PARKED along the side of one of Scotland’s most iconic roads, the A82 through Glencoe, and in a prominent position on the West Highland Way, for Scots and overseas tourists alike the Bridge of Orchy Hotel has long been one of the country’s more recognisable landmarks.
Bridge of Orchy Hotel, Argyll (01838 400208, www.bridgeoforchy.co.uk)
Bill please: Starters £4.75-£9.95 Main courses £9.50-£19.95 Puddings £5.95 (cheeseboard £7)
Rating: 7 out of 10
Overlooked by the great Munros Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh, it has entertained a mix of generations of exhausted walkers, climbers, skiers and mountain bikers on one hand, and more sedate motorised Highland tourists on the other.
Traditionally, the sweaty outdoors enthusiasts were housed in the rudimentary bunk house at the rear of the hotel while the grand tourers stayed in the hotel itself, with the two factions mixing in the bar and sometimes the restaurant. However, a recent £2m renovation project, which saw the bunkhouse demolished and replaced with 22 swanky en suite eco-lodges overlooking the babbling Orchy river, has brought the place up to date, providing some of the best accommodation in the area and earning it a gong in the recent Scottish Hotel of the Year awards in the country house hotel section.
Nor has the modernisation been confined to the accommodation. The bar has had a thorough makeover, turning the end nearest the road into a cutesy Heelan’ bar – complete with mounted antlers, framed pictures of climbing exploits amid horrific Glencoe winters, and a wood-burning stove in the corner for wet nights – but turning the greater portion into a far more contemporary drinking area where you can get bar food and which feeds into the main restaurant.
It is in the 40-seater restaurant where the real heavy lifting has obviously been done, turning what was a fusty dining area in need of an overhaul into a modern space with views out through the big patio-style windows, and across the wooden balcony to the river and mountains. When the weather’s been good enough, which incredibly has meant the lion’s share of this summer, it’s been possible to sit outside, but the day we visited it was mildly overcast, so we sat by the windows and drank in the view.
Our fellow diners were a particularly interesting lot, with two big groups of stragglers who had obviously been visiting for the Caledonian Challenge, the charity walk from Fort William along 54 miles of the West Highland Way, and were busily tucking into pints of Three Sisters and Grizzly, the two dark and stormy local artisan brews of choice. There was also a fair smattering of traditional tourists, including one well-heeled couple who had spread their maps and guidebooks all over the table. It was fascinating to hear what sights were worthy of a detour and which beloved spots were discarded with nothing approaching a second thought.
Notwithstanding the restaurant’s all-round upgrading, producing a menu to satisfy both distinct sets of customers remains as tricky a proposition as ever. The tried and tested solution is to supplement the bar meals with high-carb “Bridge of Orchy classics” such as fish and chips, steak pie, burgers and haggis, neeps and tatties on one hand, with some more sophisticated restaurant fare on the other, plus a specials menu containing a couple of genuinely highfalutin fine-dining fish options (monkfish in pancetta with shellfish chowder, roast squash and pimento, and seared sea bass with queen scallop vierge, sauté potatoes and pappardelle vegetables).
Not having walked any further than our eco-lodge, we gave the comfort food options a wide berth and weighed straight in at the pointy end of the menu, Bea choosing a starter of pan-seared west coast scallops with Stornoway black pudding, pea purée and pickled leaves, while I opted for the twice-baked cheese soufflé with Waldorf salad. Both were good: my soufflé was beautifully light and reeked of cheese; there was nothing subtle about this dish and it was all the better for it. Bea had chosen a very traditional combination but all of the elements were there, with the scallops proving to be large citizens but gorgeously firm and fleshy, while the black pudding was moist with a curiously unctuous but not unpleasant texture.
Our main courses worked well too, with the kitchen clearly and sensibly concentrating on getting the main ingredient spot on, even if it risked being to the detriment of less important elements of the dish. So my locally stalked, briefly hung venison haunch was succulent and crimson, but the potato rosti which accompanied it was a little tasteless, while Bea’s char-grilled Barbary duck breast was spot on, but her dauphinoise potatoes were a little too well done and on the verge of breaking up. Still, she also loved the raspberry and green peppercorn jus, with the raspberry’s sweetness a neat accompaniment to the duck and a novel change from the usual cherry-based sauce.
We rounded off with a rich dark chocolate mousse with Chantilly cream, which did exactly what it said on the tin, and a surprisingly good baked ginger sponge cake with vanilla ice-cream and butterscotch cream, both of which I’d happily order again.
All in all, this was a very decent meal served in a relaxed, unpretentious environment. The staff were unfailing polite and cheery, the bill was manageable, the wine list better than you’d expect (with the house wine at £15) and the views are stunning. If you’re travelling past at any stage – and let’s face it, almost all of us travel past at some stage – then it’s definitely worth investigating.