If the Commonwealth Games had been in Edinburgh in 2014, there could easily have been a new sport: circuits of Cafe Royal (singles and mixed doubles). Such is the popularity of this city centre pub at the east end of Princes Street that if you’re lucky enough to have a seat, you can watch endless singletons and couples enter by either the side or the front door, do a complete lap of the pub while looking for a seat before leaving, disgruntled, by the door they entered. Groups often enter by one door, take one look and leave immediately. So, is it worth hanging around by the ornate bar in case a seat becomes available?
Cafe Royal (note that it’s Royal, not Royale) is a little bit hidden, situated on West Register Street next door to the excellent Guildford Arms. As mentioned, it’s always popular and we were rather lucky on a recent Saturday afternoon to secure a table by coming in the back door just as another couple were leaving. A few minutes later, we were tackling the Scotsman cryptic accompanied by a pint of Rok IPA and a hot chocolate. Unlike the next couple in who did the traditional circuit before the female half stated in no uncertain terms, “Ah’m no standin’.”
Popular with shoppers and typical Edinburgh types, the pub has changed little since its opening in 1863. A fantastic central gantry bar dominates the middle of the pub, taking up an awful lot of the space. High stools and tables stand round the edges of two sides while the holy grail of the Cafe Royal goer is one of the booths beneath the windows. If your group can bag one of these, you won’t be moving for the rest of the afternoon or evening.
If you manage to settle in somewhere, even standing at the bar, take a look up at the majestic Victorian plasterwork, the Doulton ceramic murals on the walls or the beautiful lamps that sprout from the bar. Service is generally very professional from bar staff in smart outfits that befit what sometimes feels like a smart Parisian venue. It’s the kind of place where the staff seem slightly more aware than usual and will always check that you’re being served rather than pretend not to see you. I’ll be honest, though, I don’t think the beer in here is anything special so if it is really good ale you’re after, you probably are better off next door in the Guildford. Cafe Royal is more a glass of wine kind of place.
Given the splendidness of the pub, it’s hard to believe that back in the late 1960s attempts were made by now-defunct retail chain Woolworths to gut the place so that it could extend its store next door. Luckily a public petition put paid to their plans and the whole pub was listed at the start of the 1970s. Linked to this, Cafe Royal also holds a special place in the Barfly family’s heart: Mrs Barfly’s grandfather worked at Woolworths and this is where he’d enjoy a well-earned pint, while myself and Mrs Barfly ended our first ever date here, after lunch at Browns and a stroll around town. But I digress.
Cafe Royal does serve bar food and we’ve enjoyed a couple of meals here over the years. Excellent fish and chips, burgers and pies are the order of the day alongside their signature mussels and oysters. We’d eat here with friends more often if only you could book one of those booths. Of course, if you do want to book a meal then it’s next door to the Oyster Bar for you. With cuisine a notch above the bar, the surroundings are even more elegant as you really do feel like you’ve stepped back into the 1920s with the chequerboard floor, glistening stained glass windows and an elegant marble bar that screams, or at least tastefully hints at, old-fashioned opulence.
One thing that did intrigue me on our recent visit was the hastily printed notices that hung from the bar: “We are unable to show any of the rugby or Olympics today due to a technical problem. We apologise for the inconvenience.” Inconvenience? This is not a place to come and watch sport. With every other pub in Edinburgh decking itself out in Six Nations flags, Cafe Royal is a welcome escape. As far as I’m aware, it only has one television anyway. Why bother? Like the Guildford next door which also has one telly, this is not a sport-viewing venue like the Cask & Barrel on nearby Broughton Street and nor should it be.
Cafe Royal is a great pub – if you can get a seat. And therein lies the one problem with this place and the risk is that you’ll visit once, stand at the bar for a drink, view and compliment the interior before leaving shortly after. But this place deserves more of your time than that. Hang around, grab a booth (or part of one – people will happily share) and pretend you’re in 1920s Paris.