Scottish cuisine is getting a makeover, so leave your jokes about battered Mars bars at the door. The following restaurants are redefining how the capital’s food is seen in the 21st century.
Traditional Scottish food incorporates ingredients such as haggis, langoustines and oatmeal, but Edinburgh’s chefs, working in tandem with artisanal producers and farmers, are creating dishes that reimagine their possibilities.
There is a playfulness to this new breed of restaurant, from the all-vegan menu at Harmonium to the never-ending experimentation of the Edinburgh Food Studio. The old rules of fine dining – formality, overly precise, intense – are quietly being rewritten, opening up good food to a whole new generation. The scene, like the city itself, is changing rapidly, and this is just the beginning.
Restaurant, British, Contemporary
Darren Murray was tired of working in restaurants he couldn’t afford to eat in, so he came up with a middle ground – fine food at reasonable prices. The result is Borough, located on Henderson Street in Leith, with Darren at the helm. The menu changes daily based on what’s coming in, so expect a focus on seasonality and simplicity, as well as an openness about where the food on your plate was grown, caught or produced. At £35 for four courses, or £18.50 for a three-course lunch, you’ll be hard-pushed for better value anywhere else.
The menu at The Gardener’s Cottage reflects what’s in season | Courtesy of The Gardener’s Cottage
The Gardener’s Cottage was built in 1836 for the keeper of Royal Terrace Gardens, as part of attempts to expand Edinburgh’s New Town eastwards. Now, it is one of the best restaurants in the capital. It’s in a beautiful location, surrounded by blooming flowers in spring and providing a cosy hideaway in the winter months. In keeping with the cottage’s history, much of the food is grown by the restaurant’s gardener. Crops include wild garlic, lovage and woodruff (which gives a subtle, interesting sweetness to ice cream), adding to an inventive tasting menu that changes with the seasons. For a true Scottish experience, check out their whisky and gin events, pairing dishes with the best of Scotland’s artisanal spirit producers.
Edinburgh Food Studio is at the forefront of modern Scottish cuisine. When founder Ben Reade, formerly of Noma, appeared on the Great British Menu in 2018, this restaurant and research hub’s reputation grew exponentially. The studio conducts research into all aspects of food culture, hosting sensory analyses of various mutton breeds and delving into the history of Scottish desserts. This research translates into the on-site restaurant, resulting in innovative, contemporary food steeped in Scottish history. Regular special events with guest chefs make this a place to keep a constant eye on.
Leith Walk has transformed in recent years and is now a hotspot for some of Edinburgh’s best bars, cafés and restaurants. Up until recently, there’s been a lack of fine dining on the street – that is, until the opening of The Little Chartroom. When they say little, they mean it. Only 18 covers and a pretty clear view of the chefs at work mean dining here is a bit like stepping into a front room. This concept makes it one of the pricier places to eat on Leith Walk, but it’s offering something truly different.
If it’s true that you can tell a good restaurant by the size of the queue, Pickles on Broughton Street must be one of Edinburgh’s best. This stony basement haunt is forever packed but manages to retain a relaxed feel. The order of the day is simple: cheese, wine, charcuterie and, obviously, pickles, all served with sharp silverskin onions and fiery chutneys. You get a selection with your board, but don’t be afraid of sharing with your neighbour (you’re packed in pretty tight). If you want a showcase of Scottish cheese – think Isle of Arran smoked cheddar, creamy Strathdon blue, Morangie brie from the Highlands – you should put your trust in the boards here, pick gleefully at the chutneys provided and don’t be afraid to ask for more bread. You’re going to want more bread.
One of Edinburgh’s most exciting additions is the redevelopment of the City Observatory on Calton Hill, now home to a brand-new modern art gallery with a stunning new restaurant adjacent. The Lookout is from the same team behind The Gardener’s Cottage and has some of the best views in the city. Incorporating an à la carte offer and a tasting menu, The Lookout is keeping with its sister restaurant’s seasonal, simple, Scottish approach, but with a bit more flexibility and exciting private dining options. Try the barbecued cauliflower with a confit egg garnish, or The Gardener’s Cottage rhubarb, rosemary and sourdough ice cream.
Glasgow arguably still leads the way for vegan cuisine in Scotland, but Edinburgh is catching up, particularly with this hip Leith spot from the team behind Stereo and Mono. Best to throw caution to the wind with this menu and dive right into the fully vegan chicken parmigiana or no-fish ‘n’ chips. The food is satisfying, unpretentious and at a more than reasonable price point. If this is the future of vegan food, then no wonder so many people are becoming converts.
Aizle uses fresh, homegrown produce | Courtesy of Aizle
Aizle (rhymes with Hazel) is a Scots word meaning a burning coal, or spark, and in this southside fine-dining restaurant, sparks of creativity run through the whole concept. Everything at Aizle is made in-house, with the tasting menu adapted from whatever is in season. For spring, they champion oysters, hogget, wild leeks and fresh peas in dishes that bring out the best in the ingredients. Prices will be rising from £55 per person to £70 per person come September 2019, so get booking as tables go quickly.
Generations of Italians call Scotland home, bringing their food and culture with them – from delis like the legendary Valvona & Crolla to Scottish-Italian mash-ups (like the famous Macaroni Pie) to this small daytime spot on Easter Road. Polentoni offers traditional dishes (such as tagliatelle with fennel sausage and saffron), unique takes on brunch dishes (for example, house-made porchetta, crispy polenta and sharp melting cheese), strong coffees and good conversation. If this is your cup of tea, you’ll love our list of great Italian restaurants in Edinburgh.
You can’t come to Edinburgh without walking the Royal Mile, and you can’t come to Scotland without drinking some whisky. The Amber Restaurant, at The Scotch Whisky Experience, allows you to do both. This is probably the most traditional Scottish restaurant on this list, serving classics such as stovies, haggis and cranachan. Amber pays tribute to the roots of Scottish food, with a breadth of whisky on the shelves. Prices are reasonable, and there’s still a flash of creativity on the menu – try the Scottish tapas selection, if you can bear to share.
While chatting to Darren at Borough, there was one new Leith opening he was quick to extol the virtues of to Culture Trip: Nauticus, on Duke Street, right opposite Leith Links. The new community pub is Scottish through and through, with cheese from IJ Mellis, charcuterie from East Coast Cured and pork pies from Edinburgh’s Pie Dolly, to name a few. Combine this with the fact that the pub has made an effort to pay homage to Leith’s history, and you can tell it’s well worth a visit. “Everyone from [Edinburgh’s food] industry goes there,” he says. “Super friendly, proper competitive pricing and when you go in, they learn your name and smile at you. That’s how you do it.”
Edinburgh does a fine turn in pubs, all of which work hard to celebrate Scotland’s fantastic whiskies, gins and growing craft beer scene. Nobles is right up there, with a commitment to Scottish produce on its food menu, too. While this is a great evening spot, you’re going to want to hit Nobles for brunch for one of the best full Scottish breakfasts in the city, with black pudding from Stornoway, haggis from Findlay’s of Portobello, plus vegetarian and vegan equivalents that are put together with just as much care and attention. There’s also a good mix of local art and decor that points to Leith’s maritime history.