Last updated on January 15th, 2018
Written and Photographed by Rebecca Peters-Golden
Usually on a vacation, I feel the imperative to plan out my meals: a restaurant or two that people rave about, a few casual local gems, and a couple of places that look like something I couldn’t get at home. On my recent trip to Edinburgh, Scotland with Tessa Barber, though, I was so excited about hanging out in one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people that I didn’t even give food a second thought. And, within minutes of dropping our bags at the hotel and slapping the jet lag off our faces, we were so enraptured with the essential Edinburgh-ness of Edinburgh that we didn’t even discuss it for a while.
One of the reasons Tessa and I were particularly jazzed to go to Edinburgh in March was that we had no interest in playing tourist (notwithstanding our penchant for tromping around in damp, mossy graveyards as tourists do)—we’d both been to Edinburgh before and, really, we wanted a chance to see what it might be like if we actually lived there. So on this trip, we mostly ate where we found ourselves, popping into likely looking places after getting off the city bus from our latest jaunt.
A lunch at just one such place, The Southern, provided us with a favorite new beer, Stewart’s rich and creamy Hefeweizen, as well as a two solidly yummy burgers: a falafel burger with shredded carrot, creme fraiche, and hot chili sauce, and a tandoori chicken burger with rocket, red onion pickle, and minted yogurt dressing (both with chips, of course—that’s fries to you). Throw in a few pub visits (sipping whisky at the Black Cat and cider and beer at the 400-year old Cramond Inn on the coast of the Firth of Forth), some late-night Tesco stops for sandwiches, sweet chili llamas, and Cadbury milk, a few instances of fish and chips or kabobs, and numerous packets of sea salt and vinegar chips, and you have a goshdarn enjoyable food map of an Edinburgh we might not had seen had we been there amidst the crowds of June or July.
Following an afternoon of poking through a gorgeous vintage shop with heavy kilts and frothy dresses hung to the ceilings, nosing around in sci-fi/fantasy and art book shops, and rummaging through old maps of Scotland, we found ourselves in desperate need of a pick-me-up (and some wi-fi). Totally seduced by the gorgeous cakes in the window, we visited Lovecrumbs, a cake and coffee shop on a quiet cobbled street that was buzzing with what looked like an impromptu art school meetup.
I ate every crumb of a delicious (and not too sweet) two-layer coffee-infused cake with maple buttercream frosting and coffee beans on top. Tessa had a beautiful cheesecake and discovered that the “long black”—a style of coffee mostly found in Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil—has made it to Scotland. The long black is much like an Americano, but is prepared in reverse, water first, which retains its crema (“short black” is the Australian term for espresso). Sitting at a wooden table with several other patrons, we let our less-pleasant American accents be drowned out by the atmosphere and a lot of cake.
My birthday fell on our second day in Edinburgh, so Tessa took me to Balmoral Afternoon Tea at the Palm Court. The Balmoral is a five-star hotel that opened in 1902 and, friends, it is posh. The nicest thing about the atmosphere, though, which included live piano, gorgeous blown-glass chandeliers, and ornately carved columns, was that real people clearly came to afternoon tea here as part of their normal lives. There was an elderly woman dipping scones in tea while reading the paper, a table of suited men chatting over dainty triangles of sandwich, and several tables of friends meeting up for what could have been a weekly tea and chat. The teas (jasmine and lapsang souchong) were steeped at our table and we began with five kinds of sandwiches (from egg and cress to ham on oatmeal bread), lemon-butter macaroons, rhubarb fool, and some complimentary chocolate-hazelnut mousse squares they brought for my birthday.
As we satedly licked what we thought were the last crumbs from our fingers, our waiter asked, “Shall I bring the scones now?” Of course! We had plain and yellow raisin scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. The food combined the same elegance and approachability as the atmosphere, pairing delicate flavor combinations with heartier ingredients. Finally, when we had eaten enough butter to relax us to monosyllabic grunts of gustatory pleasure, our waiter brought around a real, live dessert trolley, selections from which were included in our tea. We were ashamed and disappointed to have to admit that we had actually reached our threshold for cake (a high, high threshold, I assure you), especially since it would have been so very Harry Potter-esque—and, indeed, J.K. Rowling completed writing the Harry Potter series in that very hotel.
We ended our trip by dressing up and going to what is arguably the fanciest restaurant in Edinburgh, The Witchery. And so, after a day of climbing Arthur’s seat (atop which we rewarded ourselves with baguette sandwiches of brie, green apple, and cranberry jam), wandering through another graveyard, and stumbling across The Old Children’s Bookshelf (a wonderful and fortuitous find, since we write a blog about young adult books), Tessa and I got all gussied up and entered The Witchery’s ornate dining room just steps from Edinburgh Castle, which was lit warmly against the cool night.
The Witchery is so called because of the hundreds of women burned as witches on Castlehill in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is housed in a 16th century building, Boswell’s Court, named after James Boswell (who was something of an avuncular presence throughout our trip, as Tessa had been deeply immersed in his diaries). In the dining room we found heraldic painted and gilded ceilings, based on those at the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other end of the Royal Mile. The walls are 17th century oak, rescued from a fire at St. Giles Cathedral, also on the Royal Mile. We dined at a cozy table for two against these beautiful carved walls and by the light from antique church candlesticks.
We both ordered off the three-course menu (another boon to visiting off-season, the only time the £30 menu is offered for dinner), starting with a creamy Jerusalem artichoke velouté with truffle oil. Tessa had the Roast Atlantic cod with Roquefort crust, buttered cabbage, and heritage potatoes for her second course, and I had the phyllo dough-wrapped pumpkin pie with sweet potato chips, creamed spinach, and cracknel. We finished the meal with a cheese plate. The food was delicious and varied, the service impeccable, and the atmosphere truly elegant. So elegant, in fact, that we squirmed around, constantly checking to make sure no one noticed that the two American girls were gauchely taking pictures of their food.
Sipping a Gigondas by candlelight, I could almost believe that any artichoke velouté tastes better next to carved-wood walls from the 17th century, but I think my favorite food was our hastily eaten sandwiches after our two-hour hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat, passing a water bottle back and forth, trying to take pictures of a harried bird, and gazing down at the city we’d gotten to call home that week, graveyards and all.