Edinburgh restaurant review: The Witchery's culinary cauldron works its magic

Like visiting Edinburgh Castle or joining the revellers at the Hogmanay street party, The Witchery is a veritable Auld Reekie institution.
The romantic decor is gothically theatrical. Picture: contributed.The romantic decor is gothically theatrical. Picture: contributed.
The romantic decor is gothically theatrical. Picture: contributed.

But with my personal dining budget weighted well towards the chippy (salt’n’sauce, please) end of the scale – although that’s arguably also a key Edinburgh culinary experience – I’ve never managed to set foot in this highly acclaimed restaurant’s hallowed surroundings until now.

I’ve escaped the daytime crowds near the very top of the Royal Mile, and after heading down the narrow close to the entrance, I find myself in the tranquil surroundings of the main restaurant.

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Andrew Lloyd Webber once suggested that it was the “prettiest restaurant ever”, and I can’t say I totally disagree – if you like the gothically theatrical.

The restaurant is located down a narrow close near the top of the Royal Mile. Picture: Scott Louden/JPI Media.The restaurant is located down a narrow close near the top of the Royal Mile. Picture: Scott Louden/JPI Media.
The restaurant is located down a narrow close near the top of the Royal Mile. Picture: Scott Louden/JPI Media.

The atmospheric décor is dominated by wood panelling and an oxblood-tinged colour scheme, with a uniform row of tables clad in white tablecloths, each topped with a small, elegant display of velvet red roses and a menu tied up with a red bow.

Not, I realise, perhaps the most appropriate backdrop for my meal – a Sunday lunch catch-up with a friend. But we power on anyway, having earmarked the surprisingly purse-friendly £25 two-course menu available for lunch or pre-theatre. This is on display alongside the £40 table d’hôte – comprising three courses – and the extensive à la carte.

My gaze is drawn to the Scottish Borders beef rump tartare, available as a starter or a main (there’s also a mouth-watering picture on the restaurant’s website).

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Additionally, there’s a Ballindalloch side of beef for just shy of £100 for two, although vegetarians and vegans seem to be catered for decently with, say, beetroot bourguignon and cauliflower steak.

Celebrity clientele

The menu also dedicates an entire page to The Witchery’s compelling history, taking its name from the hundreds of witches burned in the locality, and having since re-emerged as a restaurant 40-plus years ago which has hosted the likes of JK Rowling, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson.

There’s also an impressive supplier list including cheesemonger IJ Mellis and butcher Simon Howie.

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Our condensed menu has three options each for the starter and main. My friend opts for the garden pea and dill velouté with Anster cheese scones, while I choose the selection of Iberico charcuterie.

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What arrives on my side of the table includes rustic salami and chorizo. It’s all very complementary, the meat supple and fresh and well-partnered with its acidic accoutrements of sauerkraut and cherry tomatoes plus slices of crisp bread.

My pal’s feedback is positive, including the observation that the scones are “fluffy and soft”.

And for the main, my sights are set on The Witchery fish pie – this a regular go-to dish for me (in ready meal form, admittedly). And I’ve often heard mention of the legendary version at theatrical favourite J Sheekey in London’s Covent Garden. When I tick the latter off my bucket list I’ll be able to compare them.

Good effort

My friend singles out the wild mushroom Acquerello risotto with Parmesan custard and truffle oil – and says it’s a pretty good effort.

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My own main is topped with a layer of mash piped into spherical shapes reminiscent of a Russian cathedral’s onion domes. That sits above a well-seasoned white sauce filled with tender chunks of fish in white and pink hues (I’m not sure if it’s salmon or trout, and am not complaining, although I wouldn’t have minded a prawn or two in the mix). Overall it’s very good – if not mind-blowing.

We’ve also gone for a glass of white each – taking the waiter’s recommendation of a riesling and a pinot grigio. Both are relatively competitively priced, although we note with amusement that at least one bottle, nestled far deeper into the hefty tome of the wine list, will set you back several thousand pounds.

By this stage we’re pretty full and can’t manage pudding (very unusually in my case), but decide to get coffee, which comes with mini shortbread and tablet (which would be the law if I had my way).

As for the service, it’s by and large spot on – the right balance of attentive and discreet, with one waiter in particular displaying a sense of humour that’s as pleasingly dry as my pinot grigio.

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I realise that we aren’t seeing The Witchery when its powers are most full – when the sun has gone down, candlelight takes over, and diners gaze lovingly at each other.

But as for “when shall we [two] meet again”, I think I speak for me and my friend when I say that the reasonable entry price point has well and truly cast The Witchery’s spell.