There will soon be a new pit stop for those tackling The Royal Mile.
The Black Grape, which will be situated at 240 Canongate, is a project from restaurateur Murray Ainslie, who has teamed up with entrepreneurs Stuart Hunter and Cameron Taylor of Advance Global Recruitment.
After 12 years as operations and development manager, Ainslie recently left The Compass Group, who are responsible for another Canongate restaurant, the White Horse Oyster and Seafood Bar, as well as Edinburgh’s Chop House venues on nearby Market Street and in Bruntsfield and Leith.
Before Christmas, the trio hope to have completed their own venture, which isn’t named after the band of the same name, in the heart of the Old Town.
“Having opened a few restaurants in the area I’ve always been drawn to The Royal Mile, as it’s one of Europe’s great historic streets and a genuinely iconic location,” says Ainslie, 38. “The Mile attracts a great mix of tourists and locals and always has a buzz. There are some great restaurants on the street so we’ll be in good company, and a “see you Jimmy” hat is never far from reach if required. We looked at several sites prior to securing this location and came very close to launching The Black Grape in Leith. If the business performs well we’d be keen to look at additional locations’”.
Their new venture is in the former premises of the institution that was Mexican restaurant, Pancho Villas, which was in that spot for 30 years, before the owners retired in 2019.
It’s a familiar venue for locals, with many of us having experienced their sizzling fajitas and tortillas at some point. Ainslie was once a regular, when he lived at 177 Canongate.
“My first flat was just yards down the road so we were no stranger to a Margarita or two”, he says. “It was a great restaurant, so fingers crossed we live up to our predecessors”.
To celebrate the former occupant, they’ve created a Pancho’s Margarita, which contains Ocho Tequila, bee pollen, pineapple, pressed lime and honey from the Edinburgh Honey Co, who are based on Easter Road.
Other cocktails include the Sour Grapes with Haku Vodka, black grape and lemon oil and Sauternes. These drinks have been created by Joey Medrington, who won Bartender of the Year 2010 in Class Magazine, and there’s also a wine list that has been curated in conjunction with wine merchants Hallgarten.
According to Ainslie’s research, the restaurant will be part of a building that’s Category A-listed, and dates back to the 1740s, though it was restored in the Sixties.
Those who visited Pancho Villas might remember the bright pink walls inside. The space’s new incarnation is going to be very different, with a pale blue and grey palette. There will be a ten seater table in the bar, and a private booth in the restaurant area, which will also include two window tables. Rather than a mariachi band, the playlist will include soul, funk and blues.
The decor has been created by a prolific local commercial interior design company who have made-over loads of businesses in the capital, from new bakery Hobz to The Fudge House, which is across the road from The Black Grape and had a redesign earlier this year.
“The bones of the site are great. It’s a spacious 60-seater over two levels, but it needed a bit of love. Splintr brought our concept for the site to life. The ambition was always to lean on the amazing wine bars and cafes you’d find in Madrid, Paris or Venice and we think we’re on track”, says Ainslie. “ We’ve created a new bar area, dominated by a stunning communal table where you can relax with a drink or two, snack on a small plate and while the time away. The restaurant area has a more refined feel with custom-designed tables, a cracking curved banquette set into the window and an intimate private dining booth which I think will be very special”.
Although there is plenty of snagging still to do, their vision is coming together.
“We wanted the space to be refined yet laid back. A place you’ll feel as comfortable having a quick sundowner or a snack in as you would living it up and treating yourself,” says Ainslie. “Splintr has been amazing. They’ve taken our dog-eared moodboard and breathed life into it. I’ll let you be the judge of how it looks once it’s finished but Stuart, Cameron and I are very proud of it so far”.
Despite their tourist saturated location, they’ve promised that as far as the menu goes, there will be no haggis bon-bons. There are plenty of other places doing that already.
Instead, they’ll be offering modern dishes that showcase produce from suppliers including Welch Fishmongers, Shaw’s Fine Meats, I.J. Mellis, Company Bakery, East Coast Cured and foraging experts Coeur Sauvage.
Although they’re keeping most of the dishes under wraps until opening, sharing plates include beef tataki, yuzu hollandaise and crispy shallots; bbq fillet tail, peppercorn sauce and black pepper oil; nduja arancini, fennel and lemon, and fried potato skins, caviar and sour cream.
Ainslie hopes that it’s a quality offering that will still appeal during the cost of living crisis.
“Everyone is feeling the pinch and there’s no doubt the whole industry and the country is in for another tough ride. Eating out is part of our culture however, and there’s something very special about experiencing an exceptional dining experience,” he says. “There will always be an appetite for great food and it’s down to us as a team to make sure we deliver world-class service and impeccable food in a great setting. If we nail those three elements, it’s great value”.