In the past 20 years, Scottish restaurants, especially in Edinburgh and Glasgow, have garnered significant attention for their culinary excellence, using the best ingredients - whether West Coast langoustines (aka Dublin Bay Prawns) or Perthshire raspberries - that the country produces in a variety of styles.
Let's begin with traditional Scottish cooking, which is hearty. Staples include fish (such as salmon, oysters, or haddock, often smoked), potatoes (tatties), turnips or swedes (neeps), oatcakes, porridge oats, and local game such as grouse or venison. And, of course, haggis, which remains Scotland's national dish - though it's perhaps more symbolic than gustatory. Fish and chips is also common, though up north it is called a fish supper if you're taking it away and a fish tea if you're eating in.
But modern Scottish cuisine is more diverse and innovative, borrowing from French and even Far Eastern techniques, using local produce such as scallops or lamb. One of Scotland's best-known food exports is Aberdeen Angus beef, but equally fine is free-range Scottish lamb, known for its tender, tasty meat. Fish, in this land of seas, rivers, and lochs, is a mainstay, from wild halibut to the herring that's transformed in the smokehouse into the elegant kipper. Scottish smoked salmon is, of course, a delicacy known around the globe. Scottish shellfish is world-class, whether oysters, mussels, clams, and crabs, or lobsters and their smaller or delicate relative, langoustines, which have become a hit in upmarket restaurants. Ranging from pheasant and grouse to rabbit and venison, game is also a key feature of the Scottish natural larder.
Scottish raspberries are among the finest in the world. You should definitely try some of Scotland's excellent cheeses as well. One of the best is Criffel, from the south of the country: A creamy and rich semi-soft cheese made from the milk of shorthorn cows that graze only in organic pastures. Delicious.
At your hotel or B&B, the morning meal is almost insured to include the Scottish breakfast (which is essentially the same as the English breakfast) or the full fry-up, as the locals may call it. Expect most or all of the following: Eggs, bacon, and sausage; black pudding; very occasionally haggis; grilled tomatoes; mushrooms; sometimes fried bread; toast with marmalade or jam; juice; and coffee or tea.
These days, "eclectic" best describes Scotland's metropolitan restaurant scene. While perhaps not as varied as England's biggest cities, Indian restaurants abound, as do French, Italian, and Thai options. But Edinburgh currently has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other U.K. city, excluding London. In rural areas, the selection can be more hit or miss, while the English gastro-pub phenomenon has not really spread north of the border. But stick to my recommendations and you should do just fine.
Pub Life in Scotland
Much socializing in Scotland centers on the local pub. It can be the gathering place for an entire community, the place where locals go to share news and exchange gossip. At certain pubs, pickup sessions of traditional and folk music are common. Even if you're not a big drinker, going out for a pint of lager, a dram of whisky, or a bite to eat at a Scottish howff can be a memorable part of your trip.
The most widely available, mass-produced Scottish beers are Tennent's lager and McEwan's ale, but from region to region, you may find a number of local breweries, making anything from light-colored lagers to dark ales. Among them, Deuchars IPA (Edinburgh), Black Isle Organic, and Orkney's Dark Island are standouts. The most popular stout remains Ireland's Guinness, while the potent Stella Artois, from the Continent, is the best-selling premium lager.
While blends such as Famous Grouse or Johnny Walker are best known, most connoisseurs prefer varieties of single malt whisky, the taste of which depends largely on where it's distilled: Sweet Lowland, peaty Island, or smooth and balanced Highland. Single malts are seen as sipping whiskies and can be diluted with a few drops of tap water. If you want a cocktail made with whisky, expect it to be a blend, such as Whyte & MacKay or Bell's, and not single malt like Glenmorangie or Laphroaig. If you want a North American bourbon, rye, or sour-mash whisky, you need to name the brand: For example, Jack Daniel's or Maker's Mark.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.