When you think Oban, you think Seafood Capital of Scotland. Eeusk and the MacLeod family are Oban seafood pioneers, and have done much to gain that moniker for the town. This week we talk to Alan MacLeod about the family’s inspiring story. (Sadly just two months after this interview Alan passed away peacefully in his sleep. His son Callum will take the family business forward and seafood fans will still be able to enjoy superb seafood in the families iconic Oban restaurant on North Pier.)
The MacLeods owned pubs in Glasgow, but were looking for a less full-on business. So they purchased the derelict pier house in Port Appin in 1987. “My wife Sheila was very supportive of this idea,” Alan said. “We completed the refurbishment of the pub in March 1988 and opened for business. Compared to our Glasgow ventures, trade was very quiet. We hadn't expected to be run off our feet, but this was severe. We were losing money daily.”
It was Sheila’s idea to add fresh seafood to the menu. “The wee creel boat that landed just 20 metres from us had the most amazing catch of langoustine and squat lobsters. We had already been serving some pub grub, but with Sheila's addition of fresh seafood to the menu, business boomed.” The season, however, was very short, really only July and August, so the MacLeods needed to somehow extend the season. “In or around 1991 we achieved planning permission to add 11 bedrooms. Money was tight and it took us until 1993 to complete.”
A hotel in such a scenic location that also served the freshest bounty available from the surrounding waters was an instant success. They started winning awards, and rated listings in the popular Egon Ronay and The Good Hotel Guide.
“My daughter Julie gave up her job in Glasgow in 1990 to join us in Port Appin and help run the bar. Our son Callum joined us in 1991 His forte is front of house and he has an immediate affinity with our patrons.”
That kicked off six demanding years, with the entire family working flat out 14 hours a day, seven days a week. “We were all exhausted. It's very difficult to reduce your business, so we decided to sell.”
(The now-famous Pier House has continued to be a jewel in Argyll’s culinary crown under the ownership of Nick and Nikki Horne, who bought it in 2006.)
In 2001, the MacLeods were successful in their application to Argyll and Bute Council to be nominated as preferred bidder for tenant space in the derelict North Pier buildings. “We knew that it might take some time to achieve planning permission, and then to build. Our priority now was to build a customer base for when we opened on North Pier. We managed to rent what had been a bank on George Street as a feeder for the new restaurant.”
And what to call their new venture? “Iasg is Gaelic for fish, and it is pronounced Eeusk, so what better name for a fish restaurant?”
The first few weeks in the George Street location was a bit of a challenge, mostly with the locals. “Our portions were too small, how could we charge that price for prawns that they can get off the boats for nothing? Anyway, seafood had a following all of its own, and within a couple of weeks we were packed every night. The faster we could build the restaurant on the pier, the better.”
Now Eeusk, along with its sister restaurant, Piazza, have pride of place on Oban's North Pier and have won global recognitionThe stylish dining room and spectacular view are the perfect accompaniment to some of the world’s finest seafood.
“Our aim in Eeusk is always to bring the freshest of produce to the table, and to serve it as simply as possible. As you can imagine, you build up a relationship with your suppliers over 25 years. They are aware that we only want the very best of local produce. All of our shellfish comes into the restaurant alive.”
Sustainability is important to Alan and he is always looking for ways to do his part. “It is our aim to move to a totally sustainable product this year. So hand-dived scallops only, coming very soon.”
Alan loves all his seafood, whether served hot or cold, but he isn’t completely neutral on the matter. “My very favourite is Lobster and chips,” he admitted.