Anna was a lovely shopkeeper on Thistle Street, a block of independent shops, bars and bistros tucked into a quiet corner of Edinburgh's New Town. My 23-year old son and I had been sent to see her by James, our hotel's assistant manager, who had marked up a map with the back-street routes to establishments preferred by locals and insiders. Anna's shop Covet stocked short-run, exclusive European leather goods and accessories. She greeted us and showed us the beautiful bags and accessories she got directly from the couture shows in Paris and elsewhere. I purchased a gorgeous red wallet and matching clutch, red accessories being one of life's great small pleasures.
As I tucked my new clutch under my arm, I asked Anna where we should go for a drink. That's when she told us to look for the sign of the barbershop. It didn't take long to find the place and we went down the stairs, only to come up against a book-lined wall.
"Is this a joke?" I wondered. We scanned the bookcase and my son spotted a leather tab protruding from between two books. One tug and a hidden door swung open, revealing an old-fashioned speakeasy. A large central room featured a beautiful bar, where a tall, handsome young man was mixing cocktails. He came around the bar to greet us.
"Welcome to Panda and Sons," he said, extending his hand. "My name is Iain McPherson. I'm the proprietor and head bartender." He was wearing dark plaid "trews" or trousers, a traditional and more practical alternative to the kilt.
"Why Panda and Sons?" I asked Iain as he seated us at a table.
"Panda's been my nickname for years," Iain said. "My friends called me that because of my mixed Korean-Scottish heritage. The 'and sons' part suggests a family enterprise. Our team feels like a family, and we want our guests to feel that too."
On McPherson's recommendation, we ordered The Birdcage: a drink comprised of Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve whisky, a rhubarb and lemongrass shrub (a house-made infusion), Aperol and Angostura bitters. After a few minutes, he appeared with a beautiful long-stemmed glass on a silver tray under a large bell jar filled with smoke. He placed the tray on the table and with a proud flourish, lifted the jar. The visual impact of the smoke swirling above the drink and wafting across the old-fashioned room was rich with nostalgia; the aroma of smoke, cinnamon and clove was simply beautiful.
And then, for the taste: "It's the best cocktail I've ever had," I told McPherson, as I savored the combination of deep whisky and sweet/bitter citrus, all with a spicy-smoky foundation. Iain, his excitement showing, said, "We want our cocktails and our setting to snag all your senses, along with your imagination and your memory," he said. "We want to create an experience you'll come back for, and share with your friends."
Staying and Dining at The Bonham Inn
You might say sharing experiences with friends was the secret of our trip: our local hosts and guides were generous in sharing the most unusual corners of Edinburgh, from the ancient to the modern, and none of it was in the typical tourist guidebooks.
"Next you're going to enjoy some real Scottish food," said James when we returned to our hotel after the fantastic cocktails. "And I don't mean haggis," he added, wrinkling his nose in clear disdain for the traditional concoction made of sheep innards, oatmeal and spices.
James was one of many helpful staff members at The Bonham Inn, our first stop in Edinburgh. Set among townhouses, elegant offices and small embassies on a semi-circular street in the quiet West End, the hotel gives the sense of a rambling, elegant home. From the spacious front foyer, a wide staircase gently rises to the floors above. The guest lounge and small bar conspire to lure you in, and it's easy to fall into the cozy clutches of the deep velvet tub chairs, arranged in small groupings where conversations spring up among fellow guests with ease.
James escorted us to the hotel's dining room, an appealing space with dark wood paneling and huge bay windows. As James introduced us to the headwaiter, he explained that the menu was local, seasonal and uniquely Scottish. "Now have a glass of fizz and enjoy!"
Sipping our glasses of cold bubbly, something about damp, dark Scotland in November led me to the steaming pumpkin soup garnished with amaretto croutons. The combination of flavors was surprisingly tasty. My son chose the poached salmon complemented with a cucumber puree, melons, apples and grapes. For the main course, I had plump Scottish cod known as covey, served with bourgignon-style sauce, another surprising combination that worked. Pale green celeriac mashed potato stood sentinel to the side. My son had pheasant on a chiffonade of sautéed kale. James was right: the food was very specifically modern Scottish – and delicious.
Relying on a tip from Iain McPherson from Panda and Sons, we headed to Demijohn. Crammed from floor to ceiling with oak barrels and huge narrow-necked "demijohn" glass bottles filled with small batch liqueurs, spirits, oils and vinegars, the shop is a paradise of liquid artisanal products. Sourced from independent producers across the UK, Demijohn's craft spirits include Gooseberry Gin from Lothian in Scotland, Organic Elderflower Vodka from a farm in Somerset, Seville Orange Gin from an orchard in Worcestershire and Butterscotch Cream liqueur from the heart of Devon. After a few samples, we selected the house Demijohn Gin, which is hand-made just north of Glasgow. At Demijohn, you also choose your preferred size and shape of glass bottle, which is filled, corked and labeled by hand. Owner Angus Ferguson was serving us, and we asked how business was faring.
"Our customers are searching for hand-made British products that taste great. They want to know who makes them, and where they're from," he said. "This is exactly what we are offering. We started with this one small shop nine years ago, and now we're expanding to our fourth shop, with online sales rocketing. I think we are filling a real craving for genuine products made with care by real people."
Packages in hand, we left Demijohn to explore other artisanal products of various kinds on the rest of Victoria Street, a lovely respite from the otherwise touristy complexion of Old Town Edinburgh. Called the "prettiest and most curious street in Edinburgh," Victoria Street is home to a colorful blend of shops, galleries, cafes and pubs. The Red Door Gallery may be Edinburgh's best place to pick up hand-made jewelry, paintings and cards by local artists. From dozens of wonderful prints, ranging in style from edgy to elegant, I bought a cheerful bird print by award-winning Edinburgh illustrator Kate McLelland.
Only Margarets Need Apply
It is impossible to escape history in this ancient fortification: Edinburgh Castle rises high up over the city from the imposing cliff known as Castle Rock. For more than 1,000 years, the castle has been a national stronghold: the Stone of Destiny, on which Scottish kings were enthroned for centuries, was moved from Westminster Abbey to Edinburgh castle, where it is displayed in the Crown Room.
Within the walls of Edinburgh Castle, I was drawn to a more diminutive slice of history, St. Margaret's Chapel. It is remarkable for its stark and ancient simplicity, standing as the oldest surviving building in all of Edinburgh. This serene chapel was built by King David I of Scotland around 1130 and dedicated to his saintly mother, Queen Margaret.
The irregular stone building has an internal width of only 10 feet, and a total length of about 20 feet. There are five small stained glass windows, 10 bench seats, an alms chest and a flower stand. There are always fresh flowers in the chapel, provided by the St. Margaret's Chapel Guild, which was founded in 1942 under the patronage of Princess Margaret. It's a quirky fact that only those with the name Margaret may be members of this guild. The by-laws of the Guild state, "Those with the name of Margaret shall supply and place flowers in the Chapel of St. Margaret at Edinburgh Castle each week of every year." I made a mental note to tell my sister she should look into joining this very exclusive Scottish club.
The Small and the Grand
On our last day in Edinburgh, we moved into the heart of the city to the grand Balmoral Hotel, established as one of the great railway hotels in 1902. Where to find a small, quiet corner or a warm refuge in such a grand establishment? The guest room itself, which envelopes you in the rich, traditional colors of Scotland: cream for the barley, pale purple for the heather, green for the hills and brown for the soil. The bathroom, with its deep tub for long soaks and its rain shower for languorous showers, called me, but my adventurous and social son went out into the hotel, book under his arm, in search of a place to read with a pleasant hubbub as backdrop.
He found what he wanted in the newly opened Scotch Bar. Under the expert guidance of head Whisky ambassador Michal Cybulski, it offers exclusive access to some of the rarest whiskies in Scotland, drawing pilgrims from around the world for its 400 small-batch whiskies, including limited edition bottles from independent producers whose product will never see a retail store or bar. Later, I sampled one wee dram myself: a 12-year old Speyside single malt from Strathisla, the oldest distillery in the Highlands. I took a tiny sip of the undiluted scotch, and savored the warm, deep taste. Then I added a few drops of water, as recommended, which further released the flavor.
To complement the palate, specifically for whisky tasting, the bar presents a trio of flavors on a small wooden platter – smoked almonds to deepen the peaty aspect of the scotch; wild boar sausage whose fatty and gamey flavor stands in contrast to the smooth, deep spirits; and dark chocolate to cleanse the palate between sips. The flavors are as warm as the decor and ambiance of this small room, perfectly decorated in soothing shades of gold, brown and grey using soft textures such as leather, velvet and wool tartan.
I came to Edinburgh in search of the small pleasures and found big surprises. This compact city is crammed with exciting adventures in food and drink. Artisanal producers, inventive chefs and creative entrepreneurs are bringing a modern, authentic vibe to this ancient city. Follow your nose, listen to the locals, and discover the rich, natural bounty that is Scotland.