Secret Drinker reviews the Castle Tavern in Inverness
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The existential, psychological, moral and philosophical importance of a good pub cannot possibly be overstated – it is essential to civilisation and to me.
A pub is like the human being in its variety, you get some good ones and you get some bad ones but worst of all you get some that don’t make you feel anything at all and have the charm of a bus stop – it could drive you to drink and that’s a con.
The Castle Tavern in Inverness has many charms and the first one is that it is a good deal more authentic (the building dates to 1700) than the 19th century faux-chateau for the constabulary and the courts that it takes its name from.
In short, it is a tavern and does what it says on the tin by serving good booze and food fast and effectively.
It attracts a largely well to do but not pretentious crowd, visitors and tourists attracted by what surely must be the prettiest looking watering hole in the Sneck and also journalists, thirsty for a libation after a heavy week of truth telling.
Importantly, it clearly has a hefty squad of regulars, in for an hour or an evening, which says a lot about any pub, particularly in a city with plenty of places to go. There are also plenty of people passing through who want to sit for a nice drink before going on to somewhere they can’t hear their friends speak.
It has decent views of the river particularly, which adds to a cosy atmosphere particularly during the winter months and good views of the chateau for those with an interest in sentencing, courts and policing.
Charm one, is a big one. Despite the staff working a bar area that is the size of a telephone box, they do it well – I cannot ever remember a wait long enough to fear sobering up, which in itself is enough.
They also know what they are doing, young or more experienced, you get served professionally. For example, I have never seen staff chatting while customers wait – direct and friendly service is a big plus for me.
And that cannot be said for the more corporate, chain bars where it is like ordering at McDonald's where the jokes between the bar staff are just too irresistible not to keep you waiting and when they do restart work they serve the punter that just arrived, which is an infamy.
The staff also listen to your order and give it to you as you ask. It should be a simple procedure but if you order whisky and a splash of water in some places you can find yourself battling prejudice: “You sure you don’t want ice?”
Charm two: the beer gardens are more than ample, busy and happily you can usually find a place after a visitor has finished a pint, geo-located their Instagram post and moved on.
There are two, the first and most favoured outdoor drinking area is right next to the bar area which is usually covered and largely sheltered from those hateful marrow-chilling gusts that central Inverness specialises in.
During the colder months it is well heated to the point that those with male-pattern baldness look suspiciously at the outdoor heaters they fear are drying each precious follicle.
The second is slightly outside the pub area and catches the sun more but it shuts a little earlier than the pub so (pro tip) if you plan to stay later into the evening then best to move up sooner rather than later.
There is plenty and it is not extortionate, plus 40 or so malts with most priced from around £5 (a veritable steal these days) upwards to £15, for your blends the magnificent Famous Grouse is just £2.85.
In the Tavern they pour a good pint and the selection is impressive again given the physical size of the bar – Real Ale, Real Cider, Caledonian Best, Carlsberg, Erdinger, Guinness, Innes & Gunn, Somersby Cider, Tuborg Lager.
Prices are about what you would expect in Inverness these days with the cheapest pint coming in at £4 and the Erdinger the priciest at around £5.60.
The mysteriously popular gins come in at £2.95 and reach £4.95 – not bad for a spirit that can be made with flora and a bathtub. The good point is that they have taken full advantage of the local gins like Glen Wyvis, Caorunn, Isle of Harris among others.
The food is good, the menu is standard pub fare but it has quite a few dishes that you wouldn’t necessarily find elsewhere like Cullen skink or the ratatouille with vegan garlic bread. It also seems like there is just that tiny little bit more care than you would find in the usual pub, which means someone is taking the kitchen seriously.
For a starter, the price starts at £4.25 and goes up to £7.25, and for the mains they hover around the £15 mark, par for the course (no pun).
If there is a downside to having a dram in a building that was constructed about 300 years ago, it is that when you are going to the toilet it can feel like you trying to thread a needle.
It is downstairs, through a narrow passageway – you know those ones that invite you to lean forward? – and that can be a little bit tricky.
As pub toilets go, they are clean and average and the seat was attached to the toilet basin.
Find a good ally and spend a Friday evening – for my sins I went along there with a friend who, though witty and cheerful, has a face like he'd just driven 20 miles of bad road. There is often non-deafening live music by some dude on a guitar.
Next Week: McGregor’s
“Could be better but there is often some guy in the corner playing the fiddle, disrupting conversation…” That is a joke.