A Food Lover’s Weekend in… Edinburgh
Words: Kate Weir
Are you craving a tasting menu twinkling with Michelin stars? Or the filthiest hot mess of hangover-appeasing fried goods? Edinburgh’s a city that can do both.
Auld Reekie’s best-loved dishes and drinks reflect its harsh climate and tribal history. Haggis let hunters save scraps from a kill; black pudding derives from the oatmeal-and-blood elevensies favoured by cattle-drovers; and whisky (aka ‘water of life’) was first distilled by monks into a moonshine-style tipple that warmed winter nights — if it didn’t make you go blind…
Scottish cuisine is mired in myth, too. The infamous deep-fried Mars Bar was a novelty creation until it was accepted as one of the Scots’ five-a-day and spread through chippies as rapidly as grease through newspaper. But restaurants in Edinburgh are as engaging as any legend, so you take the highbrow road and we’ll take the lowbrow road as we search for Scotland’s best scran (grub)…
Breakfast and brunch
From London, there are several ways of reaching Edinburgh. Trains from King’s Cross arrive in around four hours. The Caledonian Sleeper leaves from Euston. On board you can scoff haggis and down pre-mixed cocktails by Mac & Wild in the dining car in anticipation, and at 6am a cheery server wakes you with a knock and a bacon roll. Frequent flights on budget carriers depart from Luton and Stansted to Edinburgh (a journey of around an hour).
On arrival, zip up the Mound to Zebra Coffee Co. a teeny joint tucked away behind the Royal Mile. Its exposed brick and reclaimed-wood interiors are enhanced with the scent of fresh bacon rolls and just-brewed coffee. Grab a Terry’s Chocolate Orange Rocky Road bar before hitting the cobbles. On Forrest Road – just past the Greyfriars Bobby memorial – Mums Great Comfort Food plays it straight with eggs Benedict and pancake stacks, and braw with black-pudding rolls and a plate-crowding full-Scottish.
Look along Princes Street – you’ll see gardens prettily arranged around Edinburgh’s hilltop castle, the sooty spire of the Scott Monument, and a row of glossy chain stores. It’s strangely devoid of any eateries beyond the odd Starbucks… Due to some bureaucratic bumpf, you have to get off Edinburgh’s main drag for a better bite. (However, we’ll still hit the Royal Mile for its gloriously gothic restaurant, The Witchery.)
Victoria Street is one of Edinburgh’s prettiest: a curve of colourful independent boutiques and brasseries descending into the hip Grassmarket. Glaringly pink, piggy-in-the-middle Oink does hog-roast rolls – that’s all. But these freshly baked buns are stuffed with just-cut-from-the-porker meat, various fixings (apple sauce, mustard, chilli) and stuffing or haggis. Topped off with caramelly, crispy crackling, they’re simple, but oh-so effective. Bonus: it’s at least three quid less than its London cousin.
Still hungry? Skip across the road to Maison Bleue brasserie, who recently launched their Street Food menu of Southeast Asian-style cullen skink (a traditional fish soup) and king scallops with boudin noir (a fancy French-exchange black pud). Stroll through the Georgian elegance of the New Town to George Street’s newest launch, Baba restaurant. Fresh as its painted-yesterday walls, this bistro’s tables groan with Levantine small plates (a monocle-sporting kebab of butternut squash and whipped feta; fragrant cauliflower with ras-el-hanout and rose; and a banana, halva and pistachio sundae).
Due to its blustery temperament, Edinburgh excels in hearty, warming dishes. Seasonal menus evoke glen, loch and dale, with wild salmon, shot-to-order venison and fat scallops fished in waters of Scotland’s northernmost isles. Or you could sneak over to Clam Shell fish shop for a battered jumbo haggis drenched in brown sauce, and scraps on the side. It’s free-range, we’re sure…
If attentive servers, decorated chefs and a reverent dining space are your MO, Castle Terrace foots the bill. Judging by the playfulness of successive dishes – Caesar Salad reimagined in blob form, pork served five ways in a square of apple sauce, a salted caramel soufflé with a velvety chocolate centre – super-chef Dominic Jack is having the time of his life behind the scenes.
A local gripe is London’s one-upmanship when it comes to newly launched restaurants – Dishoom and the Refinery only flew north earlier this year, just as Londoners are polishing off their mango kulfi. Gaucho, The Ivy and Vapiano are recent defectors – all setting up shop in St Andrew Square.
Leave the floorshow at Frankenstein and Jägerbombs at The Three Sisters for the Freshers (but, do don your grungiest garb to blend in and stop by the latter’s rotating street food stalls…). Put down the tumbler of whisky too: gin is the other spirit Scotland does very well indeed. Edinburgh Gin is a fast fixture in many London bars, so you’ll recognise its minimalist bottles when you stop by the handsome distillery at Rutland Place. Or, eye up the pretties behind the bar at steampunk-y stop The Jolly Botanist.
We’re not totally sold on the idea that spearmint-hued banquettes, gleaming white surfaces and shiny copper Staropramen tanks translate to ‘rough luxe’ (maybe that says something about the places we hang out in…), but we like new bar Rabble for its Peanut Butter and Jelly Old Fashioned and cheek-puckering Negroni. Even if its clientele is more well-behaved than its name suggests…
If suds are more your speed, scoot past the Edinburgh Dungeon to Brewhemia, where the beer that freely flows from six tanks is more palatable than its punny name. It’s pooch-friendly too.
Breakfast and brunch
A assemblage of glamorous designer chairs arranged against mint-green walls, Hyde & Son on George Street works a milk-frother like a pro. It also has dairy-free smoothies and vegan cakes (for the health-conscious), daily-changing doughnuts (for the less-so), and coffee-laced cocktails if you need more of a jolt in the morning.
The Artisan Roast on Broughton Street is cosier than a hug from a sentient tartan blanket. What the staff manning the steaming, gleaming machinery know about the humble cup of Joe amounts to a mountain of beans. Secure a seat in the little library to the back.
Serenity Café at The Tun is a shabby-chic caff where coffee can really make a difference – it doubles up as a support centre for those with addiction issues and those going through recovery.
Trenchtown is a little ray of sunshine in a city not well known for it. Check your patois parroting at the door – this brightly painted joint is serious about its jerked meats, curries, and brimming-with-rum cocktails.
In a country as sanguine about chowing down on blood sausage as Scotland, in may come as a surprise that Edinburgh is actually vegetarian-friendly; some veggie haggises are considered to be better than their meaty compatriot. Just-opened Herbivore Kitchen – as the name suggests – brings veggies to the fore in rotis, salads and Iranian kuku (a herby, omelette sandwich).
Love it, loathe it, dabble in it: this amber elixir runs through Scotland’s veins. It must be aged for three years (or preferably more); generally the higher the land it hails from and the more singular the malt, the better; and spelling it with an ‘e’ is near blasphemous. Admittedly, the granddaddy whisky distilleries of Speyside (Glenfiddich, Macallan, Glenlivet…) and Scotland’s ‘champagne’ region, Islay, are too far north to be reached in a day, but you can still get a hit in the Lowlands.
Drams Scotland know the lay of the land, and where the best distilleries are hiding, for good measure(s). Your guide will ferry you out to former cotton mill Deanston Distillery from the city in under an hour, whisking you past the majestic Kelpies statues and the three bridges of the Firth of Forth.
This repurposed industrial plot outside Stirling is striking for its unique history, steaming vats and the fact that Ken Loach filmed The Angel’s Share here. Of its single malts, we liked the 18-year-aged over the knock-your-sporran-off strength of the 12-year. Leave with a bottle and a bag of Irn Bru fudge. In the city centre, the Whiski Rooms and Scotch Whisky Experience bustle with boozy tourists, but we recommend heading to the source.
Dinner and Late
Leith is a whole new man: it’s fully rehabilitated from its days as the setting for Irvine Welsh’s strung-out epic Trainspotting. Once Edinburgh’s shady side – stretching from its east end to the docks – government subsidies, creatives attracted by cheap rents, and clairvoyant chefs have given the neighbourhood a more improving shot in the arm. Perhaps the most emblematic sign of Leith’s revival is The Kitchin – a Michelin-beloved eatery run by Alain Ducasse-tutored Tom Kitchin (a man clearly born to chef). Before you’ve even polished off the amuse bouche, a waiter presents a scrolled map of Scotland pinpointing the origin of each ingredient.
Other sure signs of fresh blood are waterfront wine bar and bakery The Quay Commons, where you can pair your plonk with a cracking sourdough or an apple and black pudding brioche; and Harmonium bar and kitchen (from the guys behind Glasgow’s oh-so-cool pub-slash-music venues Mono and Stereo). The latter has been rapturously greeted by local vegans and vegetarians.
The Pitt Market (held every Saturday) has the usual Scottish suspects and a band of outliers: The Prague Shack’s venison goulash and dumplings; and rendang and satay kits from the Umami Spice Girl Ltd. For the heart-stopping ‘well I can die happy’-style of Scotch cookery, hit The Cheesy Toast Shack for a macaroni-cheese toastie (yes) and The Crema Caravan for on-the-go crème brûlée (yes).
However, the Roseleaf pub would argue that they started it all – they were selling art off the walls, serving craft cocktails in teacups and leaving chalk for guest doodles in the bathrooms before hipster was a fully conceived concept. True or not, their goblets of wine or manic pixie dream girl’s worth of quirk on the walls will draw a smile from the most jaded. Londoners will instantly identify themselves by screaming about the low price of a pint. It’s the perfect place to nightcap your evening and trip.