In late summer, my little world divides. In one camp are those whose Edinburgh is all static street statues, bagpiping buskers and comedians from Taskmaster. In the other, a lucky few who planned ahead to secure tickets for something half memorable on the Fringe. Edinburgh’s annual Festival is a challenge, on many fronts.
The cultured, the befuddled, the eejits with hats, aimlessly wandering the streets
To the reluctant, muted gratitude of the city’s half million residents, the tourists are returning. Up to three million of them: the cultured, the befuddled, the eejits with hats, aimlessly wandering the streets. True, not every city centre has a bloody great fortress looming overhead whose cannon booms at 1pm (to wake the students, ha ha). But who’s looking up these days anyway when there are Instagrams to post? Britain’s most beautiful city is now but a backdrop to a zillion selfies.
And the food? It’s just as easy to eat badly here as anywhere else, but also brilliantly too. The bar should be set a little higher than “where’s open that doesn’t have a queue?”
Where’s good then?
Civilian’s favourite. (That’s the main dining room at the top of the page). The editors make frequent pilgrimages, and I’m not far behind – when I can get in. It has a terrible habit of not being open when I’m available but let’s blame the pandemic for that. Old Town industrial vibe, borne of astute architectural salvage by the family Radford, owners, managers, and occasional waiters. Even a reservation in the pend should be snapped up but the main draw, an attractive airy room overlooking a rustic courtyard, has no need for puffery. This is as good as it gets in Auld Reekie.
Ingredients-led set menus are modern, sophisticated, from raw scallop, sea kale, kelp & pickled fennel seed through to Blood Orange pavlova . Paired drinks are cleverly inventive, the wine list dangerous. Whitewashed walls, stripped back cool, it was of course once an actual timberyard but with creative flair even then. The building trade fraternity were frequently joined by students from the local art school seeking offcuts: one joiner’s two by four is another student’s degree show masterpiece.
Taking the city by storm this year is exiled Australian Lloyd Morse and local lad James Snowdon, both alumni of various starry London establishments. More than one wag chirruped ‘The Eagle Has Landed‘ as this bohemian all day bakery/cafe/diner/bar/restaurant exploded with a blaze of hype into an unfashionable part of town (misleadingly, for Londoners anyway, referred to as The West End. It ain’t fancy) It’s a scruffy, barely decorated former coffee shop, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Farringdon’s original trailblazer.
Their own sourdough comes (free) at the outset with great slabs of Edinburgh Butter before tatted, handsome, chefs and waiters pounce to offer their own pickled, fermented seasonal goodies, freshly grilled, steamed and generally unfucked with: pickled tripe, baby gem, mustard and croutons, to Lanarkshire’s Sir Lancelot ewe’s milk cheese with Rhubarb Chutney. Raggedy old furniture, artfully mismatched, it’s noisy and terrific fun. Walk-ins welcomed at any time of the day or evening. An anarchic blast of superior scran. Go!
Opinion is divided over this gothic grotto in tourist central, yards from the Castle one way, metres from Fringe mayhem the other. My mum liked it. Others don’t. There are two dining rooms. My last dinner in the dark, baroque upstairs was marred by average food, average service, and what appeared to be a coachload of tourists loudly celebrating their own existence. Downstairs, a converted school playground of all things, is not only one of my favourite dining spaces in the world, but two days prior to aforesaid dinner we had, as usual, one of the best lunches ever – a shellfish and crustacea platter with a Trimbach Riesling. Right now, the hospitality business can be allowed the occasional off night. I’ve been going to The Witchery for decades. That continues. So there.
A short stagger from High Street Fringe hypermania un pièce de la sud: authentic Mediterranean decor, bold colour, sensual art and a menu mailed straight from the Languedoc. Sat here for 21 years, neighbours may come and go, but a chilled pichet of Le Petit Moulin De L’Enclos rose and la cuisse de lapin draws me back.
Unsophisticated, affordable, and very French. Les réservations sont conseillées.
More entente cordiale in a proper Parisian bistro albeit 1000km from home. By rights, you should be gazing out over Boulevard Montparnasse sipping Noilly Prat but instead you’re concealed down a cobbled city centre lane. This is Café Flo transposed, neat white linen, glinting crystal glassware, sliced fresh breads awaiting the arrival of terrines and confit duck from a menu of Scottish ingredients done the French way. I got all pernickety the last time I was there because of a mix-up between Monbazillac and Sauternes but if that doesn’t say more about me than them, I don’t know what does. Vive la France!
Walk-ins only, halfway down Broughton Street, a dark, cossetted wine bar with oddly arranged seating packed into seductive nooks and crannies for quiet conversation over platters of cheese and charcuterie. For boozehounds, there’s a spectacularly good, reasonably priced wine list; dated, but all the better for it. The only place I can think of where I have consciously gone to read a book (John Cooper Clark’s biography, since you ask) because of a neatly designed single perch and corner table.
My local bar diner when I’m in town with a limited menu of bao buns, house burger, corn ribs and no more than half a dozen other items with Leith Lager and one or two wines. Don’t too many of you turn up. It’s not that big. For more substantial fare, the Loon Fung, old school Cantonese, is 100 yards down the road and generally rammed every night as the food is terrific.
We’re in Leith, once a wholly separate town from Edinburgh but much more importantly where the author was born. A short hop from the city centre, by 16 bus or a quick Uber, there exists, by decree, no better cobbled dockside on which to spend a summer’s evening. Winter Sunday roasts ditto (with added jazz band and cosy fireplace inside). The sun shines? The Shore Bar is busy. It’s Friday night? The dining room is packed. Same owners as next door Fishers fishily fish bistro, equally good if more fishy. John the genial barman is mine host from central casting and will gladly bring your order of oysters, haddock, steak or grilled lamb to your table in the dining room.
Leith’s urbane Michelin starlet offers several fixed set menus of high-end produce, but with lunchtime bargains if restraint is applied to the wine list. Book well in advance or take a chance at 1.30pm when there may suddenly be a vacant table. My last visit coincided with an unexpected snowfall. The dress code was immediately extended to accommodate dripping Pringle, Barbours and Hunter wellies, much to the chagrin of those whose hairdressing appointments before lunch had sidestepped the deluge. The staff remained unperturbed (as if snow was a daily occurrence, which it is, in February) and detailed the complexities of the complimentary amuse bouches with aplomb.
Leith’s celebrity chef, Ginger Tom off the telly suffers from that Scottish malaise, Tall Poppy Syndrome. Hugely successful because he is immensely talented, he is attacked left, right and centre and has recently survived another media onslaught over alleged bad kitchen behaviour. His food and the setting’s post-industrial modernity is special occasion territory. It is easily one of the best places you will dine, anywhere.
His nearby pub and dining room, the Scran and Scallie in Stockbridge, has seen me cross its threshold six times in the past year alone. I would go every week if I lived slightly nearer. One day all dining establishments will be as good as this (‘oh no they won’t‘). Early summer saw luscious wild garlic picked locally and blitzed into a verdant green lunchtime soup and “spoots” (razor clams) which are a personal favourite. You can dine cheaply but the arrival of the cheeseboard after dessert is official confirmation that you have succumbed to temptation. Your bill will likely be in three figures. Per head.
And now, finally, to Newhaven.
Adjacent to Leith, past the unkempt, ghostly Ocean Terminal where former Royal Yacht Britannia is permanently parked, hereabouts The Fishmarket is justifiably famous. It occupies a quayside shed and serves up quality fish plus lobster and chips to eager, hungry mouths. “Where does it all come from?” you ask. “There!” (Points at sea outside window). Noisy and boisterous, this is as much New England as it is new Scotland.
Along the promenade is the Old Chain Pier, a civilised shoreside pub diner that makes for very pleasant sunset dinners if you’re lucky enough to secure a picture window seat overlooking the water. Well cooked, standard fare that doesn’t frighten the horses.
(Oh, and yes, Edinburgh has a city centre food court too but, unlike all of the above, I’ve never set foot in it). C