CHOP . . . and the knives are out, the blades sharpened, mouths watering for the meatiest, toughest and most brutal battle for survival to ever hit Edinburgh’s bustling restaurant scene.
For as belts are tightened and the city’s restaurants feel the pinch, a food fight is about to get under way and in one corner will be one of the nation’s best loved and most familiar celebrity chefs.
Pukka poster boy for a generation of food show fans, Jamie Oliver is about to descend on Edinburgh with his new George Street restaurant, firing the latest custard pie salvo in a desperate battle for survival which has already claimed one of the city’s big names.
Earlier this month, French brasserie La Garrigue stumbled and fell, its New Town branch a victim of the economic downturn which has seen too few diners spending too little of their hard-earned cash.
While chef Jean-Michel Gauffre’s two other eateries, La Garrigue in Jeffrey Street and La Garrigue Bistro in Leith’s Commercial Street, survive, first blood in the latest battle to erupt on Edinburgh’s boiling hot restaurant scene had been drawn. The chef said at the time: “A lot of the industry is suffering, the amount of cash that people have to spend just now is getting tighter and tighter.”
He added: “The really high-class restaurants are doing well. People who go there have enough money to pay the kind of prices that these places demand. Then you get the lower market, who can afford to discount a little bit more, but for the ones in the middle – like mine – life is tougher.”
The bad news for struggling restaurants is that it’s not going to get better. The months to come will see an influx of new names on the restaurant scene – led by Oliver – to further squeeze the chef in the middle.
According to foodie Stephen Jardine, of city-based food-related marketing and PR firm Taste Communications, around 500 more covers will become available this summer.
“This summer will be a bloody time for restaurants in Edinburgh,” he predicts. “We have a spate of big openings coming up which will put existing restaurants under huge strain.
“Jamie Oliver will come to George Street in July; Andrew Radford, who used to run The Atrium and Blue, is opening in Lady Lawson Street; and the Galvin brothers, who are a really big name, will be at the refurbished Caledonian Hotel.
“Those at the top end will be fine. At the other end, the chains like Pizza Express, Strada, will be fine because they have the scale to deliver effectively. It’s the guys in the middle that are under strain. They are already finding it tough and it is going to get tougher.”
As if that’s not challenging enough, restaurants are confronted by bargain-hunting diners who are becoming used to paying for meals with two-for-one and money-off vouchers. Adding to a perfect storm is a rising trend for guerrilla restaurants and home-based supper clubs, where talented cooks open their own homes for guests or run pop-up events, serving set-price meals without the same overheads as a traditional restaurant.
It has meant chefs and restaurateurs have had to create a fresh blend of ingredients to help their businesses cope. For some, that’s involved switching from simply cooking food to creating entertainment for diners with guest chefs, theme nights and special events, such as Mithas in Dock Place, Leith, which has been hosting successful charity guest chef evenings with the likes of Nick Nairn, Ondine’s Roy Brett and, this weekend, London Michelin Bib Gourmand Indian chef Cyrus Todiwala.
Meanwhile, others are embracing a more “organic” approach, adopting strategies which draw attention to their ethos for seasonal, homegrown produce.
“Restaurants have to be seen as offering something different,” adds Jardine. “The people who run Centotre in George Street and the Scottish Cafe at The Mound now have a garden on the outskirts of Edinburgh where they grow their own produce which they’ll bring from outside the city right to the table. These kinds of things capture the public’s imagination.”
In Corstorphine, businessman Shamy Singh is in the process of putting the final touches to The Spice Lounge Kitchen, which will open in two weeks’ time on the site of the former Rainbow Inn. He agrees that restaurants are now having to think smarter. “We will have three separate menus,” he says. “One is a fine dining, a la carte menu, there will also be a tapas and a bar menu. If someone wants a few drinks and a snack, we’ll do that.
“It’s a tough time at the moment. People are still going to go out and spend money on good quality food, but they are looking for a new dining experience all the time.”
It doesn’t get much different from Aoife Behan’s style of eating out. Her thriving supper clubs, held at her own home, have brought a new style of eating out to diners seeking informal get-togethers. She doesn’t believe the clubs necessarily draw diners away from traditional restaurants, but simply offers an alternative.
“There has been a lack of diversity in Edinburgh. There’s fantastic fine dining but at middle-market level the restaurants can be a bit ‘samey’. The supper club idea shows people are looking for something new.”
At New Town French restaurant Café St Honore, Scottish chef of the year Neil Forbes has embraced the “guerilla restaurant” trend and even joined in, making burgers in a Leith “greasy spoon” as part of Aoife’s Burgher Burger club, which brings chefs to unusual venues where they create a relaxed burger meal.
“You have to diversify and do things that are different and fun,” he stresses. “If someone is going to come to Café St Honore for dinner, they’re not going to change their mind and go to a supper club instead. We can live together.
“You have to do events to help keep busy and develop a unique selling point. We have a little courtyard garden and grow our own garlic, strawberries, apples and tatties.”
Of course, not all can throw homegrown veg into the mix, but those who opt for embracing cheap meal and voucher schemes may pay a price, Stephen warns.
“Deal hunters don’t come in on a two-meals-for-£12.50 offer and order up a £40 bottle of wine. They have dinner, a glass of water and then go home. Quite often they don’t return,” says Jardine.
Award-winning chef Mark Greenaway, who launched his signature restaurant inside 12 Picardy Place last February, adds: “I just don’t think people who use these vouchers actually then go back to the place for a full-price meal. As a diner, you have to ask how they can afford to give you two meals for the price of one? What is the quality of ingredients? They must be running at a loss and that’s not sustainable.”
His strategy is to use his own “unique selling point” as an award-winning chef combined with special, upper-end menu nights. His next is a series of wine nights which will pair five varieties of Champagne across five courses.
Meanwhile, as the countdown to Jamie’s arrival begins, restaurateurs are braced.
“As soon as one restaurant opens, it has to steal diners from someone else,” says Mark.
“Jamie Oliver in particular will have a huge impact on the middle market.”
Edinburgh’s busy restaurant scene sees many come and others go. So where’s the fresh meat?
• The Spice Lounge Kitchen, a mix of luxury Indian, tapas and fusion, opens at Craigmount View, Corstorphine later this month on the site of the former Rainbow Inn.
• Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian launches at the refurbished Assembly Rooms in George Street in July. The £2m restaurant will cater for 240 diners.
• Purslane, run by ex-Balmoral chef Paul Gunning, recently opened in St Stephen Street, Stockbridge. Earlier this month the Sheraton Grand Hotel opened One Square, a 100-seat restaurant.
• London chefs Chris and Jeff Galvin will run a mid-range Brasserie and upmarket Pompadour Restaurant at the refurbished Caledonia Hotel in Autumn.
• Two new hotels with restaurants are earmarked for former Scottish Provident offices and the former head office of Scottish Life in St Andrew Square.
• Andrew and Lisa Radford, who ran restaurants The Atrium and Blue until they closed last year, are opening 80-seat Timberyard in Lady Lawson Street in July.
• Howies restaurant chain was in the hands of administrators but original owner David Scott, has stepped in to save Howies in Victoria Street and Waterloo Place. They are to be refurbished.
Some major names on Edinburgh’s bustling restaurant scene have served their final courses.
• Fish favourite The Peacock Inn in Newhaven closed just months after its rebirth when owner Peter Carnie Inns was served with a winding-up order over the non-payment of a catering bill
• French restaurant La Garrigue in Eyre Place shut its doors earlier this month. Sister eateries La Garrigue at Jeffrey Street and La Garrigue Bistro in Leith – formerly Daniel’s bistro – remain open.
• David Ramsden’s Rose Street restaurant Seadogs closed recently after two years in business. He continues to run The Dogs and Amore Dogs in Hanover Street.
• Vegetarian diner The Allotment, in Castle Street, shut in November.
• In October The Vintners Rooms in Giles Street, Leith, closed down despite a £40,000 revamp.