Finally, the new Scottish Parliament; possibly a knicker-less institution, but certainly a real fur coat of a building. Thanks to Miralles-Tagliabue it’s full of wonderful coquettish gestures; the windows are shaded with oak rods that look like Samurai scabbards and stone cladding in the shape of toy guns, you need a guidebook to ascend the convoluted stairs and the members-lounge looks like a business-class spaceport. Also, thanks to RMJM, it’s beautifully built; the materials and craftsmanship are brilliant throughout. Its location is wonderful, placing the building between the house of the Laird who disbanded the previous parliament, and the Royal Palace, allowing the debating chamber – an impressively open centre for government – to present a huge glazed elevation to the Queen’s Edinburgh Residence. (I think it’s a joke about democratic transparency). It sits at the foot of Salisbury Crags, and you can get a great view of its wonderful rooves by climbing the Radical Road, a historical attempt to quell political unrest. However, the best way to understand the building is to get into any taxi, ask to be taken there, and let on you’re an architect; what is particularly Scottish about the project is that, having managed to build the most wonderful building in Edinburgh, everyone has decided to complains endlessly about it.
The Edinburgh International Festival is also a complex of frustration. For the month of August the city turns into an enormous beer-garden, everyone starts reading the Guardian and behaving as though they just moved to a fashionable district of London. However, the excessive number of shows (31,320 fringe performances in 2007), high ticket prices, and low standards conspire toward indecision. Re-reading cryptic show descriptions does nothing to help; should it be “Jig-saws, bus tickets and buttons tell the physically and visually breathtaking tale of an Eastern European girl’s journey into today’s sex industry” or “Divorcing teacher struggles at Nursery. Christmas party clown pissed. Staffroom Bullying. Yet special needs teacher resembles Bollywood hunk!”? It’s easy to find yourself washed-up on the royal mile, absent-mindedly watching a gold-painted man not move. Better to resign yourself to non-choice, get a plastic-cupped beer and linger in the Pleasance Courtyard, pretending to recognise famous people.
Perhaps Edinburgh city also excels at promise rather than delivery. Its restaurants are a good example. Scottish food is awful; boiled, mashed, and bland, it seems invented for weaning children. A shared meal is like a flashback to some terrible winter of childhood. There’s no tradition of eating out in Scotland, and no tradition of service. Being waited on in a restaurant here is a kind of gruelling endurance sport, in which you pay to pit your patience against a resentful and teenage staff. Edinburgh restaurants try to paper over these problems with interior design. The restaurants and bars of George Street look like a show-down between Hip-Hop music video sets. Mirrored ceilings, tasselled drapes, and fake Botticelli’s populate the half-mile bordello-themed food-court. If you have to eat around here, it’s best to enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance at Dogs, a small restaurant which enshrines, through statuettes and wall art, two dead dogs. The food is unusually good, the service stylish, and the tassles minimal. If you prefer to dodge the nonsense, you have to go ethnic or organic. Chop-Chop (Chinese) and Kebab Mahal (Indian) are the most fun places to eat here, both are busy, serve great tasting, cheap food and have all the ambience of a carpet-tile showroom. The serious foody haunts are in Leith, where Restaurant Martin Wishart and The Kitchen will serve you up delicious seafood whilst swearing at their staff.