Before the Cumberland Bar was taken over by DM Stewart, owners of the excellent Guildford Arms, I was a big fan of the pub. Great ale was complemented by good but unfancy food, including their excellent curly fries. OK, so it really was pub fare – a lot of deep frying and toasting going on – but it was cheap and generally what you wanted for lunch or with a pint after work. Things have changed in the New Town now though and while I may still be a fan of the pub, I feel it’s perhaps resting on its laurels a little. I don’t want to be overly critical but when the Edinburgh pub scene is so vibrant, no hostelry can afford to rely on its name alone.
I like the Cumberland Bar. I’ve been there twice in the past fortnight and I’ll no doubt go again. The range of ale is great, you’ll invariably get a seat, it’s dog friendly and there’s outside space if the weather is good. Unfortunately, my opinion has gone down recently due to one majorly poor food experience and the general feeling that there’s a little bit of a malaise about the place.
As mentioned, the food used to be good but nothing fancy. Now they’re doing more upmarket meals which is why we chose to go as a large group towards the end of October. I won’t dwell on that experience as I appreciate it was a few months ago but it was bad enough to ensure I wouldn’t eat again there any time soon. The roast that many had was awful, despite the Cumberland boasting about it and the Independent rating it one of the top 50 roasts in the UK in 2013; my burger was dull and dry; the staff were clueless and the service patchy at best though no one was outright rude. All in all, not great. However, I rate pubs more on their ambiance, interiors and beer and in most of these areas the Cumberland Bar scores highly.
It certainly scored particularly highly the other day when I discovered it had three of my favourite light ales on: Jarl by Fyne Ales, Ossian by Inveralmond and Orkney Best by the Highland Brewing Co. Given it was a warm Edinburgh teatime, sitting by the window at the Cumberland with any of these pints as the late afternoon sun lit them up was a rather pleasant experience. Chuck in the fantastic chorizo-flavoured crisps which were a new experience for me and it’s happy days.
What’s that, though? There was a little niggle? Yes, there was. A table near to us obviously hosted diners earlier in the afternoon but for a long time their detritus sat there, apparently unnoticed by the good few bar staff on duty. It’s not like the pub was busy, it was just easier for the staff to lean back against the bar and chat with each other and regulars at the bar than occasionally do a walk round. This is the difference between a decent pub and Edinburgh’s best pubs – a willingness to never drop your levels of service and cleanliness.
Internally, the Cumberland Bar is an impressive warren of rooms. There is the main bar, long and thin that opens up at the front and faces on to the quiet and rather pleasant Cumberland Street. Off the main drag, a couple of little snugs offer hideaways for small groups while the more restaurant-like area at the back features a real fire and doubles as a function room as well as being home to the Monday night quiz. Hosted by Edinburgh quiz legend Dave, expect one answer every week to either be “Belgium” or “Belgian”. Sticking to the quiz theme, the back room was also the perfect backdrop to a large game of Trivial Pursuit we indulged in after our very disappointing Sunday lunch.
Outside, the pub has a sheltered, basement beer garden with plenty picnic tables for a few al fresco beers on those beautiful sunny Edinburgh days that we get every so often. It’s a little bit of a trek downstairs to the toilet where you’ll also spot a little meeting room which you can hire if you need somewhere quiet to plot world domination.
Have I been overly harsh on the Cumberland Bar? Maybe. Perhaps we went for food on a very bad day and the non-clearance of dishes was a one off. I just get annoyed when a pub I really like fails to live up to the high standards I hold it to. But if you’re a Michelin-starred restaurant, for example, you know that an inspector can come in at any time on any day so you always have to be at the top of your game. I’m just concerned that the Cumberland is a little slipshod and relying rather too much on its New Town position and past reputation. I’ll still be in for a pint again soon though and would never discourage anyone from heading along. If you do, drop me a line and reassure me that the food is actually very good and tables were cleared quickly . . .