Seven of the UK's best museum restaurants
In art galleries and museums across the country, cafes and restaurants are moving beyond salads and sandwiches with seasonal produce, ambitious cooking and fine dining finesse.
Originally opened in 1856, the cafe at the Victoria & Albert was the first museum restaurant anywhere in the world. Offering a range of menus to suit social status, the first-class offerings included jugged hare, while buns and sponge cake were more affordable options. Despite these rather grand beginnings, museum cafes generally made for more of a pit stop than somewhere to linger for much of the 20th century. That’s all changed in the last 20 years, however, and many museum restaurants are now destinations in their own right, with ambitious menus that cater as much to gastronomes as art lovers.
1. Garden Café at the Garden Museum, London
One of London’s lesser-known museums, this Lambeth gem is dedicated to all things horticultural, and its fantastic restaurant opened in a modern glass extension in 2017. The menu changes with the seasons, but might typically include mackerel with cucumber, apple and kohlrabi, or, say, runner beans with pickled walnuts and poached egg. Desserts are strong, too; look out for the treacle tart.
2. Boatyard at Hastings Contemporary, East Sussex
Run by Kate and Ben O’Norum, the pair behind Farmyard in neighbouring St Leonards-on-Sea, Boatyard opened at Hastings Contemporary art gallery in January. It sits in a modern waterside space and has a menu centred around the daily catch from the local fishing fleet. There’s also charcuterie, veg and bread from the region, plus a list of biodynamic and low-intervention wines.
3. V&A Café at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The world’s first museum cafe, opened in 1856, is made up of three ornate rooms. Designed by William Morris, James Gamble and Edward J Poynter, it’s a living artwork, adorned with bright glazed tiles, paintings, stained glass, wooden carvings and Morris’ distinctive prints. With sandwiches, salads, cakes and teas on offer, the menu is quite traditional, but it’s worth visiting for the setting alone.
4. Roth Bar & Grill at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton
The rural outpost of international gallerists Hauser & Wirth is built on a working farm in Bruton, while the restaurant is housed in a converted cow shed. The menu capitalises on the location, with meat from the farm and fresh veg from the kitchen garden. The bar was designed by the son and grandson of Swiss artist Dieter Roth and built from locally sourced reclaimed materials.
5. The Scottish Café & Restaurant at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh
Just as the gallery flies the flag for Scottish artists, its restaurant showcases the best Scottish produce and dishes. Run by the Contini family, who are also behind two other top Edinburgh restaurants (Contini and Cannonball), the restaurant overlooks Princes Street Gardens and offers a menu that incorporates classics such as beef mince and tatties, cullen skink, haggis and fresh seafood.
6. Townsend at The Whitechapel Gallery
Previously general manager of the Garden Café, Nick Gilkinson is now in charge of Townsend at the Whitechapel Gallery, which opened in February 2020. Housed in a bright and airy room with tall ceilings, parquet flooring and sleek modern furniture, Townsend looks every bit the gallery restaurant. Head chef Joe Fox, who’s worked at a variety of well-respected restaurants including Launceston Place, HIX Soho and Petersham Nurseries, offers a menu that’s both comforting and creative, featuring dishes such as bacon scones with goat’s curd, and potato dumplings with potted brown shrimp and sea purslane.
7. Mathilde’s Cafe at Heaton Cooper Studio in Grasmere
Surrounded by the dramatic peaks of the Lake District, Mathilde’s Cafe at Heaton Cooper Studio has a picturesque setting worthy of one of Alfred Heaton Cooper’s watercolour landscapes. And the menu of Scandinavian-inspired dishes at Mathilde’s makes for a suitably hearty companion to the rugged terrain, with everything from meatballs and lingonberry to smørrebrød (open sandwiches) with gravlax on offer. The Scandinavian style isn’t just a concession to current trends either, but a tribute to Heaton Cooper’s Norwegian wife, Mathilde.
Published in Issue 10 (winter 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food
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