4. National Cafe at the National Gallery
Once a dismal, cavernous cafe where everyone looked as glum as some of the sitters in the paintings upstairs, this was recently transformed by caterers Peyton & Byrne into a light-filled cafe with something of the Old Dutch style (black wood panelling, white walls above, plain windows) crossed with a seventeenth century London-coffee house. With one major difference: it looks as though an army of Women’s Institute bakers has visited overnight and left all their prize-winning cakes, biscuits, and treats on display.
It’s the type of display to make you gasp with delight, sigh with pleasure, hum and hah about what to choose, and talk animatedly about the joys of old-fashioned baking. It’s also one of the most tempting you’ll see anywhere in London, so hats off to P&B for reviving the ritual of a cup of tea and a bun after a cultural fix.
Cakes and treats are beautifully presented on a separate, glass-shelved, self-service counter with customers circling carefully in order to make wise choices - not easy, as all the great and good examples of British baking are lined up here [added: 'unashamedly British' it says on the website]. There are slabs of cake (fruit, banana, Dundee), slices of cake (lemon and poppyseed, chocolate, coffee and walnut), mini loaf cakes, cupcakes, rock cakes, scones, biscuits, buns (including huge, sticky Chelsea buns) and re-imagined classics such as home-made jammie dodgers, ‘Jaffa cakes’ and rich, circular, melt-in-the-mouth millionaire’s shortbread. They taste as good as they look ie a work of art in themselves.
Prices are reasonable, and appealing to families. Access is possible via a side door so cake-eating is not restricted to gallery hours. There is a self-service area (be warned though, hot drinks come in unpleasant paper cups), and a waitress service area if you want your tea in china, or a full, traditional afternoon tea (the Lord Nelson option at £19.50 comes with a very civilised glass of port or sherry), or if you want to sample the full range of comforting, just-like-mother-used-to-make savoury dishes.
Various cakes: £2.30 - £3.40
Afternoon tea served 3 – 5.30pm, £6 - £21.50
National Cafe at the National Gallery
London WC2N 4DN
NB use the entrance on St Martin’s Lane outside gallery opening times
Tel: 020 7747 5942
Open: Mon to Fri 8 – 11, Sat 10 – 11, Sun 10 - 6
And an additional slice of culture: the National Gallery Cafe is next door to the National Portrait Gallery, and close to Soho, many theatres and cinemas, Whitehall, and St James's Park. And Trafalgar Sq if you must.