BrewDogging #55: Edinburgh Lothian Road
[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku†, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road†, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton†, Berlin, Warsaw†, Leeds North Street, York, Hong Kong†, Oxford, Seven Dials, Reading, Malmo, Tallinn, Overworks, Tower Hill]
It's August, it's the height of the 2018 Edinburgh Festival, and I'm not there (as I explained earlier). Nick and several of the Pals are in Edinburgh as I write this, and hopefully we'll hear how things went for them in a future post. Meanwhile, The Belated Birthday Girl and I are at home in London keeping ourselves fresh for the fest in 2019, when I'll have to confront the horrifying fact that it'll be the thirtieth anniversary of my first visit.
But even on a year off, you can't keep me or The BBG away from the place. Particularly when they opened up a second BrewDog bar in the city earlier this year - in fact, right now it's doubling up as Fringe Venue #102. So during the late May Bank Holiday weekend, we popped up there to pay it a visit, and to do several dozen other things as well, like we usually do. Some of them worked, some of them didn't, as you'll see.
I'll tell you this: if it was fifteen years ago, and my Edinburgh was still largely centred around the Film Festival events at the Filmhouse, I would be living in this bar every August. As it stands, it's still just over the road from a few of the most iconic venues - the Usher Hall, the Lyceum, the Traverse - and a short walk away from the assembled yurts of the Book Festival. As with the last few recent BrewDog openings, it's a surprisingly large space, but well organised with a combination of tables and booths that never feels as over-compartmentalised as, say, Cowgate was in its early years. It helps that it's spread over two levels, with the upper floor getting a decent view down onto the lower one. On a Friday night it's as busy as you'd expect, though most of the action is happening downstairs, leaving some booths free upstairs for anyone who wants one.
This does cause us a little concern, though: with all the BrewDog drinkers apparently in here, what's the Cowgate branch like now? We stroll down the road later that night to find out, and are initially slightly worried at how quiet it is at 11.30pm on a Friday. It's a shame, because the beer range on offer at Cowgate is even more interesting than that at Lothian Road, thanks to a showcase from Brew York that includes nightcap favourites like their Empress Tonkoko and Kodiak aged in whisky barrels. Thankfully, halfway through our beers it turns midnight, and it's as if all the students in the city have suddenly been released and are looking to release those pre-finals nerves with as much beer as possible. Cowgate was always in a great position to cater for Edinburgh's students: you could tell from the way that the wi-fi from the halls of residence across the street was easier to connect to in the bar than the bar's own. It'll do just fine, even with the extra competition down the road.
We end up paying three visits to Lothian Road over that weekend. Our second is on the Saturday afternoon, where the offer of table service initially confuses us as we're only there for a drink, and one of those drinks turns out to be an uncharacteristically murky pint of 5am Saint. Our third on the Sunday is a bit more satisfying, even though we're going there specifically to cheer ourselves up after a disappointing afternoon (more about that later), but don't want to hammer down the beers as we have plans for the evening (more about those later too). A combination of Nanny State beers and cauliflower wings fits the bill perfectly. In a more relaxed version of what happened on the Friday night, the downstairs is busy while the upstairs is relatively quiet: it's like having two bars in one, where you can choose the level of atmosphere that best matches what you're looking for. It's another fine addition to the bar roster, and I can't wait to see what it's like during a Festival week. Though of course I will have to wait, because that's currently how time works.
So, what else did we do? Well, the first thing to report is that our journey to Edinburgh was on the last Virgin East Coast train we would ever ride, a month or so before they ran away from the franchise like the cowardly scum they are and dumped it onto London North Eastern Railway. Predictably, the train rolled into Waverley 30 minutes late, which meant we had to bust a gut to make our planned dinner at Fisher's In The City. Strictly speaking, the train from Edinburgh back to London should have been our last one, but that turned out to be Virgin's last stab at ruining travel for us. As threatened, we went by EasyJet instead. It was fine.
To balance out our final time doing something, we also did something for the first time - stayed at a Premier Inn Hub, specifically the one on Rose Street. I've blathered on in the past about how useful Premier Inn's standard hotels have been for both work and social travel. When they started opening the Hub range a couple of years ago, it wasn't entirely clear how they differed from the usual Premier Inns. Having stayed in one, it's still not really clear. They've removed many of the small frills you'd expect from a budget hotel - the lobby is almost entirely self-service, the storage space is largely under the bed, the tea and coffee making facilities are relegated to a communal machine on the ground floor like they do in Sweden. But the small rooms are stylishly laid out and comfortable, and you can get a simple continental breakfast for a measly five quid. It wasn't exactly cheap - probably because it was a Bank Holiday weekend - but it was cheaper than anything else we could get in town at short notice, and can't be beaten for location and comfort.
The Saturday of the bank holiday weekend is our first full day in town, and we manage to squeeze in a fair bit. We have breakfast at Ryan's Bar purely because it's on the way to the Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art, where we spend a very enjoyable couple of hours. It's a beautiful day, so we take the opportunity to appreciate the outside sculptures as well as the various internal displays: I've written elsewhere about Raqib Shaw, whose experiments in enamels are well worth a visit if you're in town for the Festival (or any time before October 28th). We have a couple of drinks in Lothian Road, and then check out the newish Six Degrees North bar for a couple more, as we're big fans of their original branch in Aberdeen.
We have dinner at The Wee Restaurant - like Ryan's Bar, it's been around for ages, we've never been to it before, but it's convenient for what we're doing next, which is a night of comedy at The Stand. Some traditions are too ingrained to give up, even outside the Fringe. Susan Morrison does her usual fabulous job of compering and terrifying the younger men in the front row, Brendon Burns (previously seen in BrewDogging #29) is as solidly reliable as he usually is these days, and Kimi Loughton is the most impressive act on the rest of the bill. We pop next door to Nightcap for a nightcap, only to discover that in the nine months since it impressed The BBG so much in 2017 their beer list has gone to hell. Thankfully, Hoot The Redeemer's hasn't, and it's interesting to note that they've made the policy decision to only stock beers from Scotland, meaning our nightcap takes a bit longer than planned and takes in local breweries Stewart, Fallen and Barney's.
There's a problem that I skipped over in the gap between the previous two paragraphs, though. When we went into Six Degrees North on Saturday afternoon, the weather was really nice. When we came out again a mere 45 minutes later, it was wet, grey and cloudy, and looking to stay that way for some time. This is the point where I have to reveal the main reason why we're in Edinburgh this weekend: last Christmas, I bought The BBG a voucher for a helicopter joyride, and we'd chosen to use it to fly over one of our favourite cities on what was initially looking to be a sunny Sunday afternoon. Adventure001 have a safety record to maintain, and will cancel flights at short notice if the weather isn't good enough. Would the clouds lift in time for our 1pm appointment the next day?
In answer to that question, please note the accompanying picture of the Forth Bridge, and how you can only see half of the bastard.
It's touch and go, though. There's a Facebook page where they post live updates about flight cancellations, and we're obsessively checking it all the way through Sunday morning's breakfast at Grand Cru and while waiting for the 43 bus to take us to the helipad. With exquisite timing, the cancellation notice comes through literally one minute after we've got on the bus. Don't worry, the voucher can be reused, and at some point in the future we're planning to use it at a different location. Besides, there's always been a risk of this happening, so we've made sure we have other activities planned for the day.
For a start, on a whim we stay on the bus, ride it out beyond the helicopter site at Barnbougle, and see what's to be seen at Queensferry at the far end. And the answer is: the Forth Bridge, just about. We get a few nicely atmospheric pictures and celebrate with tea and cakes at The Little Bakery. Heading back into town, we've earmarked a visit to a street food festival advertised at the Three Sisters pub on Cowgate, but when we get there it's an absolutely woeful affair. You know those news stories you get once a year about someone opening a Winter Wonderland attraction for Christmas that turns out to consist of two piles of polystyrene snow and a dog with antlers glued to it? Well, imagine something like that but with overpriced burritos instead of polystyrene. We head off for nicer beers with our third visit to Lothian Road, followed by a quick courtesy call to the Banging Hat.
The evening plans have been in place all along and are unaffected by the weather (although it's alarming walking past the Scott Monument later that night and not being able to see the top). Dinner at Howies - again, a long-standing Edinburgh legend that I've somehow managed to avoid all these years - is followed by a trip to the Liquid Room to see The Wedding Present play live. Without my noticing, they've become an all-year-round version of those bands who only come out at Christmas, and their tours these days are all based around whichever old album of theirs is currently celebrating an anniversary that's divisible by five. In this case, it's supposed to be Tommy, which is thirty years old this year. But David Gedge (along with the youngsters he's playing with nowadays) tears enjoyably through a wide spread of their back catalogue, and finishes up with the magnificent Take Me, as perfectly constructed a piece of minimalist music as Steve Reich ever produced. We wind down at Salt Horse, which thanks to a recent tap takeover is showing off a couple of dementedly supercharged beers from Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes.
We wrap the weekend up with a Bank Holiday Monday excursion out to Dundee, because that means one more BrewDog bar stamp we can get in our Beer Visas. Out of spite, the weather reverses itself all over again during the hour-long train ride: by the time we get to Dundee it's a scorcher, and I end up getting sunburned. We take a stroll along the Tay River, and treat ourselves to a couple of cheeky breakfast rolls at Bridgeview Station, from which we do indeed get to observe our second major Scottish bridge of the weekend. Back in town we briefly pay our respects to the statue of Desperate Dan, and then head off to BrewDog Dundee for lunch: unlike our previous visit, they thankfully do have food on offer, so we grab a couple of pizzas along with our beer and visa stamps. Train back to Edinburgh, tram to the airport, EasyJet to Stansted, and we're done.
As you can see from the above, Edinburgh isn't particularly short of craft beer bars at present, but it's nice to see BrewDog Lothian Road setting up shop alongside them. Come back here in about 51 weeks or so and we'll see how it's bedding in.