I'd hate to be all take and no give, so I thought I'd write up our take on the great recommendations I got from the boards here. Thank you everyone! If I had to make a short list of the top "must visits" for future travelers in the area, they would be The Three Chimneys, the restaurant at The Glenview, Crabshakk, The Seafood Temple, and if you're on Islay, Old Kiln Cafe.
I'd been warned by mr_gimlet that Islay is not really the place for food, and that's largely true. I wouldn't call it a food destination, unless you consider whisky a food group, in which case, it's stellar. But you won't starve either. They get great raw materials (fish/shellfish), but the preparations aren't always top notch.
- Old Kiln Cafe at Ardbeg *
Folks were certainly not wrong about this place - it was the best meal we had on the island. I had a delicious roasted salmon chowder special and then great moules marinieres, and my partner had a duo of hot and cold smoked salmon and a bacon, brie and onion marmalade sandwich on a roll that he adored. Most all of that was from the specials menu, and all was fresh and fantastic. I would think this place is worth a visit even if you don't like whisky (although the whisky was great too).
- Holy Coo
I would say this was probably our second best meal on Islay overall, and its a quirky, cozy little place to curl up on a windy day. I had mussels (again), which were very nice (again), though very similar to Old Kiln, and my partner had a lamb and haggis burger that he thoroughly enjoyed. Portions were large, value was high.
- Islay Hotel restaurant
This one wasn't on my radar, but our B&B kindly reserved for us knowing there were limited options nearby and everything requires booking for dinner (too many tourists chasing too few tables). Back to the raw materials thing - we started with the local oysters here and they were incredible!! I came back again two nights later JUST for the raw oysters. The rest of the food was fine but nothing special. We tried the smoked salmon, scallops, salmon with smoked mussels (smoked mussels are amazing, we need that in NY!), haggis and tatties, and crab cakes, and while all the actual seafood/fish was good (super sweet lovely scallops), the sauces/accompaniments were not. If you are staying in Port Ellen, don't want to drive to Bowmore and are hungry, this is fine, but otherwise I'd skip it.
- Cyber Cafe
You don't actually eat in a room full of PCs. Its a local's type of place, and they do a lot of take out for families nearby. Again if you are hungry and don't want to leave Port Ellen, this place will be fine, but its nothing outstanding. We had a very well roasted lamb shank in a very blah mint sauce, a nice curried parsnip soup, fish and chips, a rather nice crab salad sandwich (mom style, not restaurant style), and hearty steak pie. Its not really Chow-worthy, but there are really just a couple places to eat in town and we didn't have a car, so we did two nights here as well. It was much less expensive than the Islay Hotel, but closes at 7.
- Old Excise House B&B Breakfast *
Emma does some really lovely baking every day (fresh scones, delicate shortbread, muffins, and wonderful granola), and the full Scottish is available at breakfast, with 3 choices of egg (duck, guinea hen and chicken), rich black pudding, sausages, English bacon, tattie scones, roast tomatoes... the whole nine. Sometimes they also had kippers, traditional porridge and smoked salmon, which were delicious. I highly recommend this as both a great breakfast, and a perfect base to visit the peatiest of Islay's distilleries.
- The Seafood Temple *
You definitely feel like you've found a hidden gem when you enter this place. Its tiny in a way that makes downtown NY restaurants look enormous. I wanna say 5 tables? But it overlooks the bay and if you book the right seating you get to wash down your meal with the most picturesque sunset. We went whole hog and got the huge seafood platter for two and it was great. All simple, fresh preparations that let the seafood shine: lobster, smoked mussels (yay!), hot and cold smoked salmon, oysters (good but not as good as those on Islay), crab claws and langoustines. You cannot go wrong with this place.
- Three Chimneys *
I was actually ready for this to disappoint, because people rave about it so, and nothing ever lives up to the hype. But this really did - it was on par with any NY fine dining establishment in terms of quality and service, but served a meal with real Scottish flair, including some truly memorable dishes, and its set in a perfectly rustic cottage that somehow manages to be manly rather than shabby chic. If you're in the area it is definitely not to be missed, especially for the lover of seafood and all things local. We started with an amuse of a fish stew, with various fish and squid, then had local (as in, caught just outside the window) langoustines wrapped around local greens with tattie scones in an orange sauce spiced with something that hinted at northern Africa, then -my favorite- cullen skink topped with black pudding and an egg coated in Talisker whisky, which was all encased in a bowl with peat smoke that wafted up over you as the dish was opened (I don't usually go in for silly drama and modern cuisine but this hung the moon! It was Scotland in a bowl). Then we had local crab salad and apples perched on top of a pate-like base of what tasted like the crab "tamale" with a crab aspic on top (the crab tamale flavor was very assertive, which was unusual but very good), and next up some fried oysters served with rare beef sirloin wrapped around more greens and pickled onions in an anchovy sauce, followed by the one dish my partner didn't like (but I did): scallop crusted in gingerbread with stewed rhubarb, salsify and mustard leaf - really unique, almost dessert-like flavors to bring out the sweetness in the scallop without being sweet themselves. The final dish was a perfect pan fried saddle and slow cooked haunch of local venison, with nettle, beet and juniper sauce (the juniper with venison was fantastic). If you go, this tasting menu is a must! Every single element of every plate was perfectly prepared, and portions were quite large by tasting menu standards. I chose to finish with a cheese plate, which was the only slight disappointment as the portions of cheese were embarrassingly small compared to everything else (and every other cheese plate I've had), however getting to try Alex James' Blue Monday cheese made it worthwhile, as did the addictive Scottish crowdie (like the best ricotta and cottage cheese had a baby).
- The restaurant at The Glenview *
I took this recommendation from davina and Tripowski and wow - yes yes yes, this place is an absolute gem! Fabulous value as well. The chef has impeccable technique - Three Chimney's quality - and there is a strong emphasis on local, but its much more laid back (its a B&B too). We had an amuse of crab and nettle sauce again spiced with something sweet I couldn't place, perhaps nutmeg, perhaps tarragon; a citrus cured salmon with local sorrel (foraged I believe); grilled highland beef with enormous asparagus and horseradish creme fraiche; the best piece of fish I have ever, ever had - a halibut with incredibly crispy skin, like you'd get on a suckling pig, served with mussels, and then the one disappointment for me, a fine but rather boring bit of chicken. Everything but the chicken, however, was spectacular. We finished this meal with a local cheese plate as well (much larger than Three Chimneys). They also gave us little treats of cookies and pastries at the end of the meal, and some yummy Scottish tablets (a bit like a southern praline, but these were intensely vanilla flavored). Service here was warm and chatty, and the place was full of cute, homey details, like mismatched needlepoint napkins, and knitted towels in the loo. As much as Three Chimney's is a must, Glenview is definitely a must as well.
- Loch Bay
This was a disappointment to us. Pricier than Glenview but not even close in terms of quality. I love octopus so when I saw it as a special, I had to order it. But they cut it into thin strips and pan fried it to make it seem like squid, and it lost all of its personality. We also had an underwhelming monkfish and sea trout. However if you do go, you must have the scallops and chorizo as this was pretty darn awesome. My partner also enjoyed his cludie dumpling dessert (like a fruitcake). If you're on this part of the island its worth a drive down to the end of the road out by the sea - there are some really dramatic views near a ruined church and cemetery.
Carter's Rest B&B *
Another great place for breakfasts, as well as an option for dinner if needed. The full Scottish is on offer, as are kippers and smoked salmon, just like Old Excise. No home baking here, but they did have slightly tastier bacon and sausage, I thought, and in giant portions that will keep you going all the way til dinner. Plus looking out the picture window towards the cliffs and sea, with frolicking baby lambs in the yard is just about the best way to spend a morning.
- Someone on the boards recommended a chippy in Mallaig behind the Cornerstone - I had found it on Google maps, but turns out it is no longer there. We went to the one in the train station instead because we were pressed for time and it was meh. We also had sandwiches in the cafe near the ferry on the way back and those were deeply mediocre. I wouldn't have my heart set on eating in Mallaig.
- Crabshakk *
This place was buzzing, packed to the gills and the kitchen working overtime, but it was the best food we had in Glasgow, so I can see why. Everything we tasted was marvelous, despite being a little bit tired of seafood after nearly two weeks of packing it in. We had some nice oysters (not quite as nice as Islay), a sizzling skillet of scallops cooked with anchovies, butter and sage; fried squid with chilis and soy dipping sauce (addictively spiced, impeccably cooked, generous, thick cuts of squid); herring rolled with breadcrumbs, pine nuts and tomato; and a fish club sandwich made with salmon and a white fish (a surprisingly convincing combo). We loved the vibe, service and decor as well as the food. If I lived here, I would be here all the time.
- Cafe Gandolfi
This is indeed a good place to come for the classics. We had a great cullen skink; haggis, neeps and tatties; smokies baked with tomato and parmesan; and mackerel pate. They had nice cocktails as well. Everything was very good, and it turns out that the quirky woody decor was designed by an artist in the GoMA.
- Asia Style
I got this as a recommendation for late night eats from curiouseater, and it hit the spot. The Malaysian stuff is great - had the pancakes, the salt and pepper squid (really great spice - not unlike the one at Crabshakk but a bit chewier and less refined, though no less addictive), and the kang kong belacan, all of which were just the right level of spicy, funky deliciousness. On a whim I asked the waiter for a recommendation for another dish (something spicy), and he said the spicy Szechuan shrimp, which were not remotely spicy or Szechuan - more like General Tso's shrimp - and too sweet for me to eat. If you're here, go with your gut and order Malaysian classics, do NOT ask the waiter for advice! Also, remember its cash only, with a very Chinatown vibe.
- Two Fat Ladies City Centre
This place was solid, and enormous portions, but didn't wow me quite like Crabshakk. Nonetheless it was also a full house, even on a Tuesday night. We had an absolutely enormous portion of smoked salmon (you know how much smoked salmon you get in one of those pre-packed things of lox at the grocery store, this was like 2-3 of that, as an app, only hand sliced and delicious) served with a tiny little quail egg that practically got lost; chili prawns with chorizo and sweet potato (again, chorizo and seafood was a winning combo - probably the best thing on the table); a fish platter with mackerel, sea bass and monkfish; and a special of monkfish with mushrooms, black pudding and duck confit wrapped in bacon (quite a mix of flavors, but it did work, though was a bit salty and rich). We finished with more Scottish cheeses, which were excellent. Everything was good, but ultimately a bit forgettable.
I had really high hopes for this place based on Chowhound buzz, but it really, really disappointed. It started well with some of the meatiest, funkiest haggis with very good neeps, and a nice fresh mackerel salad, but took a turn for the nearly inedible with the chili coriander mussles -- there was, I kid not, but one tiny sliver of thai chili in the whole bowl, and it was so sweet it was hard to get down. You'd need a considerable amount of heat to counteract that much sweet. No complexity or brightness at all. We also had a chicken curry with tomato, mustard seed and almonds with zero heat. Perhaps we ordered wrong?
Overall eating in Scotland was great, especially the classics like cullen skink, black pudding, fresh shellfish and smoked, fatty fish in general. I can't fit in any of my pants despite walking probably +5 miles each day.
If anyone needs tips on distilleries, I'd be happy to oblige -- we did Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Oban and Talisker. Everyone has his own taste, but the non-Diageo places were unsurprisingly the best, especially Bruichladdich.