Hamish Smith catches up with Tim Fitz-Gibbon, the co-owner of much-loved Oxford cocktail institution Raoul’s, which recently reopened.
Raoul’s – one of the nation’s oldest bars – is reopening. Tell us more
Raoul’s dates back to 1979 and was named after a New York steakhouse. It’s always been ‘the place for cocktails’ – an institution in Oxford. Under the current ownership (since 1999) it has been a venue that is passionate about drinks, the industry and good customer service. Various team members have helped this growth and cemented its name within the industry. Rob Poulter (now with Diageo) and Alex Proudfoot (now up in Manchester) both plied their trade at Raoul’s. Angus Winchester even had a stint behind the bar back in the ’80s/early ’90s.
Was Raoul’s a casualty of Covid, then the staffing crisis?
Covid closed us down like the whole trade, but when the opportunity came to reopen, as a small, cosy, bar split over three levels, it just would not have been financially worth it. A lot of staff left hospitality altogether. We decided to concentrate our resources on our two other, bigger, sites, both of which have considerable outside space. Oxford was not immune to the national staffing crisis and we bounced from not enough management staff to not enough bartenders throughout the back end of 2021 and all of 2022. Raoul’s reopening just kept getting pushed further and further back. Finally this year though, things have started to settle and we are working hard to get the doors back open.
So is this Raoul’s as we knew it or 2.0?
One bonus of being closed for so long is that we have had a long time to reflect on the Raoul’s of old. We’re going to reopen with a smaller capacity, strip the menu and drinks right back, keep it simple, but never too serious. We are keen to just showcase how much passion we have for what we do with the excellent customer service we always had a reputation for. Decor wise, it’s been freshened up and has a classic/neighbourhood bar feel.
Tell us about the drinks list...
The old, huge menu is gone with the new list being stripped back with a strong focus on classics with a little interesting quirk here and there on ingredients to make them our own. The other half is our own drinks. Simplicity and uncomplicated are the main aims, so nothing too serious. There’s certainly an element of playfulness to our cocktails but taste and flavour are the aims with the odd pun chucked in. We do love a pun.
Who’s behind the stick? Lewis Sykes is leading the team. He has been with us at our other venue, The Victoria for the last couple of years. He is fantastic, super-keen and full of enthusiasm for the industry. An absolute natural at hospitality and honestly the calmest person you’ll ever meet. Nothing fazes him.
What are your ambitions for the bar? We have been closed for so long, it’s pretty much like starting from scratch again. We aim to get back to our best and just be that Oxford venue that is known for its passion and service. Oxford is a small city so there’s not much going on in terms of a scene but we hope to change that asap.
So when do you reopen and where can we find you? Next week (mid-late July). We have a lot of long days ahead but we can’t wait to start serving drinks across the Raoul’s bar again. We’re at 32 Walton Street, Oxford, OX2 6AA.