I don’t go to church. Well, unless someone gets married or insists on Christening their child. Or it’s Christmas Eve and they’re doing carols at St Giles – suddenly I come over all religious then. No, as a non-believer, my most visited church in Edinburgh is no longer a sacred place, it’s a pub. So, is Cloisters Bar near Tollcross worthy of your worship?
OK, so the name is the first hint at the true nature of this building. Situated on Brougham Street, and looking resplendent with its red doors and windows and hanging baskets, there’s no mistaking this place’s former purpose as you enter underneath the sign for All Saints Parsonage. However, once in it’s not as churchy – well, as ornately churchy – as you might expect.
Yes, there are church pews for seats and the odd stained glass window but Cloisters is more spartan or utilitarian than elaborate or bejewelled. Sort of split in two, there is a main room that’s pretty square and then an area off to the side with some small tables that feel a little remote from the body of the kirk, if you’ll pardon the expression. These are situated instead round the spiral staircase that leads down to the toilets (mind your step if you’ve enjoyed a few ales as it’s quite tight!). Still, this area offers the perfect spot for a solo pint or pursuit such as the crossword. I feel that to really experience Cloisters, however, you need to be where the action is.
The main room is stark but cosy. The bar runs along one side while a real fire crackles away beside some of the larger tables. Windows run the length of the wall opposite the bar while mirrors and old cigarette adverts decorate the place but not in a cover every space possible kind of way. It’s more geometric than cluttered. Board games are advertised on a blackboard in the corner.
This place has a great atmosphere when it’s busy. Indeed, it’s the kind of place where, if you bag one of the limited number of tables in the main bar, you’ll feel smug, warm and comfortable all evening as the tableless look on in envy. It’s popular on a Six Nations weekend and also amongst those that fancy a game of Scrabble or a quiet read of one of the books that are on the mantelpiece.
I guess Cloisters’ only real problem is that it’s small – you’re playing a dangerous game if you decide to meet a large group there only to find someone got their first and bagged the table by the fire. If, however, you simply want to catch up with a mate or two, this place is perfect. Quiet, functional and perfect for a natter. A natter over some excellent beer or wine, no less.
Cloisters Bar happens to be a real ale mecca. With eight or more beers on tap, be sure to check out the blackboard to your left as you stand at the bar. Also remember that there are a number of taps on the side of the bar. Many a time I’ve looked up at the blackboard and then struggled to find the beers advertised to then realise they’re a foot to my right, side on. My ears pricked up the last time I was in when I overheard (I think) that they had De Koninck on tap. A Belgian beer, I’ve drunk this a lot in Amsterdam and have one of their distinctive glasses at home. I didn’t get round to drinking it here on this occasion but will look out for it in future.
Food is simple and straightforward with four mains plus burgers on offer alongside sandwiches and some smaller dishes such as soup and chicken tempura. Cloisters doesn’t do dinner but they do have a tapas menu from 5.30pm till late, Tuesday to Saturday. I’ve got to be honest, though, you don’t come to Cloisters Bar for the food. It’s the beer, conviviality and a warm spot by the fire that make this place a must-visit in Edinburgh.
I felt when I came round to reviewing Cloisters that I would be more effusive in my praise. I guess it’s tough to follow an act such as Bennets Bar, just up the road. However, Cloisters is a great, great pub. If it was my local, I’d feel like I’d died and gone to heaven. If I believed in it, of course. Amen.
Cloisters Bar is at 26 Brougham St, Edinburgh EH3 9JH. Follow their active, informative and enjoyable tweeting here