The Pitt: Edinburgh's pioneering street food market
As the pioneering Leith street food market closes its doors before a move to Granton, our Food editor celebrates the life and times of The Pitt
It’s a wintery night in February 2019, and The Skinny has just invented a new sport – snowball racing. Basically, you stand around in the snow at The Pitt, keeping warm by the fire in the courtyard with your buddies. You challenge a pal to make a snowball, then you place them on the grate. The last snowball remaining wins, the only interruptions coming when staff tend the fire and ask, with a mixture of confusion and what we’ll assume is begrudging respect, what the hell you’re up to.
Since opening in an old car repair yard on Pitt Street in 2015, The Pitt has been a hub for a street food movement that was, at the time, still in its ‘yearning to be a real thing’ phase. Local government bureaucracy, niggling tech issues and the weather would be enough to give any trader cause for pause, but The Pitt came along with solutions to those problems. Running from a fixed location with the basic infrastructure to enable vans to sell their wares, from a position within a community of peers eager to learn and collaborate, The Pitt was able to build a critical mass of people interested in this kind of food and corral them into a garage forecourt off Ferry Road.
And those people came quickly. Andrew ‘Barney’ Barnett of Barney’s Beer has been involved with The Pitt from literally day one, when he turned up with a handful of kegs and sold out of beer by mid-afternoon. “I was amazed from the start how it had immediate appeal,” he tells us over email.
That appeal is built on an excellent range of food and drink, and on a homespun, grassroots charm. Is The Pitt the most polished place in the world? No. For a long time it was completely open-air with really basic facilities and not very much room to mill about – you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to eat a taco with someone else’s elbow halfway up your jumper.
Yet the atmosphere, the conviviality, the *vibe* has always been one of The Pitt’s secret weapons. You’ll spot regulars who turn up every weekend, you’ll see someone from your new favourite band working the bar, you’ll get a knowing nod from a guy who’s probably sold you a bit too much fried chicken in recent weeks. The Pitt soon became the place to go if you wanted a fun time and some interesting food, each visit giving a new van to look out for on your travels.
In her book Street Food Scotland, Ailidh Forlan begins by describing The Pitt as the “gateway drug” of Scotland’s street food scene, “an addictive, stimulative atmosphere I just couldn’t, and still can’t, get enough of.” The Pitt was able to bring everyone together, show them a good time, and open their eyes to the possibilities of street food in Scotland. And those possibilities kept expanding – The Pitt moved into the adjoining warehouse in 2019 which added loads more space and quality of life improvements (more toilets! A proper front door!). When the Scottish Street Food Awards rolled up in the same year, the event sprawled all the way out into Pitt Street in a real carnival atmosphere. “It was amazing to see what could be achieved from modest means,” Andrew Barnett tells us. "All those involved were small businesses, artists and amazing staff collaborating to make it happen."
When The Pitt returns in 2023, it will do so in a completely different guise from its forecourt origins. Part of the redevelopment of the waterfront at Granton, the new space will be, to put it bluntly, fucking massive. There’ll be room for over 20 vendors, space for 1200 visitors at a time, and an events space that’s basically the same size as The Liquid Room. That’s all for the future, but the legacy of Pitt Street can be seen across Scotland right now.
That legacy is visible in every Scottish festival field this summer, where street food vans are throwing out inventive and exciting food that would have blown your mind ten years ago. It’s in grassroots street food markets and events across the country, inspired by The Pitt’s success and with a host of great vans to call up and work alongside; it’s in big money developments trying to copy the vibe of The Pitt and generally missing the point but still having a nice time.
The Pitt’s initial run may be coming to an end, but we reckon they have more than a snowball’s chance of doing something great once again.
The Pitt, 125 Pitt St, Leith, Thu-Sun until 28 Aug
The Pitt reopens at 20 W Shore Rd, Granton, in spring 2023