Observing a group of seven young women chatting and laughing around a restaurant table may look like the most normal thing in the world at this time of year. As they choose what they want from the Christmas menu they look as relaxed and happy as the diners thronging the many other restaurants in this busy part of the Scottish capital. But these women are enjoying a unique – if transient – contentment that only the traumatised can know.

All of them are homeless, or have experienced homelessness, as a result of escaping sustained domestic abuse. Now living in various locations around the city with the help of Edinburgh Women’s Aid, they have met each other for the first time today to have a meal at Vesta, believed to be the only restaurant of its kind in the world: it’s wholly owned by the progressive Scottish charity Social Bite, and seven days a week, it serves hundreds of ordinary diners who are invited to donate the cost of a coffee, lunch or dinner to help feed the homeless.

At the time of writing, Vesta had 1800 bookings for Christmas parties between December 10 and 22. Chef Martin Wishart, whose eponymous Leith restaurant has a Michelin star and who also owns The Honours brasserie in the city and runs his own Cook School, is on the board of directors and organises Vesta’s new and pretty spectacular schedule of guest chef fundraising dinners at £50 a head. Such initiatives enable Vesta uniquely to host an exclusive free lunch for the homeless every Monday afternoon. Our group are guests at its annual Edinburgh Women’s Aid lunch.

And what a lunch: chef Dave Johnstone and his team have put together an innovative modern multi-choice menu that is locally sourced, 50% vegan and includes such delights as cauliflower buffalo wings, ham hock terrine, miso glazed seitan and cashew stir fry, and a Vesta burger with chorizo jam, though most of the women I meet opt for the fish and chips.

Their obvious enjoyment of each made-to-order mouthful is heightened, I am to learn, by recent indelible memories of the coercive controlling behaviour of an abusive partner. Throwing food around the room then smashing the dinner plate. Criticising everything she buys at the supermarket. Telling her to stop cooking and stay silent because he’s on the phone. Not allowing her to cook at all. Forcing her to eat food she detests. Confiscating her house keys to prevent her going out to a restaurant with her friends. And worse. All controlling actions destined to damage if not destroy her free will. And, also, to colour her – and her children’s – lifelong relationship with food and all its sustaining associations.

Looking up from her plate, Jane (not her real name), who escaped a violently abusive relationship six years ago with her three young children and now, after years of peripatetic accommodation, has her own rented flat, says: “This makes me feel normal. I don’t have to go anywhere near my story or to explain myself and feel that I’m being judged. That’s the nicest feeling.

"It’s like I’m doing the stuff I did before I met him. I used to be really sociable but after 13 years with him I lost the confidence to go out and eat with other people.”

David Hall, who in July joined Social Bite and took over the restaurant which was formerly known as Home by Maison Bleue, has long experience in hospitality. He was with the Montpelier group of bars and restaurants for 16 years and opened Tigerlily, the city’s first boutique hotel, before joining Innis + Gunn to open its network of beer kitchens in Edinburgh, Dundee, St Andrew’s and Glasgow. By March this year he was looking to run something of his own, and met with Josh Littlejohn and David Withers of Social Bite and with Martin Wishart.

Dean Gassabi of Maison Bleue was coming out of Home, and they suggested David take it over. He renamed it Vesta, after the Roman goddess of hearth, home and family – all the feminine nurturing aspects of life, with food at their centre.

“Customers can contribute to someone struggling with homelessness, who might live in a hostel or B&B. We hope our feel good food leads to feel good actions,” he says.

What’s truly striking about this convivial all-female encounter is its sheer visibility – and its power to change stereotypical perceptions of homelessness.

On the day I visited Vesta, Social Bite had just held its nationwide Sleep in the Park where, in sympathy with real-life rough sleepers, some 10,000 people across Scotland had slept out for a night, raising over £4m to help find homes for the homeless.

I managed to catch a brief word with Social Bite co-founder Josh Littlejohn who was at Vesta to address staff and thank them for the success of the venture and was jetting off for his first holiday of the year. “Ours is the only restaurant in the world to do this for the homeless, giving people who are also part of our society the chance to order from our menu with dignity. David and the team are doing a brilliant job.”

One of Vesta’s aims is to raise awareness of other less appreciated aspects of homelessness.

“Homelessness isn’t just about people sleeping rough in the street,” says Hall. “More often it’s the unseen, grinding reality of going from sofa-surfing with friends or family to refuge to hostel to B&B, often while also coping with addiction and/or poor mental health.”

And homeless women fleeing domestic abuse often have the added responsibility of looking after young children on very little money or personal resources. Feeding themselves and their families means relying on food banks, supermarket vouchers, hand-outs, donations and, of course, Social Bite. Making the best of what they’re given – rather than having the choice of what to cook and eat. Having their individuality crushed.

“We hope that by giving homeless people a choice of what to order from the menu when they come to our Monday lunches they feel they are being treated with dignity and respect while surrounded by love and warmth,” says Hall. “And we can see the difference in them. They come in very quiet and closed-in, and gradually their spirits are lifted and they become lively. Some long-term homeless have never had the opportunity of eating in a restaurant, while others who had high-profile careers before falling on hard times miss the experience.

“That’s when it really hit me. So many of us tend to take eating-out for granted, just a part of normal life, and yet we rarely spare a thought for those who can’t. This is about empowerment, giving them back control.”

Mercedes Dominguez worked with homeless charities before joining Social Bite last year as its training and support worker. She says that homelessness in Edinburgh has become much worse since she started out.

“The waiting time for someone to get a house used to be eight months. Now it’s 18 months to two years. I’m seeing the system failing, and if it weren’t for Social Bite thinking outside the box to help I don’t know where we’d be,” she says.

“This is not just about refugees coming in. I’ve seen Scottish people with masters degrees living in hostels because they’ve been made redundant by their employer. This can happen to any of us. We’re all just two pay-cheques away from being homeless.

“Some councils interpret leaving the family home to escape an abusive husband as making yourself ‘intentionally homeless’ and don’t do anything to help. Every situation is different. It’s hard work getting through the local council protocol when all they want to do is tick boxes. We work with people of all ages.”

Julie Macdonald of Edinburgh Women’s Aid agrees. “People don’t understand that homelessness goes across every sector of society, from CEOs to cleaners and up to 84 years old. It can happen in an instant. It’s heartbreaking. It can be a huge and very wearisome struggle. At EWA we have 29 refuge spaces but number are going up all the time.”

Last year in Scotland there were 58,000 recorded incidents of domestic abuse, up 1% on the previous year, and an unknown number of unreported cases. Next year the Domestic Abuse bill in Scotland is to be widened to include psychological abuse such as coercive and controlling behaviour in relation to a partner or ex-partner as well as violence.

“With joint tenancies there’s nothing you can do to remove the male’s name from the agreement, so it’s the women and children who have to leave and make themselves homeless. In Edinburgh there’s a housing stock crisis so, even though children should not be in B&B accommodation for more than two weeks, they end up there for two months or more,” explains Macdonald.

Even when a criminal court case is over, civil court hearings over child contact can drag on for years – meaning the victim is forced to face her partner again and again. “Some see that as a way of continuing their coersive control years after their partner has left them,” says Macdonald.

A past victim of domestic abuse, she sees the homeless lunches as a great way of rebuilding confidence. “It’s food that gets us all together,” she says. “Talking and eating around the table is greatest comforter and empowerer there is.”

The warm, welcoming atmosphere at Vesta is conducive to emboldening Anna (not her real name) to reveal her relief at finally being “allowed” to enjoy eating.

She has been living in a shared Edinburgh Women’s Aid refuge since March, after plucking up the courage to leave her partner after years of taunting and bullying. “He’d lock me in the flat if I dared be two seconds late from meeting a pal in town, and tell me I wasn’t ever going to be allowed to eat out again.

"He made remarks about my size and told me I couldn’t possibly go out looking like this. Being here and talking to other women makes me feel strong. I used to love cooking but he didn’t want me to cook and always criticised what I made. Yet as a woman I naturally wanted to care and cook for him. He never told his mum about us, so I’d have to be silent when she rang him while I was cooking. He used food as a control thing, to take my voice away.

“Being here and having a choice of what to order from the menu makes me feel just like everybody else. I can hardly dare believe it.”

Meanwhile, Martin Wishart reveals he is looking to expand his network of top guest chefs cooking at Vesta to include those from across Scotland. Chef Wishart said: “Unfortunately homelessness is now a common sight on the streets in many of our great cities and towns across Scotland. Social Bite and its partners are working hard to support and re-integrate those who are less fortunate.

“Food and nourishment in a warm place, and to feel respected, is what everybody wants and needs. Vesta cooks for the general public every day of the week, but these Monday lunches for the homeless are vitally important. By offering guests self-respect and a sense of worth, they’re a weekly reminder of the support Social Bite gives, and its connection with Vesta and the general public. They bring the partnership together.”

As the kitchen closes down and the tables are cleared, I watch as the women hug each other goodbye, smiling in solidarity and, it seems, ready to face the world again.

Vesta, 7-8 Queensferry Street, Edinburgh EH2 4PA