Re-invention has long been a staple of the Edinburgh drinking scene; new sets of owners take on boarded-up institutions, aiming to appeal to a different group of potential customers. Recently though, it seems that plenty of these second (or third, or fourth) chance saloons have been appearing – the furious interest in all things foodie dovetailing neatly with the unfortunate casualties of the recession. Nowhere in the city has seen more of this than Leith – as if in payback for the trams being curtailed at St Andrew’s Square, the docksiders have turned their backs on the city and invested in their own Northern Quarter.
The latest in this long line of mismatched-furnitured, gently-downlit urban escapes is the Vintage, which opened this weekend in a corner unit on Henderson Street. In its previous guise it was home to Café Fish, long-since departed for the more inland but well-heeled Stockbridge. In that sense, Vintage is one of the less-common Leith do-overs, in that it used to be a restaurant, rather than a locals’ bar. As a result, there aren’t any displaced drinkers having to be re-housed – in fact, the Vintage (in a previous guise, but of the same name) used to be something of a Leith institution, apparently.
These modern-day turnarounds often do well initially, trading on the novelty value alone – but as the market becomes ever-more crowded, having a USP (apologies for typing that) can make the difference in the long-term. The Vintage certainly has that, choosing to focus on the idea of British charcuterie. I don’t know what true Leithers might think of that, but the way that section of the Shore is going, it could be a brilliant strategy. There’s certainly demand for highly-sourced cold cuts – Leeds’ Friends of Ham has blazed a trail recently, in that regard.
However, in some respects, the Vintage got there first. Being the brainchild of ex-Caley Sample Room supremo Darren Blackburn, sharing planks had been on the (award-winning) menu at his previous bar. Now, at the Vintage, the wooden wonders can take centre stage. Darren’s a man that revels in/agonises over the detail, so presumably has taken great pains to assemble the components (such as air-dried, juniper infused wild boar salami). Similarly the beer, which has been compiled in association with the Williams Brothers Brewery.
As such, on the opening night we were welcomed through the revolving door by the ever-cheerful perma-scarfed Richard McLelland, there as the rep from WB, rather than moonlighting as a Leith doorman for the evening. Having the input from Williams has been all-important for Darren, and it was great to hear about the mutual trust involved in establishing the Vintage. Being beer-forward, there are plenty of other treats on the bar – including a bespoke house tap for the Elixir Brewing Company – and a predictably exacting list of wines and spirits.
So, even on the first night of operation, everything connected to the Vintage is already in place and seemingly paused for greatness. Certainly, anyone who ever ate or drank in the Caley Sample Room will know what to expect – perfectly-trained staff, a great range of beers (served ‘Bat-style’, in two-thirds), and the best smoked duck I’ve ever eaten. As the number of copy-cat re-inventions increase around the city, you have to wonder if they all have a future, trying to occupy the same niche. But the Vintage is absolutely the real deal.