The Bon Vivant: Edinburgh
To reach The Devil’s Advocate in Edinburgh’s Old Town, it was a windy walk. There were paths through parks, labyrinthine staircases and a bunch of false starts; my GPS was not so helpful. But once we entered this gorgeous restaurant/ nightspot, all frustration floated off into the cavernous, lively interior. That is, until our hostess delivered the news. “We’re all booked up for several hours,” she informed my date and me. “Would you like to try our sister restaurant, The Bon Vivant?”
And try it we did, our first introduction to a stellar trio of bar/ restaurants founded by local man-about-town Stuart McCluskey. McCluskey, a seasoned bartender, student of applied chemistry and something of a bon vivant himself, started Bon Vivant back in 2008. An eminently hospitable soul, he wanted a place to serve up his favorite wine and champagne varietals by the glass—as well as a roster of precisely mixed classic cocktails.
Bon Vivant ended up morphing into one of Edinburgh’s hottest date spots (lucky me), with McCluskey’s cocktails complemented by a smartly executed menu of farm-fresh-with-a-twist plates. Think spiced carrot ravioli, wood pigeon breast, Scottish crab and cured salmon. The frequently rotating menu is refined but not stuffy (much like the cozy interior), built for a lovely night out.
The Devil’s Advocate, our initial destination, was opened in 2013, the next in McCluskey’s mini-empire.* Despite its markedly medieval locale (adjacent to the heavily touristed Royal Mile), this one has a younger, convivial vibe, set off by an inventive menu and a smart, modernist cocktail program.
“If Bon Vivant is where you go with a date, Devil’s is where you go with a large group of friends,” says Sophie Shackleton, a manager with the group. “It’s a little sad,” she adds, “but a lot of us will head over to Devil’s Advocate when we’re done working at Bon Vivant.”
The final addition—for now—to McCluskey’s portfolio was El Cartel Mexicana, located immediately across from Bon Vivant (on the ever-so-adorable Thistle Street). As Shackleton tells it, a longrunning Tex-Mex restaurant shut down in 2013, which got McCluskey thinking. A longtime lover of Mexican food, he opened El Cartel as a way to experiment with a new type of cuisine—not to mention tequila- and mezcal-based cocktails.
We lunched at El Cartel the day after our dinner at Bon Vivant, on the recommendation of our gregarious server. My ladyfriend and I had enjoyed our meal so much that we decided to make El Cartel our last meal before flying home, stashing our suitcases near the table. This was an excellent choice, despite how odd it felt to eat Mexican in Scotland (we skipped a friend’s suggestion to try a haggis burrito at another spot).
In a word, the food was phenomenal. We started with a wonderful guacamole made with sheep’s cheese and pomegranate seeds (trust me), followed by tacos that ran the gamut from purple sprouting broccoli and almond salsa to duck carnitas with chipotle pecan salsa and pumpkin seeds. There were no duds on the menu. Oh, and while you’re there, it can’t hurt to wash down the food with one of their thoughtfully mixed Margaritas and other cocktails (my companion loved her Snow Mexican, made with “illegal” mezcal, white wine and salted pear and walnut syrup).
During both meals, we watched servers shuttle back and forth between Bon Vivant and El Cartel, transporting ingredients or perhaps telling customers their tables were ready (if El Cartel is full, they’ll direct you to wait at the other restaurant’s bar). It’s a cozy two-way synergy, further complemented by nearby Devil’s Advocate. Not to mention The Bon Vivant’s Companion, a full-service liquor store that offers take-home bottles of all the tipples you can try at the three restaurants.
“It sounds corny, but I think a big part of why these places work is that we’re all friends,” says Shackleton. “We all get along quite well, and that is more than half the battle.”
Local Taste: Edinburgh & Gordo's
The Bon Vivant: 55 Thistle St., Edinburgh; +18.104.22.16875
The Devil’s Advocate : 9 Advocate’s Cl., Edinburgh; +22.214.171.12465
El Cartel Mexicana: 64 Thistle St., Edinburgh; +126.96.36.19971
As in Edinburgh, so it is in Queens. The Mexican street food served up by JR Savage in Long Iland City is a cut above. From the open-faced quesadillas laden with meat or roasted poblano pepper to the octopus tacos to the “chef’s kiss” churros that perfectly seal the practice of dining at Gordo’s, there is no wrong choice or risk of entrée envy here.
24-11 Bridge Plaza N., Long Island City; 917.947.9208