I remember being in the Oxford Bar on Young Street a number of years ago, round about Six Nations time. Enjoying a pint with a mate in the back room, two Welsh guys were discussing Ian Rankin’s famous creation, Rebus, and his choice of pubs. Turning to us, one of them enquired: “Where’s the Rebus pub, mate, the one he drinks in?” Slightly confused, I replied, “This is it.” Glancing round the spartan room with a look of confusion, our Welsh drinking friend said simply: “Really? Bit sh*t innit?” While perhaps a little harsh, I know what he means.
To be fair to my Welsh friend, I think he was more familiar with the Rebus television shows than the books. On TV, Rebus is seen drinking in a different style of pub than the real-life Oxford Bar – apparently filming was done in a pub in the Gorbals area of Glasgow. The Ox in Edinburgh is an altogether smaller and simpler beast. A tiny bar at the front is inhabited by regulars while the back room, up a couple of steps, offers space to sit in peace and quiet. There’s a tiny snug at the top of the stairs as well but that offers little more than a view of the toilets. It’s clear why even the most creative film crew would struggle to set up in here.
On first impressions, situated on cobbled Young Street in Edinburgh’s New Town, it does look inviting, particularly at night. The famous green sign (why is “Oxford” in inverted commas?), the frosted glass with Oxford Bar etched upon it and the light that is allowed to escape combine to make it look like a warm, lively, welcoming spot in a quiet area of the city. It’s no female-friendly All Bar One-style large windowed affair but much of the allure of this kind of pub is the not knowing what to expect when you enter.
What you can expect, on the basis of my last visit, was friendly service and locals who were happy to let you squeeze in at the bar and grab a pint before taking it to the back room. The pub has famously had less welcoming hosts in the past and there are still reviews on TripAdvisor to this day that suggest the welcome can be varied in its warmth.
What I don’t get is what people like my Welsh friend are expecting when they go here as a result of the Ian Rankin/Rebus connection. Do they expect stunning Cafe Royal type interiors? TV cameras? Celebrities? The man himself (Rankin or Rebus)? While Rankin does still drink in here on occasion and often interviewed here by the press, the pub itself is nothing special. And this is presumably why (the fictional) Rebus drinks here – it’s a quiet, non-descript boozer where he can mingle with like-minded sorts. Cops, ex-cops and lawyers are all happy to enjoy a pint of Deuchars or a dram here, passing through between work and home.
At this point, I had expected to write that the pub has not changed in many, many years, but sitting in the back room the other night, I noticed the walls had taken on a distinctly different hue, namely a fresh-looking green. With moody black and white pictures of Edinburgh on the wall, some of which look like they’re by broaddaylight who have been responsible for some Ian Rankin cover photography, plus a roaring fire, the room was actually a lot cosier and welcoming than I remembered it. When the light catches it just right and comes through the frosted window with the Oxford Bar etched on it, it’s actually a very pleasant room. Ideal if you just want to chat as there’s no music and often no one else there to disturb you. I wouldn’t be surprised to see dominoes being played in the corner.
Not many pubs are defined so much by a particular person who drinks in them, even fewer by a fictional character. The Oxford is undoubtedly “the Rebus pub”, whether they like it or not. On a day-to-day basis, however, this is a simple pub, serving simple fare. It gets busy every August when the Edinburgh International Book Festival takes over nearby Charlotte Square and no doubt many Rebus fans there to see their favourite author also take the opportunity to pop into the Ox and imagine the man himself propping up the bar. He won’t be there but several men with beards like him will be.
One day, someone may buy the Oxford Bar and turn it into a Rebus theme pub, like a particularly terrible pub in Peckham that trades off the Only Fools and Horses connection. Hopefully it won’t happen and this place will carry on as it is with the odd Ian Rankin picture on the wall, decent beer on tap and a no-nonsense approach to service.
The Oxford Bar is at 8 Young Street, Edinburgh, EH2 4JB. Its website looks like it was designed before Rebus was out of uniform . . . There is no sign of it on social media.