It seems everyone in Edinburgh and everyone who visits Edinburgh has heard of The Witchery by the Castle restaurant. It’s wildly popular and has a very good reputation, as part of the James Thomson restaurant collection in Edinburgh. My experience thus far of these restaurants has been to praise the venue (who couldn’t like Rhubarb or The Tower), but to criticise the standard of food. My perception of The Witchery though was the jewel in the crown - a venue whose splendour should be unrivalled and the cooking on a par with the surroundings. It’s certainly a struggle to get a table at a reasonable time at The Witchery, so please book in advance if you have a specific date and time in mind for your visit.
There are two dining rooms at The Witchery, each serviced by their own kitchen. The main dining room is a gothic affair, while the dining room we reserved a table in was the Secret Garden; accessed down a flight of steps. Intimate and dramatic are fair and accurate descriptions, but some may find the closely packed tables a little too intimate. The Witchery do care about service, but they also care about getting the maximum number of paying customers through the doors in a given night, so selling you £30 main courses but expecting the table to be vacated after a couple of hours is common practice. The blog once found itself in Little Washington, USA which is home to the similiarly highly rated Inn at Little Washington. We rejected the opportunity to dine there, given the short time span a table was available for and the unsocial times available - who seriously begins a three course meal at 11.30pm!? I imagine the Witchery is Scotland’s equivalent restaurant.
For some reason we always seem to be given the restaurant’s worst table when we go anywhere expensive. After descending the steps to the Secret Garden we were seated opposite the kitchen doors, which flung open every 10 seconds to offer much noise and bright lights behind - hardly the romantic setting the brochure promised! We did manage to move to the adjacent table, which was an improvement although still too close to the kitchen doors. Later the Russian couple who occupied our former table also sounded less then pleased.
The Secret Garden is a beautiful dining room. The haggis for starter (£9.50) was superb; infact the best dish of our entire meal. The potted duck (duck confit and foie gras) is enormous (£14.50). It was too quickly out of the chiller and onto the plate in my opinion, so it proved overly firm. The quantity was borderline ridiculous though; with the three thick slices of toasted brioche it was served with, this could have passed for a main course.
Ever since I moved to Edinburgh my eyes have been focused on trying The Witchery’s Three Little Pigs main course (£24.50), which is slow-braised belly, roast loin and grilled shoulder bacon. All on the same plate! The meat was plentiful and the cooking good. I’d ordered the mash potato side dish (£4), which was delightfully fluffy and wonderfully creamy. The addition of this made finishing my main course a medieval struggle, inline with the surroundings. Over the table The Witchery’s Cairngorm venison (£27) was tender, cooked beautifully and a delight alongside the chocolate oil and red cabbage.
After the meat heavy starters and mains, we couldn’t manage a dessert each so chose The Witchery’s pudding selection (£10.50). Again there were aspects which were great and aspects which failed to live up the surroundings. There were excellent flavours in the chocolate tarte and passion fruit trifle, but the bread and putter pudding had been overcooked and needed a good scrape to prise it out of the dish.
The service was good, but not nowhere near the exemplary service received in one of Edinburgh’s Michelin starred restaurants. Our wine was sometimes poured for us and sometimes it wasn’t. Our water was never topped up automatically and we had to prompt. The Witchery did have a sommelier, but he was evidently too busy to visit our table. Small things like this make all the difference. And this is my main problem with the Witchery.
It’s location by Edinburgh Castle is beyond compare and the atmosphere is enchanting, while the food is worthy, yet not wonderful. So The Witchery by the Castle is a pleasing experience to participate in, but if you’re seeking truly great food and service at similar prices The Witchery cannot compete with restaurants such as Martin Wishart’s or The Kitchin. Maybe take a look at The Witchery’s lunch, pre-theatre or 3 courses for £30 evening menu though if you’re looking to experience the venue’s charm, whilst not drastically damaging your bank balance.
The Witchery by the Castle is located at Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 2NF
Telephone: 0131 225 5613