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Fuel your love of fine art and equally fine food at this selection of UK galleries that put their cafes firmly in the frame.

Published May 25, 2023

7 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

The sculptor Andy Goldsworthy once described art as “a form of nourishment” — and standing in front of a great work can indeed give you a distinct type of fulfilment. But for those times when an exhibition doesn’t quite hit the spot, a good gallery cafe can provide a more reliable source of sustenance — or fuel you up for further exploration. At their best, gallery cafes should be the product of as much love, care and attention to detail as a Canaletto canvas. The interiors should be inspiring, the service spotless and the menu should paint a picture. Here then are seven so appealing they could belong in a frame.

1. Tatha Bar and Kitchen

V&A Dundee, Dundee

The original Victoria and Albert Museum in London is home to the world’s first museum cafe, but for a fresher option with less of a canteen feel, check out the museum’s Scottish outpost. Here, on the second floor you’ll find the Tatha Bar and Kitchen overlooking the waters of the Tay. Named after the river’s Gaelic moniker, Tatha serves a daily changing menu featuring lots of Scottish suppliers, and the cream teas are legendary. It’s the perfect spot for refreshment before exploring the extensive Scottish Design galleries.

2. The Whitworth Café

Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Frank Lloyd Wright would have approved of the Whitworth Café. Housed in a steel box with floor-to-ceiling windows, this daring new space suspended over the greenery of Whitworth Park owes a debt to the legendary US architect and his fondness for cantilevered designs. The café, part of two new wings added in a 2015 revamp of the gallery, is part of the University of Manchester. View the Whitworth’s eclectic collection of international art, ancient and modern, then enjoy the cafe’s healthy menu, made in-house by the university’s hospitality team: salads, sandwiches and bakes, plus such classic regional desserts as Eccles cakes and Manchester tart (a raspberry-and-custard filling, topped with coconut).

3. The Wallace Restaurant

The Wallace Collection, London

Sir Richard Wallace and the Marquesses of Hertford had exquisite taste. Between them they amassed one of the finest collections of art and objet d’art in the country, including furniture once belonging to Marie-Antoinette and masterpieces by Rubens and Rembrandt. The collection was bequeathed to the nation in 1897. Today, the gallery’s courtyard combines a formal dining experience and a more casual cafe service under its glazed roof. Given strong Bridgerton vibes exuded by a combination of 19th-century grandeur and Instagram-baiting pink walls, afternoon tea here is a fitting choice; the premium option pairs a selection of finger sandwiches, cakes and loose-leaf teas with a glass of Jean-Paul Deville rosé champagne.

4. Cafe Bar and Kitchen

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

In 1932, Labour peer Herbrand Sackville, the 9th Earl of De La Warr, became the dynamic young mayor of Bexhill-on-Sea. He persuaded his fellow council members that a ‘people’s palace’ was required to attract holidaymakers and investment to the town. The Earl’s namesake Pavilion opened three years later, sporting the clean lines and sweeping curves of the fashionable ‘international’ style. Following a successful 2005 restoration, the gallery has staged exhibitions by Bridget Riley and Grayson Perry, while the cafe was given modernist-style chairs designed by London’s Barber Osgerby. Visitors come for the sea views and stay for the creative specials board that is big on vegan-friendly options and produce from local Sussex suppliers.

5. Mathilde’s Cafe

Heaton Cooper Studio, Grasmere, Cumbria

While painting in the wilds of southern Norway, British landscape artist Alfred Heaton Cooper fell in love with local farmer’s daughter, Mathilde Marie Valentinsen. The pair settled in the Lake District in 1898 and the couple’s artist son, William, established a studio there almost 40 years later. Today, that studio houses three galleries devoted to the family’s work, as well as a changing display by contemporary local artists. Valentinsen’s heritage is also celebrated in her namesake cafe via a selection of open sandwiches celebrating Scandi flavours. Relax on the terrace in front of an ever-changing mountainous backdrop enjoying a hot dog dressed with lingonberry ketchup.

6. The Magazine

Serpentine North Gallery, London

While Serpentine South Gallery commissions a pavilion from a different designer each summer, the newer North Gallery has made a more lasting contribution to architecture. The Magazine forms part of one of the late, great Zaha Hadid’s last major projects; a rippling tensile structure attached to a Grade-II listed building that dates back to the 19th century. The cafe’s menu is as thoughtfully constructed as the fibreglass canopy. Breakfast is a time for classics remade with artisan ingredients — ‘beans on toast’ is a fava stew on rye-and-pumpernickel sourdough; lunch sees Slovakian chef Tomas Kolkus dish up small plates whose ingredients embrace the ‘new seasonalities’ resulting from climate change.

7. The Garden Café

Newlyn Art Gallery, Newlyn, Cornwall

The Cornish fishing village of Newlyn has attracted artists for generations. A colony of figurative painters known as the Newlyn School settled here in the 1880s, while the modern Newlyn Art School hosts practical courses all-year round. The Newlyn Art Gallery also has an eclectic programme of contemporary art, but it’s the huge panoramic window in the gallery’s Garden Café, housed in a converted shipping container, that serves as a perfect reminder of the original colony’s inspiration: the dazzling light bouncing off the Atlantic waters gathered in Mount’s Bay. On warmer days, find yourself a deckchair and grab a coffee made with beans from Olfactory Roasters in nearby Penryn.

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