Looking for something authentic in a tourist town? Our quest that night was for some traditional pub and music. We got lucky, as our tour guide strongly recommended Sandy Bell’s.
Just around the corner from probably one of the utmost busy parts of Edinburgh, Sandy Bell’s has been a neighbourhood stable even before hordes of tourists started pouring into the city. An unassuming and narrow storefront led us into the elongated and easily recognizable traditional-looking pub with Scotch bottles-lined walls. The place can be recognized by a vibrant, bold blue exterior, or if you hear some fiddle sounds breaking through the noise of the busy streets. Their wordmark identity was rather inconsistent, although, at least the light-yellow hue it was written in was the same all throughout. Their main signage used Mistral (a common script font mimicking handwriting), while the hanging sign had a hand-made wordmark which had a quirky personality suiting the place much better. Although using two different wordmarks for restaurants is now trendy, when the two visual identities are close enough but yet different, it runs into appearing like an error.
We got in early to make sure we had a spot to enjoy the Monday night fiddle session called “Itchy and Scratchy”. As much as we thought it is not The Simpsons reference, it might actually be a distant reference. Even though we came in at 5pm, the fiddling was going full strength already. All the players are enthusiasts who come together on occasion to jam. That Monday drew in about 10 musicians to delight a crowd of 50 or so. Tonight they included 7 violinists, 1 irish flute, 1 lady on piano, and a lovely old gentleman on ukulele.
We were intrigued to order their “Homemade Stowaway Pie”, but there was none left. In general, the food options at Sandy Bell’s are scarce. Scotch and beer selection is there to compensate though.
Half-way through, our bartender let us know they can make us simple paninis. She seemed concerned for us and we were glad to accept the offer. We chose from their selection of chip bags as well.
While the general style of music did not change, the pace oscillated quite a lot. Some tunes, were sad and lonely, while others were cheerful and uplifting. It was an easy-going performance that could be enjoyed for hours. We did just that and downed several beers before heading back home at around 9pm.
Sandy Bell’s is like an oasis of real authenticity in a desert of tourist attractions. Colourful staff, musicians, who genuinely enjoy being there, reasonable prices, and great location are a perfect recipé for success. This pub should be on everyone’s list.
PS: We also had one of the most memorable encounters in Sandy Bell’s. Next to us, towards the end of the bar, was standing a leather-clad, tattooed guy. His continuous and disapproving head shaking, prompted Mon Cheri to buy him a beer and pry a bit about the reason behind his discontent. It turned out that Billy was a traveling hard-rock musician, a living window into the 60s rock’n’roll. With his colourful speech generously articulated with hand-gesture signs of the horns and mild Scottish accent, he told us all about his gigs in the Middle East, his opening acts for Metallica and Iron Maiden. We also spoke about his semi-retired life in Edinburgh. No wonder, he was not impressed with a gathering of fiddle enthusiasts…maybe if they had an amplifier and a drummer, things could be different.