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Pub/Bar of the Month August 2013: Cafe Royal, Edinburgh, UK

The Café Royal, Edinburgh, UK

They call the Café Royal 'Edinburgh's hidden gem'. It's a rather hackneyed description, over-used for mediocre pubs (and other places) that are looking for an undeserved publicity boost. In this case, however, the terminology is completely justified.

Cafe Royal EdinburghIt works on two levels. Firstly, the pub is hidden – tucked away just behind the eastern end of Princes Street, close to Waverley Station. Secondly, it is indeed a gem, in the sense that it is a bright, sparkling example of true beauty.

The building dates from the 1860s and time travellers from that Victorian era wouldn't find much out of place were they to walk through a portal and pitch up here today.

Stumbling in off the cobbled street, they would be met with the same sort of opulent interior they had just left behind in their own century.

The main section – The Circle Bar – takes the shape of one glamorous room with a handsome island servery, lit by flame-effect lanterns. Tall, plate-glass windows illuminate high elaborate ceilings and curved little seating booths that arc around the walls.

Upholstery in sober claret complements the flock paper and heavy drapes, and contrasts with the greenery of the scattered potted plants.

Royal Doulton Portraits

Into the far wall is set a collection of portraits constructed from Royal Doulton tiles. The subjects are inventors and, as you sit and sup, you can contemplate how different life might have been were it not for the brilliance of such luminaries as Michael Faraday, Benjamin Franklin and James Watt.

As your eyes continue their journey around the room, they alight up on a magnificent, carved walnut screen, graced with etched glass and mirrors. This is the Victorian equivalent of a partition wall, for behind lies the Café Royal Buffet, to give the pub's restaurant its historic name.

A glance through the door reveals a scene reminiscent of Manet's famous painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (the one with the Bass beer bottle on show). Behind the counter, a series of stained-glass windows – all original – depicts Victorian 'sportsmen' engaged in activities as varied as cricket, archery and hunting.

Cafe Royal EdinburghThe light these windows cast on the room is muted but enough to raise a glint off a polished marble counter topped with large wine bottles. On the left of the door is the table where they shot a scene for Chariots of Fire. A plaque alongside celebrates this moment of cinematic glory.

The Café Royal today is by no means a museum piece. It is still an active, bustling pub. The restaurant specialises in oysters and mussels, while the bar majors on cask ales, the selection varying by the day.

Typically, offerings from brewers such as Caledonian, Harviestoun and Williams are augmented by well-chosen guests. Quality is assured via both a Good Beer Guide entry and Cask Marque accreditation.

It won't surprise you to learn that the Café Royal is a listed building but it wasn't so well protected in the 1960s when Woolworth's drew up plans to tear it down and extend their Princes Street store onto the site. Thankfully, Edinburgh's city planners had the wisdom to oppose that particular madness.

Ironically, Woolworth's is no more but The Café Royal lives on. Heritage, thankfully, has defeated commercial expediency. If only that were a more common result.

Café Royal, 19 West Register Street, Edinburgh EH2 2AA
Tel. (0131) 556 1884
Opening Hours: 11–11; 11–midnight Thursday; 11–1am Friday & Saturday; 12.30–11 Sunday

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