The Worst Pub in Edinburgh

Names and places have been changed to protect the innocent.

I suppose it all started the first day I arrived, a cold and wet September morning. Getting off the overnight plane I thought it would be profitable to adjust to the time difference by warding off my droopy eyelids and attempting to make it to nightfall before retiring. Of course I hadn't the slightest idea what one could do in Auld Reekie. Actually, let me retract that. I had a slight idea. And it involved a pub. For all the stories one hears about the number of pubs in Edinburgh, it's a bit hard to fathom their abundance until you see them for yourself. In a strange way, Edinburgh's wealth of pubs is a bit like the Grand Canyon. You can watch all the late-night National Geographic documentaries, but until you stand over that ledge you'll never know what the Grand Canyon is all about. Which brings me back to Edinburgh's pubs. Before coming over, I'd heard the streets were paved with them and that they were always full. When considered in light of the fact that the city counts fewer than half a million residents, the number does seem inordinate. That they were always full, well, that remained to be seen.

So I set out, in the name of staying awake, for a casual noon beer. Walking into The Deaf Novelist I was met with a striking scene. It was empty. Not empty as in there were a few lushes getting their early fix. Empty as in I was the sole patron of this (apparently not so) fine establishment. The bartender was clearly not happy to see me. A pretty girl maybe about twenty-five, she was surprised by my presence at the ungodly hour, and not pleasantly. Before the trip I'd made a promise to myself that I would "drink local" whenever possible. Something about authenticity. Of all the places to drink the local swill, Scotland must be among the better. There's the scotch, of course, and a surprising variety of beer. But as it was my first day, I decided to pursue the course of least resistance. So I asked the increasingly surly barmaid, who at this point just wanted me to leave and never return, what the most popular beer on tap was. She snarled, "Tennent's." So it was a pint of Tennent's that I ordered. The color pure artificial yellow, it reminded me of an anemic Budweiser. Which of course isn't saying much, but it was something to work with. What a surprise then when it tasted on the positive side of halfway decent. It truly must have been the novelty of having a beer at noon on a weekday that gave me the impression that Tennent's was at all drinkable. As a Scottish friend of mine later said, "It's cat piss." Many pints of that grim lager beer later and I'm inclined to agree. But on that first day, it tasted exactly as I wanted it to. By the second pint, the surly bartendress had reached a stage of utter apathy and I couldn't have gotten a third pint under any circumstances.

I returned to the same miserable pub the next night, eager to see it during normal operating hours. It wasn't much different. Nine PM on a weeknight and it was only marginally more crowded, the disagreeable barmaid now charged with dealing with a good ten losers rather than just myself. There were two salty old Scottish types, two women who had not aged well, a decidedly un-Scottish man, two friends of mine from the states, and myself. That we were by a wide margin the most upstanding people in the bar should have been a signal. After my first experience and now this, I really should have known that I hadn't picked a winner. But in the name of authenticity, I soldiered on. Another Tennent's for myself. This time the artificial corn-colored glasses were off and I wasn't so enamored with Scotland's best-selling lager. The longer I sat there the more I realized that I had probably chosen to frequent Edinburgh's worst bar. While others may be seedier, have a worse selection of libations, or even have less comfortable seating, I cannot imagine a more depressing experience than The Deaf Novelist. It wasn't that it was that bad. More that it was just incredibly mediocre. Soul-crushingly banal, if you will. Now, it's nine PM on a weeknight. And these women are hammered. Just obliterated. Slurring words, falling over themselves. It would have been depressing if not for the much-needed entertainment value. For it was here that I met M. and K.

So it's K.'s birthday and she is getting after it. Big time; she was, as the Newcastle lads say, "proper mortal." Apparently this was day two of a birthday bender of indefinite length. I dare say she hadn't stopped guzzling vodka tonics since it started. Because she was gone. If the bartender cared at all, she would have been cut off. But either she didn't care or the concept doesn't exist in Scotland. K. was soon KO'd by the drink. She fell off her seat and wasn't heard from again until much later. Of course she still managed to compliment my friend on his eyes and tell him what a catch he was. Lucky him. So it was left to M. to fill the conversational void and she took to the role with the aplomb of someone for whom shame is an entirely foreign notion.

I've heard that one should never talk politics with strangers. Clearly M. had not heard this same advice. We were silent not because we agreed or disagreed but mostly because she was a talker. The kind who talks at you and not to you. The kind all too frequent at awful bars like these. She regained my attention with a seamless transition to describing her job. That she was employed at all was startling. That she was a butcher even more. Every time she said the word "butcher," she would flex her right bicep and change her accent. I think it was a tic, but who can say. She told us about her work, I think. Her accent grew thicker with more drink and if there was any discussion of offal, I sadly missed it. She went on in this manner for some time, but eventually took the hint and found her way back to K., who was ensconced in conversation with the non-Scot at the bar. It wasn't long before we needed another drink, however, and we were left to enter the machine of conversation again. I kept my distance but my friend, whose friendliness to strangers is unparalleled, got caught in the whirlpool. I had no choice but to dive in after him. Making conversation, my friend somehow brought up the fact that his grandfather had mapped the African continent. Unfortunately our interlocutor took cartographer for geographer. We spent half an hour clearing up this minor distinction. By this point, I was exhausted. Getting weird is fine but it takes it out of me. So I cut and run, as any dishonorable man would do. I felt bad until I realized that in places like The Deaf Novelist, honor is a concept as foreign as good libations. I got out when I could. It's not honor but it was practical enough.


Benjamin Riley