The best of London’s art gallery cafés and restaurants

Art and Cafés, Manet's 'Chez le père Lathuille'.
Manet’s ‘Chez le père Lathuille’

Whether holidaying or local, when deciding which of London’s great wealth of art galleries to visit, the food and drink they have to offer may seem a less than pivotal factor.

However, with the declining government arts funding, Art Galleries are relying on the revenue gained from their Cafés to stay afloat. For this reason, Art Galleries are making this service as inviting as possible, often delegating management to some of the country’s most-esteemed restaurateurs. The trip to the Gallery’s Café is no longer peripheral but an experience in itself, however this means it not so cheap. However, don’t pack your own, don’t meal deal, save up and splurge during your visit to some of London’s best Art Gallery Cafés, where culture, coffee and cuisine – blends.

 

1: The Courtauld Gallery – Courtauld Café

The Courtauld Gallery houses Britain’s largest collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artwork. Through ‘the Picture of Dorian Gray’, Oscar Wilde teaches us that a painting is not always a reflection of the context in which it hangs.

This is true for the Courtauld Gallery. Paintings by Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec tell a story of card-players and rowdy absinthe-drinkers in the Parisian bohemia of Montmartre, however what takes its place is a small and elegant café nestled in the West Wing of the palatial Somerset House.

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere

Édouard Manet – A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

The Café is in the basement level of the Courtauld Gallery and has a sunken open-air courtyard, providing a sunspot on warmer days yet shelter from the wind on those which are more blistering. The intimacy of the Café is one that negates the traffic of the Strand and the chaos of Covent Garden that are usually inescapable in the Capitol. The food here is simple, home-cooked and relatively cheap, especially for a holiday-maker. Expect salads to be prepared with seasonal ingredients, spiced root-vegetable soups, savoury charcuterie boards and of course, the always abundant coffee and cake.

What the café does well is afternoon cream tea, scones or light lunches. With a constantly adapting menu, it is hard to recommend a particular dish, but rest assured that the quality of the baked goods are consistently high; whether it is the sourdough breads or patisserie. Where the Café falls short however is the efficiency in its service, expect to wait a while for your order and expect to shoo away an intrigued pigeon looking for great food for free. Whether the wait-staff have received better training since my last visit, I cannot say. However, even with a wait, there is a feast for the eyes; soak up the neoclassical architecture of Somerset House or reflect on the much-recommended visit to the Courtauld Gallery. Depending on whether it is a coffee or a complete meal you’re after, expect to spend between £6 and £20 per person.

The Courtyard of Somerset House

 

2: Somerset House Embankment Galleries – Tom’s Deli and Kitchen

The Embankment Galleries in Somerset House are a minute’s journey away from the Courtauld Gallery and exhibit a vastly different art, such as the recent exhibition of the Couture of Valentino.

However, what is shared with the Courtauld Gallery Café is a love of simplicity and honest, seasonal ingredients. Here you will find food for food, however perhaps not bargain-lovers.

The options here are threefold; you can visit Tom’s Deli for a lighter lunch, Tom’s Kitchen for the complete meal experience or during the Summer Months, Tom’s Terrace – an outdoor bar that looks directly over the River Thames. The eponymous Tom here, is the Michelin Star winner, Tom Aikens.

Tom Aikens

Tom’s Kitchen continues the concept of Tom’s Restaurant in Chelsea, championing British ingredients in a take on a French cuisine that is both Earthy and Heavenly.

Tom’s Kitchen is famous for its seven-hour Seven Hour Confit of Lamb, a sharing dish served with mashed potato and balsamic onions at a steep £47.00. Tom’s Kitchen is striking in that it serves dishes that are arguably very exquisite takes on comfort food. You can expect macaroni cheese, only this one is served with grated truffle. You can expect a beef burger, only this one is served with blue cheese, pickled gherkins and a caramelised onion relish. The central London restaurant has a name that brings to mind an American diner, only this one is very proud to be British and very proud to prepare the meals we love to eat, in a way we love to marvel at. It’s rich food but not so cheap prices.

Tom's Kitchen

Tom’s Deli is cheaper and ideal for lunch. The Deli is set in a charming, quaint and perfect for the coffee and cake lover. There is huge selection of Delicatessen meats or freshly made patisserie and the average trip should cost around £5-£8.

 

3: The Wallace Collection – Wallace Restaurant

The Wallace Collection epitomises the opulence of the ‘Ancien Regime’, a time where French Aristocracy ruled and were too noted for their fine taste in cuisine.

The aristocracy were dethroned during the French Revolution due to their excessive wealth alongside an excessive poverty. Marie Antoinette (although erroneously) is renowned for saying ‘let them eat cake’ when discussing the mounting starvation of her people. This flippant attitude to meals is one that is avoided in the Wallace Restaurant. Only upmost care is employed when making your visit as a local or holiday-maker perfect.

The Wallace Collection is a Rococo Town House saturated with lavish decorations and portraits, and is a World apart from the spending frenzy of Oxford Street at its doorstep. The Collection is refined yet ostentatious, a calm within the shopper’s storm.

The Wallace Restaurant is situated in the Great Hall of the period building and is illuminated with natural light flooding in from the glass ceiling above. The Restaurant invokes the unashamed luxury of its setting with a French Brasserie style cuisine and an atmosphere that attempts to replicate the ‘haute life’ of its Eighteenth-Century inhabitants.

Wallace Collection

The menu of the Wallace Restaurant is just as much as a work of art as those which hang on the walls, and offers a breakfast (10:00-12:00), afternoon tea (14:30-16:30) and regular lunch and dinner services. A fantasy diet for the day would be the breakfast option of Raspberry crepes with orange honey at £7.50, a lunch of Mackerel tartare served with avocado velouté and preserved lemon at £9.50. Afternoon tea would be Cornish Cream Tea with a selection a selection of finger sandwiches and home-made scones at £12.50 alongside a Fragonard Cocktail, a medley of Dubonnet, Plymouth gin, ginger beer, berries and mint.

Wallace Restaurant

The gallery is open daily until 6pm, but I most recommend a visit on a Friday or Saturday evening (booking is advised), when the a la carte dinner menu becomes available. Here, dishes such as Aged rib of beef served with giroles mushrooms, wild asparagus and heritage seeds at £23.50 seduce the visitor. Alternatively, the set menu offers equally tempting cuisine but at a smaller price. For example, Cornish mackerel with flamed leeks, a main of Salt marsh roast lamb leg and profiteroles with Praline cream and a drizzle of warm chocolate is available at £26, relatively cheap for London, especially considering the quality of food and service.

The Wallace Restaurant is run by the Peyton and Byrne group, chaired by the renowned restaurateur, Oliver Peyton. Oliver is perhaps most recognisable as a judge on the ‘Great British Menu’. His high standards and flair for the fancy carry through to this setting, the Wallace Restaurant is a high class restaurant and a holiday-maker’s secret that will enhance any trip to London, let alone a Gallery.

 

4: The Saatchi Gallery – The Mess Restaurant

The Mess Restaurant has a quirky name that brings to mind the informal and avant-garde art works of its Houser, the Saatchi Gallery.

Mess Restaurant Saatchi Gallery

Although Charles Saatchi didn’t call upon the skills of his culinary-seductress wife Nigella Lawson, the food still hits the spot.

The Mess Restaurant is meaty in both its bold décor (the display of art work carries on through the restaurant and has previously included a giant wire shoe installation) and its food options. The Restaurant is not a vegetarian’s paradise. However, this Gallery will more than satisfy any voracious carnivore during their trip to London. Whereas recommended main courses are the Pork Belly Confit, Roasted Chicken Breast or Dry-Aged rib eye Steak ranging from £13.50-£22, fair prices for the Capital.

A trip the Art Gallery is now a reflection of London itself. Your visit will be culturally enriching, it will be shared with a diverse demographic but is more complete if you are able to spend more. Gallery food is no longer an afterthought but is becoming fashionable. The dining experience should be a siren-call of its own, the holiday-maker is met with a double whammy of great art and great food and the experience is becoming one that appeals to all the senses.

Mess Cafe

What should be celebrated is the way in which certain Galleries echo the style of their artworks in their style of cuisine. The Wallace Restaurant is as opulent and the Saatchi, as eccentric as their art. The Culture for Cafés and Restaurants is growing and is a service which operates in conjunction with the exhibitions on offer. A holiday to London isn’t complete if this experience is missed.