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Restaurant review: But ‘n’ Ben in Auchmithie offers simple and delicious food with a nod to the ’70s

The mushroom pancake.

What a pleasure it is to go somewhere knowing you’ll have a great time and that all you have to do is succumb to the joy.

The But ‘n’ Ben is such a place. I’ve been here many, many times over the years and never been disappointed – not least because, in a world of constant flux, this place stays quietly, resolutely, fantastically the same.

In 2026 this remarkable restaurant will be 50 years old. That in itself is something to celebrate. But the fact it’s stood the test of time so well is all the more impressive when you realise it has remained great by never being in fashion – and therefore never being out of fashion.

The But n Ben” in Auchmithie,

In this age of Instagram and Twitter, the But ‘n’ Ben has little social media presence and, although there’s a website, you still have to book by phone. They serve high tea on a Sunday and lunch service stops at 2pm. This is old school, and delightfully so.

Margo Horn, the co-owner, will greet you and make sure you’re well looked after while her husband Angus cooks your food in the kitchen.

This is the way it’s done here and this is how it works so brilliantly, time and time again.


Surroundings in But ‘n’ Ben

The But ‘n’ Ben always seems to exist in its own space and time and if that space and time hark back to 1976, the year the restaurant opened, then that’s fine by me.

Our family didn’t go out to eat so much in 1976, probably because my mother always claimed to be too ashamed to be seen with the spiky -haired punk androgyne I’d become. I knew I was in deep trouble when the words “black affronted” crossed her lips, the pursed-lip verbal equivalent of an outside lock on the bedroom door.

Inside the venue.

In truth, eating out regularly wasn’t such a thing then, at least not for working class families like ours. We didn’t have the money, and also it wasn’t really part of our culture.

But how I wish we had gone to the But ‘n’ Ben when it opened because I like to think that today’s menu probably wasn’t too dissimilar to what we would have been offered at a time when Johnny Rotten called for anarchy over the airwaves and original TV chef

Fanny Cradock disgraced herself by criticising a home cook so harshly that it effectively ended her career (google Fanny Cradock on The Big Time for total 1970s horror).

The 1970s were a great decade, albeit now viewed through rose-tinted glasses, steamed-up by buckets of warm Liebfraumilch. Decades later, it’s not the strikes, the discord, the unemployment or the power cuts I remember, it’s the orange nylon sheets, the Spacehoppers, the platform shoes, punk and, most remarkably, the orange juice served as a starter in restaurants the length and breadth of the land.

Cosy areas lie within.

You will be very glad to know that orange juice as a starter features on the menu here in Auchmithie, although it’s freshly squeezed and not the harsh, homogenised dayglo gloop of my youth, the colour frighteningly similar to those electrically-charged nylon fitted sheets my mum so loved.

But orange juice is not the only classic offering in this wonderful place.

Seasons come and go, decades pass, prime ministers fall and global pandemics decimate the world, but it’s my view that as long as the But ‘n’ Ben keeps its heavenly smokie pancake on the menu there is hope for us all.

The smokie pancake was invented here, took its place in the world here and must never be allowed to retire here, or indeed anywhere else. So potent a dish is this that I’d wager armies could march fuelled by it alone.

Smokie pancake.

This was actually our third recent attempt at eating here and, because we’d had to cancel the previous two bookings at quite short notice, I broke my own rule and used my real name when booking.

And then when I was chatting to the genial owners on the phone I broke the other cardinal rule of the restaurant critic – I told them I was going to review them.

This is the first time I’ve ever done this, and it was purely because this is a place built on such bonhomie that I just couldn’t face fibbing to such chatty, friendly hosts.

Why do I mention this? Well, I think it’s important to be brutally honest in these reviews because they’re written from the point of view of a regular diner looking for great food, service and atmosphere, at a reasonable price.

They’re booked anonymously and paid for with my own money because I think it’s vital they reflect the experience all of us might have in that particular restaurant at that time.

Having said that, the welcome we received from Margo was equally as effusive as I’ve had on previous anonymous visits, and exactly the same as all the other diners received that day.

Margo Horn is someone who was born to run a restaurant. In saying this I have no idea what other careers she might have had but, really, this woman defines Scottish hospitality in a way that is innate and thus hard to quantify. She just
gets it right.

Here is a host radiating that particularly potent mix of friendliness, honesty, pride and self-deprecation that I think is such an admirable trait in people from our part of the world. She’s a natural.

The log fire.

On a cold Sunday we were shown to a table right by the log fire and my shoulders dropped and within seconds I’d ordered a glass of white wine even though I hadn’t really considered drinking booze with lunch.

This place – the fire, the simple wooden tables, the genial service, the happy feeling of being in Old Ma Broon’s domain, the sheer ease of it all – is instantly relaxing.

The menu is something to behold too. Here you have a list of Scottish classics of home cooking, the kind of things you often want to eat but so rarely find.

Looking at this menu I suddenly remembered the words at the beginning of the first River Cafe cookbook where Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers said their aim was to translate recipes from the domestic Italian kitchen to their restaurant.

The But ‘n’ Ben might not express such lofty ambition but their menu definitely brings the best of Scottish home cooking to the restaurant table and that’s something to be really proud of.


The food

From a list of 10 starters and a few specials I chose the mussels, a large bowl of Shetland bivalves, steamed in white wine, with onion, garlic and parsley (£11.95). They were absolutely delicious and so flavoursome I drank every drop of the liquor from the bowl.

The mussels.

David wanted to eat something appropriately retro and unusual so he had melon balls (£4.95), something we hadn’t seen on a menu for a very long time.

Here served either with port or ginger wine, this was as camp as it comes – two different melons, drenched in booze and served in a sundae glass, with an orange twist on the top.

Had a different Margo – Penelope Keith as arch snob Margo Leadbetter – served this in 1975’s comedy classic The Good Life, this dish couldn’t be more redolent of a time when we Brits discovered that Europe could be our playground. David loved it, commenting how light and refreshing it was.

Melon balls starter.

Another starter to highlight is the delicious cream of Arbroath smokie soup (£5.95) which is truly ambrosial. The not-so-secret ingredient in this dish is double cream and mention of this inevitably leads me to think about that smokie pancake which is THE thing to have here, especially if you’ve never tried it.

Although there was much on this menu to savour (I really did want the mince, tatties and skirlie, £11.95) I felt duty bound to order the smokie pancake (£14.95) as a reminder of its brilliance.

This is how it’s described on the menu and if you can read this and not want it for your next meal you’re made of stronger stuff than me: “Famous But ‘n’ Ben Smokie Pancake. Arbroath smokie, flaked, fresh off the bone, in a double-cream sauce, served inside a thin savoury pancake”.

This dish – so rich, so creamy, so marvellously indulgent – could easily spawn a Harry Met Sally moment in one less buttoned by propriety than I, such is its almost wicked, decadent charm.

Mushroom pancake.

Eating this classic here in Auchmithie, where the original smokie originated, is just the nicest experience, especially when you consider that the end of the 19th Century saw this small village (its then population 400) support 18 fishing boats and around 20 more small boats used to fish for lobster and crabs.

A short walk from where we ate, the fishwives would smoke the fish on sticks which originally were put onto split whisky barrels with fires below. Coarse sacking from local jute mills was used to trap the smoke. A classic was born.

(After lunch I’d suggest taking a walk round the village and down the cliff path to where all this activity would have happened before smokie production moved three miles away to Arbroath.)

But first, dessert. The legendary, heaving dessert trolley might be temporarily retired due to Covid awareness but don’t miss out on having a pudding here – you can walk your guilt off later. We had a wonderful sticky toffee pudding, served with custard AND ice cream (£6.75), a perfect end to a lovely, indulgent lunch.

Sticky toffee pudding.

The verdict

Really, I can’t recommend this place highly enough. The But ‘n’ Ben isn’t about innovation or showing off or chasing Michelin stars and it’s really all the better for that.

This is a place built on tradition and respect for good ingredients and simple, classic Scottish cooking, served in an atmosphere of relaxed, cosseting bliss.

A place to treasure, and return to often.


Information

Address: The But ‘n’ Ben, Auchmithie, by Arbroath, DD11 5SQ
T: 01241 877223
W: www.thebutnben.com

Price: Starters from £3.95, mains from £10.45 and desserts from £6.75

Scores: 

  • Food: 5/5
  • Service: 5/5
  • Surroundings: 5/5

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