Edinburgh appeared on our travel radar last summer just a few days before flying to Norway. One reason for the Norway trip, a training class for my husband, got cancelled so we had an extra week and no plans. I pictured myself in Norway, hand to my brow, shielding my non-Nordic blue eyes from the sun, staring across the North Sea at Edinburgh, Scotland and thought, “Why not?”
An hour later I had narrowed our potential lodging to two flats listed on airbnb, both situated on the northeast side of Edinburgh, and emailed the hosts. One of them sounded perfect. He shared our love of travel and he claimed to have a long list of recommendations for restaurants and bars. Our kind of host, especially since I didn’t have time to do any research about Edinburgh before pitching up at the airport.
Travel, like regular daily life, can sometimes seem to be primarily about managing expectations. Mostly that means adjusting your expectations downward, especially if you think foreign travel will be akin to going to Disney World, where toilets sparkle and are freely available, food is recognizable and palatable if not a gourmand’s delight, and everyone you meet is happy, at least until mid-afternoon, because even the most intrepid, expectation-toting explorer gets cranky at Disney World. Even a place like Scotland requires managed expectations, because as cute as the accents are, it is easy to lose your cool when your brain is cross-wired from multiple time zone adjustments, you forgot the melatonin, it is raining for the third day in a row, and you are looking for just one familiar thing to make you feel at home.
Over the years—now decades of travel—I have grown accustomed to and even appreciate squat-style pay toilets, haggling over a wilted vegetable that has seen neither soil nor water for longer than you care to think about, and public transport so crowded that any previous calculation of personal space required to breathe has been trimmed by a large margin. Managing my own expectations while traveling hasn’t been a struggle for me except regarding food.
I am not a food snob. Even after making a living for years as a chef aboard private and charter yachts, preparing food all day and night for people whose expectations that are off-the-charts high. Picture a Russia businessman and his seven “nieces” requiring case upon case of Standart Russian vodka. No problem, aside from being docked at a marina off the beaten path in Turkey where procuring any type of alcoholic beverage was problematic. I have made chocolate mousse at 3 o’clock in the morning for a yacht owner who “simply must have it now”. I have arranged for breakfast sausages to be flown by private jet from Miami to a tiny Caribbean island at the request of a guest. Because really, how can one survive a week aboard a boat without them?
After exposure to that sort of behavior, I guarantee that if someone is thoughtful enough to make me a meal, I am always an appreciative guest. Maybe the conflict with my traveler’s expectations comes from having a substantial portion of my travel budget allocated for food and beverages. It follows that I would want my money’s worth, right?
Sometimes other circumstances intervene to make the food less important than the meal as a whole. Like when the location of the meal steps up and creates such fantastic ambiance and experience that I could eat a complete fish (head, bones and other bits) chopped up and tossed in watery rice, cooked over an open fire of dried palm fronds and coconut husks and call that one of the best meals of my life. That happened to me in the San Blas Islands once.
What I have figured out about myself while traveling is that it’s not the money I am spending on food that gives me expectations about quality, it’s the fact that I only have ‘x’ number of meals left to eat in my life. Even if things go according to my master plan and I live to be 100, continuing on healthy enough to travel widely, that number of meals is relatively finite. It works out to about 15,000 dinners remaining, which seems like a lot, but when I finish a disappointing meal, I can’t help but feel swindled about that one experience. After cooking great meals for many years in pocket-sized galleys aboard boats dancing on their anchors and rolling on the sea, I am pretty sure I qualify as an expert on whether it is just as easy to make food taste good as it is to make food taste bad.
I come down on the side that it is easy to make good food, but the cook has to be inspired to try at least, and for some cooks it is just a job. Over years and miles of travel, I’ve learned a few rules for food and foreign travel:
1. Don’t order food you would eat at home.
You might love pizza more than life itself, but if you’re traveling in say, Bali, chances are any pizza is going to taste less like pizza and more like something else. Something un-pizza-like. Result? Disappointment. And that’s your fault. If you’re in Bali, order nasi goreng (fried rice) or saté (skewers of grilled meat) and leave your pizza cravings for when you return home. Having said that, after a year or so of being on the road, I went to McDonalds in Sevilla, Spain (twice) because I got a whiff of that familiar scent and couldn’t shake the craving. I survived but it still embarrasses me to tell that story.
2. Don’t expect to get everything listed on the menu.
Before we spent a few months in and around Sochi, Russia, I memorized as many words for various food dishes as I could, preparing to eat to my little heart’s content. Restaurant menus looked like books—pages and pages of ardently described dishes—and my expectations soared. More often than not though, we would order a dish in our stumbling Russian and get a frowny face in return. “Nyet, my ne dolzhny etogo. U nas yest’ kartofel.” Translation: No, we don’t have that. We have potatoes.
3. Seek out places where local people eat lunch.
After a few days of eating potatoes in Sochi, we went exploring for street food, especially the stuff cooked by and for locals, because our experience has shown us that food doesn’t have to be expensive to be great and that local working folk often have some pretty high standards about the meals they choose to spend their money on. Our noses led us to the Armenian guys grilling shashlik down by the Sochi river. Holy moly, was that good! We got to know those guys pretty well that summer and we spread our dining cash among them by rotating through the various shashlik stands each time. They turned it into a competition for us to choose the best among them. An impossible task because they each loved what they did. That was their inspiration for turning a simple shish-kebab into a thing of glory.
4. Ask a local for advice.
On that trip to Edinburgh, local knowledge served up some memorable meals.
If I had written about food after my first trip to Great Britain 24 years ago, I would likely have written something using words like bland, starchy, and uninspired. It is cliché to write about food in Scotland and England as bad. Mushy peas, overcooked meats, “but the mashed potatoes were fine.” Potatoes, it seems, are everywhere and difficult to screw up. But in the past decade or so cooks in Great Britain have really upped their food-preparation game, with good reason: foodies walk the earth as rulers. Foodies are everywhere, and they expect their currency to take them to heights of culinary ecstasy. Or at least not to depths of “meh, it wasn’t horrible.”
Colin, our host in Edinburgh, sussed out our love for food minutes after settling us in the room where we lived for our week’s stay. The fact that we didn’t bother to unpack anything before asking, “Where should we eat?” was probably his first clue. Colin never disappointed us in his recommendations and neither did the meals we ate.
The flat he shares with his partner was near Leith Walk, which turned out to be an excellent place to explore both the city of Edinburgh and the port area of Leith. Like most European cities, Edinburgh has areas and neighborhoods that are best explored on foot and it also has a well-run public transport system of buses to make connecting those areas simple.
[Note: If you have a smart phone, you can download the Transport for Edinburgh app free. This excellent app is like having a local expert riding along with you on the city’s trains and buses. Even if you don’t want to use your phone to make calls or pay crazy rates for data, the app will work for you. Just put your phone in Airplane mode, turn on wifi and location services. The app will track your location along the route. It also gives you directions and estimated walking times. Newer buses have free wifi, if you want to log in and catch up while you’re out riding around. Of course, you’ll miss the chance to see a great city through the bus window if you are on your phone. But you already know that.]
It’s not that I set out to do a food tour in every place I travel. Well, actually, I probably do. As much as I enjoy a good castle, ancient church, or museum of weirdness (and Edinburgh has all of those), eventually I get burned out on that stuff. It’s not like I can recite the historical facts of who occupied Edinburgh castle during which siege, despite spending a few hours reading the plaques and listening to the fun and charming official guide, who has a good shot at a stand-up career if he decides to bag the tourist business. But rather than decry my inability to recall and regurgitate the information I take in at those official sites, I try to look on the bright side. It seems that I can recall meals I’ve eaten around the world with disturbing detail, even years afterward. Sort of like having a superpower that doesn’t help make the world a better place. And the conversations struck up in those places, either with a local patron or waitstaff or another traveler stay with me, too. You can learn a lot about a place from the people you share food with.
So without making any claims of exhaustive research, here is my unofficial list of places to get a bite to eat (and drink) in Edinburgh (in no particular order):
- Khushi’s~ Just off Leith Walk, serves moaningly-good Indian food. Khushi’s menu states that there has been a Khushi’s in Edinburgh since 1947, which is like a million years in restaurant time, which means it’s good stuff. They have a early-bird special called the Pre-Theatre menu (they are situated across Leith Walk from the Edinburgh Playhouse theatre), which was like getting a dinner meal at lunch prices. The catch was the 3:00 to 5:00 pm time, but for us it worked well, because our body’s clocks were adjusting to the time change from west coast USA and also because we were fed so well by Colin at breakfast that we explored the city right through lunch some days before realizing we could put some more food into our bellies. Khushi’s two-course meals include a starter and a main dish, and are served with rice or naan bread. We ate there a couple of times and shared plates to sample a bit of everything. Especially good: Chicken Tikka Masala and Lamb Jalfrezi. Even if you believe curry is not for you, go to Khushi’s anyway. They will work to oblige your tastes and it’s clear they love food.
- The Outsider~ On the George IV bridge near Cowgate street. On a rainy afternoon, we sat at an intimate table overlooking the rooftops of old Edinburgh. Brian had a steaming bowl of mussels and a mess of fries elevated to wonderful by house-made ketchup. My roasted rabbit pie with mash was accompanied by a juicy glass of house red wine and reminded me that rainy days exist not to punish travelers but instead to drive us to find great spots to sit awhile, enjoy a bite to eat and a beverage or two.
- Tolbooth Tavern~ Along the Royal Mile at Old Tolbooth Wynd (a wynd is a narrow lane between houses), this is a perfect place to duck in out of the crowds along ‘The Royal Mile”, which leads up to Edinburgh Castle and down to the Holyroodhouse Palace. Despite being right on the Mile, the only people in the tavern were the bartender, a man visiting Edinburgh from Glasgow, who was a lovely conversationalist—though his Glaswegian patter allowed me to understand maybe a single word of every ten he spoke—and the two of us. We lingered over our ale in the dark pub and complained about absolutely nothing.
- Clarinda’s Tearoom~ Another spot along the Royal Mile, this one a short ways up the Mile from Holyroodhouse. A gray morning, lashing with rain, found us seeking refuge here. The pot of tea, house-made currant scones, and warm interior had us still sitting there long after the rain had passed. Clarinda’s feels like a traditional tearoom, all lace doilies and soft whispers.
- The Sheep Heid Inn~ In Duddington Village, which we found by hiking up to Arthur’s Seat, the highest hill in Edinburgh, via the Radical Road, and then walking down the back side right into the village. The Sheep Heid makes the claim of being Scotland’s oldest surviving pub, and will convince you that pub lunches have evolved far beyond the bland, uninspired stuff of olde. Locally-sourced ingredients are used when possible. You can nibble on Duck Hoisin flatbread and Heirloom Tomato tarts or go for more traditional pub food like Fish and Chips or Steak and Ale pie that tastes fresh and original. I topped off my lunch with a cask ale recommended by the bar-keep who may or may not have been 12 years old. Perhaps he just looked that young after our hike up to and over Arthur’s Seat in the mist. At any rate, we were well fortified for a return hike or a local bus ride around the hill and through Edinburgh back to Leith Walk. We chose the bus, on account of the ale having some strong legs which took away the control I had of my own legs.
- The Ship On the Shore~ In Leith, right on the shore, as the name tells you. This is an old-school bar and restaurant specializing in champagne cocktails and locally-sourced seafood. A great place to pop in for a classic cocktail on a cloudy afternoon, of which Edinburgh has many.
Between our host’s recommendations, following our own noses and pure luck at times when the rain drove us to find fast shelter, we managed our expectations for food and drink in Edinburgh perfectly. I hope to make a return visit and explore the rest of Scotland some time soon.