Royal Mile: The Black Grape restaurant opens in historic Edinburgh building

There will soon be a new pit stop for those tackling The Royal Mile – and it’s in the former premises of Mexican restaurant Pancho Villas.

Stuart Hunter, Cameron Taylor and Murray Ainslie outside The Black Grape
Stuart Hunter, Cameron Taylor and Murray Ainslie outside The Black Grape

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, which 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.

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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.

Splintr at work on site

Mr Ainslie, 38, says: “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.

“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 Pancho Villas, which was in that spot for 30 years, before the owners retired in 2019.

Murray Ainslie outside The Black Grape

It is a familiar venue for locals, with many having experienced their sizzling fajitas and tortillas at some point. Mr 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 have created a Pancho’s Margarita, which contains Ocho Tequila, bee pollen, pineapple, pressed lime and honey from the Edinburgh Honey Co, which are based on Easter Road.

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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 Mr 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 1960s.

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 interior design company, which has made over loads of businesses in Edinburgh, 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,” Mr Ainslie says. “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.

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"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.

Mr Ainslie says: “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.

“Splintr has been amazing. They’ve taken our dog-eared mood board 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 the owners are 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.

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Mr Ainslie hopes it is 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,” he says.

"Eating out is part of our culture, however, and there’s something very special about experiencing an exceptional dining experience. 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.”

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