When Henderson’s first opened, meat-free meals were as radical as mini skirts. Fifty years on, the UK’s oldest veggie restaurant is an Edinburgh institution.

The other revolution that began in 1963

"Meet me at Henderson’s”. Four words that have spoken volumes in Edinburgh and beyond for the past 50 years. 1963 was the year that The Beatles had their first Number One hit, Harold Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister in the wake of the Profumo scandal and Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been outselling The Bible. Henderson’s restaurant was the place to go in the Scottish capital, but certainly not for a SuperMac burger, unless it was made of beans.

was something the coal came in, happily ate salad alongside bearded hippies stoking up on lentil curry as they preached the sexual revolution. It was a pioneering restaurant, not just for locals but also for visitors in the early days of the Edinburgh Festival. Along with the late lamented Cranks in London, Henderson’s was in the vanguard of the vegetarian revolution.

Half-a-century on, it is an institution. But definitely not serving institutional food. Leek and potato soup is still on the blackboard, as it was when the restaurant first opened its doors in Edinburgh’s New Town. Favourites remain, but today’s menu reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the city with its year-round programme of festivals: baked aubergine with grated nuts and tamari sauce, or bean sprouts, ginger and Brazil nut salad.

“Henderson’s began as an extension of the market garden on my parents’ farm in East Lothian,” says Catherine, 63, daughter of founders Janet and Mac Henderson. “Aubergines, ­avocados and coriander were unheard of, and olive oil was something you bought at the chemist.

“After school, my mother went to Austria to stay with an aunt who was a great believer in vegetarianism. That’s when the light bulb went on, and she returned to Scotland a ­convert. She believed that food should be local, seasonal and organic. She married my father – who played rugby for Scotland – and together they lived the good life on their farm.

“They had hens and cows, and as well as vegetables, they grew fruit. My mother was always preserving and ­bottling. Muslin bags of cream cheese alternated with nappies hanging on the washing line.

“Henderson’s grew organically. It started as self-service in a poky basement in Hanover Street, with some of the furniture little more than orange boxes turned on their side.

“Next came a table-service restaurant on the ground floor round the corner, serviced by the same kitchen. Then we expanded the basement into the back, and into the next-door building. We can now seat about 140 people. A shop and deli and our own bakery to make our own bread made sense as well. We just grew and grew.”

Oliver, 61, managing partner and youngest of the Henderson brood, says: “People order cauliflower cheese or leek and potato pie and say, that’s what they always had in the old days.

“Then they look at the blackboard and say, OK, they’ll try chickpea falafel balls with dips, or Moroccan stew made with smoked tofu, ­butternut squash, carrots, aubergines and ­apricots. It’s an international world we live in.” The menu 50 years ago ­featured salads at 6d, vegetable soup at 9d (home-baked brown roll and ­butter 3d extra), baked potato at 6d, two daily hot dishes at 2/3d and deserts at 1/6d. Tea and home-made ­lemonade, both 5d. Today, soup with a roll is £3.95, salads range from £3.10

upwards and main courses, such as ­risotto with butternut squash, with salad, are £7.25.

One of the first customers, who lived around the corner, was American ­expatriate Jim Haynes, co-founder of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1963, and enthusiastic champion of the ­sexual revolution.

He confirms that Henderson’s was home from home, and meals there were often foreplay for the evening ahead. “Those were heady days. Many friendships began there at the shared tables,” he said. “Among the regulars was a group of yoga students who came after their classes. I went to live in Paris 44 years ago, but every year I always visit the Edinburgh Festival in August and make a pilgrimage down those steps to the basement to hang out with old ghosts.”

Dotti Irving, CEO of Four Colman Getty, the culture and campaigning consultancy, held her 21st birthday party at Henderson’s. She says: “I was studying English at Edinburgh University. Nick Henderson, Janet and Mac’s fourth son, was a great friend and gave me the run of the place.

“We danced and danced to the Rolling Stones and felt that the whole of life was ahead of us. My career took me to London, but I always return to that basement full of happy memories when I am in Edinburgh. I rarely cook vegetable curry without thinking of Henderson’s.”

Jazz guitarist Lachlan MacColl has been appearing fortnightly at Henderson’s basement wine bar for the past 30 years, playing standards, Latin and gypsy jazz, sometimes

accompanied by piano, double bass or violin. TV presenter David Dimbleby once requested “The Girl from Ipanema”. “Live music six nights a week is an enlightened policy,” he says. “It’s a rare thing these days. It requires a delicate balance, not so obtrusive that the music dominates the room, but enough to add atmosphere that makes people want to come back.”

Come back they do. The actress Tilda Swinton has happily queued for a takeaway. Billy Connolly, Daniel Radcliffe, Danii Minogue, Simon Amstell, Dylan Moran, Elijah Wood, Sinead O’Connor and Cliff Richard have been spotted in the counter ­service queue, which sometimes snakes up into the street, especially during the Festival. Comics from The Stand, the comedy club nearby, call in regularly.

“Occasionally, we have been the butt of jokes ourselves over the years,” says Catherine Henderson. “Sometimes vegetarians are ­regarded as nutters and fruitcakes. Well, our fruit and nuts are organic, and we have been going for 50 years. So who’s laughing now?”

 

Henderson’s Nut Loaf

Serves 8

150ml vegetable stock

25g sesame seeds

75g wholemeal breadcrumbs

125g crunchy peanut butter

150g finely diced onion

2 teaspoons mixed herbs

Salt and pepper to taste

25g pumpkin seeds

150g grated hazelnuts

100g grated cashew nuts

450g wholemeal puff pastry

4 tablespoons natural tamari

3 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

 

Place all the ingredients except stock and pastry into a mixing bowl and mix well, gradually adding stock until moist. Roll out the pastry to approximately 20cm x 20cm and place the mixture along the centre making a log shape. Wet the pastry with a little soya milk and wrap into a parcel, folding each end. Brush the top with milk and sprinkle with a little sesame seed. Bake at 150C/gas mark 2) for 1 hour. Serve with tomato or oriental sauce.

Henderson’s, 94 Hanover Street, Edinburgh EH2 1DR. Tel: 0131 225

2131. Henderson’s begins a 50-day

food festival, starting May 26.

Details: hendersons50.com

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