The Neolithic settlers who discovered Orkney 5,000 years ago cherished its abundance of tasty wildlife and the bounty of the crashing North Sea. Today, visitors to this archipelago are arriving in their droves for more or less the same reason. The islands – flicked like a blot of ink 15km North of Scotland – have long held a place in the British imagination as a site of historical and literary intrigue, but over the past decade it has added a culinary boon to the many reasons to pay a visit. So we braved the intrepid crossing – actually, a newly opened 3.5-hour direct flight from London – in search of hearty lunches, atmospheric fine dining, and of course, whisky. Like the long-gone inhabitants of Skara Brae, we weren’t disappointed.
Kirkwall is the bustling metropolis that forms Orkney’s defacto capital, an 8500-population town with a busy port that has proven a regular hotspot for cruise ships. Several times a week these great, hulking whales engorge American and European souvenir hunters, who swamp the pubs, tea shops and museums that line Kirkwall’s tiny high street. Naturally, you’ll want to veer out of that gentle stampede, and Archive Coffee – the closest thing here to a hipster cafe, mercifully minus the hipsters – is the perfect refuge. The excellent coffee was expected; the beautiful and belly-busting deconstructed sandwiches less so. Down towards the harbour you’ll find The Kirkwall Hotel, whose cheerfully old-school dining room serves a kingly seafood platter. That’s lunch sorted then.
For your evening meal, we found two gems recommended by locals. The first is called The Storehouse, a restaurant cleverly concealed a few feet away from the local tourist centre, which welcomed the Prince and Princess of Wales for supper in 2021 (“both very polite and lovely,” our waitress assures us). The menu is a perfect example of fine dining executed with care but a pleasing lack of pretension. The hand-dived local scallops with orange, basil & hazelnut butter were delicious, while the chicken dish found ways to pumpkin exciting barely believable outside a Tim Burton movie.
The mainland’s culinary highlight, meanwhile, may well be Hamnavoe, which is up a cobbled side street a few miles away in the well-heeled neighbourhood of Stromness. Meaning ‘safe harbour’ in Old Norse, Hamnavoe is like stepping into a cosy living room, but don’t be fooled: the cookery is anything but safe. Local seafood is given inventive Asian twists, such as soy braised local beef with teriyaki carrot, or salmon with a delightful almond miso crumb.