I have to admit that until recently, I had assumed the Bow Bar on Victoria Street had been around for a long, long time. I thought it was a Cafe Royal or Guildford Arms that had been delighting Edinburgh’s pub-going fraternity for generations. It came as a surprise then to find out that in its current guise, it has only existed since the early 1990s. This hasn’t affected my opinion of the place, it just made me go, “Oh, really?” Anyway, what is the Bow Bar like?
Spartan might be the first word I’d go for. In terms of layout, it doesn’t get much simpler. One room, a bar taking up just over half of one side and a selection of wooden tables and chairs. I do love those tiny, thin tables that you get in places like this and Diggers in Gorgie. Just wide enough for a pint, really. And it’s touches like that in here that had convinced me this place had been like this since at least the early 20th century.
But, no. According to The Deuchars Guide to Edinburgh Pubs (foreword by Ian Rankin): “The Bow Bar was in fact conceived in the early 1990s by a man called Ian White who specialised in restoring old pubs and then selling them on . . . using old wood from deconsecrated churches to build the bar, benches from disused railway stations and original mirrors bought at auction.” Well, hats off to Mr White as he’d convinced me this place had a longer history than it can really boast. (It’s hard to believe that the pub recently celebrated Back to the Future Day but, unlike the DeLorean that was parked outside, it didn’t actually exist in 1985.)
My charity shop guidebook purchase also informs me that the Bow Bar was the very first pub to serve Deuchars. An interesting fact, indeed. But thankfully they do boast more than one beer – there are eight brass taps dispensing an ever-changing array of ales and they have regular beer festivals throughout the year. I did read a thread on Facebook the other day where someone was complaining that the beer in here is always warm. I’ve never noticed this, I have to say. What they do have is a Cloisters-like informative blackboard with all the beer info in a handy at-a-glance guide. I approve.
My most recent visit was a wee while ago – towards the end of the Edinburgh Festival, in fact. It was a warm night and the pub had a really friendly yet lively atmosphere. The clientele was a mix of older, real ale-loving gents and large groups of young foreign students and tourists. All were getting on famously and the staff are always happy to offer tasters of ale and talk you through the options. Whisky’s not my bag but I believe they do have one of the best selections in Edinburgh.
Although this particular evening was busy, I have been in here quite a few times of a weekday lunchtime. It can be quiet. Very quiet. I applaud them for their no music policy but it does mean the place can sometimes feel like a library, especially as it does seem to attract the solo beer drinker, happy to while away an hour or so with the crossword or merely immerse themselves in their own thoughts. To be fair, I do include myself in this description.
Food-wise, you can get a pie at lunchtime but don’t expect anything more than that. However, this place is ideally placed for a pre-dinner drink if you’re heading to the likes of Maison Bleu across the road. The Bow Bar is for drinking and chatting, not having your tea.
I like the Bow Bar. I do think it’s a tiny bit overrated – CAMRA salivate over it but I do think it lacks the atmosphere of some of Edinburgh’s other classic watering holes. Still, it was there for me late on the Friday night of my [quiet, well-behaved] stag do a couple of years ago for a final beer before bed. For that I will be forever grateful.