By a quirk of fate, Bennets Bar in Tollcross was both the last pub I visited in 2013 and the first I visited in 2014. Lucky me, I should think, as a good acquaintance of mine rates this as the best pub in Edinburgh. Now, it’s too early in my pub blogging career to be handing out accolades like that but I can see where he’s coming from.
A drinking establishment of some description has stood here since 1839, however it has not always been Bennets. The current pub was born in 1906 when the King’s Theatre replaced the Taylor MacLeod brewery next door. Since then, not much has changed and for this we should be thankful.
So it was, I found myself here at lunchtime on Hogmanay. As the thousands of people who flock to Edinburgh wandered round a chilly city centre, waiting for the party to begin, we cosied ourselves up in Bennets for a few beers and a spot of lunch. I don’t have many negatives about this place so I’ll get my main one out of the way first – the limited selection of ale that was available on my two recent visits. I feel this should be the kind of place where you can spend a whole afternoon or evening and not have the same pint twice but options appeared to be limited over the festive period. My aforementioned acquaintance was also disappointed to find that Schiehallion from Harviestoun, normally a regular on tap, was also unavailable.
Minor grumblings aside, there were plenty positives, including the food. Now, this is the kind of place that you might expect the food to be a toastie or a pie, if you’re lucky – something like that served at the Malt & Hops. Not so. The menu at Bennets is far more extensive and of a high quality. My chicken and chorizo melt with bowl of chips was tremendous while my fellow diners were impressed by their burgers and fish and chips. It is perhaps not too surprising that the bar food is decent given that the back room of the pub is now the Skean Dhu, a standalone restaurant that has been completely refurbished in the past few years. Our satisfying lunch was complemented by a suitably Scottish soundtrack, including Deacon Blue, Runrig and Aztec Camera, played at a low volume in the background. Well, it was Hogmanay.
I’ve touched on the interior of the place and the bar area really is stunning. Opposite the bar are beautiful mirrors above several booths and the round, glass-topped tables featuring maps of Edinburgh and Scotland are a great touch. They’re also genuinely useful as when I visited on 3rd January, myself and a friend were able to locate both our new offices on one of the maps and work out possible lunch options. As we’re both near Sighthill and the Gyle, for “options”, read “burger van”.
At the far end of the bar, which features fully operational brass water taps, there’s a roaring fire and this seems to be the area occupied by those lucky enough to call this their local. They are ably served by cheery, smartly-dressed bar staff who were quite taken by my acquaintance’s dog Eric, who was suitably fussed over, offered a biscuit and provided with a bowl of water.
The pub was never too busy on the two recent occasions I was there but it’s obviously incredibly popular with theatre goers and I’ve been there when it’s been standing room only on a Six Nations afternoon (there are a couple of televisions that show big sporting events). The clientele is generally older, Edinburgh sorts with a fair smattering of tourist groups. Actors from the King’s next door can often be seen in as well, and the bar itself found fame when it starred in the television adaptation of Ian Rankin’s standalone novel Doors Open at Christmas 2012. Look out for Stephen Fry enjoying a pint in the booth beside the front door as he and his partners in crime plot to steal artwork from the National Museum of Scotland’s depository. It would be interesting to hear what he’d think of the rather entertaining middle class graffiti that was scrawled on the door in the gents:
Best pub in Edinburgh? No. Well, maybe, but I have plenty others to visit before I start making such ridiculous claims. Give it a go though – admire the interior, find yourself on the map and order some food.
Bennets Bar is at 8 Leven Street, Tollcross, Edinburgh, EH3 9LG and you can find it on Facebook here.