On an overcast day this summer, with the mockingly drizzly yet persistent rain typical of a British August, my mother and I planned the perfect get-together. The National Portrait Gallery had just had its glitzy reopening, Sir Paul McCartney’s photography exhibition being the star attraction. But on the top floor of the famed building there was another big launch.

Timed to coincide with the museum’s reemergence, The Portrait was opened by renowned Irish chef Richard Corrigan to considerable fanfare. The Beatlemania taking place downstairs was matched by a somewhat more sedate, but no less busy, dining room. With views Corrigan has described as “Mary Poppins London” – full of chimneys and steeples – and the legendary St. John co-founder Jon Spiteri commanding the floor, the restaurant gained rave reviews for its classic-meets-innovative cuisine, where pasta with snail ragu sits alongside pig trotter on toast, and halibut is immersed in lobster bone broth, in an orgy of Brit-inspired comfort. Corrigan “doesn’t just understand richness, he dances with it,” wrote restaurant critic Tim Hayward in the Financial Times, adding that the chef himself deserved a portrait downstairs. Blending our two favourite things, The Beatles and food, was always going to be a killer combo for me and Mum. And it was certainly a far cry from the museum trips I made as a kid, where an exhibition was usually followed by bland soup and dry carrot cake.

National Portrait Gallery

Today, a museum isn’t fully formed without quality grub. A short hop from the National Portrait Gallery, visitors to the National Gallery can tuck into Tamworth pork chops and Jersey oysters at Ochre. If you’re at Somerset House, why not pop into Spring for vegetable-led dishes from Michelin-starred chef Skye Gyngell? There’s José Pizarro’s sumptuous tapas at the Royal Academy and the Garden Museum Café’s elegant, produce-driven dishes in Lambeth. Outside London in Bruton, Somerset, Hauser & Wirth has its Roth Bar & Grill, while Barletta at the Turner Contemporary in Margate wowed visitors with inventive small plates before closing late last year after falling victim to an elaborate scam.

And it’s not just museums, either; theatres are getting in on the, ahem, act. This year has seen both Forza Wine and the Lasdun open at the National Theatre, while Jamie Oliver recently announced a new restaurant at Theatre Royal Drury Lane. “We’ve been inundated, I’m a bit shell-shocked frankly,” says Corrigan when we catch up after my meal. “I’ve not had a chance to see Paul McCartney’s exhibition yet.” Times are tough in the restaurant world, says Corrigan, but “there’s nearly a queue to get in here.” Opening The Portrait was a no-brainer for Corrigan, who invested £1m of his own money. “There’s a natural footfall that you wouldn’t have on a Monday or Tuesday [at a high-street restaurant]. Monday was one of our busiest days, and we’re absolutely full for lunch.”

The Portrait Restaurant

The past few years – particularly since the pandemic – have seen a revolution in museum catering. Since 2020 we’ve witnessed accomplished restaurants like Townsend open at the Whitechapel Gallery as well as Pizarro’s RA launch. But it’s by no means a novel phenomenon. The first museum café is thought to have been at the V&A, when refreshment rooms were opened in 1856 in what was then called the South Kensington Museum. They were described as “hideously ugly” by one newspaper. Henry Cole, who designed them, was inspired by his time working at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where he realised that tea and a hot meal were crucial to keeping visitors happy.

The refreshment rooms at the V&A provided different menus, collectively reading like a St. John specials board. The Gamble Room, with majolica tiles inspired by the Italian Renaissance, offered premium items like jugged hare, steak pudding and seasonal tarts. In the Poynter Room one could dine on veal cutlets, poached egg and spinach and sponge cake.

In modern times, museum restaurants are quickly upping their game

Encouraging guests to experience art and culture was far easier when enticing them with tasty treats – essentially, bribing them with delicious food. It was a trailblazer, and most museums didn’t follow suit until the 20th century. Today the Poynter Room, still marvellously ornate, houses a café, though food now revolves around sandwiches, quiches and cakes.

In contemporary times, museum restaurants are quickly upping their game. Townsend in East London is a superb restaurant in its own right. Its well-executed modern British fare is relatively affordable compared with similar offerings in the city, with quality British ingredients like chalk stream trout and wild mallard treated with thought and care. The entrance may be from the street, but the restaurant sits within the Whitechapel Gallery.

Owner Nick Gilkinson has a background in standalone restaurants, though he spent two years at another museum eatery, the Garden Museum Café. “Sometimes at Townsend we’re the first thing visitors see when they walk into the gallery,” he says. “Being conscious of us being that first or last point of contact is really important. We need to know what’s going on, when exhibitions close. And we need to add value. People are not just going to an exhibition, they’re going for a day out. We need to cater to what they want.” That means, alongside squid ink dumplings or Cornish beetroots with almond cream, cake and coffee are available. “We serve snacks outside of lunch hours, we’re conscious of making sure we put as much time and effort into those guests.”

The V&A

For Gilkinson, impressing an unsuspecting guest, one who came for the art but stayed for the food, makes it all worthwhile. “There’s nothing better than when someone leaves and says they weren’t expecting to have such a nice meal.”

Jo Prosser is a veteran in the museum world and an expert at creating the perfect visitor experience. Having previously worked at the V&A and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, she’s now director of audience and experience at the Royal Academy, and food is one of her pet subjects. For Prosser, quality food is nothing new, but the way museums think about their restaurants is.

For Gilkinson, impressing an unsuspecting guest with great dining makes it all worthwhile

Going back 20 years, “There was a real fashion for architect-led fine dining,” Prosser explains. “Lots of museums built new expansive wings and extended their space. In the UK and elsewhere, you’d tend to find these magnificent glass boxes atop incredible buildings. They were beautiful, but they didn’t fit with the majority of the visitors. You tend not to want an enormous meal in the middle of the day, with silver and glass and napkins, and foie gras or whatever it might be.”

“I think it’s always been the case, but never more so than now, that people want and deserve to be looked after,” Prosser continues. “The days of [catering] being very secondary, it was the art, and then everything else. It was even called things like ‘ancillary amenities’. Oh my god, I don’t want to go to an ancillary amenity. I want to have a great day. Now, it’s absolutely part of the courtesy you offer to a guest.”

Royal Academy of Art

Prosser sees the arrival in 2021 of José Pizarro – a modern art-loving and collecting chef famous for creating fun, convivial restaurants – at the Royal Academy as “a really good fit”. The elevated tapas, which range from classics like pan con tomate and Andalusian gazpacho to pickled quail with potato cream and roast garlic allioli, are far more suited to a mid-museum pit-stop than a heavy meal, but can equally form part of an extended, boozy dinner.

A key reason for the rise in quality is the public’s growing expectations at museums

For his part, Pizarro has relished his first foray into museum restaurants. “I love art, and have been involved in it for many years,” he says. When asked to open the restaurant, he almost immediately agreed. “The RA is an institution, and to be there is absolutely amazing. It brings two of my favourite things together. To be involved in art, feeding artists and people after exhibitions, it’s lovely to be able to relax and enjoy after an amazing piece of work or not, depending on what it is.”

A key reason for the rise in quality is the public’s growing expectations. “And they should expect it,” Prosser asserts. After paying for tickets, travelling into town, and spending a couple of hours staring at paintings, sometimes thoughtlessly consuming a microwaved jacket potato doesn’t quite cut it. If you’re having a day out, you might as well make the most of it.

Garden Museum Cafe courtyard

Corrigan agrees with this sentiment: “People want a standard now, they want something better. It has been done before, it’s nothing unique, but the whole point is bringing that feeling of goodwill, good food, and good hospitality.”

The formula for a successful restaurant museum isn’t as simple as hiring a good chef. ‘The right fit for the right space’ is Prosser’s mantra. After all, you probably wouldn’t want fussy Michelin-starred dining at the Natural History Museum. “It should feel true to the place,” says Prosser. London’s museum restaurants are increasingly taking this into account. Pizarro’s vivaciousness and love for modern art make him the right chef for the RA. Corrigan’s classically informed, comfort-driven food certainly appeals to the National Portrait Gallery’s older clientele. Townsend is pure, bang-on-trend East London, while the Garden Museum Café has the ingredients-led, vegetable-forward, pared back cookery one expects clients of the Garden Museum would flock to.

Townsend interiors

These restaurants are becoming destinations in their own right, with many customers swerving art and heading straight in for the dining experience. “We’re starting to get people coming just to the restaurant,” says Corrigan, noting that The Portrait has its own street entrance. From inside the museum it can be hard to find, as can the entrance at José Pizarro. “I’m sure they’d love it if we have banners going up the stairs,” says Prosser of the fairly minimal advertising offered to the restaurant in Mayfair. “But you can’t, you’re part of a bigger ecosystem.”

Food and art have long been connected – just look at Renaissance still lifes. It’s a connection Pizarro says makes perfect sense. “Art, for me, is the same as food. Its purpose is to make you feel better, to think. It’s not just pretty, it’s there to make you happy, and food is there to make you happy. Sometimes you like it, sometimes you don’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong.” After a couple of hours spent engaging with art, there’s nothing better than a well-deserved break with some good food and a decent drink. Thankfully, these days, you don’t have to travel far.