What a pleasure to go somewhere knowing that we will have a good time and that all that remains is to succumb to the joy.
But ‘n’ Ben is such a place. I’ve been here many times over the years and have never been disappointed, not least because, in an ever-changing world, this place remains quietly, resolutely and fantastically the same.
In 2026, this remarkable restaurant will be 50 years old. That in itself is something to celebrate. But the fact that it has stood the test of time so well is all the more impressive when you realize that it has stayed great by never being out of style – and therefore never going out of fashion.
In the age of Instagram and Twitter, But ‘n’ Ben has little presence on social media and although there is a website, you still have to book by phone. They serve high tea on Sundays and the lunch service stops at 2pm. It’s old school, and deliciously.
Margo Horn, the co-owner, will greet you and ensure that you are well looked after while her husband Angus cooks your meals in the kitchen.
That’s how it goes here and that’s how it works so brilliantly, time and time again.
Around But ‘n’ Ben
But ‘n’ Ben always seems to exist in its own space and time and if that space and time dates back to 1976, the year the restaurant opened, then that’s fine with me.
Our family didn’t go out to eat as much in 1976, probably because my mother always pretended to be too ashamed to be seen with the spiky-haired androgynous punk that I had become. I knew I was in deep trouble when the words “black faced” crossed his lips, the pursed-lipped verbal equivalent of an outside lock on the bedroom door.
In truth, eating out regularly wasn’t such a thing back then, at least not for working-class families like ours. We didn’t have money and it wasn’t really part of our culture.
But how I wish we had gone to But ‘n’ Ben when it opened, because I like to think the menu today probably wasn’t too different from what we would have been offered at a when Johnny Rotten called for anarchy on the airwaves. and original television chef
Fanny Cradock disgraced herself by criticizing a home cook so harshly it effectively ended her career (google Fanny Cradock on The Big Time for total 1970s horror).
The 1970s were a great decade, even if they are now seen through rose-tinted glasses, misted over buckets of hot Liebfraumilch. Decades later, it’s not the strikes, discord, unemployment or power cuts I remember, it’s the orange nylon sheets, the Spacehoppers, the wedge shoes, the punk and, above all, the orange juice served as a starter in restaurants throughout and the expanse of the grounds.
You will be very happy to know that orange juice as a starter is on the menu here at Auchmithie, although it is freshly squeezed and not the hard, homogenized gloop of my youth, the color frighteningly similar to those nylon fitted sheets electrically charged mom so loved.
But orange juice isn’t the only classic offering at this wonderful place.
Seasons come and go, decades pass, prime ministers fall and global pandemics decimate the world, but I think as long as But ‘n’ Ben keeps its delicious smoky crepe on the menu, there’s hope for all of us.
The smoked crepe was invented here, took its place in the world here, and must never be allowed to retire here, or anywhere else. This dish is so potent that I’d bet armies could march powered by it alone.
This was actually our third recent attempt to eat here, and as we had to cancel the previous two reservations on fairly short notice, I broke my own rule and used my real name when making the reservation.
And then, when I was chatting on the phone with the friendly owners, I broke the restaurant reviewer’s other cardinal rule – I told them I was going to see them again.
This is my first time doing this, and it’s only because it’s a place built on such bonhomie that I just couldn’t cope with such chatty and friendly hosts.
Why am I mentioning this? Well I think it’s important to be brutally honest in these reviews as they are written from the perspective of a regular restaurant looking for great food, service and atmosphere at a reasonable price.
They are reserved anonymously and paid for with my own money as I believe it is essential that they reflect the experience we could all have at that particular restaurant at that time.
That said, the welcome we received from Margo was just as enthusiastic as previous anonymous visits, and exactly the same as all the other guests received that day.
Margo Horn was born to run a restaurant. Saying this, I have no idea what other careers she might have had but, truly, this woman defines Scottish hospitality in a way that is innate and therefore difficult to quantify. She just
do things right.
Here is a host beaming with that particularly potent mix of friendliness, honesty, pride and self-mockery that I think is such an admirable trait in people in our part of the world. She is natural.
On a cold Sunday we were shown to a table right next to the log fire and my shoulders dropped and within seconds I had ordered a glass of white wine even though I hadn’t really considered drinking alcohol with lunch.
This place – the fire, the simple wooden tables, the brilliant service, the happy feeling of being in the Old Ma Broon estate, the simplicity of it all – is instantly relaxing.
The menu is something to see too. Here you have a list of Scottish home cooking classics, the kind of things you often want to eat but so rarely find.
Looking at this menu, I suddenly remembered the words at the beginning of the first River Cafe cookbook where Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers said their goal was to translate recipes from home Italian cuisine to their restaurant.
But ‘n’ Ben may not express such ambition, but their menu definitely brings the best of Scottish home cooking to the restaurant table and that’s something we can be truly proud of.
From a list of 10 starters and a few specials, I chose the mussels, a large bowl of Shetland bivalves, steamed in white wine, with onion, garlic and parsley (£11.95). They were absolutely delicious and so flavorful that I drank every drop of alcohol from the bowl.
David wanted to eat something suitably retro and unusual, so he had melon balls (£4.95), something we hadn’t seen on a menu for a very long time.
Here, served with port or ginger wine, it was camp as it should be – two different melons, dipped in alcohol and served in a sundae glass, with a splash of orange on top.
If a different Margo – Penelope Keith as snobby Margo Leadbetter – had served this in the 1975 comedy classic The Good Life, this dish couldn’t be more reminiscent of a time when we Brits discovered that Europe could be our playground. David loved it, commenting on how light and refreshing it was.
Another starter to highlight is the delicious Arbroath Smoked Cream of Soup (£5.95) which is truly ambrosial. The not-so-secret ingredient in this dish is double cream and its mention inevitably leads me to think of this smoky crepe which is THE thing to have here, especially if you’ve never tried it.
Although there’s plenty to savor on this menu (I really wanted the hash, tatties and skirlie, £11.95), I felt compelled to order the smoked crepe (£14.95) for a reminder of its sparkle .
That’s how it’s described on the menu and if you can read this and don’t want it for your next meal, you’re better off than me: “Famous But ‘n’ Ben Smokie Pancake.” Arbroath smokie, crumbled, freshly deboned, in a double cream sauce, served in a thin savory crepe”.
This dish – so rich, so creamy, so wonderfully indulgent – could easily spawn a Harry Met Sally moment in a country less buttoned up with propriety than I am, such is its almost wicked, decadent charm.
Eating this classic here in Auchmithie, where the original smokie originated, is simply the most beautiful experience, especially considering that the end of the 19th century saw this small village (which then had a population of 400) support 18 boats of fishing and about 20 other small boats used to catch lobsters and crabs.
A few steps from where we ate, the fishmongers were smoking the fish over sticks that were originally placed over split whiskey barrels with fires underneath. Coarse sacks from local jute mills were used to trap the smoke. A classic is born.
(After lunch I would suggest taking a walk around the village and down the cliff path to where all this activity would have taken place before the smoke production moved three miles towards Arbroath. )
But first, the dessert. The legendary, heavy dessert cart might be temporarily retired due to Covid awareness, but don’t miss having a pudding here – you can wash away your guilt later. We had a wonderful sticky toffee pudding, served with custard AND ice cream (£6.75), a perfect ending to a delicious indulgent lunch.
Really, I can’t recommend this place enough. But ‘n’ Ben is not about innovation, demonstration or chasing Michelin stars and it really is better for that.
It’s a place built on tradition and respect for good ingredients and simple, classic Scottish cuisine, served in an atmosphere of relaxed, cozy bliss.
A place to cherish and return to often.
Address: The But ‘n’ Ben, Auchmithie, by Arbroath, DD11 5SQ
P: 01241 877223
Prices: Starters from £3.95, mains from £10.45 and desserts from £6.75
- Food: 5/5
- Performance: 5/5
- Surroundings: 5/5
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[But ‘n’ Ben in Auchmithie offers delicious food]