Rhubarb has the loveliest, craziest dining room I have ever seen

I’m in Edinburgh, fleeing comics at the hotel where Jimmy Carr stayed

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival: the city is full of glassy-eyed narcissists eating haggis pizza off flyers that say Michael Gove: Prick. I saw the Grim Reaper in the Pleasance Courtyard, of all places. Even Death likes an audience these days, has a media strategy, an agent, a gimmick. But this is not a review of comics — mating habits and most likely mental illnesses or ‘conditions’, plus hats — disguised as a review of the food that comics eat. All comics are mad. You know this. They live on self-hatred and Smarties, when they can afford them.

Instead, I go to Rhubarb. Rhubarb is the sister restaurant to the Witchery by the Castle on the Royal Mile. The Witchery is blood and glitter formed into the shape of a restaurant that specialises in steak and, upstairs in the hotel, deviant sex; there are no witches here any more, of course, the witches all being employed writing feminist blogs. I adore the Witchery, and also the idea of escaping the Smartie–eating mentalists dousing Edinburgh with the detritus of their uninteresting souls. (As I write, in Starbucks on the Royal Mile, two people dressed as bug–headed aliens are wandering about. One is carrying a handbag. And before I have even finished typing this sentence come the pirates, in the company of a bride and the alien from Alien, who is posing with children. Only at the Fringe does the alien from Alien want to be liked. He probably has a bulletproof five-minute set.)

Rhubarb is in a hotel called Prestonfield in a park behind Arthur’s Seat, at the end of an improbable and faintly despairing line of bungalows. There is something very odd and likeable about a bungalow under a volcano; a fatalistic acceptance, and then denial, of the strange things in life. There is a flagpole with a Scottish flag — now limp, is it metaphor for every taxi driver I have met who says the Scots will vote no? — and peacocks. Prestonfield is a tiny white castle with huge Georgian windows: charming, and utterly useless for defensive purposes. I have always wondered why the Scots need such small and aggressive houses. Do they think they will protect them from Tunnock’s teacakes, which surely want to kill them? The comic and tax avoider Jimmy Carr has stayed here; so here is where he spent it. I salute him for that but I do not forgive. There are no other comic guests. It is too peaceful. They might be happy, and that would be terrible.

So a glorious house, built by Sir James Dick, whose grandson, Sir Alexander Dick, brought the rhubarb to Europe; that is his epitaph. Vegetable themed. It has a succession of tiny, insanely overdressed rooms, wrought by some megalomanic interior decorator, or wife. Crowns are a theme; also stripes, leather walls and Georgian portraiture. There is no tartan. The staff wear a chic, almost anti-tartan uniform; kilts, but black. They are very friendly, and they match the carpet.

The dining room is one of the loveliest I have seen; two large inter-connected ovals in a red so dark it looks black. That is what blood does in the moonlight; I read that in a pulp horror novel. There is a vast, dim chandelier and many candles; a view of Arthur’s Seat and a pair of brutalist tower blocks, which is unfortunate, but reminds of the world outside. It is not enough to be happy, others must be brutal. We eat a summer minestrone, which is not a minestrone; a cool watercress soup; good steak; good cod; and the noble rhubarb prettified with sugar. The diners are very old or young; this is a destination for the Orient Express crowd. They are celebrants in a room so crazed that the Phantom of the Opera would think himself too minimalist, and disappear.

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Rhubarb, Prestonfield House, Edinburgh EH16 5UT; tel: 0131 2251333.

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