Fine dining? Easy. You select the Edinburgh restaurants with a Michelin star then write them down in alphabetical order. Sorted. It's true that Edinburgh is disproportionately blessed with these elevated establishments: for a city of just under half a million souls it has five.
If you start just behind Edinburgh Castle at Dominic Jack's Castle Terrace then walk via the Balmoral Hotel where Brian Grigor is head chef at flagship restaurant Number One, down towards Leith, passing Paul Kitching's 21212 en route, into the heart of Leith to find Restaurant Martin Wishart and finally locate Commercial Quay where Tom Kitchin has the eponymous Kitchin then you have passed five venues with five Michelin stars between them in a stroll of less than 5km. From Kitching's remarkable creativity to Jack and Kitchin's fresh approach, from the sheer consistency and class of Wishart to the Franco-Scottish quality of Number One they are all excellent in their own way.
But what about the others - those fine dining restaurants without a Michelin star? Not every good restaurant in the city has the stellar imprimatur of quality from a French tyre manufacturer. There are some other seriously good fine dining venues that shouldn't be missed - we've put a few of them on the list below. But if you don't want anywhere fancy? Then give Edinburgh's best cheap eats a go.
Edinburgh fine dining restaurants
'But it's only a vegetarian sort of bistro,' carp the purists, 'it's got tofu noodles as a main course, it can't be that good.' David Bann took vegetarian cooking by the scruff of the neck in Edinburgh some years ago and remains peerless in the craft and inventiveness he brings to his eclectic range of meat-free dishes. Yes the venue looks like a swish, modern bistro and maybe there isn't a Master of Wine sommelier advising you over your choice by the glass but the cooking is as good as this genre gets in Scotland. Three courses might bring olive polenta with roast vegetables and goat cheese curd to start; chilli pancake with grilled sweet potato, courgette and chocolate sauce as a main; apple, cinnamon and calvados tart for dessert; bottle of biodynamic Austrian pinot noir to wash it all down.
Yes it's a big posh clothes shop but its fourth floor is one of Edinburgh's foodiest grottos with a cocktail bar, branch of YO! Sushi, foodhall, Chocolate Lounge, brasserie and restaurant. The latter is the most distinguished dining option with its picture windows and terrace overlooking St Andrew Square, sci-fi lighting and overall chic styling. The executive chef here is Stuart Muir and the menu, sort of Modern British meets Modern European, might bring three courses that would take up the entire internet to describe properly. Let's just say jerusalem artichoke velouté to start, seared halibut as a main, raspberry coconut éclair for dessert – each dish accessorised to the max. People don't just come here because they want to be seen eating in Harvey Nicks – they come because it's good.
Ondine opened in 2009 to immediate praise and has been regularly cited as one of Edinburgh best restaurants ever since – probably its very best seafood restaurant. An attractive first floor venue with central bar and impressive contemporary design, chef Roy Brett picks and grabs from across the planet to bring starters as conceptually far-flung as squid tempura with Vietnamese dipping sauce (although it will be Scottish-landed squid) to the down-home archipelagic simplicity of oysters from Carlingford Lough, Lochailort or Loch Fyne. There is a mighty fruits of the sea option, an equally mighty roasted shellfish platter while other mains range from fish and chips to whole grilled lemon sole with brown shrimps and capers.
Tony Borthwick is a top chef and this restaurant has twice been recognised with a Michelin star: some years ago when it was based in Crossmichael, Dumfries and Galloway, then after the restaurant moved here to Leith. Despite dropping off the edge of the Michelin table, Borthwick has lost none of his talent and the Plumed Horse remains a very good place to eat. It's small, politely decorated and very much embedded in the classic French style which means three courses like celeriac velouté with a slow-poached egg to start; sautéed breast of young grouse with black pudding, caramelised apple and root vegetables as a main; crowdie and strawberry cheesecake with berry terrine, chantilly cream, and basil for dessert.
Long story short: massive investment in distinguished old hotel, rebranding, accomplished London restaurateurs the Galvin brothers take over the dining rooms in 2012. The flagship restaurant at what was once called, simply, the Caledonian is the rococo-styled Pompadour, dating to the 1920s. It now looks fresher than ever and although the Galvins may have their name on the website, the top man behind the kitchen door day to day is the highly talented Craig Sandle. If the aesthetics of your dining environment would make Louis XV happy it follows that the menu has classic French overtones too so three typical courses would be cured foie gras, confit duck leg, almond purée, peach chutney and truffle vinaigrette to start; roast monkfish with lobster ravioli, caramelised cep, cauliflower and shellfish bisque as a main; raspberry soufflé with cranachan parfait for dessert.
Fine dining restaurants can be like art galleries sometimes: utterly humourless and no fun whatsoever. You can look at something that resembles a big bit of couscous for example, on a plate, stroke your chin and wonder how it integrates, how it creates a dialogue with the rest of the work. What you're not supposed to do is get amused, emotionally engaged or excited by something you're going to pop in your mouth and say, 'Woo! Awesome.' The latter response might just make Mark Greenaway smile however, as long as you don't discomfit your fellow diners. In a modern room with a soothing blue colour scheme you can kick off with smoked cauliflower custard, lemon pearls, herb butter and baby coriander; follow it with belly pork, slow roasted for 11 hours, with a pork cheek pie analogue, blackened fillet, sweetcorn and toffee apple jus; pumpkin and gingerbread for dessert with maple gel, milk sorbet, dehydrated sponge and pumpkin curd. You can argue the toss until the rare breed cows come home about who is the best chef in the city but Greenaway, by bringing a sense of playfulness to the party, certainly thinks out of the box – a rare quality among Edinburgh's fine dining venues.