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Elusive Edible Ecstasy in Edinburgh
In October 1986, my wife and I spent three weeks in England and Scotland on a driving and rail tour featuring small hotels, country inns and great food. (Who says you can't eat well in Britain?) We started at Gravetye Manor in East Grinstead and ended up at No. 16 Summer Place in London, with stops at Fifehead at Nether Wallop, The Manor House Hotel in Moreton-in-Marsh, Miller Howe in Windermere, and four days in Edinburgh.
Out hotel in Edinburgh was The Albany - one of those grand old Georgian buildings a few blocks off Prince Street. We asked the hotel staff to recommend a good place to eat, and the unanimous pick was a place called Umberto's just up the street. It was a weeknight, so we didn't bother with a reservation.
When we arrived, we walked down a half flight of stairs to a small, over-bright restaurant with just a few tables and a four-seat bar. It looked more like a cross between a pizza place and an ice cream parlor than the gourmet delight promised by the hotel staff. Despite the fact that none of the tables were occupied, we were told that we could not be seated for two hours. A bit miffed, we returned to the hotel bar to kill time.
On our return to Umberto's, we were seated in the empty room and given menus. After a round of whiskeys, no one had come to take our order. We called the waiter and were complaining rather loudly when Umberto himself appeared and announced that our table was ready. Our table? Weren't we sitting at our table?
We followed Umberto to a door hidden behind the bar and down a narrow stone-walled staircase to the restaurant. It was a huge buzzing, bustling, clinking, crowded place with diners boisterously enjoying elegant Italian fare. We oozed into our chairs, the embarrassment complete.
Needless to say, the meal was heaven. After dinner, I found Umberto and apologized profusely for our behavior. I suggested that the best way we could atone for our rudeness would be to come again the next evening, to which Umberto replied with a smile, "I'll see if I can fit you in." He did, and the meal was just as heavenly.
We decided to spend our last day in Edinburgh wandering around downtown. We went to a pizza parlor for lunch, and as we were enjoying our meal, who should walk in but Umberto. We chatted briefly, he wished us a safe and happy journey, picked up a pizza and left. When we called for the check, the waitress said with her Italian flourish, "Umberto says no check."