When I was a child my parents used to take me to the Tate or the National Gallery on Sundays. As a small and extremely truculent girl I counted the years until I could refuse to go and look at art, but these trips had two highlights: the shop and the café. The reward for making it round an exhibition was a weak orange squash and a bourbon biscuit, followed by a trip to 'choose a postcard'. Who would want a postcard when faced with the allure of a jumbo pencil with a Canaletto printed on it, or a comb in a dapper leather sheath embossed with Picasso's signature? A couple of decades later, public art institutions have got wise to the fact that 'art appreciation' is one of many possible expressions of lifestyle choice for a much wider audience. Shopping and dining out - two other glorious consumer pastimes - now easily dovetail into the gallery-goer's experience.
The ICA has known this for a long time: it has always had a café and shop. Right now the café offers trendy global 'street foods' (Thai satay, mixed mezze, or udon noodles) served by Eurosquaws to the accompaniment of Japanese import albums. It is straight from the Beginner's Guide to Postmodernism, no doubt available at the ICA's own bookshop. But in the last year the Wallace Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, the Courtauld Gallery and the new Tate Modern have all opened restaurants. All of them, with the exception of the Tate's, are managed by professional restauranteurs and are of a standard that makes them notable in themselves.
Oliver Peyton seems to be trying to do for Somerset House (home to the Courtauld Institute) what Mario Testino's campaign did for Burberry: make tradition trendy. The ambience of The Admiralty is gentleman's club meets art-deco sleek; there are dark wood tables, dark wood and turquoise leather banquettes and beautiful white roses in old silver milk jugs. Two Don Brown sculptures, attesting to Peyton's long familiarity with the contemporary art world, share the space with a stuffed crocodile and a turtle shell - more aristo-chic. On my visit the other diners included several well-bred Tories in pinstripes and Loakes shoes. The menu is classic French cuisine, done very well. My companion had French onion soup, followed by cod braised with Parma ham and Puy lentils in a delicate creamy sauce, while I had cream of pumpkin soup with ravioles de Royans, followed by a mystery mammal. I thought I had ordered lamb with flageolets, but halfway through the second mouthful I became convinced that it was beef. Having sent it back to the chef, the supercilious waiter smirked and assured me that it was lamb. It was delicious anyway. At dessert my dining companion mentioned that my tureen of chocolate mousse looked like mud but perhaps this was a pre-emptive strike intended to prevent me from mentioning that his poached pear with cinnamon wafer stick resembled a certain Sarah Lucas sculpture.
At the Tate Modern the best strategy is to arrive early, as it is both impossible to book and inordinately busy. The gallery has two cafés and an espresso bar, but we chose the seventh-floor restaurant for its views, which are indeed magnificent. Sadly we couldn't get a riverside seat since Lars Nittve had reserved the table we wanted. In-between the views is a functional café with a clean but not over-fussy design and an educational twist. Two elderly ladies next to us asked about the murals on the wall ('art or design?') so the waiter went to fetch a lean man in a dark suit and those 'I'm a graphic designer from Stuttgart' glasses. The waiter-curator, as we christened him, explained that it was art, and pointed out the more extensive notes in the menu. Suitably enlightened, we shared a starter of red onion tart with melted taleggio. Sadly, the taleggio was too obese and bland, the onions too sweet and the pastry too crap. Not very good. The main courses, seared salmon with black beans and pickled cabbage for me, field mushroom (yes, one) with polenta and vegetables for my companion, were an improvement - marginally - although the black beans didn't exist: it was a tablespoon of Amoy black bean sauce. The vegetarian option was better - I don't really get polenta, but this looked nice and firm.
Back in town, The Portrait Restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery also boasts a view - not so much the cosmopolitan metropolis, more the great British establishment - over Nelson's Column and Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament. Correspondingly, the clientele mostly wear blazers. My companion had white bean soup with truffle oil, which he curiously chose to describe as 'un-set concrete', although he was definitely pleased with it. My pork terrine was nice and chunky, and the accompanying prune particularly good. My friend's guinea fowl arrived arranged with a single leg rigidly sticking up out of its jus, which made me feel rather uncomfortable. I was glad that I had chosen the salt cod fishcake - no danger of it eyeing me from my plate. In fact the fish was so heavily disguised that the little pattie on my plate seemed to be all potato and no fish. Although the fresh garlic mayonnaise was delicious, this swanky urbane version of Southern French aïoli was not a success.
Mirroring the Anglo-French provenance of the collection, The Bagatelle Café at the Wallace Collection is the product of an entente cordiale between Stephen Bull and the extremely capable French restaurant company Eliance (who also run the restaurant at the Louvre). It takes its name from the central decoration, the bronze fountain from Sir Richard Wallace's French pile the Château de Bagatelle. The menu also thoughtfully provides the dictionary definition of 'bagatelle' as a 'trivial, light or airy thing'. The rather self-deprecating suggestion is that the cuisine is a lesser art complementing the seriousness of the Wallace Collection; as an accomplished lady might adorn a frock-coated and bewhiskered Victorian gentleman. However, located in the expansive glass-roofed space of the 'sculpture garden', The Bagatelle is the most carefully thought-out of London's gallery restaurants and by far the most graceful. We were attended to by an utterly charming French waiter, a far cry from the type found at The Admiralty who was rather disdainful of the two pixies come to eat among the grown-ups. The food, from the bread (hand-made on the premises) to the rice pudding brulée, is simply stunning. If you fancy perfect onion tarte tatin or smoked haddock with potato cake, poached egg and hollandaise, or exquisite steamed toffee pudding, then remember to book because the place was full of similarly content customers.
First published in Issue 57