The art of eating

Tate Britain came up with a logical idea as to where best to eat after appreciating an art show when it commissioned the artist Rex Whistler in the 1920s to decorate the gallery’s Refreshment Room. He spent eighteen months painting all four walls, three in oil paint mixed with wax onto canvas and then fixed to the wall; on the fourth wall, the design was painted directly onto the plaster. Critics loved the result, describing a room previously regarded as a “dungeon” as “the most amusing room in Europe”. The Rex Whistler restaurant in Tate Britain remains the most artistic place to eat in London and the narrative of the restored mural, The Expedition in Search of Rare Meats, is eminently appropriate. It tells of a quest for fine food in a country where only flat cakes provide nourishment; but a quick perusal of the restaurant’s menu suggests a ready answer to any such pursuit.

A sparkling wine from Hampshire sets the journey going and a wine, beer or cocktail is paired to complement each dish. The Rex Whistler is indeed a sophisticated place to eat, with a discriminating choice of food and drink, attentive service and a cultured-looking clientele looking perfectly at ease dining at tables of white tablecloth between five white pillars under a white ceiling. The soft colours and sylvan scenes of Whistler’s mural and the gentle tinkle of glasses complete this culinary work of art.

Tate Modern, Britain’s national gallery of international modern art, is another kettle of fish altogether and the Rex Whistler would look like bourgeois whimsy on the sixth floor of what was once an oil-fired power station. What you do get at the Tate Modern Restaurant is floor-to-ceiling windows, imaginatively named cocktails – Mellifluous Tart, Euphoric Delirium, Obtuse Simplicity – that could be titles for some of the Salvador Dali paintings hanging in the gallery below, and good British food.


The artistic masterpiece in the restaurant’s functional space takes the form of glorious views across the Thames, dominated by St Paul’s Cathedral, which look especially splendiferous if you dine at night (Friday and Saturdays only). If not lucky with a window table, watch for empty stools at the café counter and sit here for post prandial views of London’s north bank.

Eating is an Art

Eating is an Art

There is another pleasing restaurant, Tas Pide, only a short walk from Tate Modern which offers live Turkish folk music every night except Mondays and delicious Anatolian flatbread (pide) from its own wood-fired oven. This is a cosy and comforting place to eat, not expensive, with various set menus for anyone new to Turkish cuisine.

If Tate’s modern art is not modern enough for your avant-garde tastes you’ll be visiting the Saatchi Gallery for its exhibitions of contemporary art. This raises the stakes for an appropriate restaurant but Nozomi  rises impeccably to such an occasion. It is ritzy, glamorous and fashion-conscious — eye-catching bling would not be out of place – with dark colours, low lighting and hints of Art Deco.

The vibrant bar area can easily fill up but a table on the upper level is fine for a tête-à-tête dinner. The gorgeous food, enjoyed under a glass atrium ceiling, is contemporary Japanese – which means starters like lobster and lotus chip salad or scallops with an umeboshi plum relish followed by your favourite sushi or black cod. The food, like the exhibits at the Saachi, is classy and arty.

There are many good reasons for dropping in to view the Wallace Collection –Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Hals (The Laughing Cavalier), Velàzquez, Poussin (A Dance to the Music of Time) – and the Wallace Restaurant should not be missed on your visit. The paintings and the restaurant are housed in Hertford House, three minutes from Oxford St, a palazzo completed in 1788 for the 4th Duke of Manchester because there was good duck shooting nearby.

The restaurant stands in all its glory at the back of this magnificent town house, in a glassed-over courtyard with life-sized but not real trees in giant pots. The Mediterranean-like setting is popular for morning coffee, lunch or afternoon tea but to feel as if you have the place to yourself come along on a Friday or Saturday evening for dinner. The food has a French inflection, the wine list is 100 per cent French and vegetarian food is no mere token item on the menu – all in all, an evening meal here is one of London’s best kept secrets.

If you love the National Gallery but not queuing in line for a sandwich then there is the National Café, with a waiter service brasserie, but better still is the National Dining Rooms. Not the best designed restaurant space in London but good acoustics mean you’re not forced to eavesdrop on other people’s chat and there are views of Trafalgar Square from window tables.

Come here for a quick lunch or three-course lunch, champagne afternoon tea, homemade cakes, artisan cheeses, a terrific range of teas, beers or wines. Like the gallery itself, there is too much here to take in on a single visit.

There are two other restaurants close to the National Gallery that offer a culinary change of scene without abandoning aesthetic standards. At its best, Thai food is as exquisite to look at as it is to eat and the flagship Thai Square  at Trafalgar Square sets the right tone with its ornately decorated entrance and a benign Buddha looking at you by the reception desk. What arrives on your table is equally eye-catching and as tastebud-popping as it looks: prawns cut and split to resemble a butterfly, colourful papaya salads, spicy lemongrass soup, aromatic fragrances and pungent herbs and spices.

Utterly different is The Northhall at the Corinthia hotel off Whitehall: posh and mandarin it may be and the lofty windows, high ceilings, mega-scale lighting and mirrors galore could be off-putting but the flowering quinces  and amarillas lend colour and the staff create a disarmingly friendly ambiance.

The plan might be to pop in for a quick repast at the bar but the menu invites a more leisurely stay: a fennel salad with berries and herbs gently prepares the palate for a half lobster with almonds or a Cumbrian beef fillet; after a visit to the National, the artistic mood is sustained by the photogenically arranged plates of food.

A drawback to the Guildhall Gallery is not its artwork – the Pre-Raphaelite paintings are a treat – but the absence of even a café. Luckily it is only a short walk to Mehek, a tasty Indian restaurant where the food is mild enough to enjoy a chardonnay or even a chablis without feeling a calamitous mistake has been made.

Picasso said that the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls and time spent at one of London’s major galleries, followed by a meal at a choice restaurants, will keep you scrubbed clean and feeling good about life.

by Sean Sheehan