It might seem strange to those returning from one of the great courses of the world to be greeted first with the question, “How was the lunch?” But when it comes to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, such an inquiry is not all that uncommon.
Opinions may differ on the merits of Muirfield’s legendary links, but few who have been fortunate enough to take a place at the club’s long refectory tables are likely to speak against the quality of its repast.
The Muirfield lunch will never be mistaken for an evening at The French Laundry: This is British comfort food, executed at an extremely high level. Joints of roast beef, pork, or lamb are always on offer, while local haddock is cooked to order. Haddock is also the key to a good bowl of cullen skink, a thick and creamy Scottish soup. In general, according to club secretary Alastair Brown, Muirfield lunches are “very masculine in nature, with little regard to calorie count.”
Of course, this is as it should be, since a day at the Honourable Company typically involves 36 holes—two rounds of foursomes golf—with the great meal in between. Brown makes an apt connection between the two: “This sharing of a golf ball on the course is merely an extension to the sharing of food and drink in the clubhouse. It creates a unique camaraderie among members, their guests, and the visitors who come to play.”
Indeed, the convivial atmosphere of the room—enhanced by plentiful pourings of claret—is part of what makes the day so special. Foursomes aren’t placed on their own little islands; rather, table sizes range from 6 seats to 24, an arrangement that promotes mingling. And in this informal age, the club’s policy of jacket and tie is a welcome upholding of tradition: For the visitor, the little extra effort that goes into dress-code compliance helps make the lunch a memorable occasion.
After a dessert of treacle pudding or apple pie and ice cream, diners retire to the Smoking Room for glasses of kümmel, an ice-cold, caraway-flavored liqueur of Latvian origin. Love it or hate it, a good belly-warmer before returning to do battle with the elements on the links is often a very good idea.
The club secretary speculated that one reason the Muirfield lunch became such a big deal was that the majority of the membership lived a fair distance from the club. The village of Gullane, where the Honourable Company moved in the late 19th century, is a good 20 miles from center-city Edinburgh. It’s hard to believe now, but in earlier times the lunch was much more of an ad hoc affair. “When the clubhouse was first built in 1891,” Brown explains, “the current dining room was both a locker room and a sitting room.” As hungry golfers began to arrive, “the room was rearranged with some dining tables brought in to replace the armchairs.”
Whether it be lobster at the National Golf Links or snapper soup at Pine Valley, some of the finest American clubs have undoubtedly made a mark of their own when it comes to memorable meals. But these are the exclusive province of members and their guests; Muirfield is special in part because twice a week—on Tuesday and Thursday—visiting golfers may share in the feast. And for those planning a trip to East Lothian, it simply shouldn’t be missed.
Brown offers a final note of perspective: “I can best sum up the importance of the Dining Room,” he says, “by relating a conversation that I had with one of the members in my first week in office. ‘Mr. Secretary,’ he said, ‘you must never think that you are the secretary of a golf club, you are a secretary of a lunching club that happens to have a golf course!’”