The Pompadour at the Caledonian hotel, the grand old lady of Edinburgh restaurants, is aiming to restore its lustre with a little help from the renowned Galvin brothers
“It’s like a fallen idol,” says Michelin-starred chef Chris Galvin. “Our mission is to return the Pomp to Edinburgh.”
Once, The Pompadour restaurant, on the first floor of the 109-year-old Caledonian hotel on Princes Street, was considered the swankiest in the capital.
Opened in 1925, this eatery was named after the official chief mistress of Louis XV, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson or Madame de Pompadour.
In tribute, perhaps, to the dresses that she wears in portraits by painter Francois Boucher, the Rococo-style room features powder blue paintwork, set off by swagged curtains, and intricately carved icing sugar-coloured panels.
It was a place to order lobster, propose or buy an outfit for.
However, over the last couple of decades it has slipped down the rankings of the city’s foodie attractions.
No longer, as the Galvin brothers – Chris, 53 and 41-year-old Jeff – have come to town, as part of Hilton Worldwide’s £24 million rebranding of The Caledonian, originally a Victorian railway hotel, into one of their five-star Waldorf Astoria establishments.
This duo, who have more than 50 years of cooking experience between them, already offer their brand of luxe French cuisine at a handful of lauded eateries – Bistrot de Luxe, Cafe a Vin, Galvin at Windows (at the Hilton Park Lane), La Chapelle, and Demoiselle by Galvin at Harrods.
However, Edinburgh – where they’ll revamp The Pompadour (soon to be named The Pompadour by Galvin), and open a Galvin Brasserie de Luxe on the ground floor – is their first foray beyond London.
Is that a little frightening? “Yep, but it’s important to be nervous,” says Jeff, as he perches on a navy sofa in The Caledonian’s tired-looking lounge (currently being made-over into Peacock Alley, a chi-chi venue for afternoon tea and light bites).
“Our stepdad was Scottish and he never let us forget that we were English, so I thought it was going to be tough,” adds Chris, who started out as a pot-washer for celebrity chef Anthony Worrall-Thompson.
“But everyone has been supportive. Still, London has eight or nine million people, Edinburgh is more like 450,000, so we’re being cautious.”
According to Chris, they were already familiar with this iconic venue, and had ambitions to open a place north of the Border long before Hilton asked them to take on the project.
“My early years in the business were spent at The Ritz and lots of the young chefs that came down to London, their claim to fame was to have had a job at The Caley,” he explains. “More importantly, their badge of honour was to have worked at the Pomp.”
The brothers will stay in Edinburgh for three months to get their restaurants – due to open in mid-September – established, and to make sure that they display, as Chris explains, all the Galvin “hallmarks”.
With a visit to the Highlands, they’ve already spent time researching new suppliers.
“We didn’t realise how big Scotland was,” says Chris. “Hours of travel. But we found some beautiful beef, loved the fish we found at Scrabster and we already use Keltic Seafare for our seafood.”
They’ve also scoped out the (friendly) competition. “We’ve eaten at Castle Terrace, Ondine, The Honours, Restaurant Martin Wishart, The Kitchin and the Witchery,” says Jeff.
After their own eateries are operating, they will visit once a month to keep an eye on progress. Luckily, with seven restaurants to oversee, neither of them needs a lot of sleep.
Chris, who used to survive on just three hours a night, explains, “I’m very left wing – a socialist – but one thing I admired about Maggie Thatcher was running the country on four hours’ sleep”.
According to Jeff, earlier in their career, the pair would sometimes end up sleeping top-to-toe in whichever kitchen they were working in.
They won’t need to leave a sleeping bag at The Pompadour. These chef patrons have already hired a head chef – Craig Sandle – previously of Edinburgh’s Number One Restaurant at The Balmoral.
Other pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place.
For the kitchens, two stoves were made bespoke in Lyon, before one of them (the other is going in the downstairs kitchen) had to be swung – all two tons of it – through one of the Caley’s windows. “That place is a chef’s dream now,” says Jeff. They’ve also invested in a moveable cocktail bar, which opens out like an Art Deco style vintage trunk.
And The Pompadour, in a suitably theatrical style, will have its own gueridon, a trolley that’s used to prepare food beside the table.
However, though the fittings are state-of-the-art, most of this place’s historic features are being preserved.
Chris enthusiastically shows me a picture, on his mobile phone, of a poster that they found after removing a secondary wall on the outside of the building. It’s from the Second World War and is emblazoned with the words “Save Your Salvage, Help to Down Hitler and Mussolini”.
If the exterior is being carefully peeled back, The Pompadour is undergoing a more gentle makeover.
“As soon as the nicotine stains went, it was stunning,” says Chris. “There are frescoes of Madame de Pompadour, which depict her becoming a cerebral lover as she gets older – attracting others with her love of culture. So you can see violins, sheet music and books woven into the painting on the ceiling. We’ve got a lot of bloody feminine things going on, because La Chapelle was a girls’ school and my wife runs Demoiselle, whose customers are mainly women shopping in Harrods.”
The ground-floor Galvin Brasserie de Luxe sounds like it might be the dapper gent to Pompadour’s powdered wig-wearing courtesan. Its entrance will be situated on Rutland Street, where people used to pass through the tall cast-iron gates to get to their trains.
The space will feature white tablecloths, a crustacean bar (“the hub of the space,” says Chris), cigar-coloured stools and quilted black banquettes.
At one point I make the mistake of calling this space a bistro. Oops. Chris prickles.
“Brasserie. Not bistro,” he says. “Bistros are much smaller, there are more plat du jours, a tighter menu. A brasserie is bustly, louder, with high ceilings. The word means ‘brewery’, which came from the people in Alsace. When Germany invaded, they relocated their restaurant businesses to Lyon and Paris, but most of them were good brewers, so you always had a focus on beer.”
Expect flexibility in this space, with variously sized options. There will be oysters, prix fixe menus and salads. However, the Galvin brothers refuse to be drawn when it comes to specifics.
“To finish a menu now is tempting fate,” says Chris. “It will be seasonally driven, so it depends what’ll be around. Perhaps Scottish berries, grouse, wild duck and girolles.”
If this new place can be compared to Demoiselle, which opened in March this year, there may be dishes like lobster fishcakes alongside pot-au-feu and pork cheeks with pomme mousseline.
It will surely be a worthy addition to Edinburgh’s restaurant scene. After all, there’s room for everyone, as long as people raise their standards to accommodate any newcomer.
“When I was young, there were six good places to eat in London,” says Chris. “Now there are a thousand or more. Competition has made everyone pull their socks up, because customers vote with their feet. In a city like Edinburgh, you have one bite of the cherry and that’s it, so our place needs to be really special.”
• The Pompadour by Galvin and Galvin Brasserie de Luxe are due to open next month at the The Caledonian, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Princes Street, Edinburgh (tel: 0131-222 8888, www.hilton.co.uk/caledonian)