Maybe I’ve been kicking around Edinburgh for too long now but I fail to get excited at what the exclusively vegetarian places have to offer.
I was a devotee of David Bann‘s for a very long time but decided to put some distance between us when the cobwebs started to gather on their menu. For old times sake I went there a couple of months ago – I recognised the menu from way back but the quality of the food was something new: just plain shoddy. The bread served with a few (very few for £3.60) olives was actually fried which I suspect was a none too subtle way of disguising stale. A tartlet starter had blue cheese bubbling not very attractively in a dense pastry case. My main was a kind of mushroom, tofu and noodle melange which honestly was like something I’d throw together for a leftovers lunch – only not as nice, as this was fried and soya sauced to within an inch of its life. They failed to redeem themselves with a pudding which sounded nice on the menu but in reality was a stodgy piece of sponge beneath a piece of rubbery lime jelly and a scoop of coconut sorbet which was so overwhelmingly coconutty that it could only be artificial – only recommended if you want to get that 1970’s children’s party experience!
Talking of the 1970’s I guess the next stop on the Edinburgh veggie map would be the various branches of Henderson’s – the original basement one on Hanover Street, the ‘bistro’ around the corner on Thistle Street and the most recent – the former Cornerstone Cafe at the West End of Princes Street. Now, to be fair, Henderson’s wears its hippy credentials on its woven hemp sleeve and it has been going since 1962 – but OMG, doesn’t it show? I mean, there’s revisionist retro and then there’s ‘just can’t be bothered spending out any money on sprucing the place up’. I’d have no problem with this if the food was good and a reasonable price but I can’t actually say that. Quiches, lasagne, croquettes, veg curry/chilli/stew etc. is the kind of cuisine we’re talking, at steep-for-what-you’re-getting prices. It’s counter service at Hanover St and the West End, with the former having that traumatic ‘school-dinners-queue’ vibe at busy lunch-times.
Busy? Well, yes. That’s the thing with exclusively vegetarian places in any city – as a veggie tourist you will want to try them out, and as a veggie resident you have this – perhaps misplaced – loyalty to places like David Bann’s and Henderson’s. But with their central locations and their ability to make a whole lot of profit from making not much of an effort – they can probably survive without my custom.
What are the alternatives, then? Well, for fully vegetarian:
The Engine Shed (St Leonard’s Lane, just up from St Leonards’s police station, along the road from The Pleasance students union/Fringe venue) serves a similar kind of fare to Henderson’s and it is counter service. But it’s a lot cheaper, has light and airy surroundings, a relaxed atmosphere and as it’s run as a Garvald training project you’re helping a good cause by giving them your custom. They’re only open Mon-Sat , 10-4 however.
The Kalpna on Nicolson Street is five minutes walk from The Engine Shed and specialises in South Indian cuisine – with dosas, thalis and that kind of thing. Nothing earth shattering, but nice enough Indian food at not bad prices. The all-you-can-eat lunch-time buffet is good value for £7.50. Across the road on St Patrick Square is Edinburgh’s other fully vegetarian Indian restaurant: the Ann Purna. Now, I used to love the Ann Purna but like David Bann’s, standards have definitely slipped over the years. It used to have a quirky/homely type feel but nowadays seems to have that generic Indian restaurant set-up with a myriad of little niggles – like the placing of (unordered, but charged for later) poppadoms and pickles on the tables. No, thanks, okay? Also last time I ate there I was aware of the diced veg being just a little too uniform, suspicions that were later confirmed when one of the waiters walked in with two full Farmfoods carrier bags! (Please note: the Ann Purna is now closed)
Black Bo’s is currently closed for refurbishment and I believe they are going to start serving meat and fish when they re-open. They’ve ping-ponged between veggie and omnivore in the past and standards were always erratic but I’ll probably try them out – so watch this space.
So where are the best – not exclusively vegetarian, but have a good choice, great atmosphere and value for money – places for the discerning vegetarian to eat? Here’s some personal favourites.
A Room in the Town (Howe Street) has quite a small, regularly changing menu with at least two vegetarian options in the starters and the mains. The food is tasty, imaginative and well presented and they also do very yummy desserts. Prices are around the £22 mark for three course with good quality house red/white at £14.50. There is also BYOB with £5 corkage and early evening deals. (Please note: Black Bo’s and A Room in the Town are now part of Edinburgh history)
The Blue Parrot Cantina (in St Stephen Street ten minutes down the road from A Room in the Town). Cosy, little basement serving Mexican food that’s quite different to your usual Tex-Mex-chains. Enchiladas, and the rest, are stuffed full of fresh veg. Huge portions and small prices. Wonderfully friendly staff as well. In my book the best Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh.
Origano (half way down Leith Walk). Charming, tiny, candle-lit, Italian restaurant with a small but choice menu. Pizzas are their speciality and even though they don’t come from a wood-fired oven, they are made with ’00’ flour so have the desired light ‘n’ crispiness – try their ‘spinacio’ (done Florentine style with a baked egg). Other highlights are their generous antipasti platters to share and a divine tiramisu for afters. Small but very acceptable wine list. (Origano moved to bigger premises further down Leith Walk in mid 2015. Still hugely popular so best to book ahead)
And of course – The Jolly, as eulogised in my ‘Best Authentic Italian Restaurant in Edinburgh’ post.
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