Once no more than institutional canteens with cardboard sandwiches and stewed tea, museum and art gallery cafés have come of age. In some of these places the dining room is as much of a destination as the exhibition – and in a few cases, even more so. These are the places to feed the appetite as well as the thrist for knowledge
Simon Coppock, Cyrus Shahrad and Guy DimondPosted: Wed Jan 27 2010
Museums and art gallery cafés and restaurants are still mainly daytime affairs, but there are a few notable restaurants here which remain open in the evening. The best of these include the Saatchi Gallery’s Gallery Mess, the Blueprint Café, the National Gallery (early Friday evenings only), the Wallace Collection (Fri, Sat only), and the V&A (Fri only).
Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN
When Oliver Peyton opened the smart and somewhat sober-looking National Dining Rooms in the National’s Sainsbury Wing in 2006, it created a sensation, serving British food of a quality you’d no right to expect from museum caterers. Serious restaurant prices are charged in the smart dining room, but the Friday evening three-course set is superb value, if you don’t mind eating early. The attached café serves excellent cheeses and Peyton & Byrne cakes, but is tucked away from the windows that look out on Trafalgar Square from the restaurant proper.
While the Tate Britain Café is run-of-the-mill, self-service cakes and shrink-wrap sarnies, the Rex Whistler restaurant is a notch above the norm. This is partly thanks to the enchanting 1927 mural ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ (by Mr Whistler, then 23 years old), and partly due to sommelier Hamish Anderson’s broad and clearly laid-out wine list. The food is simple and direct: expect classic mains such as pork cutlet with black pudding and a Bramley and cider sauce or an afternoon snack of devilled kidneys on sourdough. Supporting pillars make the room a little awkward, but the warmth of the service makes up for it.
Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, Marylebone, W1U 3BN
It isn’t cheap and the French schtick can feel a little laboured, but Oliver Peyton’s Wallace comports itself with dignity, set beautifully in a white, glass-roofed interior courtyard. With a starter portion of foie gras terrine with blackberries, apple jelly and spiced gingerbread costing £11, and a lemon sole main with girolles and clams nearly £20, avail yourself of breakfast or afternoon tea, which offer cheaper options. The drinks menu is impressive: French wines and cider, Frenchified cocktails, Belgian beer and an appealing range of juices and fruit coolers.
Contract caterer Peyton & Byrne’s policy of shooing non-diners from seats at their first-floor restaurant gets a frosty reaction from our readers, but there are few complaints about the superior canteen lunches, superb cakes and the coffees. Those hoping to unwind with a book are better off at the café on the upper ground floor.
On an upper level in the glass-domed main hall is the poshest option, called the Court Restaurant, which serves mushroom ravioli, beef fillet and sesame salmon steak on white linen with dapper service; most main courses are in the £15-£20 range.
Down at ground level are the shared benches, lacklustre coffees and cakes, and plastic-wrapped sandwiches of the Court Café. The Gallery Café, to the left of the main entrance and right through the shop, serves baked potatoes, pizza slices and curry and rice combos. You’d expect more from London’s number one tourist attraction, but instead you get very institutional catering. We suggest you vote with your feet and head to some of the many alternatives on the British Museum’s doorstep.
An antique tavern clock counts the hours and classical music hangs in the air at the bright, spacious Coram Café. Very appropriate it is too: Handel was a governor when the Foundling Hospital was founded by Thomas Coram in 1739, as the museum painstakingly explains. The café is a peaceful place to lunch thanks to its relatively reclusive location, and the menu features innovative sandwiches, pies and salads. There’s also a good range of cakes and a popular cream tea.
Museums and art gallery cafés and restaurants are still mainly daytime affairs, but there are a few notable restaurants here which remain open in the evening. The best of these include the Saatchi Gallery’s Gallery Mess, the Blueprint Café, the National Gallery (early Friday evenings only), the Wallace Collection (Fri, Sat only), and the V&A (Fri only). Central | North | South | East | West