"Piled deep and massy, close and high, my own romantic town,” wrote Sir Walter Scott of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, in his epic poem Marmion. The city’s topography consists of vennels and narrow closes, undulating hills and crescents. There’s the atmospheric and cobbled Old Town, with its medieval spires, and the smart Georgian buildings of the New Town. Up and down, round and round, it’s no wonder that Scotland’s traditional dishes – porridge, haggis, clootie dumpling, shortbread, Cullen skink – are hearty, to provide all the energy that’s required for walking (and the malt whisky is there to ease the pain in your legs).
Although Edinburgh, and Scotland in general, has an occasionally dodgy reputation when it comes to food, mainly thanks to the infamous deep-fried Mars bar and our penchant for fish suppers, tablet and Irn-Bru [a carbonated soft drink], the produce – seafood, Scotch beef, game and soft fruits – is peerless, and the best restaurants showcase our larder.
For example, beyond the pub-grub-serving tourist traps on the Old Town’s merging streets of Castlehill, the Royal Mile and the Canongate, you’ll find a string of world-class restaurants. These include the romantic Witchery by the Castle, as well as Scottish-Italian eatery Contini Cannonball, a family-run restaurant where dishes might include roasted roe deer with wilted seasonal greens, gooseberry relish, baby turnips and game bridie (a traditional pastry that originates from Forfar).
You’ll also discover smart-casual bistro Wedgwood The Restaurant and, just off the main thoroughfare, the contemporary-modern Scottish restaurant Blackfriars, and seafood restaurant Ondine, which boasts a popular oyster bar and serves a menu of langoustine from Tarbet in Argyll and lobster from Dunbar.
If Edinburgh were an ingredient, it’d probably be a stock, as it boasts such a rich concentration of restaurants, cafés, delis and bars. In fact, it has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in any UK city outside London. These include the quirky restaurant with guestrooms, 21212, and Castle Terrace. And if you head to the trendy Leith area – the city’s original port – you’ll find more Michelin-starred fine-dining experiences, courtesy of The Kitchin and Restaurant Martin Wishart.
Although this city may once have had a reputation as being rather old fashioned and prim, there’s also a new wave of venues that are putting paid to those assumptions. Try Gardener’s Cottage, with its communal tables, exciting set menu and old-fashioned record player spinning tracks, or Aizle (named after the Old Scots word for ember), which doesn’t bother with traditional menus. Instead, it presents diners with a list of locally sourced and foraged ingredients, each of which will be showcased in the proceeding dishes. That should provide more than enough fuel for getting up and down those vertiginous hills.
1. Cafe St Honoré
Down a cobbled lane near Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare of Princes Street, this lovely bistro appears to have been transplanted directly from Paris, with a twinkly and romantic dining space that’s lined with antique mirrors and dripping candles on tables. To pay tribute to the Auld Alliance, the menu has a Gallic slant, with punchy dishes such as beef bourguignon and the regulars’ favourite crème brûlée. However, it’s enthusiastic chef patron Neil Forbes’s unpretentious passion for local Scottish produce that really shines through. The average menu might include delights such as braised Scotch pork belly, heritage potatoes, Peelham Farm organic chorizo, spinach and Bramley apple sauce. They also deserve brownie points for their three-star rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
34 North West Thistle Street Lane; +44 131 226 2211; www.cafesthonore.com
2. The Pompadour by Galvin
Opened in 1925, the original Pompadour restaurant at Edinburgh’s landmark Caledonian hotel was named after the chief mistress of Louis XV – Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, or Madame de Pompadour. Just three years ago, restaurateurs and chefs the Galvin brothers reinvigorated the space as part of this hotel’s £24 million (US $37.7 million) investment and takeover by Waldorf Astoria. It’s gloriously feminine inside, with icing-sugar-coloured plasterwork and pretty frescoes, as well as a direct view to Edinburgh Castle. Expect French food with a Scottish twist. If you eat from the “Menu Gourmand”, the seven courses might include pressed terrine of Ayrshire rabbit, ham hock and foie gras, leeks and hazelnut salad. If you fancy something lighter, the ground floor of this hotel is home to the bustling and smart Galvin Brasserie de Luxe.
Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh - The Caledonian, Princes Street; +44 131 222 8975; www.thepompadourbygalvin.com
3. Number One
This restaurant is part of the historic five-star Balmoral Hotel, which opened in 1902 and has a clock tower that many natives and visitors rely on in order to catch their trains on time at nearby Waverley Station. Befitting of such a location, the basement-level restaurant is a slice of old-fashioned luxury. Think plush banquettes, red-lacquered walls and striking artworks. Once you’ve tried executive chef Jeff Bland’s food, you’ll understand how this place has managed to retain its Michelin star for 12 years. Main courses might feature star ingredients such as Inverurie hogget or Borders venison.
The Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes Street; +44 131 557 6727; www.roccofortehotels.com
4. The Kitchin
After nine years, a table at this Michelin-starred restaurant is still one of the hottest in the city. However, thanks to a recent extension, it’s a little easier to bag a reservation these days. The restaurant has also undergone an interior redesign, courtesy of head chef Tom Kitchin’s wife, Michaela, who has given the space an additional injection of theatrical luxury. The restaurant’s manifesto is “from nature to plate”, which translates into dishes including boned and rolled pig’s head served with roasted tail of langoustine from Tobermory and a crispy ear salad. If you fancy something more casual, Kitchin’s Scottish-themed gastropub in Edinburgh’s lovely Stockbridge area, Scran & Scallie (www.scranandscallie.com) is also a must-visit.
78 Commercial Quay, Leith; +44 131 555 1755; www.thekitchin.com
This three-AA-rosette, family-run eatery, complete with its own butchery and smokehouse, is arguably the coolest venue in town. Housed in a building that was created in the 19th century as a costume store, later functioning as a timber merchant, this dramatic warehouse space still manages to feel intimate thanks to the candles, raw decor and tartan blankets that are slung over seats. If you don’t go for the eight-course option, the menu is divided into “Bite”, “Small”, “Large” and “Sweet”, and plates are the sort that are crying out to be photographed (mainly thanks to the pretty foraged flowers, grown on site, that seem to adorn every dish). Though most produce is hyper local, cooking influences are wide ranging, with some options that feature Nordic or Japanese slants. Try something like smoked beef, kohlrabi, daikon, cabbage and cauliflower.
10 Lady Lawson Street; +44 131 221 1222; www.timberyard.co