Visual feasts: five of London’s best gallery restaurants


This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to London

Nothing makes the stomach rumble quite like standing in a quiet gallery looking at art. But for years, the fare on offer in London’s great art institutions has often not met the quality of the art itself. A doorstep sandwich, packet of crisps and a disappointingly dry scone were the norm, and those looking for something more sophisticated had to follow the exit signs through the gift shop. When, in 2005, the National Cafe, under the auspices of “Modern British Bakery” Peyton and Byrne, sprung up in the bowels of the National Gallery, no one could quite believe it. Soup! Salads! Carrot cake! Artisanal lemonade! Since then, the ante has been upped even more and a quiet dining revolution has swept the capital’s art scene. A series of independent restaurants have cropped up in London’s art galleries and museums that are destinations in themselves.

The below is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather my personal pick of the best places — some new, some less so — largely affiliated with great art institutions. A word of hard-won advice: art before lunch, always. You will be good for very little after three courses at these restaurants other than toddling home. 

St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE

  • Good for: Splendid views, delicious food with a sense of occasion

  • Not so good for: A quick snack

  • FYI: The gallery is open until 6pm from Sunday to Thursday, and until 9pm on Friday and Saturday. Booking for the restaurant is separate. It is not a walk-in kind of place, so reserve well in advance. Check out the set menu: £28 for two courses, £35 for three

  • Opening times: Sunday–Tuesday: noon–5.30pm. Wednesday–Saturday: noon–2.45pm and 5pm–9.30pm (Friday–Saturday until 9.45pm)

  • Don’t miss: Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-64: Eyes of the Storm, until October 1. Book for David Hockney: Drawing from Life, November 2–January 21 2024

  • Website; Directions

The Portrait recently opened after a £41.3mn renovation project at the National Portrait Gallery

It seems like an age since the great doors of the National Portrait Gallery were last open to the public. But now, after three years, the £41.3mn project to refurbish the Grade I-listed building from top to bottom, rethinking the public spaces and rehanging the collections, is complete. And along with it, a new era for its famed top-floor dining room, now The Portrait, which has been done up by BradyWilliams Studio with lots of natural timber, cool lighting and sculptures from the NPG’s collection.

A table at Portrait set with four plates of food, including a white fish dish, and two glasses of white wine
Chef Richard Corrigan says of his menu at The Portrait: ‘I want to bring heart and soul, build something spirited for a merry feast’

For those who have made their way around the gallery’s primary collection, with some 1,000 works on display (not including temporary exhibitions) from the eighth century to the present day, a treat awaits you on the fourth floor. Long known for its vast windows and spectacular perspective on Nelson perched at the top of his column, as well as the Houses of Parliament and other landmarks, the 70-cover restaurant is now under the capable and creative wing of Irish chef Richard Corrigan of Corrigan’s Bar and Restaurant and Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill.

Corrigan’s menu is all about comforting, classic food. “I want to bring heart and soul, build something spirited for a merry feast,” he has said about taking the helm here. “Any chef would give their right arm to cook in such a historic building, so for me to open a restaurant, under the same roof as all this world-class art, well, it’s truly a privilege.”

‘Self-Portrait, London, 1963–4’ by Paul McCartney: a blurred black and white photo of a young Paul McCartney taking a photograph of himself in a mirror
‘Self-Portrait, London, 1963–4’ by Paul McCartney, at the National Portrait Gallery © Paul McCartney

On my visit, I had timed a whirl around the temporary exhibition of Paul McCartney’s joyous photographs with an early dinner, and planned to have just one course. Intentions went straight out of the window when I was handed the à la carte menu. I began with a luscious whole artichoke with a rich crab dip to plunge the leaves into, followed by two flavoursome lambchops with baba ganoush, washed down with a fragrant glass of The Crusher Pinot Noir from Wilson Vineyard in California. After that, it seemed very impolite not to sample the pot de crème, served in a generous ramekin with gooseberry jelly and two crisp shortbread slivers.

By the time I left, after a very unnecessary glass of peachy Chinese ice-wine digestif, the lights of the London Eye had started to wink, and Nelson was blending into the night sky.

Somerset House, New Wing, Lancaster Place,London, WC2R 1LA

  • Good for: A festive occasion you can linger over; ultra-seasonal ingredients and eco credentials (it is a single-use, plastic-free restaurant)

  • Not so good for: Your wallet. This is no midweek pit-stop affair

  • FYI: From 5.30pm to 6:30pm, Tuesday to Saturday, a special “Scratch” menu is laid on, using the restaurant’s waste produce, at three courses for £30

  • Opening times: Tuesday–Friday: noon–2.30pm and 5.30pm–9.30pm. Saturday: 5.30pm–9.30pm

  • Don’t miss: Arts and Artifice: Fakes from the Collection, until October 8 2023

  • Website; Directions

A circular installation made up of many small white butterfly-shaped pieces on a wall at Spring
Spring has become The Courtauld Gallery’s de facto dining room © Rebecca Hope

A selection of dishes at Spring, including a flan with strawberries
A selection of dishes at Spring

Skye Gyngell’s feted restaurant opened in the New Wing of Somerset House in 2014, on the right of the vast courtyard, tucked behind The Courtauld Gallery. While not officially linked to The Courtauld, of all the Somerset House eateries it has become the gallery’s de facto dining room — if you can get a table, that is. Make a reservation first and build your cultural day around it. 

Housed in an airy, high-ceilinged 19th-century drawing room, which had been closed to the public for 150 years, Spring is a light-filled space that, with its oversized flower arrangements and modern chandeliers, feels celebratory. Indeed on my wintry visit, a wedding party was making merry in a private room, while in the bright 116-seater dining area, small well-dressed groups of mothers and daughters, business lunchers and groomed retirees were in festive spirits.

Spring’s light-filled dining space, with columns between ceiling and floor, orange chairs and white walls
Spring is housed in a room that had been closed to the public for 150 years

Gyngell, formerly of Petersham Nurseries, is known for her super-seasonal approach to cooking, and at Spring, this is taken to extremes with an Italian-influenced menu (à la carte and set) that changes daily. I tucked in à la carte with a salad of Cornish crab with persimmons, kohlrabi and a drizzle of lovage oil — light enough to justify my main of lamb with Jerusalem artichoke and white beans, followed by a rich bitter chocolate cake with chestnut cream, washed down with a cheeky pear prosecco lunchtime cocktail. 

‘Landscape with the Flight into Egypt’, 1563, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder at The Courtauld
‘Landscape with the Flight into Egypt’, 1563, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder at The Courtauld © The Courtauld Gallery

In terms of refined London experiences, a trip to The Courtauld’s permanent collection of masterpieces from the Middle Ages to the 20th century — with its astonishing treasures from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Landscape with the Flight into Egypt” to Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” — followed by a leisurely feast round the corner at Spring, is up there with the very best. 

Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN

  • Good for: A central London restaurant where you still have a chance of a walk-in table 

  • Not so good for: Those looking for something a bit different 

  • FYI: The restaurant serves lunch, afternoon tea and dinner

  • Opening times: Sunday–Wednesday: noon–3pm and 3pm–5pm (afternoon tea). Thursday–Saturday: noon–3pm; 3pm–5pm (afternoon tea); and 5pm–10pm

  • Book now: The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Frans Hals, September 30 to January 21 2024

  • Website; Directions

Tamworth pork chop with coco beans in a bowl-like vessel at Ochre
Dishes at Ochre might include Tamworth pork chop with coco beans

The Bathers Club – an orange cocktail in a glass tumbler – on a mirrored table at Ochre. A brown glass vase containing dried grasses and plants stands near it
Ochre’s cocktails – such as the Bathers Club (above) – are inspired by works held by the National Gallery, in this instance ‘Bathers at Asnières’ by Georges Seurat

This large, buzzy dining room in the National Gallery, which used to be a wing of the National Cafe, reopened in 2022 as Ochre, a restaurant and bar. It has been thoughtfully done up by architectural practice Red Deer, with seating ranging from comfy velvet alcoves beneath the huge windows to a mix of tables and banquettes, as well as a shiny central bar. It is the sort of flexible space that lends itself to weddings and corporate events, but is also entirely viable for a cosy date night, as the warm hue of the name might suggest. But mainly, I suspect, the restaurant caters to the wide range of punters who have come up to town to visit the gallery’s seasonal blockbuster shows, or wander in awe through its 66 rooms. 

A large circular wooden table with orange velvet-corduroy chairs beneath a large sculptural chandelier at Ochre
The National Gallery’s main dining space reopened as Ochre last year

The gallery is so huge that if you have done even a tenth of the above — or made your way through an entire exhibition in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing — you will be exhausted and starving, possibly dangerously so. Luckily, the menu at Ochre seems to anticipate that with a selection of calorific “while you wait” options, from ’nduja croquettes to whipped cod’s roe and sourdough. The rest of the menu is firmly on the trad side of seasonal, modern British fare, with summer starters ranging from trout and sardines to Jersey royals, and mains including the holy trinity of dry-aged Hereford beef, Tamworth pork and catch-of-the-day fish. Puddings are in the much the same mould, with a Braeburn tarte Tatin, Black Forest gateau and a very decent Valhrona chocolate brownie. There are also a range of reasonable set menus too, which aren’t confined to lunch. 

A jazzy range of cocktails named after the gallery’s heavy-hitters — Bathers Club, Sunflowers Sour, The Nightwatch Mojito and Da Pompadour, to name but a few — tie the whole experience up nicely. 

José Pizarro at the Royal Academy of Arts 

6 Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET

  • Good for: All-day ordering, from small bites to proper blowouts

  • Not so good for: Dinner. The restaurant is only open late on Fridays
    FYI: For those wanting something a little more casual, there is also the RA’s Poster Bar, also run by Pizarro, with a pinxto menu on Friday nights

  • Opening times: Tuesday–Thursday and Saturday–Sunday, 11.30am–6pm. Friday, 11.30am–9pm

  • Book for: Marina Abramović, 23 September–1 January 2024

  • Website; Directions

A plate of gambas al ajillo — wild white prawns with garlic and chilli — at José Pizarro at the Royal Academy of Arts
Gambas al ajillo — wild white prawns with garlic and chilli — at José Pizarro at the Royal Academy of Arts . . .  © LAT Archive

Detail of the Baroque-style pale-red, orange and white walls of the RA’s Senate Room, with statuettes of cherubs above a door
. . . which is housed in the RA’s grand Senate Room © Adele Audisio

With its Piccadilly locale and prime position at Burlington House, the RA is still the undisputed grande dame of the London art scene. From the buzz of its annual Summer Exhibition — the world’s oldest open submission show — to its roster of blockbusters ranging from David Hockney to In the Eye of the Storm, an upcoming exploration of modernism in Ukraine — the academy’s calendar of events is a lodestar in the London social diary. This is upheld by the attire of its refined members, who with their blazers, cufflinks and coiffed hair, set the tone for all other visitors.

Various restaurants have come and gone over the years in this historic venue. And there are plenty of spots dotted around the courtyard and house for a cuppa and something sweet to perk you up, as well as a decent canteen downstairs. Members in the past have tended to repair to the Academicians’ Room on the ground floor, an oversubscribed area where the sofas seem to have a particularly soporific effect, meaning that there is very little turnover. 

‘Clubbing’ by Paul Dash, one of the works on display in this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy – an oil painting of scores of small figures dancing against a yellow-brown background
‘Clubbing’ by Paul Dash is one of the works on display in this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy © Paul Dash

Now, however, there is a fantastic restaurant that opened in 2021, which I would go to even if I wasn’t popping in for an art fix. Up on the first floor in the spectacular Senate Room, José Pizarro’s eponymous restaurant brings seasonal Spanish flair to the RA, with a menu of pica pica (snacks) and tapas to follow. Pizarro has several London outlets, but this is his grandest venue to date. 

After so many modern British menus morphing into one, it was delightful to step away from the starter/main/dessert formula, and to instead drastically over-order on sharing dishes for two. After glasses of Rimarts Brut Reserva cava, with fried Valencian almonds and pickled white anchovies, along came airy sourdough toast with melty Mahón cheese and honey, a platter of jamón ibérico, a salad of baby gem lettuce acting as small vessels for unctuous cheese dressing with hazelnuts and capers, roasted butternut squash with orange and seeds, giant langoustines with chilli, garlic and paprika, and more besides. All perfectly piquant and delicious — but the standout for me was a cheeky chocolate pot with a salt and Pizarro extra-virgin olive oil.

77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX

  • Good for: Light, local fare; decent acoustics

  • Not so good for: Large parties. This is a bijou space

  • FYI: Book your gallery entry slot and subsequent table simultaneously on the gallery’s website. On Thursdays, the gallery is open until 9pm; until 6pm every other day of the week. A very reasonable £35 two-course lunch and exhibition package is available from Tuesday to Saturday, with exhibition entry from 11am to 2pm and lunch in the restaurant from noon to 3pm 

  • Opening times: Tuesday, 10.30am–6pm. Wednesday–Friday, 10.30am–11pm. Saturday, 10am–11pm. Sunday, 10am–6pm

  • Don’t miss: Life Is More Important than Art — the gallery’s free summer programme of exhibitions and events, which runs until September 17

  • Website; Directions

Two Red Leicester croquettes with pickled walnut ketchup on a plate on a wooden table at Townsend
Red Leicester croquettes with pickled walnut ketchup at Townsend . . .  © Brian Dandridge

The airy interior of Townsend, with blond-wood furnishings and wall panelling, large windows and bulb pendant lighting
. . . which offers a £35 set lunch and exhibition deal during the week

Founded in 1901, the Whitechapel Gallery, known for its edgy displays of contemporary art, has put on some huge solo shows over the decades including Nan Goldin, Mark Wallinger, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly and Frida Kahlo. In 1939, the gallery was the first and last British museum to have ever displayed Picasso’s “Guernica”. But this hallowed space in east London never had refreshments to match. Townsend, the gallery’s modern British restaurant which opened in 2020 and is overseen by chef Nick Gilkinson (of the Garden Café, Anglo and the recently opened Maene), changed that overnight.

18 photographs of houses, streets and fields from ‘Detail of The J Street Project (Index)’, 2002-05, by the late conceptual artist Susan Hiller, which is part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s ‘Life is More Important Than Art’ season
The wall-based installation ‘Detail of The J Street Project (Index)’, 2002-05, by the late conceptual artist Susan Hiller is part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s ‘Life is More Important Than Art’ season © The Estate of Susan Hiller. Photograph by Todd-White Art Photography

On my Saturday night visit, during a heatwave, the restaurant was calm and, mercifully, air-conditioned. The space is cosy and wood panelled but unfussy, thanks to exposed bulb pendant lighting and other signifiers of the trendy London eaterie. The few other occupied tables — one a family reunion, and another a possible date — were knocking back the Oxney Estate English sparkling wine, and nibbling on sourdough with whipped Glastonbury butter while they waited for their mains.

The succinct menu is super-seasonal with a focus on local and British ingredients. I started with Nutbourne farm tomatoes with Graceburn — a feta-style, locally made smokey cheese in rapeseed oil. By then, I had cooled down enough to go for a wonderfully creamy plate of Cornish pollock with potato, courgette, rosemary and olives, and a subtly fragrant fig-leaf ice cream with poached raspberries and a sheaf of crisp buckwheat. An exciting wine list including interesting bottles from Slovenia and Germany, as well as a bunch of English vintages, ensured that we made the most of our table until late. 

Tell us about your favourite London gallery restaurant in the comments. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter

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