Pub crawl and comfort food in Edinburgh

After our tasting at the Scotch Whisky Experience, we did what any self-respecting whisky chasers would do: we went out for a pub crawl. Often we read about how the pub culture in Britain, particularly in England, is slowly disappearing. We saw no evidence of this demise in Edinburgh; the city is swarming with classic, historic, traditional pubs and lots of upscale gastropubs. Though it would have been wiser to retire back to the Airbnb and catch up on some much-needed sleep, we caught a fourth wind and headed out to explore the local watering holes. It was Friday night after all, and we only had two precious nights booked in the city. Our objectives: find good cold craft beer, find good local music, and some good traditional comfort food. We succeeded on all fronts.

A pint of local IPA at the Jolly Judge.

Our kind host, John, offered to drive back into the city and pick up our camera gear so we didn’t have to lug it around town with us. It was a typical act of Scottish hospitality that we would find repeated several times during our journey. He recommended a rendezvous at the Jolly Judge Pub, just a stone’s throw from the Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile. It was an excellent suggestion: a short trip off the main street down an alley into a courtyard down a short flight of stairs brings you into the basement level pub. It was a small, warm, cozy space, complete with crackling fire and colorful local characters clustered around the small bar. In essence, a perfect old pub. The space was crammed with small tables, all of which were occupied. Though it was busy, the friendly bartenders spotted us quickly and recommended some good local bitter ale. We opted for the Tempest Brewing Long White Cloud Pale Ale, an IPA-ish non-filtered style with a nice bitterness and lovely balance. It was poured on a nitro tap which added to the rich, creamy texture of the beer, and it was refreshingly cold (as an Americans we’re still somewhat enamored with cold beer, as improper as that may be to some). Since there was no place to sit inside, we took our beers outside and sat in the cool night of the courtyard, where we were overwhelmed by a long white cloud of cigarette smoke emanating from a raucous group of twenty-somethings sitting nearby. But it was an authentic experience at a very old Scottish pub, and the beer cloud was excellent. We chatted with one of the bartenders who had stepped outside for a fag (a smoke), and we joked about the various types of tourists that came through this increasingly busy city.

“The Americans are usually friendly, but you gotta watch out for them in the traffic circles. Especially during the summer festival, there are accidents everywhere.” I took this advice to heart and made a mental note to be extra careful in the roundabouts.
John met us with car just after we had finished our pints and of course offered to drive us to our next destination. We told him we wanted to find some good local traditional music, in the hopes that we could find some for the film soundtrack. He immediately recommended Sandy Bell’s, a nearby pub that was famous as a gathering place for local acoustic musicians. After a twenty minute “tour” through the old city, which left us extremely thirsty, we arrived at Sandy Bell’s, situated at the lower end of the old city. The place was bigger than the Jolly Judge, but was still rather small and well-worn.

Sandy Bell’s Pub, a classic spot for local music.

We sidled up to an empty spot next to the bar, next to a rather rough-looking fellow who seemed like he could have been a character out of a Guy Ritchie film. Of course he ended up being extremely polite and friendly – like almost all the Scots we met – and we had a good chat about Scotch and beer and places to go see in the countryside. After a couple pints and a dram of Glenkinchie we got hungry and were told that excellent traditional comfort food could be found directly across the street at Mum’s Great Comfort Food. So we popped over just before closing and had one of the best meals of the trip.

Cold beer at Mum’s Comfort Food.

I ordered the mixed game meat pie that came loaded up with pheasant, venison, and a few other types of beasties topped up with a big, fat, fluffy puff pastry. Meat pies are a staple of Scotland, as they are in England and Australia. They are more diverse in presentation than I would have thought, and the “crust” can be a classic pie crust, a puff pastry, a piece of toasted bread, or sometimes a pile of broiled mashed potatoes. The puff pastry crust on my pie was delicious, and added a fluffy lightness to the rich, savory filling. We also ordered a sausage casserole that came with a tomato-based gravy and butter beans. It was good, but the pie was the star. Even though they were about to close, the staff was exceedingly  friendly and welcoming and we had a great meal.

The fabulous mixed game pie, the night’s special.

Sausage casserole at Mum’s.


Afterwards we headed back across the street, to catch the music that started at 9 pm. In the back of the bar a group of musicians with guitars, fiddles and mandolins played all sorts of traditional Scottish music while a woman played along on a battered old stand-up piano.

The back music room at Sandy Bell’s.

We stayed for a couple hours, enjoying music that ranged from somber to raucous, and then afterwards went across the street to a late-night middle Eastern place for a schwarma to finish off our epic day. It was past midnight, and though John offered to drive us back at any hour, we rang up an Uber instead and made it back to the house around 1:00 am. And just like a good mother, Sandra was still up waiting for us, just to make sure we got back safely. She was cheerful at that late hour, and said, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m used to staying up anyways waiting for the grandson to come home. He often stays with us on the weekends.” And so we slipped off to bed, tired, full, and buzzing with the energy of Edinburgh.

A toast to the pubs of Edinburgh. Sandy Bell’s.