It would be fair to say the Cowgate has always catered for a particular niche of the night-time economy and was never the place to go if you wanted a quiet couple of quality beers.
Four years ago, Brewdog took what seemed like a gamble to open one of its first bars there. What was on offer there felt quite different to what else was available in Edinburgh at the time and – although not quite a catalyst for gentrification – provided another reason to visit the area.
And it has now been joined by Ox 184, which has transformed the cavernous building once occupied by Siglo. It is owned by Holyrood 9a owners Fuller Thomson and, given it can only be a two minute walk from there, that either feels courageous or daft. On the basis of my first visit, it could be a smart move.
The first thing that hits you upon entry is the scale of the place. It’s huge. The main downstairs area is airy and industrial – functional black benches and lots of concrete – giving way to a quiet area tucked in a corner with an open wood-burning fire. There are large globe lights dangling haphazardly from the ceiling, and monster wall-mounted heaters.
The beer selection is strong, in line with all Fuller Thomson establishments. There’s Bethnal Pale and Hawkshead Lakeland Lager from the UK, and Lagunitas IPA from the US. Best of all, Borders-based Tempest – one of Scotland’s most consistently interesting breweries – has four permanent lines.
I start with a half of their Long White Cloud (£2.20) and it’s rarely tasted better: fresh, drinkable and bracing with the bite and fruity aroma of NZ hops. I follow that with a half of one of my favourite beers, Duchesse de Bourgogne from Belgian brewer Verhaeghe (£2.90). It’s as glorious as ever – tart, sweet, dark and complex – and a rare treat on draught.
The friendly bar staff give me a quick guided tour of the upstairs. It has a very different feel – dark booths giving it an intimate atmosphere maybe more suited to cocktails and food.
And the food offering looks good. It’s not too far removed from what’s on offer at 9a, with more of a focus on smoked meats as well as some more upmarket fayre like lobster and aged steak.
It’s very early days but I liked it and – based on the draught beer selection and warm welcome alone – it really deserves to succeed. Time will tell. It’s distinct enough from Holyrood 9a not to be directly competing but is similar enough to attract its clientele. It feels very different – and dare I say a little more stylish – than some other local beer-centric venues.
The premises are vast and I’m guessing it will be aiming to lure patrons away from other Cowgate establishments. However, with a refined atmosphere, quality beer and – as far as I could tell – no live sport, it’s doubtful it will be able to compete with venues like the Three Sisters. Maybe that’s no bad thing.
Ox 184, 184 Cowgate, Edinburgh