I’ve never hidden the fact that I like Edinburgh’s traditional pubs – the Guildford Arms, Bennets, that kind of thing. So I find the Queens Arms on Frederick Street a funny one. Opened back in 2010, I’ve been in briefly a couple of times and I’ve never shaken that nagging doubt that it’s a new pub trying to be old and that somehow that counts against it. But then I got thinking – does that matter? Should I penalise a pub for actually trying to be what I want? It needed an in-depth investigation and a Monday night dinner with Mrs Bar Fly was the vehicle for my enquiries.
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.
The Cambridge Bar has always felt more burger-bar-like than pub-like
Like the River Thames between Mortlake and Putney, Edinburgh’s Young Street also sees Oxford competing with Cambridge. Unlike the annual boat race however, the two pubs in question here have stood yards apart every day for many years. And maybe “competing” is the wrong word as the similarities between Rebus’s favourite Oxford Bar and the younger, more modern Cambridge Bar are few and far between.
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 remember being in the Oxford Bar on Young Street a number of years ago, round about Six Nations time. Enjoying a pint with a mate in the back room, two Welsh guys were discussing Ian Rankin’s famous creation, Rebus, and his choice of pubs. Turning to us, one of them enquired: “Where’s the Rebus pub, mate, the one he drinks in?” Slightly confused, I replied, “This is it.” Glancing round the spartan room with a look of confusion, our Welsh drinking friend said simply: “Really? Bit sh*t innit?” While perhaps a little harsh, I know what he means.