A trip to Dunkeld is always a pleasure but this time it was even more so because I had not been back to my hometown for two years.
I was born here in Dunkeld in 1959 and the hardware store my father ran is still there on Atholl Street, along with the sprawling apartment above that was my home for the first six years of my life.
The store is not much different from what I remember when I was going down the stairs in the apartment to see if my dad needed help. Turns out he needed help, but not what a five-year-old could offer him.
Back then, Dunkeld was a heavy drinking and hard life, and my dad was only too happy to keep the local bars going. When I was old enough to know what that meant, I realized that there was a word for people who drank like my father, and that Dunkeld was full of it.
I suppose if my mother had stayed in Dunkeld with my father, I would have become either a hardware store, a forestry commission employee, or an alcoholic colleague.
When mum and I left Dunkeld on a rainy night in 1964, we set off for a drunken ‘leave the motherfuckers’ choir outside the local pub, which is actually my first memory.
Our piano must have been donated to a local bar to pay my father’s alcohol bills.
Dunkeld was not then the gastronomic place it is now and its gentrification certainly had not started.
My mom had four jobs and all of them involved food. She worked diligently in the Menzies grocery store, in the chip shop, in a local restaurant, and she was a bartender at a local hotel.
She worked while my father drank.
It is impossible for me to return to Dunkeld without it becoming a bittersweet experience.
This time my birthplace’s big surprise was how food-focused it had become!
Fairly regular visits before Covid had given signs that this was happening, and it was always great to see The Scottish Deli (formerly the Menzies of my childhood) and Dunkeld Smoked Salmon continually flying the flag for quality produce in the city.
This time around, I noticed that The Scottish Deli now has competition from Dunkeld Fine Foods, the new home of the excellent Dunkeld Smoked Salmon.
I had been to The Aran Bakery before, which opened in 2017. On this visit, the bakery was packed with customers, as it’s hard to walk past a place that offers delicacies like a bacon roll with cheese. Rhubarb ketchup (£ 4) and a leek and buttered brie toast for a five.
It’s actually now quite difficult to escape the sight of Aran owner Flora Sneddon at 19, the youngest Bake-Off semi-finalist of 2015, and obviously a woman of good taste, as she also has the fantastic Lòn Store on High Street. .
This is the prettiest grocery store I can imagine – like a Scottish version of the equally shiny Leila’s store in Bethnal Green in London.
Here you’ll find a perfectly curated selection of things to eat, things to eat them on, and artifacts to surround yourself with while you congratulate yourself on your pristine taste.
I could have bought the whole shop but I limited myself to Abernethy butter, cacklebean eggs (the best eggs you can get and quite hard to find without going to the source) and Aran sourdough.
I have resisted cookbooks because I already have most of their rigorously edited selection of modern classics, including the wonderful Towpath Cookbook.
I could have spent hours and most of my disposable income in this shop and, on my next visit, I plan to do so. Top tips!
Now we were hungry.
We had done some culture with the cathedral (where I once announced to mum that I would like to be buried before she reminded me that I was not really the Bishop of Dunkeld), a little shopping at a nearby large charity store (Conran Cookbook for £ 2), and bought some faucet washers and oven mitts from my dad’s old shop.
We needed to eat.
The Atholl Arms occupies an enviable position at the end of the magnificent Thomas Telford Bridge over the Tay.
They have tables that stretch down to the river even though it wasn’t a day
for alfresco dining – not least because David and I were accompanied by his father and mother-in-law, aged 87 and 83 respectively.
We needed warmth, comfort and a table that was easily accessible on foot from the entrance.
In truth, my first impression of this place was colored by the fact that the waiter I had asked to reserve a table for later seemed remarkably indifferent to helping.
In fact, he walked away as I asked him where we could sit since David’s mother-in-law has mobility issues.
Before its rushed exit I was told they didn’t take a reservation and we just need to show up, which are not words I like to hear when trying to book lunch for two octogenarians.
Strangely enough, when I called the hotel to verify that was the case, I was told that they actually accepted reservations.
We arrived for an early lunch at half past 12, thinking we might be able to reserve a table before the hordes came down (Dunkeld is full of tourists, even in November), but the place was pretty empty.
We sat in the bar at Z’s Amazing Bar and Bistro as it was closest to the door.
There is also a choice of other areas for dining. I would probably choose to sit in the room a few steps from the bar next time. I’m wondering if the word “amazing” is being used correctly to name your restaurant.
The food is reasonable pub food which is not a criticism as it is what we expected.
What I didn’t expect is the price which seems rather promising at best, even for an incredible self-proclaimed bistro in such a touristy town.
My lobster linguine with garlic butter and pesto – the chalkboard dish of the day – cost £ 18.95, and it just wasn’t worth it.
J Sheekey, one of London’s oldest and best fish restaurants, charges £ 25 for half a lobster mayonnaise served in the most wonderfully classic setting right in the middle of town.
You would probably eat it at a table next to Bryan Ferry or a famous West End actor, enjoying the warm glow of dinner in one of the capital’s most beautiful and enduring venues.
Here in Dunkeld, £ 18.95 for a pasta dish with an element of fish that is mostly shrimp (I had to look for the lobster) seems sky-high, even given that food prices are rising everywhere.
It was still good.
Bob, David’s dad, had a good steak pie with fries (£ 16.50), although the beef felt a bit mushy to me and the pie crust a set of two halves given that the bottom and top didn’t seem to connect in the middle. Not so much a pie as an allegory of modern life, perhaps.
David’s margherita pizza was £ 12.95, and he ordered fries with an exuberant price of £ 5.
The pizza was good – nothing to write home about.
Ruth’s Mac and Cheese (£ 13) came with a successful bacon upsell at £ 3; again, a pretty garish price for such a modest addition. It was good.
If you detect a note to be disappointed with it all, you would probably be right.
It wasn’t that there was something wrong here.
There was nothing so bad that it had to be sent back, although I would advise the waiters to write down the orders so that they didn’t forget things like our order of extra olives for the pizza.
The main issue I have with this place is the price which in my opinion is too high for what is on offer.
The hotel is nice – charming even, in a somewhat dated way. The bar area
has an ambient wood-burning stove, although unused the day we visited, and enough Scottish mayflies to woo tourists.
Service is good, although it’s all a bit generic Dalston in that you feel like the staff somehow don’t really care if you’re having a good time. Everyone is treated as a “guy” in this way which can be pleasant or slightly boring.
To be honest I just felt a little bit meh about the whole experience. While we started the day wishing we had a place like this in our village, we ended with the conclusion that this was a restaurant we were hoping to do better.
Was it partly our fault because we ordered traditional pub food? May be. But most of the menu is just that.
Their menu “aims to infuse the classic with modern dishes” and, of course, they “serve classic dishes with a modern twist”.
What that means even when the first things you see on the menu are cliché meal titles like haggis candy (£ 9.95) and chili cheese nachos (£ 11). The Cullen Skink is a twisted sporran at £ 11.
To their credit, the restaurant has a section on the menu called Salads and Vegan (?), With seven items, including a hot superfood salad for £ 16.50.
The ingredients – couscous, squash, spinach, and beets – might be great, but they’re also remarkably cheap to buy and put together.
Maybe that’s what you get when a quaint town becomes so greedy that the old post office is now a superb wine bar.
The advantage of this change is that locals and visitors alike can happily trot between a myriad of stores selling glorious things.
The downside is that a lunch like ours, while enjoyable, for me, did not sufficiently reflect the breadth of ingredients available in the surrounding stores.
Address: Atholl Arms Hotel, Bridgehead, Tay Terrace, Dunkeld, Perthshire PH8 OAQ
Phone. : 01350 727219
- Food: 3/5
- Service: 3/5
- Surroundings: 3/5
Price: starter from £ 6.25, main course from £ 12.95, dessert £ 8.50