White House: Urban vibe meets corner local

Tap Social’s first pub is an eclectic mix of modern style and traditional values

The finishing touches are now being put to indoor space at the White House on Abingdon Road, just a 10-minute walk or five-minute bus ride from the city centre. Outdoor space opened as soon as permitted on April 12, but Tap Social has kept up a presence at the closed pub since last summer by serving takeaway coffee and cakes from its “horsebox” parked at the front.

This former Wadworth pub had become run-down by the time it closed in September 2019, and Wadworth no longer has any interest in it. Tap Social has leased the pub from the building’s owner, Brasenose College, and totally transformed it both outside and inside. The car park at the rear has been converted into patio seating to join the existing outside space to one side and at the front, meaning it now has 25 outdoor tables (nearly all under a marquee or under parasols) to see it through to May 17 when it’s hoped that pubs can re-open indoors.

Doing it differently….. more than a lick of paint

The pub, which was also known as the Folly Bridge Inn for a while, is a fine Victorian building dating from 1897 which is over two levels. The main bar downstairs has been stripped back to bare polished floors and exposed brick, with a brand new kitchen installed. The large upstairs room, with views across playing fields towards the River Thames, is also having a bar installed which will operate at weekends. When fully open the pub will have around 50 tables altogether, and the upstairs room – previously seeing occasional use for functions, including a folk club – will be made available for hire.

Tap Social Movement, to give it the full name, is bringing its unique ethos to the White House where it will offer meals for the first time, its tap room at the brewery in Botley relying on a range of catering vans to keep customers fed at weekends. Everything Tap Social does is trying to be different, from the range of drinks available to its policy of supporting, training and employing day release and newly released prisoners – hence its tongue-in-cheek slogan, “criminally good beer”. Prisoners at the category “D” HMP Spring Hill, near Aylesbury, have created a range of colourful artworks for the pub having previously created branding for its beers.

The best news for real ale fans is that from this coming weekend, a cask ale will be made available whereas previously, cask ale was produced only for special occasions such as the Oxford Beer Festival. To start with this will be a cask version of one of the existing keg beers, but a house ale for the White House may also be produced. A second cask ale from another local independent brewery will be made available when trade returns to normal. The White House’s core range has 10 keg lines, including several guests, with the aim that all will be beers that aren’t commonly available elsewhere.

“We have been very busy since we opened on April 12 and we got great feedback over the weekend, when we served meals for the first time,” said director Tess Taylor, one of four directors running Tap Social with a background working in the criminal justice system. “Having so many outside tables is great, and we don’t miss the car park as we have a sustainability ethos. We want to dissuade people from drinking and driving, but there are plenty of bike spaces and it’s so easy to get here by bus.

All the art is by prisoners

“Because we have been serving from the horsebox during lockdown, we have been able to stay in touch with locals who are really excited about us re-opening. We are aiming to create the same atmosphere as at our Botley taproom – a family-friendly space that attracts all ages, with many young people and students, but everyone else including seniors. We try to offer something for everyone.”

Coffee and snacks continue to be served from 8.30am from the horsebox, with a “British-style tapas” menu of sharing plates served from the new kitchen, initially from Thursday to Saturday evenings only and Sunday lunchtimes. Unusual dishes include braised ox cheeks, mackerel with spring greens and a large vegan/vegetarian selection, the kitchen being run by creative chef “Frides” O’Neill who also produces plenty of baked goods.

Operating its first pub as well as a thriving brewery is challenge enough for Tap Social, but other projects are in the pipeline. Tess revealed that brewing at the two sites in Botley and Kennington is already nearing capacity, even though neither the Botley taproom nor the White House can yet open indoors. Outside space has been extended to 23 tables at Botley, where the food vans (anything from Italian cuisine to Ethiopian) are back from Thursday to Saturday evenings, with a DJ on Saturdays.

Plenty of outside space in former car park

“We are starting to wonder how we can meet demand, because these two venues are getting through a lot of beer already in addition to our mail order canned beers, and wholesale accounts for kegs and cans which range from Oxford colleges to local Co-ops,” she explained. “We are starting to plan ahead now for when that tipping point is reached.”

It was announced before Covid-19 hit us that Tap Social would be operating a bar and entertainment space, to be called the Market Tap, in the heart of Oxford’s Covered Market. The city council has had to postpone plans to redevelop parts of the market, but dialogue with Tap Social has resumed and a lease is being negotiated.

And that’s not all. Plans are also in the pipeline for Tap to operate a bar in a newly created leisure and entertainment area in another town in Oxfordshire. Watch this space!