Great food, great service and a great ambience!

 

Distance from Mey House: 6 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/J33d1CbnvF82

 

If you read our food and drink reviews you may detect a certain frustration with many of our local restaurants as they occasionally fail to provide all of the critical elements of a successful dining experience. However, thanks to the launch of Stacks Bistro at John O’Groats (taking its name from the local Duncansby ‘sea’ Stacks), you can now get fresh, imaginatively cooked food served by attentive friendly staff in an environment that is both quirky and comfortable. Although please be aware that Stacks is currently open for evening meals on Thursday, Friday and Saturday only.

Stacks is a partnership between mother and daughter team Teresa and Becky Wymer who between them know a thing or two about hospitality, customer service and good food. Teresa (who leads the front of house team), ran a very successful local B&B for over 10 years whilst daughter Becky (head honcho in the kitchen) has worked at Nick Nairns Cookery school in Aberdeen, The Dores Inn on the shore of Loch Ness and the famous Three Chimneys on Skye.

The restaurant is situated right at the heart of John O’Groats, seats no more than 30 and its décor definitely inspires you to relax and not take life too seriously! We like the eclectic mix of furniture, the colourful colanders that double as lampshades and the imaginative use of reclaimed wood on the walls and service counter.

We first dined at Stacks one lunchtime – a table for four was sought and quickly provided. A mixture of salads, sandwiches and hot meals were chosen from the fixed menu though lunchtime specials were also available on the chalk board. Portions were generous, delicately presented and served with a smile.

So impressed were we, that a week later we returned for a romantic evening for two and once again, we were not disappointed. After delicious starters (hummus with flatbread and Italian crab-cakes) I selected the a la carte option of Porchetta served on a bed of Polenta whilst Sally-Ann opted for one of the daily seafood specials – giant crab claws and salad. Desserts of poached pear and mango cheesecake were squeezed in too, followed by coffees and aperitifs. The bill was a very reasonable £60.

What is refreshing is that this restaurant takes full advantage of its location, buying its seafood daily off the fishermen as they land their catch at the John O’Groats harbour and its vegetables from a local croft. The downside of this superbly fresh cuisine is that the Chef cannot be sure what she will be preparing that evening – we were treated to succulent crab during our visit but the following day, two of the biggest lobsters I have ever seen were its substitutes. What a fantastic lottery to participate in!

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Do not expect any deep fried food here at all – no battered fish, no fried scampi and definitely no chips! Closed Monday; open 10am til 5pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday; open 10am – 10pm Thurs to Saturday.

 

GREAT FOR: Local produce cooked with imagination.

 

RECOMMENDATION: If you are not sure what any of the items are on the menu, ask for help. The table staff are knowledgeable and eager to encourage you to try something a little different.

Close to the former residence of the Queen Mother is this family run hotel.

 

Distance from Mey House: 1 Mile
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/sUqvo

 

The Castle Arms is our local pub, has been a hostelry for at least 150 years and was built as a staging inn for the mail coach that travelled between Wick and Thurso. From the outside it has changed little in the last 80 years although the present owners have refurbished the interior extensively. Situated close to the Castle of Mey, the Queen Mother was even known to have attended the local Senior Citizens meeting here once in a while!

The Lounge Bar is the only place to have a drink here now, since the closure of the establishment’s Public Bar some time back, and as it adjoins the restaurant in an open plan style it does rather lack atmosphere though it does provide a relaxed setting to enjoy a dram.

The restaurant itself has no more than a dozen tables in it, is always light and airy and you can expect not only traditional pub fare but also a few local specialities too.

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Situated on the A836 in the village of Mey, the hotel is no more than a 3 or 4 minute drive from Mey House, or alternatively a 25-30 minute walk. The restaurant no longer provides lunches but it is generally open every evening from April to the end of August though we recommend that you check opening hours directly with the hotel outside of these months.

 

GREAT FOR: Good food and a convenient location.

 

RECOMMENDATION: The local smoked platter available as a starter or main course.

Located close to the beautiful Dunnet Bay, this local hotel serves traditional pub fare in a lively, modern environment.

 

Distance from Mey House: 6 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/cNmgj

 

The Northern Sands Hotel has recently undergone a top to tail renovation and provides a clean and crisp environment to stop off for a bite to eat. The food selection on offer is typical pub grub so if you like battered fish, steak pie, lasagne or burgers this modern pub-style eatery may suit your needs. However, it may not be your choice if you are seeking out delicate local speciality dishes.

There is without doubt a buzz of an atmosphere throughout the bar and dining areas which is provided by a combination of a central open plan bar, lively eclectic music which is broadcast throughout the area and several widescreen TVs showing major sports events of the day. We personally were disappointed by a shortage of local ales on offer but there are plenty of Highland whiskys to choose from plus the award- winning Rock Rose gin and Holy Grass vodka that are produced next door at the Dunnet Bay Distillery.

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Food is available from 12 noon onwards though if you plan on eating in the evening then booking is recommended as there is seating for around 30 people only in the dining area and this has to serve residents of the hotel as well as the nearby caravan and camping site.

 

GREAT FOR: Pub fare served in a modern, lively environment.

 

RECOMMENDATION: Perfect for a pint and a sandwich after a good walk along the beautiful 2 mile sandy beach of the neighbouring Dunnet Bay.

Local produce served with or without a twist!

Distance from Mey House: 14 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/myryPbbszJv

This relatively new venture, owned and run by a lady from Southern Africa, is located right on the promenade and housed in what was the original Edwardian tearoom. We have dined here both for lunch and dinner and were impressed enough that, in our most recent venture, we invited two of our good friends to join us.

First impressions upon stepping over the threshold are that there is a lot squeezed into a little space! At first we feared that the dining experience may be compromised, as the tables and chairs from neighbouring diners were almost abutting our own but we soon settled into the ambience that this creates. Menus were delivered by the sole member of the waiting staff, drinks were ordered from the rather limited choice before we then looked over the dinner selection with some anticipation and enthusiasm.

Let me start by mentioning that whilst you will find a few of the typical Thurso selections on the menu (including Battered Fish or Steak and Chips) please don’t think this is yet another ‘same old, same old’ menu selection. Peppered throughout the fare on offer is a surprising selection that makes it difficult to pigeon hole this establishment into one genre or another.

Starters are skewed toward local seafood with our choices on the night being the Orkney Ale battered calamari and the bowl of West Highland mussels steamed in a white wine and herb sauce. For main courses we were spoilt for choice – Sal chose the Persian Tuna steak served upon a Greek salad accompanied by a tzatziki dressing, Lysette the Pan seared Ardgay Venison whilst the boys were tempted by two of the African dishes on offer. Barry chose the Benachin slow braised beef in a spicy tomato and pepper sauce and I opted for the Domoda chicken cooked in chilli and peanut butter and even though neither of us had any idea what to expect from this culinary safari, both dishes were very much enjoyed!

Truth be told, we were all quite full by this point but so driven were we to give you a rounded review that we chose desserts too (though only two were ordered to share amongst us). We can happily report that the Old Pulteney cheesecake is deliciously creamy and the Scottish cheese board is laden with a fine selection and served with a delicious chutney. Phew!

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The Achilles heel of this excellent restaurant is the front of house – young inexperienced staff are enthusiastic but lack polish.

GREAT FOR: An eclectic variety of dishes served in generous portions offering good value for money.

RECOMMENDATION: Serving food morning, noon and night, 7 days a week. Booking is advisable during the high season, particularly for supper.

Good food, convenient location and sophisticated atmosphere; could this be the restaurant we have been looking for?

Distance from Mey House: 14 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/FWvka

So often we have had to compromise on one or more of the key elements when eating out in the northern Highlands, (food quality, location, service or price) but at last, we found somewhere to eat that (almost) ticks all of the boxes.

The Red Pepper is the restaurant located within the Holborn Hotel in Thurso; admittedly it doesn’t look like much from the outside but step over the threshold and you will find a dining room with contemporary décor, mood lighting and perhaps no more than 10 tables. We arrived at about 7.30pm for a supper for three and the restaurant was already quite busy and whilst the service wasn’t what I would call ‘attentive’, we weren’t kept waiting for ages either. Whilst the menu had a good selection of the typical Caithness cuisine (battered fish, lasagne, steak and pie) there was also an interesting selection of specials which two of our party chose.

The food was promptly served and not only was it delicious but the portions were of a reasonable size too which meant that when it came to desserts, we were actually quite full. However, we forced a cheese platter between the three of us and we all agreed that the variety and quantity of cheeses were excellent; indeed probably the best I have ever eaten in a restaurant anywhere in the world.

We didn’t have any wine with our meal so I am afraid I cannot comment on the variety or quality, perhaps next time!

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Our meal for three cost us £25 a head for three mains, one dessert and a couple rounds of drink which is quite reasonable considering the location. There is little parking at the hotel but generally there is ample on street parking nearby.

GREAT FOR: A good all round dining experience.

RECOMMENDATION: The cheese platter, it was really that good.

Set on the main street in Thurso is this diminutive restaurant offering the best food and service in its price range.

 

Distance from Mey House: 14 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/CIqrd

 

After three years of living in Caithness we had crossed the threshold of ‘Le Bistro’ many times and enjoyed each dining experience. However, we recently learned that the business had been sold and that the new (local) owners had invested in new décor and revamped the menu so with some trepidation we ventured back.

Stepping into the bistro we were pleased to see that its charm, whilst refreshed, had been maintained and that the waiting staff were familiar faces. As before, we were given a friendly greeting and escorted to our table, wherein the menu and specials board were introduced.

The new menu offered freshly cooked food created using many local ingredients and whilst the choice is not bewilderingly extensive there is no doubt something there for everyone. For starters, there is a wide choice of dishes ranging from soups to local seafood or even fresh Greek salad; mains are an eclectic choice as varied as spicy chicken salsa pasta and fajitas, through to beef cheeks with fresh vegetables or for the less adventurous a range of burgers made from locally sourced beef.

The service remains very good, attentive but not oppressive which made for a relaxed and efficient atmosphere.

So, what did we think overall? We were happy to be back and pleased that the food and service remain toward the top of the places to go in Thurso. The availability of some local beers was also appreciated although we do feel that the French sounding name may serve to mislead some of the many tourists now touring our area. C’est la vie!

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Despite its name, this is not a ‘french’ restaurant. Instead you find a small, reasonably priced restaurant, serving a variety of Scottish and European fare, which is open for lunch and dinner.

 

GREAT FOR: Attentive service, friendly atmosphere.

 

RECOMMENDATION: The fresh seafood starters or the Cullen Skink!

Uncomplicated food at journey’s end.

Distance from Mey House: 6 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/TjZs4

So, you finally make it to the northern end of the country and if you search for sustenance in the evening, then there are precious few places to eat. The Seaview Hotel is one of only two options, Stacks Bistro being the other.

The hotel has been a feature of John O’Groats since at least the 1950’s and then, as now, it is a travellers’ hotel rather than what I would call a residential hotel. There is a public bar that is more often than not patronised by locals and which can be a little rowdy at times though lacking in atmosphere it is not! The restaurant is a large open plan room which can cater for tables of two right up to two dozen and possibly more. As a consequence, the dining experience cannot be readily described as intimate but the room is light and airy and unlike the two other hotel restaurants in the area, it does at least have a view out across the Pentland Firth and the islands – if you are fortunate enough to grab a table next to the windows!

Eating out here is not our preference though we recognise that it does offer a convenient location if you are already in Groats. There is a wide choice of the typical north coast pub fare (fish and chips, burgers, pasta and salads) and it is reasonably priced though there are not as many ‘local specials’ on offer as you might hope for, which is a shame considering its proximity to the harbour and all that great fresh seafood.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: As it has to cater for the nearby caravan park, the chalets, the local B&Bs and its own residents, it can get busy in the middle of summer so booking a table is advisable. You can contact them on 01955 611 220.

GREAT FOR: The view of the island of Stroma.

RECOMMENDATION: If you are returning from the John O’Groats MAXI tour of Orkney, it is a possible option to stop and eat.

Whatever the weather, you simply must pop into ‘Flavours’ when you find yourself at John O’Groats.

Distance from Mey House: 6 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/TD9ns

We had been to Groats more times than we can remember and although we had seen the parlour we had never ventured over the threshold. Why? Well, probably for two reasons; firstly, it doesn’t look particularly ritzy on the outside (it certainly doesn’t look how one might expect a purveyor of luxury gelato to look) and secondly because generally the temperature this far north is rarely hot enough to make one think “it’s hot today, I fancy an ice cream”!

It was our good friend and all round Handy-Man (Barry) who mentioned one day in February that he was going home via Groats to buy an ice cream. Puzzled by this seemingly odd behaviour in the midst of winter we enquired just where he was going and why – so began a 5 minute enthusiastic elaboration on ‘Flavours Luxury Ice Cream”.

It was not long before we too found ourselves indulging in some pretty odd winter time activity.

Step inside the rather austere looking parlour that is adjacent to the main car park and you will be greeted by friendly counter assistants who will be happy to introduce you to the wonderful range of Italian style scoop ice cream that lays enticingly in the display freezers. You can choose from traditional flavours such as vanilla, raspberry ripple or Belgian chocolate, indulge your passion for sweet confectionary by ordering the fabulous ‘Mars Bar’ or tangy ‘Jaffa Cake’ flavours or if you are adventurous (or a 12 year old kid) then perhaps ‘bubble-gum’ or ‘Irn-Bru’ is the treat for you?

If you can’t decide what flavour to try from the 20 or so on offer then do what I do and order three scoops of whatever takes your fancy and load up an extra-large cone. Mmmmm!

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: In season it is open from 12 noon until 5pm on week days and 6pm at the weekend.

GREAT FOR: Large containers of your favourite flavour to take away.

RECOMMENDATION: ‘Mars Bar’ is my personal favourite, but it’s a close run thing!

Sitting atop the wonderful Whaligoe Steps and with commanding views of the surrounding ocean it offers a surprising reward at the end of your ascent.

Distance from Mey House: 29 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/z2tuH

Sally-Ann and I had ventured out on a blustery January day to explore the fascinating Whaligoe Steps. Having being thwarted by the best efforts of the authorities to keep the Steps a secret (they won’t erect signs due to any number of petty bureaucratic reasons) we eventually found our destination. The Steps are the subject of a review in the ‘Heritage’ section but suffice to say, after we had spent 20 minutes in the wind being showered by salt spray and then hiking back up 330 steps, we were in need of refreshment.

The Whaligoe Café is in what used to be the Coopers’ workshop where the barrels for the storage and transportation of the salted fish would have been made and repaired. Today, the building is being renovated by the current owner and whilst it doesn’t look anything special on the outside, the inside is quite a surprise and that’s even before you see the menu!

Three of the interior walls are bare stone, the ceiling is wood panelled and the dado surrounding the seated area is a tasteful pastel blue. However, the centre piece of the café is the huge picture window that looks out over the Whaligoe cliffs and the expansive North Sea. It is just a shame that the interior seals on the window have failed trapping moisture between the panes of glass which obscures the view.

Don’t expect the usual greasy spoon fare but be prepared for a gastronomic feast of Mediterranean origin that’s freshly cooked by the owner (who is of Maltese/ Italian origin). Whilst there was a great choice (from pizza to Galician fish stew) we opted for the soup of the day and a hot drink which sounds mundane given the choice but the bean soup was excellent and it was accompanied by delicious homemade bread. The drinks too were good with a great selection of coffee from around the World and a hot lemonade that was so unusual it was served with instructions (ask for it, you’ll see what I mean).

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: There are absolutely no signs on the main road to signify the presence of Whaligoe Café or the Steps! Just off the A99 south of Ulbster, look for the signs for “The Cairn of Get” and just past it take the lane opposite that heads toward the sea. The car park is small but DON’T use the residents’ spaces unless you specifically want a confrontation! Open on Thursdays to Sundays from 10.30am until 5.30pm. Dinner reservations can also be made in advance.

GREAT FOR: A great lunchtime snack or dinner out in the evening.

RECOMMENDATION: Ask Karen (the owner) for a recommendation as the menu is extensive and may look a little daunting to those unfamiliar with the cuisine.

Set back from the road just north of Tongue is a diminutive café with a grand view.

Distance from Mey House: 55 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/iC4y2

The village of Tongue is a good stopping off point between Thurso and Durness and it is fortunate to have some of the best views on the northern shore of Sutherland with commanding vistas of Ben Hope, Ben Loyal as well as the stunning Coldbackie Bay. We had stopped off at the nearby Tongue Hotel for lunch previously but I was disappointed with it, not because the food and hospitality were lacking but because we had to sit and stare at the road whilst one of the greatest panoramas in the area was hidden on the other side of the hotel!

Fast forward a couple of months and we found ourselves back in the area with yet another car full of visitors and in need of some late afternoon refreshment; this time we called in to Weavers Café.

We arrived late in the day half expecting the café to be closed but we were grateful to find it open and we were warmly welcomed by proprietors Anna and Jon. Unfortunately our late arrival meant that most of the freshly baked cake had already been sold so we satisfied ourselves with tea, biscuits and the last chocolate muffin which we shared between us.

The café is situated in a brand new wooden extension built by Jon onto the end of the former Weavers cottage which now also doubles as their home, gift shop and a B&B too. If the day is dreich (Scots for ‘dull & miserable’!), the cabin is a very pleasant place to be but on a dry day you should head out to the rear of the café where you will find Weavers hidden gem, a decked area and small garden with fantastic views out across Coldbackie Bay.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:Weavers’ fare is definitely more ‘refreshment’ than ‘gourmet’ but it is ideal for a late breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea. (Tel: 01847 611332).

GREAT FOR: If you find yourself in this part of the world wanting good food, good hospitality AND a great view then this is the place for you.

RECOMMENDATION: Spend some time in the small gift shop next door, it offers a good mixture of mass market trinkets and local arts and craft.

No matter what the weather, the Cocoa Mountain café will satisfy your desire for chocolate.

Distance from Mey House: 86 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/hJe8E

After you have walked along Balnakiel Beach and nosed around the ruins of the 16th century church (see the separate entries in “Explore” for further info) you will be in need of refreshment and there is nowhere better in that vicinity than Cocoa Mountain.

Cocoa Mountain is part of the Balnakiel Craft Village which grew from the abandoned buildings of an old military barracks located about a mile west of Durness and just up the lane from Balnakiel beach. The village is really a hotch potch of lifestyle artisans who sell everything from paintings and ceramics to clothing and second hand books; what it lacks in sophistication, it makes up for with authenticity!

Since they first opened their doors in 2006, the chocolatiers at Cocoa Mountain have created a light and airy café that sits alongside the kitchen that produces their fantastic truffles and chocolates. Whilst their wares can be ordered over the web for national and international shipment nothing beats the sensation of a freshly made Chilli Lemongrass truffle slowly melting in your mouth whilst you sit and sip an organic coffee…

The selection of confectionary on offer is dizzying but don’t despair if you can’t decide what to try -you can mix and match to your hearts delight; they also do selection boxes to take away too!

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The café is open every day March to October and limited hours thereafter.

GREAT FOR: Chocolate covered Turkish delight and a mug of hot chocolate!

RECOMMENDATION: Take a walk along Balnakiel beach first, that way you won’t feel guilty about the calories.

Unpretentious surroundings, wonderful seafood and friendly service go together to make this one of the best dinner destinations in the northern Highlands.

Distance from Mey House: 16 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/rVNUi

I had read about The Captain’s Galley before we moved to Caithness; it was voted as one of the top 50 places to eat in the UK so where else were we going to celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary and our first as residents of Scotland?

The restaurant is situated within the harbour at Scrabster (near Thurso) and only a few hundred metres from where the evening’s fare is bought, straight from the fisherman who caught and landed it that very day, and thus the menu is dependent upon both what is in season and has been harvested.

The Captain’s Galley restaurant is located in what was once originally the Scrabster harbour ice house which doesn’t sound very glamorous until you realise that the old building has a wonderful curved vaulted stone ceiling which arches way above your head, making an original and dramatic setting in which to savour the food (unfortunately, I couldn’t take a photograph as there were other diners present enjoying their own celebrations). There are only a small number of tables which adds to the exclusivity and the owners (Jim and Mary Cowie) keep a good number of very attentive staff who seem to know what you need even before you have to ask for it.

The menu is not extensive, perhaps only three starters, four mains and a small selection of desserts / cheeses but don’t let the minimalist selection deter you as what is lacking in volume is more than made up for in pure taste sensation. We have never tasted seafood quite like it (how could a seemingly simple cod fillet be so exquisite)?

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: At £50+ per head for a three course meal (excluding beverages), it’s not a cheap evening out but it’s worth it.

GREAT FOR: Simple uncomplicated great tasting seafood.

RECOMMENDATION: The mussel and spoot starter was delicious but the star of the evening was the cod fillet.