Kay’s Bar: Edinburgh’s New Town sitting room

The pretty frontage of Kay's Bar in the New Town of Edinburgh
The pretty frontage of Kay’s Bar in the New Town of Edinburgh

Researching the history of Kay’s Bar in the New Town, I was surprised to find that this has only been a pub since the 1970s. Walking in, you’d probably have banked on it having looked the same a hundred years earlier but in fact John Kay & Sons was actually a wine and spirit merchant which traded from this quaint 1814-built cottage just off India Street for more than a century. Here you could get wine, sherry and whisky – it was little more than a backstreet off licence. Nowadays, there’s still plenty alcohol but it’s become a cosy local for this well-heeled area.

When I think of Kay’s, I always think of Fraser, the chap behind the bar with what I can only describe as a statement moustache – something I normally associate with old-fashioned circus strongmen. He wasn’t in on my most recent visit, in fact I may have read about him retiring, and the place wasn’t full for once but then this was just a Wednesday evening. Our group of three decided to settle in the library area of the pub – essentially the back room that boasts a couple of tables and a few books, as well as a blackboard betraying a comically unoriginal wifi password.

The back room of Kay's Bar, known as the library
The back room of Kay’s Bar is known as the library

Through the front part of the bar, there’s not much more space. Four or five tables sit along the wall with the bar running along the other side for the roughly 20-foot length of this bijou living room. The first seats that tend to go here are the ones at the bar and it’s often a mission to wade through a melee of tweed to order some drinks. Situated where it is, the regulars of Kay’s are not exactly Edinburgh’s poorest citizens. The exact opposite in fact as the neighbouring streets are home to many involved in Edinburgh’s legal scene. With townhouses and flats in this area incredibly sought after, there is a lot of old money going through Kay’s tills from its unassumingly wealthy clientele.

That is not to say this place is unfriendly to the interloper. The staff are pleasant and those at the bar will let you in to get a pint. There’s a real sense of community and you can expect to see the same old faces here time and again. There are few distractions so you can see why it becomes a comfortable place to meet and relax – the dark red interior is cosy, there is no music to talk above and, in winter, the fire in the centre of the main bar gives the place a real warmth.

Kay's Bar is small - you can pretty much see the whole front bar in this photograph
Kay’s Bar is small – you can pretty much see the whole front bar in this photograph

There are televisions in Kay’s Bar but they’re generally either muted or off. Big rugby matches are the main thing shown here so good luck getting a space never mind a seat on a Six Nations weekend. It’s not the screens you should look at in here but instead the old casks and signage around the walls that betray Kay’s former existence.

Beer-wise, Kay’s Bar scores highly. With six handpulls beside the door, the beer changes regularly and is generally well kept. Deuchars IPA is also on permanently further down the bar. The prices are on the higher side for the city with most real ales approaching £4 a pint but such is life. There is also a huge range of whisky and I believe you can get lunch here though I’ve never tried it and I really do associate this place with drink rather than food.

Kay’s Bar is very Edinburgh, in particular very New Town Edinburgh. It has featured in books by novelist Ian Rankin and indeed is one of the author’s own favourite Edinburgh pubs, handily situated just the other side of Queen Street from the Oxford Bar. I’d urge everyone to seek out this quiet back street and come in for a pint. It’s particularly inviting on a winter’s evening when you can feel the warmth exuding from this pub and the light behind the frosted glass looks so inviting. I’ll never be rich enough to have this as my local but for the time being, I’m happy to pop in every now and then to pretend.

Kay’s Bar is at 39 Jamaica Street, Edinburgh, EH3 6HF

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