James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Very Best Place to Drink First Thing in the Morning

Photo by: Kim Traynor

The Very Best Place to Drink First Thing in the Morning

Flat Pints in Edinburgh

We traipsed into the pub from the cold sunlight of a January morning. We expected some kind of reaction. If not quite the Scottish 8am boozer equivalent of a record-scratch, at least some curious or even indifferent looks. There was none.

Groups of people who ventured into Edinburgh’s morning-hour pubs were usually trying to prolong the night, crashing post-work drinking sessions for the city’s night-shift workers. But not this time. We were sober, but wired after 14 nights (midnight to 8 am) at a press research company housed in a former primary school. (The bathrooms were still painted baby pink and baby blue). We had joined the ranks of Edinburgh’s night workers.

You can drink in bars almost 24 hours a day in Edinburgh. In the 60s and 70s, some bars got licenses to open at 5 am so all-night workers (dockers, bond-warehouse workers, railway staff) had a place to unwind. Inevitably, some of the city’s thousands of students discovered them. The slight thrill of leaving the comfort zone of Edinburgh’s student bars on the city’s south side was probably part of the attraction. Diane’s Pool Hall in the West End is a renowned hub for people who aren’t ready to call it a night when the sun rises. (One Yelp reviewer called it “the Ground Zero of Edinburgh’s seedy underbelly.”) There was also the storied Boundary Bar, which stood on the old dividing line between Edinburgh and the grittier port city of Leith. A pole divided the bar into the Leith and Edinburgh sides, which had different drinking licenses (after-hours drinking was only done on the Leith side). I was more familiar with the Penny Black (hours: 5 am to 3 pm) where all-nighter students rubbed shoulders with off-duty postmen, casino workers, or just full-time drinkers.

But our night-shift local was not a city institution. It was usually empty. Ten-minutes walk from our office at the top of Easter Road, it was a nondescript pub about halfway down Leith Walk, the wide artery that forms a ramp between Edinburgh’s gilded center to the gateway of Leith. It was pretty typical: the walls bathed in hundreds of seasons of smoke and damp, slightly sticky dark wooden tables. (This was also a few months into Scotland’s smoking ban, so fresh cigarette smoke no longer obscured the dank smell from decades of ale spills ground into the 70s-era carpet.) This was where we would unwind after nights of scanning Scotland’s newspapers and preparing binders of media coverage, so Edinburgh’s press officers would have them on their desks by 9 am. We’d order pints of local ale or lager: Tennents (actually from Glasgow) or MacEwans, and even the lager would be flat. And we would wait to for the beer to make us feel drowsy enough to could go and crash for the rest of the day.

We coped with the nocturnal drudgery in different ways. Emma from Durham snacked on whole coffee beans. I ate Tesco chocolate cake garnished with increasingly hot chili peppers to stay awake. We also had CDs: Arcade Fire’s Funeral, lots of Johnny Cash, Guns N’ Roses. But there’s something really depressing about playing Use Your Illusion II at 4 am just to hear something other than the hum of computers.

At first, we tried to have a normal post-work evenings, and do normal evening things like run errands, or cook breakfast/dinner after our shifts. But we soon discovered that we were capable of sleeping right through the day from 9 am to midnight, when the next shift started as Edinburgh’s hilly streets began to fill up with drunken boys in kilts and goose-bumped girls in dresses without coats. Over winter, when Scotland’s daylight hours are already meager, I saw only a few minutes of daylight for weeks. (Our team leader had been doing this for two years straight. He was a little prematurely gray, but seemed otherwise cheerful.)

Diane’s Pool Hall is closed for now, and the Penny Black is gone. The Boundary is now called City Limits and has no early-hours drinking, but there are a few pubs scattered around the city that do. I don’t know what became of our post-night shift local. I recently took a trip down memory lane/Leith Walk, thinking I would find it eventually although I had forgotten its name. But I didn’t. It could now be called the Joker and the Thief, or the Brass Monkey. Or it could be that new dry-cleaners.

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