Dining in museum restaurants
Published 26 April 2019

Rex Whistler Restaurant, Tate Britain

With more of us visiting museums and galleries than ever, it’s no surprise that they’re upping their game in the dining stakes. The Good Food Guide's consultant editor Elizabeth Carter investigates

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For decades, catering in museums and galleries has been delivered grudgingly, often via institutional canteens in viewless basements. But as tastes become more sophisticated, museums and galleries have worked hard to appeal to the dining – and art-loving – public.

Why it’s taken museum directors so long to grasp the benefits of a destination restaurant is a mystery, especially when you consider that Tate Britain’s Rex Whistler Restaurant has been making decent museum food (with great wines) for decades – it was first listed in The Good Food Guide in the 1970s. Now Tate Modern has followed suit with the appointment of chef Jon Atashroo. He heads up the sleek Level 9 Restaurant, delivering seasonal food and exhibition-themed set menus where dishes help visitors to connect with the art.

Approaching known chefs to oversee the food has proved a successful way to move away from the lowest-common-denominator menus of the past. In London’s East End, the Whitechapel Gallery has partnered with Luke Wilson and Cameron Emirali, the duo behind Soho’s 10 Greek Street; their simple, modern menus reflect the art on show. The Institute of Contemporary Arts has teamed up with Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold to showcase food from their acclaimed Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch.

The trend is not confined to London. When Manchester Art Gallery decided to overhaul its daytime café, they called in respected local chef Mary-Ellen McTague (an alumnus of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck) to oversee the project. And while works by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore draw visitors to the David Chipperfield-designed Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire, dishes such as shepherd’s pie topped with artichoke and parsnip mash served with a lamb and mint jus and pulled lamb croquette (from executive chef Chris Hale, MasterChef quarter-finalist, 2016) mean patrons consider the café an extension of their cultural experience.

Even rural art centres have begun to turn their thinking around. By recognising that an isolated location provides an incentive to give visitors an overall experience, entrepreneurs have risen to the challenge, offering something beyond traditional cafeteria fare. Typical of this new wave is the Roth Bar & Grill in Bruton, Somerset. Part of Hauser & Wirth, a group of art galleries in London, Zurich, New York and Los Angeles, the country branch is on the Wirths’ 1,000-acre farm. The restaurant kitchen uses the farm’s rare-breed meats, dry-aged in their salt room or cured in-house. Find chargrilled octopus with chorizo or a main of hake with white beans, lomo and aïoli.

There’s much for art and food lovers to enjoy at Messums Wiltshire, a gallery and arts centre in a 13th-century barn. Chef Sunny Sin serves lunches and weekend brunch in the Mess Restaurant, her dishes inspired by the cooking of southern Asia and Australia. Highlights include Thai-inspired coconut, mushroom and vegetable soup with lemongrass, lime and chilli, and a Devon crab and cheese quesadilla. Without a stale sandwich in sight, we are being offered more to enjoy than the exhibits.

Three of the best London museum restaurants

Rochelle Canteen, Institute of Contemporary Arts, St James’s Place
Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold’s reworking of the original Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch occupies a mezzanine tucked away in the Institute for Contemporary Arts overlooking The Mall. The food, however, and the kind of prices are more than enough reason to visit. The menu – brief, simple, seasonal – delivers real treats, with straightforward, satisfying cooking including chargrilled quail with radicchio, or lamb shoulder with buckwheat pilaf, followed by a rhubarb and almond tart. arnoldandhenderson.com/rochelle-ica

Rex Whistler Restaurant, Tate Britain, Pimlico
In the museum basement, this long-standing restaurant has an old-fashioned clubby atmosphere with its white-linen tables and famed Whistler mural. But the season-led carte is a modern affair, taking inspiration from its exhibits. It treads a neat path, offering classic fare (game terrine), and contemporary dishes (spiced cauliflower, right). There are also plenty of wine options, including half bottles and mature classics. tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/rex-whistler-restaurant

Garden Café, Lambeth
In the shadow of Lambeth Palace, the quirky Garden Museum is built around the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, with a glass and bronze-tiled cloistered extension housing the café restaurant and a delightful courtyard garden (below). Dishes range from smoked ox tongue, beetroot and pickled walnut to brill with whey sauce. Although it’s primarily a lunch spot, the café also serves dinner on Tuesday and Friday evenings. gardenmuseum.org.uk

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