Located off the main A68 south-east of Dalkeith and within shouting distance of Scotland’s capital city, The Stair Arms in Pathhead sits high above the River Tyne in an enviable countryside location.
The country inn, a ‘B’ listed historic building – was built in the1830s as a coaching inn covering the route between the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh. Originally commissioned by the late Lord and Lady Stair of Oxenfoord in 1831. The venue has recently undergone a complete refurbishment of its main public areas and all 12 bedrooms.
Driving along the mist-shrouded A68, a traditional stone-built building emerged as I drove into the large car park. I had a pre-determined idea of what to expect inside with dark wood, brassware, tartan curtains and carpets bedecking the interior. What a mistake that was, but more later.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say, that from the outside, The Old Inn at Appin is not much to look at. In fact, if it were not for the name on the wall you’d probably drive straight past.
However, I’ll say it now, nice and early on in this review, don’t drive by otherwise you’re missing out on something very special indeed!
Located at the bottom of Appin Brae, I know the area well, having been brought up in Ballachulish for the first 23 years of my life. I’ve parked in what is now the restaurant car park more times than I can recollect while photographing Castle Stalker in Loch Laich.
Located in an old renovated stone-built building which dates from the 1700s, the front door is actually around the back of the building, which is just as well because the building is located right on the roadside with no pavement. And remember that brae I mentioned, it’s a 13 per cent gradient drop, and the pub is slap bang front and centre at the foot of it.
There’s a large off-road car park area with space for 12 to 15 cars from which a solid path underfoot leads to that rear (front) door. Because there are no steps I regard the restaurant as being disabled-friendly in terms of access.
Once inside, like the exterior, look past the interior design elements. It’s fair to say it’s functional and not going to be winning any London Design Week Awards anytime soon. I immediately thought of a converted cow byre for some reason but could be completely off in that regard.
It’s one large room with a vaulted wooden ceiling adorned with Christmas fairy lights. Formed by an open plan design with approximately 12 tables. The walls are original stone upon which hangs an eclectic mix of swords, antlers, oil paintings, and other assorted paraphernalia. The tables and chairs are of a similar odd mismatch assortment, including four wooden church pews and two slabs of cut oak which have warped with use/age so are no longer flat! It’s a rather unique take on restaurant dining. But this critic rolls with the punches and goes with the flow – and absolutely loved its quirkiness.
Despite the many eccentricities, and I haven’t gotten onto the female I very nearly became ‘good friends’ with yet – it’s a fun place, with no need for jackets and ties, stuffy pomposity or fussiness. It’s one of those places – a bit like Marmite I expect – you either walk in and sit down or simply turn around and walk straight back out. I was in for the long haul.
But more are sitting down than turning around, and you’ll have to book a table as it is now very popular indeed. Open on a Tuesday to Saturday only between 4 and 10pm it serves as both the locals watering hole and providing food for those travelling from further afield.
We visited on a Tuesday night and in the good old Scots vernacular – “It was going like a fair.” On arrival, the bar was busy with several locals enjoying an after-work drink, some in boiler suits, while around 12 covers were seated and/or being served. Soon that number was up to around 20. They were literally piling through the door.
I’ll give you a wee tip – take a duvet with you, at a push a good down jacket would suffice. There’s a wood burner in one corner and if you’re sitting near it then I’m sure it’d be fairly comfortable. Because we hadn’t booked, it was a case of ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ and we were in the church pews near the bar which was much colder. Probably because it’s next to the door, which could easily have just been a revolving one!
Notwithstanding, I was happy to forego that extra level of comfort to try one of their steaks – you only need to look at Tripadvisor to see they are doing something exceptionally well indeed. The restaurant is currently sitting at number one in Appin, but when you consider another local hotel restaurant is listed as having: Cesar Award Best Luxury Hotel in Scotland – Good Hotel Guide 2020; Best Scottish Luxury Hotel of the year – Hotel Awards Scotland 2019; Best Fine Dining Restaurant 2019 Luxury Life Awards and listed with Relais and Chateaux, this wee nondescript place is doing remarkable things locally.
I was even prepared to ignore that local lady I mentioned earlier, who, I suspect having enjoyed more than a few sherries almost landed in my lap as she bounced around like a pinball!
We foodies will put up with a lot to eat at the next “in place”.
Don’t expect a menu of four pages with 60 choices. You’ll be very disappointed. The choice of food is marked on a blackboard and on entering you are told to consider taking a photograph of it before sitting down. I told you it was a quirky wee place! There are extremely limited options. Primarily offering steak, two fish and two veggie options. There is also a choice of three starters and two puddings on offer. The one bonus with this system is that you’re not still trying to choose 45 minutes after arriving at The Old Inn.
Drinks orders were delivered by the very cheery and helpful waitress/barmaid who was also taking orders from customers.
It was a pate starter for me which I have to say was very definitely home-made and delicious. There was a hint of alcohol along with a fruitiness normally associated with a quality chicken liver pate, but which was also creamy and with a nice earthy aftertaste. Much rougher in texture than a parfait, it was a perfect slab of pate served with a side salad, a chutney and home-made oatcakes. We were off to a fine start for the evening.
Highland T-bone steak (22oz), served with fries, salad and a peppercorn sauce – £32
I then opted for the Highland T-bone steak weighing in at an advertised 22 ounces. You may recollect me mentioning it was a limited menu, so when I asked what the steak was served with – I got the answer chips, salad and sauce!
So, bold as you like, risking life and limb perhaps, I requested no salad, fries, mushrooms and a blue cheese sauce along with some onion rings. I was given a withering stare as if I had had the temerity of asking for a half Loch Laich lobster topped with caviar to be served sitting proudly on top of my steak. I was advised, in the nicest possible way, that The Old Inn doesn’t do options. You can have a salad, fries and a peppercorn sauce, or indeed any combination from those three items, but that’s it! No discussion needed. fair enough folks, your place, your rules, I can easily live with that.
So there you have it then, it’s a take it or leave it scenario and I for one, having viewed some of the acerbic responses left on Tripadvisor to negative reviews was not going to chance my arm and appear as some smart arse city boy let loose for a day trip on the expenses charge card. No sir, there was no way I was going to lose out on what everyone else was telling me was a damn fine steak, cooked to perfection.
Okay, a wooden platter borne on high containing a lump of meat that first looked like it might actually have been a small cow arrived at the table! Served with enough chips that would have fed a small community for a week during a failed harvest, accompanied by a decent-sized pot of peppercorn sauce, this meaty vision of delight (which could possibly involve some sweating) was laid in front of me. I had requested that the steak be cooked rare. Always in my view, the test of a good chef.
Anyone can cook a well-done steak, even my good old mum, God bless her, only had two steak cooking settings: Cremated or slightly less, the three-year-old shoe leather option, but the proof of a chefs ability lies in their competence at cooking meat to other standards. To be fair, my steak was cooked absolutely perfectly. Slightly charred and sealed on the outside while it was rare and pink on the inside. Although the menu states this is a 20-ounce piece of meat, I strongly suspected this was closer to a good 30 ounces it was that large. But not wishing to enrage the owner/proprietor/chef or whoever leaves the withering comments on Tripadvisor, I wasn’t going to ask them to weigh it for me.
Now I hear you asking “but what kind of beef”. That’s easy – check this picture out. Forget your Aberdeen Angus or even the ridiculously overpriced Wagyu beef, if you like a good quality Scottish steak reared outside in all weathers, then Highland beef is an absolute must. Seek it out – I implore you, it’s not widely used by restaurants, and more’s the pity.
It’s an earthy flavour with a rich, almost iron taste but with an overall sweetness in the chewing and aftertaste. It’s remarkable meat and my cut – the T-bone had just enough fat that had partly rendered down. I say partly because, to get the very best flavour out of a cut like this “on the bone” it needs a longer time on the grill to fully cook out its fat content, and I’d recommend a medium-rare for this type of steak. For me, this has always had to be a trade-off between how I like my meat cooked and being true to the beef itself. I flagellate regularly on a Friday evening around 6pm to try and teach myself the error of my ways!
Did I mention the peppercorn sauce or the fries? No, then I’m sorry. The wee pot of creamy goodness absolutely filled with cracker peppercorns, and nothing else, was a right mouthful of heat, and when added to a chunk of meat, provided that essential extra to the overall balance of the dish. The fries – well they are those wee finger-like potato bites the French call frites. You might have seen something similar in a certain fast-food restaurant with ‘golden arches’ as a logo – still at a loss, aaw OK, Micky D’s then. But you know what, we critics can get right cheesed off with duck fat basted, triple-cooked, skin-on chips. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a wee simple fry.
To have found such a quality cut of beef in such an unassuming little restaurant on the West Coast of Scotland, essentially in a village where, if you blink while driving past you’ll miss it. This was a recommendation by more than one Facebook friend and what a lucky find. One of those moments when nothing else matters other than the piece of beef on your plate, or in this case on a wooden board.
Sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream – £6
Dessert, in this case, was a sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream. Oh my. A delicate and light sponge base sitting in a butterscotch toffee sauce, topped with a good-sized blob of vanilla ice cream. This is sticky toffee pudding at its absolute best. The number of times I have reviewed this dish and written how it’s been too heavy or claggy and nothing like it should be – a light and delicate finish to a meal – and which should never be swimming in a pool of sickly sweet sauce. It’s a 10/10 for the dessert as well. Or here in the highlands is it just a pudding?
The Old Inn doesn’t have a website but you can find them on Facebook at: The Old Inn or call them directly on 07725 409003.
As I mentioned earlier we foodies love finding the next best place and, I urge you to get yourself to the Highlands and to visit The Old Inn at Portnacroish in Appin. But don’t leave it too long as I forecast you’ll soon have to ‘take a ticket’ and wait your turn for a table.
Sometimes in life you just have to take a chance – go with your instincts and move forward. Such was the case with my very first Airbnb booking.
And that’s what led me to Sula, a holiday cottage on a secluded beach in rural Argyll in the Scottish Highlands.
The new-build two-storey home is located at Cuil Bay in the small hamlet of Duror which is equidistant between the seaside town of Oban on the West Coast of Scotland and the outdoor capital of the Highlands at Fort William and has some absolutely spectacular views across the beach on which there is easy access for both walking and fishing.
I once wrote about a seafood restaurant telling readers I didn’t think it could be bettered – well read on, because Loch Fyne Seafood and Grill in Edinburgh has just stolen the crown!
The restaurant, located in the old fish market at Newhaven Harbour in Leith has just undergone a complete refurbishment from the flooring to the ceiling. And, boy does it look good now.
I’ve no idea who the designer is but, like me, he or she has obviously done some travelling down the coast of Maine in the USA. The pastoral greens and blues, the light wood accents on the floors and in the tables/chairs, the large floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the harbour – are all very reminiscent of the many lobster and crab shacks all along the eastern seaboard.
The Cliffs Hotel, owned by the Choice Hotel Group, is an older Victorian-style hotel located on Queen’s Promenade approximately one mile from the town centre.
It couldn’t be in a better location for those visiting Blackpool. It’s roughly a 15-minute walk from the hotels front door to the city centre. Of course, if you can’t be bothered doing that you needn’t worry as there’s a tram stop right outside.
My booking was made directly with the hotel reservations unit and was completely fuss-free; in fact, it was one of the easiest bookings I’ve made. Reservations staff were exceptionally helpful with everything that was thrown at them.
There are certain events in life that should feature on a bucket list – and for me, visiting an attraction that I’ve been trying to get tickets to for more than three years – The Enchanted Forest in Perthshire, was just one such event.
And the reason it’s taken me three years to obtain tickets to this sound and light open-air spectacular is only down to the fact it sells out the moment tickets go on sale every year – and I’ve always been too slow!
However, this time around I was lucky enough to ensure that the moment they opened up the sales desk I was there faster than many sprinters, no easy task for someone like me, and got hold of four tickets for the family.
The Merchant City area of Glasgow is now a rather upmarket and trendy location which is why it was no great surprise to find this is where the hipster pancake restaurant Stack and Still can be found.
Located on West George Street you’ll find there is very little parking available locally and I would recommend you use public transport.
I visited with daughter number one on a Saturday mid-morning in advance of a gin tasting afternoon and thought that some pre-loaded carbohydrate would be a good idea. Talk about busy, the place was almost full, it was heaving. I’ll tell you now there’re many restaurants out there who would sell their grannies to be this busy at 11am on a Saturday morning.
And, it’s not exactly a small restaurant either. I estimated they can easily cover 200 diners in what is basically an open-plan setting with Glasgow’s first self dispense bar.
As a food reviewer, I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have eaten in some of the best restaurants and tasted some of the finest dishes, but sometimes, just sometimes, you leave somewhere in the sure and certain knowledge that a relatively unknown eatery is set for stardom!
And that couldn’t be truer for Edinburgh’s Surf and Turf restaurant on Holyrood Road.
This is the kind of place when word gets out as to how good it actually is, you’ll soon have to make a booking. Walk-ins will become a thing of the distant past. I’m just surprised it’s not been ‘found’ yet.
Having stayed overnight at the Allan Ramsay Hotel in Carlops, we decided not to eat out and to try their own restaurant. And what a fortuitous decision that was. In fact, it was that good I’ve decided it merits a review all of its own.
So, having booked a table for 8pm we duly arrived at 7.45pm to be shown to a nice corner table where we wouldn’t be overlooked by others, but, we needn’t have worried on that front, as you’ll find out later!
If you, like me, dislike modern or boutique style hotels, preferring something with a bit of character, perhaps an older coaching inn, with wooden beams and open fires, then you’re going to love the Allan Ramsay Hotel in the village of Carlops near Midlothian.
I say village, but it could equally well be described as a hamlet. A couple of dozen houses, the hotel, a church, a pair of bus stops, telephone and a postbox and that’s basically your lot. Blink and you could easily miss it.
It would not be unfair to say that the Allan Ramsay Hotel is truly at the heart of the community being slap bang in the centre of the village. Interestingly it has a plaque in the bar to prove exactly that point. Places like this are the literal lifeblood of small communities across the country, serving a purpose far beyond that of food and drink. They are a meeting point, an entertainment venue, a ‘local’, a place to eat, and so much more.