When I was a boy, that is roughly thirty years ago, expelled from school and cast from my parents’ favour, I got a job as a pot washer in Bell’s Diner, a real burger joint, long before the current craze, run by the gorgeous hippy Bill Allan. He and it are still around.
The restaurant world in Edinburgh at that time was full of ambition and energy. I cut my teeth on the floors and in the kitchens of many of the places of the day, run by enterprising people who were creating a new offer, based on regional cooking, mostly French (when it was still considered infallible) . I worked at and frequented places like the Edinburgh Wine Bar, now The Dogs; upmarket Café St Honoré; Maxi’s and Le Sept, sadly no more; Pierre Victoire, once an empire; Black Bo’s veggie fine dining; The Shore in Leith. Places owned and run by friends (still) where warmth and informality were replacing starchy formality and hotel cooking.
Since then, in more recent years, the city has had its fair share of a few fine places to search out. The names of Contini and Crolla, Singh and Radford, Wishart and Kitchin, rang out like church bells, sounding the city’s culinary credentials. But excellent though they all can be, like most of their customers, they are, in essence, conventional. There has been little edge, nothing radical or surprising about the experiences you will have in their restaurants.
For me, time and life moved on, business ventures and careers have been and gone. And after quarter of a century I find myself back in this world of food and Edinburgh, looking round to see what is new here.
I’m impressed. Like lots of cosmopolitan European cities, the quality of youthful imagination is potent and there is an enthusiasm for new ideas. Perhaps it’s partly the fact that expectations have risen as distances between us have become smaller and more people from other places live here, but what’s on offer just seems better and specialisms abound: the Chilean founder of coffee geeks Artisan Roast, former pop-up Ting Thai Caravan, Nordic bread shop Peter’s Yard, Iberico ham store Goya23.
Three years ago, I was occupied in the whirlwind of running PipsDish in the old garage in Islington. Meanwhile, right opposite my flat in Edinburgh, in an unusually out-of-the-box decision, the city council rented out a tiny residence in the park to a bunch of relatively inexperienced, enthusiastic culinary pioneers. The result has been the Gardener’s Cottage.
It’s a wholesome experience, with an open kitchen, shared tables – which are nothing like as scary as people fear; you’re not weird if you don’t talk to your neighbours – a set menu, odd bits of produce in jars, a record player with assorted classics, a gentle atmosphere and warm service. If it all sounds familiar they even have odd bits of the same Queens Green Solian ware china from the Soho pottery I’ve been collecting for years.
But good luck to them because not only do they ‘get’ the aesthetic, they know how to give it meaning. This was probably the most intelligent breakfast I have had outside my own four walls. It’s not even too-cool-for-school-Hackney-manqué but a little bit of love in among the trees where time was, only certain gentlemen would wander furtively at night. And the edible garden out front brings a bit of Noma-esque forest forage to Edinburgh. After I’d eaten there, like some inky theatre critic, eager to make the morning edition, I simply couldn’t wait to tell my world.
But their party is well on its way and I came late. Likewise with another newish revival to the scene. Andrew Radford was one of the young bloods in the 1980s and the visionary chef proprietor behind The Atrium and Blue. While he was running these excellent establishments, among the best in town, he was also bringing up a family. They have now grown up and a family business has been born at Timberyard.
Rejuvenated from what once was the 19th-century prop stores for a local theatre impresario, this building beguiles with possibilities and ingenuity. The stripped-down, remodeled layout uses each corner of the space with careful expression, from the private dining shed to the herb and wild weed garden and Joe’s turf-roofed shed out back, where the soda pop empire is being born. The elegant design, from plates to shades, the tempting hotch-potch of home made cordials in random bottles and the wood burning stove give this the feel of a journey through the looking glass.
I won’t bang on about Ben’s food because it’s been praised wildly elsewhere. It is artsy and with so many players on a plate, it’s not always easy to remember exactly what you are eating. But if anything, this largely self-taught and determined young chef suffers from an over-generous serving of talent, which isn’t a bad thing.
Most enchanting of all is the feeling that here, like the Cottage down the road, this is a family of friends at work, who care, most of all that you have an experience you will remember with affection.
The last place on my current list is Earthy. More mismatching furniture, Edison filament bulbs, wooden boards, small plates and yes even Alice in Wonderland. But ascetic aesthetic aside, these guys have been busy acquiring the best local, ethical and organic suppliers and artisan producers for food shopping in Scotland in their stores for a few years. Just lately they’ve opened this posher-end foodie caff a la Ottolenghi. For me it’s ‘just right’ food cooked by an ex-supper club chef, which for obvious reasons I admire. It’s surprising just how many restaurants will still serve you a bowl of limp broccoli, carrots and cauliflower. As if fennel, kale and squash didn’t exist. Here the vegetables in their infinite variety are given the main stage in twists and turns of creative abundance. Ceres herself would be pretty chuffed.
Edinburgh has that Scottish ability to filter out bullshit or ‘patter’ as we call it. Too many restaurant experiences have become like snooty private galleries where the assistants are uppity and the work is silly or just not very good. Not these three. Here we have a new generation of Scottish (re-)inventors. Our own culinary enlightenment.