Learn about the fascinating food history of Edinburgh Old Town restaurants.
One of the earliest accounts of eating and drinking in Edinburgh come from the sixth century poet Aneurin. He tells how King Mynyddog fed an army in the great hall of Eidyn Fort on what is now Castle Hill. Apparently, the warriors reclined on cushions and drank mead from horns.
Apart from a lack of horn drinking vessels and fewer people riding out to do bloody battle the next morning, similar scenes of merrymaking can still be seen in many of the bars, boozers and howffs of Edinburgh’s contemporary Old Town.
Medieval eating & drinking
What has changed is the food on the tables. For the poor in medieval Edinburgh, the diet was monotonous. Barley, oatmeal, curly kail and cabbage were the staples, supplemented by a rare scrap of pork, beef or mutton from animals they raised.
Today in Edinburgh Old Town restaurants, we can eat Brazilian feijoada at Boteco do Brasil; seasonal Italian specialities at Cucina in the recently renamed G&V Hotel Royal Mile Hotel and Irish stew in Biddy Mulligan’s on the Grassmarket.
Curiously, oatmeal and curly kail are now hailed as superfoods and much in demand among the world’s supermodels – an irony that would not have been lost on old Edinburgh’s vitamin-deficient peasants.
Royal control of the city’s food
In the 21st century, Edinburgh Castle still dominates views of Scotland’s capital. Back in the fifteenth century, the city’s food trade was also controlled by the royal edicts coming out of the court in the castle. In 1477, King James III gave permission for fifteen different markets to operate in Edinburgh.
These included a poultry market in what is now Market Street at the back of Waverley station; the Lawnmarket, or land market, where butter, cheese and cloth were sold, and the Cowgate which, despite its name, sold corn. On King’s Stables Road, cattle were traded.
The markets were noisy, busy, rich in heavy odours and, by today’s standards, unbelievably unhygienic. This is Lord Cockburn’s description of Fishmarket Close, just off the High Street:
‘The fish were generally thrown on the street at the head of the close; whence they were dragged down by dirty boys or dirtier women; and then sold unwashed, for there was not a drop of water in the place, from old rickety, scaly, wooden tables, exposed to all the rain, dust and filth.’
Auld Reekie, indeed.
A walk through the Old Town
Then, as now, the medieval Grassmarket, in the valley below the Castle, was an important centre of commerce. Taking its names from the grass-filled pens where animals were fed, it was a bustling market place for cattle and horses. Remarkably, cattle were still sold in the Grassmarket until 1911.
This Grassmarket trade continued despite the fact that a newer, cattle market had been established in Lauriston Place in 1843. That cattle market was partially replaced by the fire station which still stands and then, in 1907, it was completely removed to make way for Edinburgh College of Art. The Lauriston Place cattle market is long gone now but, opposite the site where it stood, Elements restaurant in the Novotel is dishing up hearty plates of rump steak.
Across the road, if you are in a wistful state of mind, then you might imagine that the steak pie in Simpsons Restaurant in the Edinburgh City Hotel offers faint echoes of the cattle market. The chicken marinated in piri piri sauce might have terrified the area’s medieval inhabitants but is a hit with today’s visitors.
Returning to the Grassmarket, its southern side once housed the Knights Templar as made globally famous by Dan Bown and his Da Vinci Code. Unfortunately, their original lodgings were long gone by the 19th century. However, in the 21st century, the site played host to Uberior House, now the Apex City Hotel. The hotel’s Agua Restaurant has an AA rosette and is a good place to watch the Grassmarket’s ever changing street life.
Tower Restaurant sits at the top of the modern extension to the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street and is one of the most highly regarded Edinburgh Old Town restaurants. On a calm, sunny day, afternoon tea on the rooftop terrace here is a memorable treat. Joanna Lumley was one of the first to visit here when it opened in 1998 – a fact which immediately endeared The Tower to generations of Absolutely Fabulous fans.
For a slightly different angle on Edinburgh’s skyline, head to the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel which is just along the Grassmarket on Bread Street. On the first Thursday evening of the month, they open the Sky Bar in their rooftop penthouse. Sunshine On Leith and Filth had scenes filmed here – no surprise when you see the stunning panorama of the Castle and south Edinburgh leading across to Fife. On the ground floor, the Bread Street Brasserie is well placed for pre-theatre dinners before nipping around to the Lyceum, Traverse or Usher Hall.
The hotel also has a nifty bar called Monboddo, named after the 18th century Lord Monboddo. A man of sometimes curious views, he thought that orang-utans were human and that humans were born with a tail which was cut off at birth. Less eccentrically, he is credited with starting the study of historical linguistics and developing ideas about natural selection which Darwin later refined into his theory of evolution. Try one of Monboddo’s cocktails and the house burger while chewing over his six volume study of The Origin and Progress of Language.
Edinburgh’s history is also writ large in the Hotel du Vin on Bristo Place. Now an elegant hotel, welcoming bistro and well stocked bar with a cosy cigar bothy in the courtyard, the building once housed a hospital for the mentally ill. Or, to use the language of the time, it was a bedlam. More of the Old Town’s history can be seen in one of the private dining rooms which is decorated with a mural showing the gravediggers Burke and Hare.
Edinburgh & gin
From Hotel du Vin, it’s a short walk to West Crosscauseway and 56 North, a rather hip bar that specialises in gin as well as a serving a good range of upmarket bar food. Edinburgh used to be known as a big brewing centre but it was no slouch when it came to the old mother’s ruin. In the nineteenth century, there were around 40 gin distilleries in the capital. Or at least there were around 40 known gin distilleries and who knows how many illicit ones. 56 North had around a hundred different gins on offer at the last count.
Covenanters & illegal theatres
Sticking with the theatrical theme, The Three Sisters and STAY Central Hotel are now a lively bar, diner and hotel on the Cowgate. The building and courtyard which houses them dates back to 1621. Originally owned by the Guild of Tailors, it has since been a brewery store, courthouse and illegal playhouse or theatre.
It also has links to the Covenanters – religious dissenters who were fiercely persecuted in the 17th century. Large numbers of Covenanters, along with criminals and other unfortunates, were executed in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. Some of the pubs in the area, such as The Last Drop, take their names from these bloody events.
A warren of streets
Much of Edinburgh’s Old Town is built on a warren of buried streets, chambers and vaults. To sample that subterranean atmosphere, you could drop by Divino Enoteca on Merchant Street, just off Candlemaker Row. A gorgeous, stone-walled wine cellar, it offers a tremendous selection of top quality Italian wines as well as a good menu of authentic Italian dishes. It also has an enchanting little courtyard.
Across the road is Merchants, a long established restaurant with a menu that delivers a real taste of Scotland. The merchants of Edinburgh once had a hall on the site of today’s restaurant but it was demolished around 1829 when construction began on George IV bridge.
From Robert Louis Stevenson to Ian Rankin, many an author has set tales of skulduggery in the shadowy closes and wynds of the Old Town. Some people see Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a metaphor for Edinburgh –respectable on the surface but depraved underneath.
Ciao Roma is a long established Italian on South Bridge. It has played host a number of celebs thanks to its proximity to Edinburgh Festival Theatre and the fact that they make their own pasta and pizzas.
There are photos of both Sean Connery and Robert De Niro in Ciao Roma’s restaurant window. Back in the day, celebs weren’t snapped on camera phones or stalked by paparazzi. Instead, the exploits of local notables were recorded by Edinburgh’s once thriving stable of newspapers, pamphleteers and scandal rags.
Until the development of the New Town in the 18th century, Edinburgh wasn’t much more than the Royal Mile, running from the Castle to Holyrood Palace, and the dingy streets and vennels that ran off the Mile. These narrow, dark and often filthy streets were the natural home of the Edinburgh howff or drinking tavern.
In the 18th century, one of the most famous was Lucky Middlemass’ in the Cowgate. It played host to many a drinking party like this one described by one Captain Topham:
‘The large table… was covered with dishes full of oysters and pots of porter. The table was cleared and glasses introduced. The ladies were now asked if they would choose brandy or raw punch. A large bowl of brandy punch was immediately produced. When the gentlemen were tired of conversation, they began to dance reels. One of the gentlemen, however, fell down in the most active part of it.’
The Royal Mile today
These days, the pubs on and off the Royal Mile are sometimes dark but never filthy. Dancing is not unheard of. A Royal Mile favourite is Itchycoo Bar and Kitchen in the Radisson Blu. The pots of porter and mountains of oysters laid on Captain Topham’s day are less popular these days but Itchycoo is just the place for an Arbroath Smokie fishcake or an Aberdeen Angus rib-eye steak.
For this post, I’ve drawn heavily on this fantastic resource from the Grassmarket Mission and the book Edinburgh a la Carte, written by Michael TRB Turnbull with Paul Rogerson and published by Scottish Cultural Press in 1997.
Get offers, menus and reviews for all the Edinbrugh Old Town restaurants mentioned in this blog on 5pm Dining here.