Going to The Dogs?
With the clock having passed 1.30pm and lunch having not yet been taken, I headed to The Dogs because it’s one of my favourite places in the city. But this was not a lunch without malice aforethought.
I’d noticed a post on their Facebook page that set out action owner David Ramsden had taken in contacting local councillors in connection with a pronounced downturn in trade over December.
Two likely causes were cited: the considerable expansion of the Christmas markets and their drift into providing mainstream food options rather than festive fare; and the arrival of the chain-dominated ‘cuisine quarter’ in St Andrew Square. Decisions relating to both will have been subject to Council deliberations at various stages.
This is similar to the territory I explored in another recent rant, which once more featured the good Mr Ramsden. His clarion call to build an audience for The Fat Pony thankfully looks to have been successful judging by my stop there later the same day.
This is not a situation without complexity, of course. The sheer scale of operations such as Dishoom, Gaucho and Baba has lured many of the city’s finest hospitality people, both in terms of kitchen and front of house staff, towards the challenge and experience – not to say the rewards – that these high-turnover businesses offer.
This has further exacerbated the recruitment crisis faced by many operators, particularly smaller places, and that situation is really starting to bite. In addition, the approach to sourcing in these ‘cuisine quarter’ palaces is not strongly focussed on local produce. The impact of this is likely to see a fair amount of the overall revenue they generate leaving the local economy.
Just last week we had Stuart Ralston from Aizle announcing their new four-day service approach. This is partly about work-life balance but also links to the related concept of retaining a great team when you’ve built it. We all want our working conditions and environment to be as joyful as possible, whatever it is we do for a living.
The approach at Aizle feels like a really sensible one, but it won’t suit every business or location. Mr Ramsden in particular practically hisses at the prospect of his places not being open seven days.
Another thing to consider is that we simply have too many hospitality businesses in the city. But would a reduction in the number of consents and/or licenses granted stifle creativity? It may well do.
The case of the Christmas markets seems more straightforward. They have grown to a level that needs curtailment. The standard is consistently low, has declined from an initially promising start a few years back, and now needs a comprehensive rethink.
Anyhoo, to return to the specific case of The Dogs, one immediate response to their slowing of business is that they have added a lunchtime set menu at the very reasonable price of £8.95 for two and £10.95 for three courses. This sits alongside the continuing excellent value that their day menu offers.
On today’s visit, I started with a simple dish of potato dumplings with pumpkin and cranberry. These crisp little pillows were a light and airy delight. The accompaniments were beautifully balanced making it a highly enjoyable eat.
The main course was, if anything, a notch better. An excellent piece of coley sat atop a barley risotto which was interspersed with Jerusalem artichoke crisps. The fish was topped with a lovely almond dressing. It was an exceptionally good dish.
With portion sizes well judged, there was room enough for cheese with Highland favourite Blue Murder accompanied by chutney and house-made oatcakes. It was simply delicious.
So, Mr Ramsden’s plea to the Council is in no sense a case of carping by a restaurant that has gone off the boil – far from it. He has simply chosen to put his head over the parapet at a time when positive action can have an impact, rather than leaving it too late. As such, he’s likely reflecting a set of issues experienced by many other local businesses. And for a man with a flair for the dramatic, the letter is remarkably measured and balanced.
The Dogs continues to deliver smart, winning dishes. This was reinforced by its re-award of a Michelin Bib Gourmand again in the 2018 Guide. For those not expert in the often hard-to-fathom Michelin approach, beyond its ‘star system’ the guide has also highlights restaurants offering “exceptionally good food at moderate prices”. Menus must be priced below a maximum determined by local economic standards.
Scotland currently has 12 places with Michelin stars – including Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles which boasts two stars – but only eight places with the Bib Gourmand status. The Dogs is one of those. The Michelin Guide is not the be-all-and-end-all, but for a place recognised in this way to find itself compromised by a succession of woefully ill-judged Council decisions is an absolute truckload of bollocks.
A much more clear-minded approach needs to be taken to major infrastructure decisions by the Council in relation to our city centre food and drink businesses. Councillors are currently in grave danger of presiding over the destruction of the local hospitality sector in pursuit of short-term gains that will have hugely detrimental long-term impact on the city’s economy.
At a time when we seem relentlessly bombarded with empty apologies in the wake of predictable calamity, let’s commit as a community to not let our city centre dining options go to the dogs, by going to The Dogs.
While the Council considers how it responds to the issue, the best first step we can take is to continue to support our local places, particularly when they’re serving some of the finest food in the land. We look forward to tracking the progress of this matter with great interest.
Oh, and there was nothing for me to pay when I asked for the bill, today. Perhaps Mr Ramsden suspected I was sharpening my quill for this rant, but I rather think he was simply saying Happy New Year to a highly appreciative member of his customer base. I’d rather have stuck my tenner in the till, but the kindness was warmly received.
Blythe scores The Dogs
4.5/5 for food
4/5 for presentation
4/5 for setting
4/5 for service
giving an overall 16.5/20
I ate: potato dumplings, roast coley, cheese
I drank: water
I wore: burgundy shirt
Total bill: £10.95 (although the restaurant picked up the bill)
Address: 110 Hanover Street, Edinburgh EH2 1DR