A Restaurant Worth Travelling To: The Fife Arms
A Restaurant Worth Travelling To: The Fife Arms

A Restaurant Worth Travelling To: The Fife Arms

In this series, we travel to some of the UK’s best restaurants that are well worth a day trip or overnight stay. This month, SL’s managing lifestyle editor Heather Steele went to the Cairngorms National Park to experience The Fife Arms and a truly five-star Scottish welcome…
By Heather Steele

The Concept

If you’re looking for some serious escapism, look no further than the beautiful Fife Arms, which can be found in Braemar. This pretty village is next to the royal hideaway of Balmoral, and is famous in its own right for its Highland Games. Against a backdrop of the majestic mountains of Cairngorms National Park, the hotel dates to the 19th century when it was built by the Duke of Fife as a coaching inn after Queen Victoria’s purchase of Balmoral sent the popularity of Braemar through the roof.

In late 2018, the hotel was completely overhauled by Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the couple behind the Swiss art collective Hauser & Wirth, which owns galleries in places around the world including London, New York, Zurich and Bruton in Somerset. Locals tell us the pair decided to renovate the vast former coaching inn when they moved into nearby Invercauld House. Recognising the area was lacking a fine-dining restaurant and five-star hotel – which locals could enjoy too – the pair enlisted the help of star interior designer Russell Sage, Scottish architect Moxton and local artists and makers to transform The Fife Arms into the luxe, atmospheric spot it is today.

The Setting

As well as the fine-dining restaurant, the hotel contains a spa, pub, cocktail bar, whisky bar, lots of private spaces for group dining and weddings, and some lovely grand public spaces for reading the paper, drinking a coffee or perhaps ordering something a little stronger after a long walk around Braemar’s neighbouring ancient birch woodlands. Picture three-metre-high mahogany fireplaces, tasteful tartan wallpaper, impressive chandeliers and imposing staircases, all set against a truly impressive collection of art. As well as the 14,000 pieces dotted through every bedroom, corridor and restaurant – including original Lucian Freuds and Picassos – Hauser & Wirth commissioned artists like Richard Jackson to create eye-catching lighting and Zhang Enli to paint directly onto the walls and ceilings.

Art is used to greatest effect in the Clunie Dining Room, the hotel’s big-ticket restaurant. Working in his distinctive ‘Cubistoid’ style, Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca created a dramatic mural that envelops the restaurant. The forms and colours Kuitca selected for this immersive painting were heavily inspired by the Clunie river, which flows right past, and the patchwork of colours of the surrounding hills and village rooftops. Huge windows and a couple of taxidermied stags all add to the sense of place when having a meal here. The room doubles up as the breakfast space and we loved starting the day with a hearty local heather honey porridge and a nip of the hotel’s own malt whisky while plotting the day’s activities, with a little help from the resident ‘ghillies’ (a traditional term for a Highland attendant) who are on hand to arrange everything from nature walks to wild swimming, wild sketching and family activities.

The Food

You could easily stay at The Fife Arms for a few days and mix up your dining options each night. On night one, we stopped in at The Flying Stag pub for haggis, neeps and tatties and a strangely delicious cocktail using those same flavour profiles as a springboard: haggis-infused scotch, ‘neeps & tatties’ maple syrup, toasted oats and bitters. For something more traditional, we loved its Highland Heather cocktail, a hot drink of Tanqueray, Braemar heather honey, whey and fresh lemon, which came into its own after a day outdoors.

Night two was in the Clunie Dining Room. The focus of this restaurant – headed up by Adam Maddock – is open-fire cooking, with hero dishes including sea bass with smoked potato dauphine, smoked haddock and Oscietra caviar; local Invercauld Estate venison loin with smoked shallots, candy beetroot and confit red cabbage; and slow-roasted apple with muscovado meringue, fudge and brown butter ice-cream.

The night we dined, two of our group had got lucky while fly fishing for the first time. On an excellent excursion to the lochs of the Invercauld Estate, the ever patient Ali of Twin Peakes helped us get to grips with tempting brown trout to the surface – and our reward was two decent-sized fish, which we took back to the hotel for Adam and the team to cook for us. The blistered skin and perfectly pink flesh of those trout – cooked simply with butter and spring greens – was one of the nicest things I’ve tasted in years. After the previous evening’s plate of haggis, I followed the trout with a great veggie option: celeriac risotto with pickled onions, rosemary and Cainsmore ewe’s cheese, and a side of birch-fired brassicas and pine nut dressing. Both were every bit as thought through and accomplished as the meatier dishes on the menu.

Sim Canetty Clarke

The Verdict

If you’re looking for a foodie escape, this is it. As well as a great meal in the Clunie Dining Room, the experience was enhanced by bookending it with a drink in both bars. Elsa’s is a small but beautiful art-deco space inspired by Italian fashion designer and Braemar fan Elsa Schiaparelli’s signature style and love of shocking pink. Here, the team serves champagne and excellent cocktails – we especially enjoyed the Ignition, a wonderful concoction of beurre noisette Tanqueray, Dolin blanc, martini bianco, pear cordial, smoked sage and clarified pear. Bertie’s is where we retired after our meal. An elegant, atmospheric whisky bar, it’s named in honour of Queen Victoria’s eldest son, King Edward VII, who was something of a bon viveur. Here, guests sit in plush armchairs and are given numerous bottles to sniff by the charismatic team, based on whatever they’re in the mood for – an espresso martini, bar of chocolate or even Marmite – before choosing a dram. In fact, guests are encouraged to browse the whisky library with the bartenders, making this an excellent spot for novices or those who wouldn’t usually end their evening with a scotch. Our warming, toffee-like glass of Bramble Ardmore was the perfect way to end the trip.

Sim Canetty-Clarke

Where To Stay

The Fife Arms has 46 bedrooms, encompassing everything from royal suites to interconnecting family rooms. Each has been uniquely decorated using plush wallpapers, furnishings and ephemera that reflects the hotel’s history. For views of the mountains, book one of the Nature & Poetry rooms inspired by Scottish poets or opt for one of the Royal Suites, which have grand four-poster beds, spacious living areas and copper roll-top baths. For a special stay, The Artist’s Studio is a one-off room inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and the interiors they created at Charleston House, featuring hand-painted walls and a cabin bed. Like the look of your room? The hotel shop offers guests the chance to recreate it back at home, via chic trinket trays, glassware, blankets and matchboxes.

How To Get There

Whether you’re coming from Edinburgh, London or further away, half the beauty of a stay at The Fife Arms is the striking scenery and wildlife you’ll pass on the drive. From Aberdeen, a car journey is around 1 hour 40 minutes; from Edinburgh it’s 2 hours 15 minutes; from Dundee it’s 1 hour 25 minutes; and from Inverness, allow 1 hour 50 minutes. If you’re flying into Scotland, choose from airports in any of those four cities.

The Fife Arms, Braemar, Aberdeenshire, AB35 5YN

Visit TheFifeArms.com

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