Cat Thomson talks to Barrie Henderson about the reopening of the family business
It was a surprise to learn that Barrie Henderson (38), part of the family dynasty who ran Hendersons restaurant on Hanover Street, did not have an entirely meat-free childhood. Growing up he confesses to rebelling, “I was curious when I was younger, so I tried most things. You go through phases when you’re growing up, but I think it helped me have a more rounded appreciation of taste now.” Now as a confirmed vegetarian, he runs his own restaurant – also called Hendersons, on Barclay Place, Bruntsfield.
The original vegetarian basement eatery sadly closed down in 2021. It had been founded by Barrie’s grandparents, Janet and Mac Henderson, who initially opened a shop selling produce grown on the family farm, Spittalrig in East Lothian. Janet then decided to branch out and opened a restaurant in 1963, having become interested in biodynamics growing, and vegetarianism in the 1930s when she visited her aunt in Austria.
She was a workaholic and passionate about providing healthy tasty food but knew people wouldn’t necessarily understand, so didn’t flag her restaurant as being vegetarian. Barrie explains that she was ahead of her time, adding, “Sort of organic before that was a thing. And entrepreneurial, she understood that you could sell a cabbage for a certain amount, but knew if served as a salad you could charge ten times the amount.”
After her sudden death in 1973, the business was inherited equally by her seven children. Barrie admits, “That’s probably a textbook example of how not to pass on a family business.” For the next 50 years, the popular Edinburgh institution was successfully run by Barrie’s dad, Oliver, and his aunt, Catherine Home. During this time vegetarianism became increasingly mainstream and its popularity was helped when celebrities; Tilda Swinton, Sir Ian McKellen, Woody Harrelson and Dylan Moran would eat there.
Barrie plans to mark the 60th anniversary of the original Hendersons this year, by holding events including a foraging walk in the Meadows with Coeur Savage, a barbecue in their back garden, and some live music evenings.
In the middle of the pandemic Hendersons, which was Scotland’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, shut down. The lockdown caused huge financial difficulties, Barrie adds, “You could see that they were in dire straits and would need to borrow more against the property with an already high debt ratio without knowing if things would get back to normal.”
Most of his childhood had been spent there he says, “It was really difficult losing everything that my family had built up since the 1960s. I worked there with my dad on and off since I was 14, my sister, Alexandra (35) also worked there. A lot of my family history is tied up there, my mum and dad met there.”
He tells me his mum, Wendy Barrie – author and founder of The Scottish Food Guide, used to play the guitar there in the 1970s. Barrie’s first job as a teenager was emptying ashtrays, before being promoted to kitchen porter preparing vegetables, adding, “It never stopped, but I enjoyed it.”
He was never pressured into joining the family business but recalls his father advising him to get other experiences. After graduating in 2017 with a degree in Politics at Stirling University, he worked as a DJ before returning to Hendersons. He explained the variety of work, adding, “There were always different things happening, either in the kitchen or in St Andrew Square, and I managed Hendersons at St John’s for two years.”
Working with family isn’t always plain sailing, he admits, “At times it can be a bit stifling.” So in 2010 he got married, left Edinburgh and moved to Berlin and worked booking bands for the nightclub and bar, Madame Claude. In 2011 he returned to Scotland to work at The Argyll Hotel on Iona describing the head chef, Pamela Brunton (now chef-owner at Inver) as being, ”Tough but lovely, with very high standards.” He learned a different style of cuisine in the kitchen there, from the one he’d experienced at Hendersons. He returned to Edinburgh again, to help his father. He also studied part-time for his MBA in Hospitality at Queen Margaret’s University graduating in 2017. He split from his wife and threw himself into the family business working as the restaurant manager. In 2021 when Hendersons closed its doors he felt utterly bereft. There had been conflicting views within the wider family about what should be done. Barrie said, “So much of it was out of my hands but a huge part of my identity had suddenly gone.”
But he explains, “My friends kept saying, ‘It’s such a shame that Hendersons closed. Have you not thought about trying to bring it back, is that not an option?” For a good few months, his answer was an emphatic, No. He explains, “It was too raw.”
A year later he’d changed his mind, and the concept of a revived restaurant took shape. In September he opened his new 70-seater restaurant, called Hendersons on the site of The Apartment.
He canvassed his dad and aunt’s opinion, he says, “I think initially they thought it was a bit mental. But they understood my reasons. They are absolutely behind it, as it is a way for our family’s legacy to carry on and they don’t have the headache of running it.“
Barrie didn’t have to learn the ropes, he already knew the harsh realities of running a restaurant, but he is invigorated by this fresh start. He adds, “It’s difficult with raising prices, so you need to really keep an eye on costs. But it’s easier to be efficient in our compact kitchens, which is a strength in this time of uncertainty.”
Clara, his current wife, is involved on a part-time basis; they met at QMU where she studied for a Masters in Hospitality Management. The couple also caters for events and weddings to help balance the books.
Barrie explains his menu is vegetarian with lots of vegan options, he highlights, “We are open to everyone, omnivores and even carnivores. We have a lot of customers who aren’t vegetarian, who come and like to have healthy foods, made with natural ingredients. We are often a bridge for people to start eating more plant-based food because it tastes delicious and makes your body feel good.” A few of Janet’s original recipes have made it onto the new menu, Barrie explains her vegetarian haggis is one of his most popular dishes, “Is basically the same with a little bit more spice, served with a plant-based whisky cream sauce”.
The fresh ingredients for the kitchen come from a variety of sources, including from his stepfather’s, smallholding in Fife. Barrie was delighted to discover the restaurant had a small overgrown back garden with a fig tree. Barrie and his son, Baxter (10) have tidied it up and they compost food waste, grow kale, elderflower, herbs and currants.
The green-fingered pair also plant fruit trees in the wild, known as guerrilla gardening as a hobby, he says, “Baxter is more into growing things than cooking, but he’s quite knowledgeable about both.”
Wendy Barrie is proud of her son’s new venture although they don’t always see eye to eye on food, he explains, “She’s not very keen on vegan and vegetarianism but we have a lot of common ground with vegetables.”
At Hendersons they use organic produce where possible, with menu changes every couple of months, but being environmentally aware is central to their ethos. He says, “I am passionate about that, so we don’t use any suppliers that we can’t return packaging to. We all have a sense of Scottish thrift of not being wasteful, even the old restaurant was quite a thrifty sort of environment. I wear clothes until they’re falling apart, I just try to have as minimal impact as possible.”
The kitchen is led by James Porteous (formerly Wedgwood and the New Chapter) and Paul Kane (formerly Hendersons Vegan) with help from Connor Mckail (Badger & Co) with Barrie able to return to his kitchen roots when needed.
It would appear that healthy dining at Hendersons still has celebrity star appeal, with Bake Off’s Prue Leith, dining there and then insisting the chef share a glass of wine with her mid-service, and Alan Cumming, complete with eye makeup dining after his performance at Edinburgh International Festival.
With plant-based eating not going out of fashion, I think Hendersons should be good for another 60 years.