Out & About

Reviewing the Cafés of London's Art Museums

Journalist Ed Cumming rates the capital's post-exhibition refreshment.


Ed Cumming


Kayleigh Hill @ Papier

After a couple of hours shuffling around museums, even the most committed culture lover will develop museum feet. You know the condition, a debilitating state where you feel a dull ache build against your shoes. You start bending over to relieve the wear on your lumbar region. You need a sit-down. You need tea. Above all, you need cake. London is an unmatched destination for museums and galleries, but too often its cafés rest on their laurels.

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You'd expect the Design Museum in Holland Park, as the shiny latest addition to London's cultural landscape, to have its ducks in a row when it comes to refreshments. So it proves. From the airy café-restaurant on the top floor there are fabulous views of west London. They have a proper tea menu, offering four "single batch limited edition" teas. I went with a Himalayan Imperial Black, from Nepal, picked in the summer of 2015. Pretentious, sure, but if you're having tea at the Design Museum, you're already erring that way. A chocolate orange tart was unashamedly sophisticated, with a depth of flavour that spoke to the museum itself. If you like good design, it implied, you can handle dark chocolate. A blackberry and apple pie came with an oculus in the pastry lid, through which we were encouraged to decant a little pot of cream, ensuring an even mix of dairy and fruit. Genius. It's that kind of innovation that makes you hopeful for Britain's post-Brexit future.

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The Sackler café-restaurant lies beneath Zaha Hadid's swirling roof, so you expect an appropriate amount of innovation. Sadly the only rebel spirit on show was in our waiter, who served us tea at 3.20, ten minutes before the designated tea start time. The range was more limited than at the Design Museum, so we went with breakfast and Earl Grey. They were fine. Under a grey September sky, the bare white plastic tables and chairs, scattered with ashtrays, were a bit depressing. The idea is presumably that they echo the white roof, but it feels more like the terrace of some asylum, where customers can't be trusted with colour or texture. Also, the brownie was dry. Moisture is the only key variable in brownies, which all taste the same, so this is a critical failing. Scones with clotted cream and jam were equally bland, more like dumplings.

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The V&A certainly has the right idea when it comes to the size of a refreshment zone. Almost the entire north side of the courtyard is given over to a café and restaurant. We passed Michael Palin on the way in. It's hard to think of a more apposite celebrity to pass on your way for tea at the V&A. Wise, yet fun. The carrot cake they served was superbly moist, as was a black velvet cake. These were good sizes, too. The V&A's main failing is that it is too popular. Wanting to sit outside we found every table in the courtyard occupied, with groups of tourists circling like carrion for available space. We were forced to rest our treats on the floor, where they instantly drew the interest of nearby pigeons.

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Comparably vast to the V&A, the National's café is run by Peyton & Byrne. It ought to be a smart move, trusting outside expertise, but the execution is lacking. Firstly, it's unclear who was responsible for the decor, which is in 50 shades of avocado, as if a stately home had been done up by a 70s bathroom interior specialist. There's nothing much to report on the tea front, and they lose points for taking ten minutes to drum up an iced latte. A good-looking selection of cake is undermined by ludicrous over-description. The card next to the lemon drizzle was practically erotica, promising all kinds of moist delight. As is often the way in such matters, the reality bore almost no relation to the promise: a fat yellow puck, sand-dry and with almost no lemon flavour.

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1 or 5/5
Never easy to navigate, Tate Modern has become even more complicated since the opening of the new Blavatnik building. Whenever you think you've found where you want to be, another lift or escalator pops up, demanding to be ridden. Maybe it's part of the art. In theory there are about 14 restaurants, but they're impossible to locate and usually closed. I was irritable when I arrived, partly because it was raining but also because after six cakes in two hours, my blood sugar had plummeted. Getting lost didn't help. In the end I gave up and went to the bar at the foot of the Blavatnik building, which has a surprisingly good vibe for a museum. There was no cake, but there was a very good bag of pork scratchings, and there was a delicious beer. All art should end with a pint.