her tongue and complemented the richness of the brownie extremely well.
Izzy is not the biggest fan of lemon puds (she’s missing out), so after giving it a try, she passed the rest of her pudding onto Rosie, who couldn’t have been happier at her companion’s questionable taste buds.
We were sat on a table with the Varsity reviewers, and we had a lovely conversation amidst The Orator’s inviting atmosphere and all of us unanimously agreeing about the delicious food.
Okay, so you’re not looking at the same prices as Spoons, but you are looking at similar prices to many chain restaurants (eg Nandos, Byron and Wagamamas – even if the food available is fairly different), especially with the student and member discounts. It’s also worth noting that they serve breakfast and brunch, so you could have a lovely brunch date with your pals here.
Without the discount, the 1815 burger is £13.50 (missed a trick not pricing it £18.15 – yes, we are available for marketing), a Bavette steak and chips is £16.50, salads are around £10 and daily specials (including Sausage & Mash and Chicken Milanese) range from £10.50-£12.50, or market price for fancier dishes (such as Cotes du beouf or a Sunday Roast).
Desserts are about £6, a Full English brekkie is £10.80 (£10.50 if you’re veggie or vegan) and avocado toast is £8.
Helpfully, we managed to sample a wide selection of the drinks, with Izzy sticking to the mocktails (she couldn’t cycle back to Girton drunk) and Rosie choosing some cocktails that were preeeetty strong (but managed to stay fairly sober, congrats xx).
Rosie chose a couple of mocktails, a River Cam Iced Tea and a Rosé Tequila. The River Cam Iced Tea is named as such because it has shades of brown (the water bed) and blue (the water), along with a sprig of rosemary (to represent the grass at the side of The Cam), and was invented by head barman, Sam. Despite being incredibly strong unmixed, it becomes an appetising drink when mixed, and is by far the prettiest drink of the night.
The mocktails we tried were Cambridge Meadow and The Pre Debate, both of which were delicious. However, the Pre Debate seemed to be the crowd favourite in terms of mocktail, with both of us having seconds (and Izzy thirds! Actually, it might even have been fourths…)
Price wise, mocktails were £4.50 and cocktails were £8.50-£10.50 (fairly normal prices, but without the 2 for 1 discounts).
The bar is hoping to run cocktail making classes again at some point in the future, but if you can’t wait that long to make the River Cam Iced Tea, the recipe is included at the bottom!
Put simply, the staff were lovely. They were allowed to wear jeans and trainers (“Cambridge Union on the top, Student Union on the bottom”, said Sam), which immediately made you feel at ease, although we were a bit jealous that many of them had better style than we do.
All of the staff were willing to chat, share their experiences (all good) and advise on what to order. Izzy spent a long time talking to John, who had started his career at Baron of Beef and had been pouring pints for 20 years! Most of our conversation revolved around how in awe we were of the range of Union speakers.
Rosie’s bestie was Sam, and she even taught him to AirDrop photos, hence some of the lovely pictures in this article. Sam also deserves a special shout out for allowing us behind the bar to pour a pint and mix a cocktail!
We also chatted to Bea, who taught us how to make the Iced Tea and, as the only female member of the bar and waiting staff, provided us with some good girly chat.
The more senior staff – such as Eric, the manager, and Steve, the Union Bursar – were also very friendly and made us, mere student journalists, feel welcome, despite overstaying our welcome by several hours (due to Rosie’s inability to down the River Cam Iced Tea…). Fun fact – the real boss of The Orator is technically the Union president, which might attract or deter some people from the role…
Last, but by no means least, we thought it was important to mention the loos. The highlight to the trip (to the loo) was, surprisingly, the toilet door! As it swung closed tapped out the opening beat to “We Will Rock Other’, so either musical toilets or strong cocktails, either way highly recommended!
Very modern, very bright, very clean + school vibes with the cubicles.
Rating: 8/10, would pee here again
So that was our trip to The Orator. If you’re not already drooling, just check out the website to see more of their pictures, and then feel free to book a slot to visit them from Monday onwards. With great speakers coming to the Union within the next month, Theresa May and AJ Tracey included, a trip to The Orator is a great way to start or finish your evening.
On that note, we will leave you with the River Cam Iced Tea recipe, in case you can’t quite wait until Monday to try it!
River Cam Iced Tea Recipe:
Serve in a Goblet glass
25 ml Blue Curacao Liqueur
12.5 ml Vodka
12.5 ml White Rum
12.5 ml White Tequila
12.5 ml Gin
135 ml Dandelion and Burdock
Sprig of Rosemary
How to make:
Add ice to goblet, and pour dandelion and burdock over the ice.
Pour all the spirits into a shaker, add ice and shake hard, then double strain over the highest point of the ice.
Once this is done add the rosemary sprig.
Feature image and photo credits: authors’ own