Fitzbillies, 51-52 Trumpington Street, Cambridge


I'm walking through Cambridge at twilight, and there's a touch of magic in the misty air. Lights twinkle distantly behind college windows. Students stream past on bicycles, heading back to their digs. Apart from the fact that most of them are talking on mobile phones, we might have slipped back into another century.

My destination, the Cambridge institution Fitzbillies, maintains the time-slip illusion. Its art nouveau windows, apparently unchanged since it opened in 1922, display the kind of many-tiered wedding cake that Downton's Mrs Patmore might have sweated over for days. The shop-front is in semi-darkness. Then, from the shadows, a burly man in chef's whites steps forward to the window, and begins to light the silver candelabra with a sacramental intensity.

I recognise him as Tim Hayward, though the last time I saw him was in a different context; as a fellow judge at a rather rowdy restaurant awards lunch in London. Could this calm, priest-like figure, surrounded by camply decorated baked goods, really be the tattooed hard man of British food writing? Could the editor of the magazine Fire and Knives really have regenerated amid candlelight and teaspoons?

In a bold move, last year Hayward and his wife left their London home, and in Alison's case, a high-flying marketing career, to buy Fitzbillies. This much-loved purveyor of fine cakes and slightly touristy lunches had gone into receivership, to the dismay of locals. Undeterred by their relative lack of hands-on experience – Tim had cooked in American diners in his youth – the Haywards stepped in.

What they did have were contacts, and soon they'd assembled a formidable A-Team, led by the inspirational chef Rosie Sykes, ex of the Sutton Arms in Smithfield. Former employees returned, including the head baker and the 83-year-old icing maestro responsible for those Downton-worthy display cakes. An expanded Fitzbillies reopened for business last summer, as cake shop, coffee house and restaurant, with Tim himself taking on the role of occasional chef, and on the night of our visit, maître d'.

With a kitchen-ward cry of "Boss, we're on!", he welcomed us, and for the rest of the evening, bustled around looking like a very happy man. The dining room, currently open for lunch and weekend dinner only, is plain but welcoming, a neutral space lined with tongue-and-groove and perked up with some framed foodie-bilia.

That simple, unadorned good taste extends to the shortish menu, which could be subtitled 'things you really want to eat'. Seasonality and regionality are assumed rather than trumpeted, and there's a distinctly British feel to many of the dishes, even if steak and ale pie comes with Vichy carrots, and poached chicken with lentils and green sauce (not salsa verde, you note).

Some of the Anglicisation is a little clunky. My starter was the odd-sounding 'Burgundian poached duck egg', but then again, if they'd called it oeuf de canard pochée à la bourguignonne, I wouldn't have ordered it. I was glad I did. Like a poached egg on toast that had elbowed its way into a boeuf bourguignon, it was an unusual but deeply satisfying dish.

My guest Ireena's salad of shredded fennel, red cabbage and chervil also came with a twist, in the form of a galvanisingly bold anchovy dressing. Special mention, too, for the bread: we were offered two sorts, a springy, golden-crusted white made with buttermilk, and a cake-like soda bread so good I blagged a spare loaf to take home.

The bread oven is at the heart of the kitchen, and several of the main courses are slow-cooked in its residual heat. Shoulder of kid had been pot-roasted in wine, and came with 'baker's oven potatoes', cooked, Lyonnaise-style, in a sweet mulch of shallots.

At the other end of the ascetic spectrum from my Desperate Dan-scaled hunk of meat was Ireena's spiced rice and chickpea pilaff. So perfectly did it recall her mother's homemade kitcheree, it reduced her to a state of Proustian confusion, though a raita-like fresh cheese scented with coriander and chicory and red onion relish took the plateful to another level.

The fine balance of delicacy and generosity continued with our puddings, rhubarb tart with a Seville orange and caramel ice-cream, and spiced chocolate cake studded with caramelised almonds, like a cakely incarnation of panforte.

The generosity of the portions and relatively low prices reflect the Haywards' desire to reinstate Fitzbillies at the heart of the community. The young staff match the tongue-and-groove walls, being both distinctly groovy and endearingly chatty; one waiter chipped in from across the room to give his opinion of a comedian we were discussing. Stuffier diners might find that intrusive; but this being Cambridge, let's call it collegiate.

To find a restaurant as good as Fitzbillies anywhere would be heartening. To find one in Cambridge, notoriously the UK's worst 'clone town', is inspirational. If this is what a foodie's mid-life crisis looks like, just hope that there's one coming to your town soon.

Fitzbillies, 51-52 Trumpington Street, Cambridge (01223 352500)

Around £30 a head for three courses, before wine and service

Food ****
Ambience ****
Service ****

Tipping policy: "There is a discretionary 12.5 per cent service charge on groups of six or over; no service charge otherwise. All tips go to the staff"

Side orders: Classy Cambridge


Rack of salt marsh lamb with thyme and parsley herb crust, salad and sautéed potatoes costs £23 here – the focus is on locally-sourced produce.

183 East Rd (01223 302010)

The Punter

Stunningly renovated former coaching house serving impressive cuisine – try the slow-roasted Old Spot pork belly with black beans, celery and apple (£14.50).

3 Pound Hill (01223 363 322)

The Backstreet Bistro

Fillet of turbot pan-fried with baby onions, mushrooms, pancetta and red wine reduction will set you back a reasonable £15.95 at this popular local restaurant.

2 Sturton St (01223 306 306)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor