Sometimes you just have to eat somewhere that has a fish tank built into its fireplace.
It was a cold, sorry – I mean a BITTERLY cold day in Edinburgh – when I found myself desperately googling ‘warmest pub in Edinburgh’ and ‘warmest place to eat in Edinburgh ever’ and ‘make me warm in Edinburgh NOW’, when I realised I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore and Google hadn’t provided. So I did what we used to do a few years back and looked around frantically for somewhere to hibernate.
For those of you in Northern Europe who are currently suffering a similar fate – how are you coping and what survival strategies are you employing? For those of you elsewhere or reading this in the future I am writing during the period of time that I am sure will be known as The Great Easter Freeze of 2013… I mean, let’s be honest there is no way Jesus would have risen 2013 years ago if the weather had been like this.
Anyhow, I digress. So with numb fingers and a distant memory of feeling my toes, I headed down Merchant Street in Edinburgh (just behind the lovely statue of Bobby, the bonniest dog of Scotland who sat on his master’s grave for 14 years after he died…. Ahhhh!) And it was down that little road that I spied some railings with a sign reading ‘Under the Stairs’ and in the window below, a big comfy looking chair.
I shuffled my frozen feet down the stairs and tentatively pushed open the door. Immediately I was greeted by array of retro sink-into-me armchairs and the fire place/fish tank feature. I knew I had struck gold.
Glancing around, I realised this was one of those rare places that doesn’t really have a ‘bad table’ in the house. Table picking can be a tough gig. Too often when walking into a restaurant you immediately spy the two good tables – perhaps by the fire, with the comfiest seats etc – which are always taken, leaving you with the remainder of the room and its cold, drafts tables packed too closely together, by the door – the loo – the mad woman muttering to herself.
Under the Stairs offered no such predicament. The large cosy room, with its thick and battered wooden floor boards, offered a plethora of mismatched, cobbled together tables and chairs – each as lovely as the next.
The man behind the bar greeted me in a warm, Scottish drawl and told me to sit wherever. I immediately wanted to try out a few tables before settling on one – they all looked so good.
In the end I settled for one that boasted both a fabulous old armchair (they just don’t make them like they used to, do they?), and an old lampshade that gave off a warm, orange glow. Feeling very pleased with myself I perused the menu.
This is where Under the Stairs gains a few more brownie points. It has a fabulous selection of sharing plates… Anti pasti, cheese boards, breads and dipping oils etc that can be ordered until midnight. I am constantly seeking establishments that will cater to both my food and wine needs at all hours, if only I lived a little closer.
The rest of the menu also appealed – from the imaginative twist on a veggie burger (black bean, spring onion an mushroom burger), to the venison casserole and salmon and cous cous fish cakes, I was torn.
With most dishes costing about £8.95 it’s definitely a cheap lunch option in Edinburgh.
But it was this sign that caught my attention:
And this one:
Two things. One, they had my sandwich and soup and I needed them back and two, red wine must always be pondered.
So I pondered and I ordered and I sat in my Grandad’s chair, listening to David Bowie, plotting how to steal the Scottish Crown Jewels over a large glass of Rioja. I’m joking, I’m joking… I was drinking Cabernet Sauvignon.
The food arrived and I decided it was definitely the best use of £5.95 that I have put the pound to for some time. Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce you to my soup and sandwich.
Aren’t they lovely? Divine? As soon as we were ‘reunited’ I realised I had unknowingly missed them my whole life.
The soup, a spicy parsnip and puy lentil number, was delightfully coarse and rich with a heart-warming chilli kick to it. Meanwhile, the sandwich was door stopping – huge slices of granary bread were filled with Cajun marinaded chunks of chicken breast, accompanied by a sweet, caramelised onion garnish and garlic mayonnaise. There was no corner cutting.
As I finished my lunch, the tank cleaning man came in to tend to the fish. As I watched him remove water, add water, and do his thing, I couldn’t help but feel they definitely have the best spot in town. If I was a fish I would want to be by the fire, swimming around Under the Stairs.
My soup, sarnie, and large glass of Rioja came to £12.80.
If you want to get involved you’ll find Under the Stairs at 3a Merchant Street. Bell them on 0131 466 8550.