GFG archives

Through the archives: Skye Gyngell – Petersham Nurseries Café 2007-2012
Published 09 May 2022

Credit: Petersham Nurseries

As balmy weather and spring blossom brightens up green spaces across the country, we’ve started to take note of an emerging trend. More and more restaurants seem to be opening in the middle of secluded kitchen gardens (Ethicurean, Pythouse Kitchen Garden), nurseries and garden centres (Moss & Moor, Paradise Café), even working flower farms (West End Flower Farm).

Where would any of these places have been without the pioneering work put in by Skye Gyngell of Petersham Nurseries Café? Her awkwardly located, ramshackle-chic restaurant, which first appeared in the Guide in 2007, was one of the most talked about in the country – despite operating against all odds.

After her departure in early 2012, Skye opened Spring in October 2014, ‘in a light-filled, classically proportioned room at Somerset House that was wasted on the Inland Revenue.’ But that’s another story.

The Good Food Guide 2007

The star attraction here is the possibility of eating al fresco, surrounded by greenery and far from the noise of traffic. The café is in a large greenhouse with little by way of decoration bar garden-style furniture and potted plants; it's at its best on a sunny day, of course, when tables and chairs fill the adjacent courtyard. The menu consists of just four or five choices per course, Skye Gyngell working with fresh, seasonal produce, including herbs, salads and fruit from the walled kitchen garden of Petersham House, to create straightforward, distinctly flavoured dishes. Lightly fried, tender squid comes with sourdough breadcrumbs and aïoli to make a simple starter, and another has been a 'superb' salad of garlicky cubes of toasted Italian bread layered with crisp beef tomatoes, wafers of salami and caramelised red onion, with a variety of leaves ('bursting with flavour'). Among main courses, crisp-skinned, succulent roast wild salmon is coated with salsa verde and accompanied by green, brown and pink Umbrian lentils and braised chard. Finish with 'rich and comforting' chocolate tart with clotted cream. The short wine list opens with Montepulciano d'Abruzzo at £15, but prices soon leap over the £20 barrier.

The Good Food Guide 2008

The potholed lane and the sleepiness of this pseudo-rural neighbourhood aren’t great augurs but any misgivings are quickly dispelled when diners finally arrive at this extraordinary establishment. A working nursery, the restaurant area occupies the back of one glasshouse with a tea and coffee area in another, but the surroundings are more like a Fellini film set than a plant-selling business. The kitchen relies greatly on local producers and farmers as well as its own kitchen garden and though the daily changing menu is brief, offering around five starters and five main courses at the beginning of service, rather less by the end, dishes tend to be inventive and well thought out; a beautifully balanced Thai influenced salad of crab with a light Nam Jim dressing might sit next to lamb served with sprouting broccoli, anchovies and harissa. Choices from the Old-World-led wine list (glasses from £4.50) are limited but there's a relatively wide choice of juices and infusions including a delightful old fashioned home-made Amalfi lemonade. The only drawback is the service which, though charming, is rather inefficient, and the poor parking which at this distance from main transport links is fairly essential.

The Good Food Guide 2009

Ten minutes by taxi from the nearest train station, five on foot from the bus stop, no parking to speak of – the idea that this ‘café’ tucked into the back of a large greenhouse down the end of a no-through lane should enjoy any success at all is theoretically impossible. But such is the beguiling combination of the shabby-chic setting and Skye Gyngell’s cooking that tables are hard to come by, even in the winter months. Gyngell is a great champion of fresh, local food and many of her salads and herbs are grown in the surrounding nursery. The short, daily-changing menu has less choice as lunchtime progresses, but typical in spring months are globe artichokes with speck, buffalo mozzarella and marjoram salmoriglio, with monkfish, clams, with roasted almonds, rosemary and aïoli to follow – beautifully presented, generously portioned and steeply priced. The wine list has improved over the years and now offers a decent if short selection, but most of the ladies who lunch here stick to the likes of elderflower cordial. Service, though amazingly sweet and good-natured, should be better.

The Good Food Guide 2010

Getting to Skye Gyngell's quirky, upwardly mobile café in the Petersham Nurseries is 'something of an adventure', but there's no doubting the allure of this secret, horticulturally minded oasis with attitude. Tucked away at the end of a narrow lane, PNC has been under threat from Richmond Council with regards to permanent planning consent – although that battle now seems to be won. Despite noticeably steep prices, fans reckon this place is a stunner – and it's become a coveted bolt-hole for the local lunch set. Who could resist eating at antique tables amid the foliage in the ramshackle greenhouse or – even better – outside under fragrant Indian 'tatti' shades? Seasonal pickings define the menu, and the kitchen is generous with sunny, health-giving flavours: a simple dish of girolles with young spinach has pleased, although the day's choice could range from salt cod brandade with white polenta to grilled rabbit with lentils, speck and Gorgonzola dressing. To finish, freshen up with, say, lemon sherbet and candied peel. House wine is £16.

The Good Food Guide 2011

Picture the scene: a ramshackle greenhouse with sand and dirt on the floor, a mishmash of battered tables that look as if they've been used for potting-up plants, some oriental sculptures, exotic orchids in full boom and waitresses padding about in wellies. Welcome to the Petersham Nurseries Café – a remarkable lunch-only eatery linked to a high-profile garden centre in Richmond's self-styled Arcadia. It makes a quirky, but entirely appropriate, setting for Skye Gyngell's poised and innovative cooking, which is defined by seasonal pickings and refreshingly unexpected, sunny flavours. Despite limited hours and far-from-cheap prices, it's become the darling of the local green set, who pack in for plates of crab with kohlrabi, fennel and verjus dressing, baked chicory with mâche and roasted pumpkin, or slow-cooked chicken with olives and thyme. Slabs of pork belly with farro grains and salsa verde have also gone down well, and there might be 'proper' almond tart to finish. Wines start at £16.

The Good Food Guide 2012

Tucked at the back of a warehouse-sized, earth-floored greenhouse, this haphazard but oddly beautiful restaurant is a riot of plants and horticultural objets d’art, pots of herbs and reclaimed furniture. The eccentricity of the interior is matched by the quirkiness of Skye Gyngell’s cooking, which blows first-timers away with its freshness, colour and vitality. Her short, weekly changing menu relies heavily on top-notch ingredients, with a leaning towards Italy. At times it is all about unctuous intensity (think cod’s roe with mache lettuce, radishes and crème fraîche on crunchy bruschetta), although there is room for some seasonal clarity too: sea bass with asparagus and sauce vert is the embodiment of an English spring day, while guinea fowl with lentils, roasted tomatoes, aïoli and basil oil sings of the Med. Service is sweetly chaotic, bookings are like gold dust and the food is ‘still heinously expensive’. Wines start at £19.

Skye Gyngell. Credit: Amber Rowlands