At Ardbeg, Pt. 2: Lunch (Scotland)


On Wednesday I posted a brief description of the Ardbeg distillery grounds and visitor centre, replete with far too many photographs. Today I have a brief write-up of two lunches at their Old Kiln Cafe, which were the focal points of our visits to the distillery. Don’t worry, there aren’t quite as many photographs today though I do have—in what represents either a high or low for me (depending on your point of view)—four separate pictures of the same dish. The food on Islay, with one exception, was far better than I’d expected it would be, and our lunches at the Old Kiln Cafe were, in sum, the best of our meals on the island. 

As you may remember from Wednesday’s report, the Old Kiln Cafe occupies one side of the large space that also houses the distillery shop. Indeed, the restaurant and the shop share a cashier. There’s also spillover seating in the bar across the hallway—and on both occasions it was needed. We had to wait both times, the second time quite a bit longer than the first: most visitors to the distillery obviously know about the food.

On both our visits the cafe was presided over by Jackie Thomson, who manages the visitor centre as a whole, and who has been with the distillery since its revival in the late 1990s, and also leads the occasional tour. It felt a bit odd to be constantly asking such an iconic figure if our table was ready—I’d recognized her from her various appearances on the whisky web—but she was as nice and hospitable as can be imagined, despite the nonstop crush at the restaurant. Indeed, everyone at the restaurant was as nice as can be imagined. And the food, as I’ve said was very good—not just for a distillery’s restaurant but as a restaurant per se. The ingredients were of high quality, the cooking was precise and care was taken with the presentation.

On the first occasion the missus and I both got dishes from the specials board. She got the mushroom risotto and I got the crispy skinned sea bass fillets with a seafood sauce (with mussels and crayfish), mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. The risotto was very good, the sea bass was excellent. On the second occasion she got the hearty Ardbeg fish pie (with salmon and haddock) and I got a giant bowl of Shetland mussels in a garlic and white wine sauce. Both winners again. The boys got ham sandwiches on both occasions. The desserts are pretty good too: we had a very nice sticky toffee pudding on the first outing, and the boys enjoyed some ice cream; on the second outing the fish pie did us in and we had no room for dessert.

Service, I think I’ve said, was very good—the little misstep with the asparagus on the sea bass plate aside. And the prices are pretty good too, especially relative to the quality of the food. Oh yes, they also have the Ardbeg core range and some tasting flights, as well as local beers on the menu but I didn’t partake on either occasion (the first lunch was not too long after the Lagavulin Warehouse Experience and the second not too long after the Laphroaig Distillers’ Wares tour).

I may have some mild regret about not having toured the distillery portion of Ardbeg, but having done a few other tours I wouldn’t go back and swap eating at the Old Kiln Cafe for a tour of the distillery on this trip. Are there other distilleries in Scotland that boast such good food? I know Kilchoman has a cafe too, but we didn’t eat there: is it good too? I have to say it would be a canny idea for more distilleries to give visitors multiple reasons to visit.

This was the first of my Islay food reports but it’s a bit out of order. Next week I’ll have the last of my food reports from Skye; then I’ll have a report on some excellent sea food in Oban; and then I’ll get to the rest of our Islay eating. On the distillery front I only have two brief reports to come: from Bruichladdich and Kilchoman, and I might do them both next week. On the whisky review front I’ll have another Glen Grant 1992; and also on the food front, I’ll have yet another London restaurant report.

7 thoughts on “At Ardbeg, Pt. 2: Lunch (Scotland)

  1. Hi there,

    I had lunch once at Glenfiddich. I recommend that if you have not alredy tried it. As to Islay – I can recommend the restaurant at Port Charlotte Hotel, Port Charlotte. Unfortunately I have no experience with other distillery cafes on the island
    Have a nice trip.
    Greetings
    kallaskander

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  2. We tried to eat at the Port Charlotte Hotel on this trip—we had no reservations and were turned away even though the entire restaurant was empty. It is not unlikely that they were in fact booked up but there was a two second pause from our asking if they had a table to a not very convincing “no” from the manager that made us think otherwise. This was in the main restaurant—there seemed to be another dining area at the lower level that was completely full—maybe a group? Anyway, we ended up at the Lochside Inn/Hotel in Bowmore and that was definitely our worst meal of the entire trip, not just on Islay.

    Will keep the Glenfiddich cafe in mind if I ever get to make it to the Speyside.

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    • Hi there,

      sorry to hear that…. should have mentioned that we were there very early in the year in March to be precise.
      And a second thing… British table booking customs always amaze me.
      It seems they hold a table booked for 8.00 pm from opening time to 8.00 pm.
      So it can and does happen that they turn you away when you ask for a table without booking if you arrive
      at 6.00 pm or even earlier.
      If you have booked thus you can be sure that your table is waiting at the booked time when you arrive.
      For bussiness it would be better to have guests at that said tabel twice in the evening or day.
      Even if there is a certain risk the first guests are not leaving in time…
      anyway makes me think that I would rather not want run a restaurant.

      Greetings
      kallaskander

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  3. By the way, I’ve been back in the US from Scotland for more than a month now. However, the Old Kiln Cafe report is largely current in that daily specials aside, the rest of the menu seems fixed (and there are pictures of it in the gallery). Based on what we ate I’d suggest it’s probably all pretty good. And I have a feeling that many of the specials probably repeat often too in a given season.

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  4. The Old Kiln Cafe is, as far as I know, a rarity among distillery restaurants, if not unique. My hazy recollection of the cafe at Kilchoman is that it was okay, but nothing on that order.

    I’ve eaten at the Port Charlotte Hotel many times, but always in the pub, and always in October, when it’s not quite so busy. I have to say, though, that recently, I’m having more trouble getting served when I just walk into a restaurant, even at that time of year. It’s a bit of a problem for me, because I’m not really organized enough to say in advance what time I’m going to show up for dinner, or even where, sometimes.

    It could be worse–Michael Jackson (you know which one I mean) reported once that he couldn’t get a sandwich to go during Feis Ile, because he hadn’t booked. If they won’t serve Michael freakin’ Jackson, what chance do you or I have?

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  5. I can back up Kallaskander: the Glenfiddich food offering is pretty good.

    I agree with you, though: given that these distilleries are located in the more remote parts of Scotland, surrounded by coast or countryside, there maybe ought to be more attempting the restaurant side of things with a focus on local produce. It would underline the ‘terroir’ storyline, surely? I’d certainly pay more for a ‘draff-fed’ steak.

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  6. In terms of distilleries serving real food, my only experience/recollection includes Ardbeg, Glenfiddich, and Glenlivet. The last one was pretty anonymous, but Glenfiddich was very nice.

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