Fresh out of haggis, and the deep-fried Mars Bar's off

You might only be visiting for the Festival, but you don't have to put up with tourist-standard food. Here's our guide to the city's finest eating spots.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Scottish food is not the nightmare that is often portrayed in the English press; look for a deep-fried Mars Bar in Edinburgh and your search is likely to be fruitless. Of course there is some dreadful junk food around - as there is all over Britain - but Edinburgh is an affluent capital city, and has a discerning culinary culture. You'll eat better in Edinburgh than in an English city of a similar size. The top-end restaurants are a match for the best anywhere, there are scores of excellent pubs selling locally produced cask-conditioned ales, and there's plenty of choice for vegetarians.

Scottish food is not the nightmare that is often portrayed in the English press; look for a deep-fried Mars Bar in Edinburgh and your search is likely to be fruitless. Of course there is some dreadful junk food around - as there is all over Britain - but Edinburgh is an affluent capital city, and has a discerning culinary culture. You'll eat better in Edinburgh than in an English city of a similar size. The top-end restaurants are a match for the best anywhere, there are scores of excellent pubs selling locally produced cask-conditioned ales, and there's plenty of choice for vegetarians.

What Edinburgh chiefly lacks is focus. There is no Nick Nairn or Rick Stein based in Edinburgh, no area like London's Soho with a concentration of restaurants, and there is no coherent Edinburgh cooking style, the way there often is in other European cities such as Paris or Rome. Instead, in the smarter restaurants you find the modern international style of cooking that exists in any city in the world. Corn-fed chicken and lentils appears on menus from Stockholm to San Francisco. Edinburgh is no exception.

Like food everywhere in Britain, Scottish food is going through an identity crisis. The simple peasant food that was once the Scottish diet was affected by a long association with France - the Auld Alliance - and by ripples of immigration. In Edinburgh, fourth-generation Italians still influence and inform much of the city's eating habits. Valvona & Crolla has been at the top of Leith Walk since 1934, and is now considered one of the best delicatessens in Britain; for Italian produce and Italian wines, it has no peers. A few years ago it expanded into an outstanding Italian caffÿ which has been added at the back. There are some good Indian restaurants - though if you're more used to dining in, say, Wembley, you'll find them disappointing. There are a couple of decent Thai restaurants (and a score of also-rans). But chances are that if you're in Edinburgh, you'll want to try the best of what is unique to the city.

The first rule of thumb is: avoid the Royal Mile. Even the good places to eat close to the tartan gifte shoppe hell that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace will be stuffed with Festival-goers. For real local colour rather than the garish plaid manufactured for tourists, take a bus to the port of Leith. Twenty years ago the working-class district on the River Forth was in terminal industrial and social decline: parts of it can still feel edgy, and pubs such as the Port O'Leith (58 Constitution St, 0131-554 3568) exist as reminders of the area's former character. Then bistros and wine bars began opening, taking advantage of low rents. Next, Edinburgh District Council smartened up the wharfside street called The Shore (pictured above), and government money poured in to regenerate it. At least a couple of evenings can be filled bar-hopping and eating your way around Leith.

Back in the Old Town (the medieval heart of Edinburgh), there are a few places that shouldn't be missed. Pop into the Bow Bar (80 West Bow, 0131-226 7667), between the Royal Mile and Grassmarket, to get an idea of what the unspoilt Edinburgh pub used to look like. On the other side of the street is Iain Mellis (30a Victoria St, 0131-226 6215), one of the best cheese shops in Scotland; try the Isle of Mull cheddar and Lanark Blue. At the corner with the Grassmarket is Clarissa Dickson Wright's Cooks' Book Shop (180 West Bow, 0131-226 4445). You might catch the great woman herself - on our last visit she tried to convince my pal (a qualified nutritionist) that the vegan diet lacks an essential amino acid and vegetarians only survive by "cheating". Opening hours are often extended during the Edinburgh Festival, but always phone first to check.

LEITH (fitz)Henry, 19 Shore Place, Leith (0131-555 6625). Refined, smart cooking from David Ramsden - braised ham shank with tagliatelle and mustard jus, for example, or pan-fried fillet of sea bream with grilled courgettes and Parma ham. £30 each.

Restaurant Martin Wishart, 54 The Shore, Leith (0131-553 3557). Possibly the best restaurant in Edinburgh at the moment, with outstanding cooking; dishes are very haute, very French. For example, a starter of millefeuille of foie gras and langoustine with braised fennel, or main course of fillet of sea bass with tomato fondue served with shallot cream, beignet of anchovies, potato and herb galette and red wine jus. Book well ahead. £35 each.

Malmaison Brasserie, 1 Tower Place, Leith (0131-468 5001). Refined ambience and refined French food in this stylish hotel. £30 each.

HIP The Atrium, 10 Cambridge St (0131-228 8882). The first truly modern restaurant in Edinburgh, founded by Andrew Radford, still impresses with its stark interior and skillful modern Scottish cooking. There's a £25 set-price menu.

blue, 10 Cambridge Street (0131-221 1222). The cheaper café/bar branch of Atrium in the same building. £25 each.

The Marque, 19-21 Causewayside (0131-466 6660). Low-key place with dishes such as grilled turbot in a cullen skink sauce. The theatre menus are outstanding value (£12.50 for three courses). £30 each.

VEGETARIAN Bann UK, 5 Hunter Square (0131-226 1112). A slick vegetarian restaurant just off the Royal Mile that makes a serious effort to serve high-quality dishes. £20 each.

Henderson's Salad Table, 94 Hanover St (0131-225 2131). Opened in 1962 and still a benchmark for Mediterranean-influenced dishes at low prices. £12 each.

Susie's Diner, 51-53 West Nicolson St (0131-667 8729). Popular café next to Edinburgh University's main campus. £10 each.

CAFES Botanic Gardens Cafeteria, Botanic Gardens (no phone). Not the greatest shakes as a café, but the view and grounds are marvellous, and the squirrels are tame.

Café Hub Castlehill, Royal Mile (0131-473 2067). A good meeting place as it's in the heart of the Edinburgh International Festival HQ. Gallery of Modern Art Café, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 74 Belford Rd (0131-332 8600). An outstanding art gallery café. The best way to visit is to take a walk from Dean Village following the Water of Leith upstream.

USEFUL GUIDEBOOKS The Good Food Guide (Which? Books, £14.99) lists 17 restaurants in Edinburgh. For more comprehensive listings of bars and the like, find a copy of Scotland The Best! (HarperCollins, £12.99) or The List Edinburgh & Glasgow Eating Guide (£3.95).

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