Walking the Dogs: David Ramsden on two decades in the restaurant business

Walking The Dogs: David Ramsden

Edinburgh restaurateur reflects on his time in the capital's dining scene in this four-part series

With restaurants such as Fitz(Henry), Rogue and The Dogs, David Ramsden has been the most distinctive and driven restaurateur in Edinburgh over the last two decades. In the first of an honest and often revealing four-part series, he writes about his time at the front line of the capital's dining scene.

What on earth happened?

How did I end up at 65, in an empty wine bar in Edinburgh, with the liquidators breathing down my neck?

It began in the early 1990s in a small Mexican cantina in Edinburgh's city centre. After a six-year episode in the music business (which is another story) I was a bit shaken, even damaged, with no income, and an indefinite future. I took a job as a kitchen porter in a great little enterprise with a good business model: few staff; simple ingredients, and reasonably low overheads.

At the sink I kept a tidy ship, made some good friends and quite enjoyed the anonymity of it all. As time went by I was asked to help with preparation, and next I was actually cooking food for customers. I was prone to near panic when the pressure was intense, but it wasn't rocket science.

After a year or so the cantina moved to bigger premises in a basement opposite. It was agreed I would move onto the floor as the dining room supervisor. My (life) partner Roz joined the fray, as a server, and it all seems very seamless looking back: a successful opening, a slightly bigger, flashier offering, but still sticking to the basics that had made the first venture as successful as it was.

When a new hotel on the Leith Shore opened, one aimed squarely at a monied, if mainly aspirational, clientele, I was offered the position of (trainee) restaurant manager. It was a very steep learning curve. I was a good waiter, but not so experienced managing a team. The chef was a heavy mannered individual, but he was the unit's darling; while he did do a good job, he would brook no observations, let alone criticism, about the food or service. It was possible to stay out of his way most of the time, but the showdown came sooner than expected. I was summoned to the GM's office. It was either me or the chef: I left.

One of Edinburgh's leading hairdressers, a friend, dapper and stylish and an all-round diamond, a man I had known for some years and who had been a supporter and sometime mentor all that time, suggested that I try going out on my own. A restored warehouse on Shore Place in Leith had been developed as a café with offices and accommodation above but the tennants didn't possess the will or experience to make a success of it.

A month or so later, it was ready. The name was fitz(Henry), a nod to my father, and to the first business I ran (badly), named Hoora Henry; terrible moniker, but it was the late 70s. We wanted to provide good, robust, brasserie dishes at a fair price, with not too much faff. It was achieved with a bit of imagination and flair. Old school chairs uptarted, some rich curtains (bargains), and in the kitchen, secondhand equipment. I even drove to Stoke to buy our crockery as seconds from the potteries.

It all commenced with an unmemorable chef, who didn't last long, and was replaced by a fiery Frenchman, Hugue, who, with his countryman Herve, really began to cook up a storm. Hugue, particularly, was a wild card, with a temperament to match. Off we went, and soon collected some very cool accolades, particularly a Michelin bib gourmand. There are many stories from that time, and many great clients, including the wonderful Pina Bausch, and of course Blue Nile, who were recording nearby.

What was most clear looking back, was how, after a fairly short time, I became very obsessive about consistency and quality. I felt a need for control that cannot have made me the easiest employer.

Fitz was extant for seven years, and by the end, was in the hands of chefs Hubert and Richie Alexander. We were still producing great food, but not really making a commercial success. The decision was made to sell up and move somewhere more central. This was facilitated by relationships that had been built up over the years with some lovely individuals in the finance sector, mainly Scottish Widows. I was offered the ground floor of one of the office buildings in Morrison Street: a big one, 5000 square feet. It jumped at it.

Quite quickly, Fitz sold, and I took Richie to head up the brigade at the new unit. The initial idea was to offer a menu similar to Fitz, but more expansive. This changed completely after a visit to the Ivy in London with an old chum, Matt Hobbs. Elsewhere in the restaurant that night was Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, the impresario whose name cannot be spoken (#MeToo), and separately Michael Barrymore. The whole experience, the food, service and ambience, was an epiphany.

So we returned to Edinburgh and set about designing a restaurant and a menu. Architect Sam Booth did an amazing job along with the tradesmen. It was a showstopper. The name was to be 'rogue' (a variation on the crop), which seemed to sum up its component parts. Even the menu was, to me, a work of art. It had a range from pizza, pasta and great sandwiches to fine steaks and seafood: chilli squid, West coast lobster. Perfect, especially as the drive was to create a venue where the customer could spend as little or as much as suited them, delivering an eclectic range of customers. As it turned out, this approach became a double-edged sword, as some customers resented the fact that they were spending top dollar, while beside them a table was only having pasta or a sandwich. Ridiculous really, but it was Edinburgh.

Rogue opened in summer 2001. It was reviewed by Charlie Fletcher in Scotland on Sunday: a glowing piece which really kickstarted the restaurant. From that day it was a great run, often full at lunch and dinner. Just to stand back during service and watch the room work was a trip. To this day, Rogue is the unit I am most proud of.

The only glitch was the reappearance of that obsessive side of me. That, and 9/11. I remember so clearly driving home after a busy lunch to hear the news of the strike on the first tower. For us it was the beginning of a slow end, as it demolished our trade, especially with the location in the heart of the business sector. Hard on that came the Scottish recession, further decreasing our turnover.

After another year, during which Richie had left to establish a venture of his own (still doing well, bless him), it was decided to alter the price point, to accommodate the changing cost of living, but turnover remained too low to sustain the servicing of overheads and loans. Three years after it opened, the business was declared insolvent.

In December 2004, David wrote an article for The List about the closure of Rogue. Read it on our archive.

Catch up on the other parts of the series of 'Walking the Dogs': David Ramsden's life and career in restaurants: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4