Rebecca Atkinson

Let them eat cake

Rebecca Atkinson, 18.07.2012
Visitors expect a holistic museum experience and that includes a cafe
I had the stuffed courgette flowers and the person I was with had the lobster linguine. Everything was delicious.

I always fancied myself as a Giles Coren in waiting, although I think I’m better at the eating bit than the writing about food bit. I’m only mentioning the meal because it was at Pallant House Gallery’s restaurant Field & Fork.

I was in Chichester to review the town’s new Novium museum for the October issue of Museums Journal. I went there first and, despite enjoying the galleries, was disappointed at the general lack of facilities on offer.

There is a shop, selling postcards, local history books and a selection of undoubtedly popular plastic Roman helmets, but it’s a far cry from the retail experience many museums now offer. And there is no cafe – despite plenty of visitors who looked like they’d welcome a sit down with cup of tea and slice of cake.

Across town at Pallant House, the restaurant was full. It’s definitely more “upmarket dining” than family caff, but in a town full of sandwich shops there is clearly demand for this type of menu. And there is always the option of tea and cake if courgette flowers aren’t your thing.

I don’t know how many people who eat at Pallant House go on to visit the galleries, but I saw quite a few of them while I was wandering around (tickets are half-price on Tuesdays and free anytime to Museums Association members).

There is also a shop, with a vast book selection and array of potential gifts. I succumbed to a fox tea towel that is probably too nice to use.

Both venues display their collections well and were buzzing with visitors young and old. Both also charge entry, but at Pallant House it feels there are plenty of reasons for local people to come back: to eat or browse in the shop; to see its temporary exhibitions and permanent displays that are regularly refreshed; or to attend an event or class.

So what if the family at the table next to us during lunch at Pallant House didn’t go to the galleries before or after they ate? With the restaurant so clearly part of the overall gallery, they are participating in and also supporting a local institution that is embedded within the town and the surrounding areas.

I hope Novium can achieve the same, particularly through its outreach and education programmes. Not every museum can offer destination dining, but visitors increasingly expect a holistic experience – and that includes the opportunity for tea and cake.

What is your favourite museum cafe/restaurant? Tell us below...


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Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
15.08.2012, 12:49
More favourite cafes coming in on Twitter:

@KathrinLuddecke tweets: one of my fav #museum #galleries cafe: liked @NatGalleriesSco Modern Art one - sitting right amidst the art, good local food!

@ziocarne says: favourite #museums #galleries café … top floor @tate modern with view of #thames #stpauls #millenniumbridge

@verityelson tweets: Got to be @NatGalleriesSco Modern Two, Fruitmarket Gallery and Pallant House - imaginative food, great service and surroundings

@ForsterImogen says: Favourite café? Modern Art, Edin, because I saw a kingfisher over the Water of Leith before I stopped for my coffee, etc.

And ‏@NatGalleriesSco is voting for itself: lots of fans of @HPLEvents Modern Two cafe at #ScotModern up in #Edinburgh!
Dale Copley
MA Member
Museum Officer, Fusilier Museum London
10.08.2012, 09:54
Totally other end of the spectrum to your experience Rebecca, but my vote goes to True's Yard in Kings Lynn. I've got absolutely no connection to the museum, but went as a punter and was really struck by how the cheap and cheerful tea (I think it was 80p at the time), homemade cakes and cheese toasties were pulling in the local community, who knew they could just sit with the 80p cuppa and have a chat with someone. Briliant museum engagement going on there, and as Jonathon says below, makes the museums feel alive even on a slow day.

Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
13.08.2012, 09:49
You can't beat cheap and cheerful!
09.08.2012, 10:55
Forgot to mention the Pump Room in Bath. Great cafe and beautiful room. You can even drink the spa water. They even have a pianist at lunchtimes!

Oh, and an honourable mention for the National Gallery in Copenhagen for serving the finest open-faced sandwiches I have ever eaten:

The best museum cafes have a great location, friendly staff and a great atmosphere. Ideally you want somewhere with a bit of a buzz, but still relaxing enough to catch your breath having walked through serveral dozen galleries. Local/seasonal cuisine is nice, but you want to see the same values as in the rest of the museum: quality, care and good service.

I always struggle to find a table at the Tate Modern cafes, but maybe I'm unlucky. I usually end up drinking a cardboard cup of coffee perched on a wall outside.
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
08.08.2012, 23:14
Having a decent museum cafe has definitely made a difference to the museum where I work. Prior to the recent refurbishment you entered the building and wondered whether anyone was in (and you could have that feeling as a member of staff, let alone as a visitor). Following the refurbishment and the building of an extension, the cafe has helped to create a welcoming atmosphere that puts people at ease, as well as highlighting that the place is open to passers by. The next task is to team up with them to offer some activities...

Great museum caffs: the V&A naturally, Oriel Ynys Mon on Anglesey, the Manchester Art Gallery, Imperial War Museum North, the People's History Museum, the Ashmolean and for location the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
One to avoid: the cafe below the National Museum in Cardiff [even the staff advise you to eat elsewhere! the museum staff that is, not the restaurant's]
08.08.2012, 15:19
Interesting post. Perhaps we can have a poll for our favourite museum cafe?
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
08.08.2012, 15:47
That's a great suggestion Sophie! What's your favourite museum/gallery cafe, and why?

(Mine is currently the South London Gallery's cafe for its "Full Spanglish" breakfast of eggs, chargrilled chorizo and morcilla, beans, roast mushroom and toast. Good coffee too:
09.08.2012, 10:49
My favourite cafe at a national museum would be the Absolute favourite? V&A cafe - so much choice and such beautiful rooms to sit in.

That said, I also like the cafe in Gloucester Folk Museum (local produce, friendly staff and a nice setting).

And I'll always have a soft spot for the cafe at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery which kept me going while I was doing my Masters degree. I always bought the soup of the day while doing my reading or marking.

NPG has a really nice cafe, and less intimidating that the Dining Rooms at the National Gallery next door.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
08.08.2012, 17:35
From Jennifer Lloyd ‏on Twitter @jenntendo64

The National Portrait Gallery cafe because of the great food...and the great view!!

And Stephanie Lampkin ‏also on Twitter @maroonedinfl

The Mitsitam Native Foods Café @SmithsonianNMAI! Serves phenomenal indigenous cuisine!
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
09.08.2012, 10:55
Matt Arnold via Facebook says Shetland Museum & Riverside Museum Glasgow
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
09.08.2012, 11:07
And Anya Bramich ‏on Twitter @AnyaBramich says I once had the best bacon baguette at the Tate St Ives so that wins my vote.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
09.08.2012, 15:51
Lucy Shaw ‏on Twitter @LVShaw says @OxfordASPIRE Coffee is pretty good and I'm rather fussy about my coffee