I grew up in Edinburgh, a city that was most definitely ahead of the curve in developing a café and dining out culture. Back in the late 90s we had great brunch cafés in our neighbourhood (Marchmont) frequented by students, young families, bobos and pensioners alike. Despite our chilly, windy and wet climate, the French restuarants of the Grassmarket spilled out onto the streets, while independent cafés and Scottish bistros popped up in all sorts of nooks and crannies.
The relative absence of mid-price chain restuarants (no ASKs, very few Pizza Expresses, I don't think I've seen any Zizzis, Slug and Lettuces, Ping Pongs, Loch Fynes, etc) means that this significant price bracket is populated by a diverse range of quality, independent, interesting restuarants. In fact, some have been so successful that they have opened up other branches in different parts of town or even in Glasgow (or vice versa).
What with it being festival time in Edinburgh (and me paying a visit), I thought I'd give a run down of my favourites:
A Room in the Town - my all time favourite. A delightful, airy, characterful bistro serving up innovative modern Scottish cuisine. Think haggis terrine and whisky gravy, sea bass with asparagus and cherry tomatoes, games sausage and parsnip mash. You can get a 3 course lunch for under £15 a head, and it's BYOB too.
The Zulu Lounge - just a few paces from my Mum's flat in Morningside, this quirky, cosy South African café is covered in zebra print, has yummy muffins and brownies and whatnot. And specialises in decadent hot chocolates, such as this calorific Cadbury's 'Crunchie' hot chocolate. Ooh my arteries...
Café Andaluz - Stylish tapas restaurant that started out in Glasgow but was so popular they had to open one on George Street in Edinburgh. I ate at the spectacularly moorishly decorated restaurant in Glasgow's West End last night and it was delicious, atmospheric, classy and authentic. My only complaint would be that some of the dishes skimped a bit on key ingredients. Café Andaluz is popular with Edinburgh's Spanish community, so it must be good, right?
Alba Flamenca - another testament to the popularity of tapas in Edinburgh! This intimate restaurant is part of a very popular flamenco dance school, and the short tapas menu and wine list is well chosen and impeccably prepared. It's also a good deal cheaper than Cafe Andaluz, though less atmospheric and stylish.
Spice Box - My dad ordered a take-away from here on Wednesday night and I could not believe how amazing Thai food can be. Spice Box is run with love by two innovative young upstarts and some excellent Thai chefs. It's take-away only and, such is the demand, you'll have to wait a while for it to arrive, but it is so so so worth it.
Mother India - flavours and seasoning to die for at this Glasgow-originating Indian tapas (yes, tapas again). Perfectly sized portions so that you can have 4 dishes between 2 and not feel too full. The food is clearly top quality and the menu has lots of interesting dishes, such as crab samosas!
Le Mouton Noir - Classy, stylish and affordable French restaurant in Bruntsfield. It's classic bistro fare, but excellently done and lovely surroundings.
Favorit - An old favourite (geddit?!) of mine - often open til 1 or even 3am, you can get fancy fruit beers, refreshing Czech lagers, smooties, milkshakes, ice cream floats, brownies, sandwiches, tacos, etc etc. It's stylishly decorated like an American diner and it's just a good place to catch up with friends at any time of day or night.
Toast - Just round the corner from my old house and formerly Kaffe Politik - Marchmont's defining café, this is a great brunch spot at the weekend, with excellent Eggs Benedict and other great options. It does breakfast, lunch and dinner during the week, excellent cakes and coffees and commands the same diverse clientelle as its predecessor.
Le Bon Vivant - A new opening in the upmarket New Town, this is a dark, elegant champagne bar, with a twist: it's totally unpretentious, totally friendly, totally affordable. They sell £1 bites, including deep friend risotto balls, tartes, black pudding, as well as yummy soups (I had smoked haddock and pea chowder - it was delicious).