Restaurant review: Rainbow Café, 9a King's Parade, Cambridge

Cambridge's Rainbow Café is rather better on the palette than the palate, says Amol Rajan

Veteran readers of this website may recall that in late April I made a great song and dance of my conversion to vegetarianism. Alas, like all good conversions, it has been a struggle. Torn by the competing demands of rationality ("cruelty is bad") and passion ("mmm… lamb chops"), I have vainly fought to uphold the foundations of our moral universe while satiating the constant rumble in my stomach. Mostly, I have failed. At least one meal every other weekend has been attended by some hunk of flesh from a long-dead living thing.

A trip to Cambridge – where, by the time you read this, I will have been married – seems the perfect time to revisit that lifestyle choice, because I am with my beloved parents. I ask Uncle Google for a restaurant to match their vegan tendencies, and he offers Rainbow Café. It's on a little alleyway off King's Parade, smack in the centre of the city, and down some stairs.

But before we are able to head down, we are assaulted by a vast exhibition of do-goodery, as is customary for vegetarian restaurants today. "Winner of the Vegetarian Society 'Best Vegetarian Café' Award", "The Lord Parsvanath Award – Indian Vegetarian Society", "'The best vegetarian meal I have ever eaten' – Tina Fox". And then – appetite killer! – "'I love this Healthy Restaurant' – Gillian McKeith". And on the left, in big, blue font: "Gillian McKeith gives us her approval!"

McKeith, you will recall, was the television nutritionist who agreed to drop the "Dr" from her advertising after somebody complained that it might mislead viewers to believe that she was medically qualified. I can hardly think of anything less appetising ahead of a meal than her endorsement. Bad start.

The basement here catches plenty of natural light, though there are also candles alongside small ornaments and lovely chequered tablecloths. Wine, beers and ciders are vegan and organic (the former good, the latter irrelevant); eggs are free-range; and babies and the gluten-intolerant are more than catered for.

The starters are pretty nondescript. Dad has a garlic bread with sun-dried tomato (£3.45) that is essentially soft, buttery bread infused with garlic and moist but slightly bitter tomato. Mum and I have the small goat's cheese salad (over-priced at £5.25), which has cucumber, tomato, olive, lettuce, red onion and a good vinaigrette.

The mains are each an explosion of ingredients and colour – but not, alas, flavour. I have the Jamaican roti chips (£9.95), which involve fresh banana, rosecoco beans, black turtle beans, coconut milk, Jamaican spices, roasted sweet potato "and more", served in a chapatti cup with rice'n'peas. That is a lot going on, and the competing flavours drown each other out, leaving a glorified mush. I can make out the banana but not the coconut milk, let alone the spices, and the rice'n'peas is overcooked and too starchy.

I ask for the pepper pot with extra tamarind for my dad, thinking its combination of jewel peppers, pumpkin, carrot, onion, garlic and coconut on rice'n'peas, all of it "fiery hot as the Caribbean", will appeal to his need for spice. But spice comes there none. This, too, is a jumble of vegetables cooked in such a way as to make them hard to distinguish.

My mum has an aubergine-, sweet potato- and carrot-based tagine, with couscous and green lentils and fresh coriander. Can you guess what it tastes like? That's it – a bit of a mush. The lentils are too dry, while the tomato needs a lot more seasoning and cooking to intensify its flavour. Also: it'd be great if some of those much-vaunted spices were to turn up.

There are lots of other options, some quick lunches for less than £10, a selection of old-favourite desserts for under £5 (including a good carrot cake with sour cream for £4.75) and decent wine at £3.75 a glass.

And, despite the generally pedestrian nature of the food, the vibe here is wonderful. The staff couldn't be more charming, the atmosphere more collegiate, nor the décor more inviting. I'm minded, therefore, to recommend this place, as the experience was memorable, even if the food wasn't. Unless you're Gillian McKeith, apparently.


Rainbow Café, 9a King's Parade Cambridge, tel: 01223 321 551. £35 for two, without drinks

Three more vaunted vegetarians


This characterful veteran in a New Town basement has been serving good veggie scoff for half a century.

94 Hanover Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 225 2131


A great veggie, and intimate space, where carnivores will not be disappointed.

41-43 Lapwing Lane, West Didsbury, Manchester, tel: 0161 434 4259

Terre à Terre

This long-celebrated Lanes phenomenon (est. 1991) can overwhelm with its huge menu choice.

71 East Street, Brighton, tel: 01273 729051

Reviews extracted from 'Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2013',

On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

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

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week