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The Portrait restaurant: a secret glade of stone and brick, suspended above Trafalgar Square

Tourists inhabit a different city. This is a good place from which to watch  it

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

The Portrait Restaurant lives at the top of the National Portrait Gallery, London. It is fiercely modern, but likeable. You ride an escalator into a void, glimpse the raging faces of the Plantagenets and take a lift upwards, away from dead kings and film characters walking the streets. (Downstairs, by the entrance to the National Gallery, two competing Yodas from Star Wars are posing for photographs. One is too tall to be a convincing Yoda. Tourists inhabit a different city.) In this long bright room there is no such anxiety; only clean windows to Trafalgar Square and happy women having lunch in a secret glade of stone and brick. You can see Admiral Nelson’s sub-Poldark bum; the fourth plinth (how I miss the immense blue cockerel, now replaced by a skeletal horse); the Ministry of Defence with its pale green roofs and many flags, flapping for I-don’t-know-what. You can peer down Whitehall, empty of politicians now, like a doctor performing a colonoscopy on a corpse.

I like to stare down Whitehall, and the view from here is good for humans, although pigeons have it better; would Charles I have liked the Portrait Restaurant? (Depends on the table.) I haven’t taken much interest in the election campaign; it is safer that way. After 2010, when I was present at Duffygate and watched Gordon Brown be pecked to death by Sky News and acolytes, I haven’t the stomach for the lies, literally; poised between Quentin Letts and George Osborne, my digestion sulks.


So I have only retweeted a video of Ed Miliband trying to organise his face into a smile, and then closing his eyes, to the soundtrack of George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’, and laughed at Grant Shapps generally and long — I am still laughing now — and read a story about a race where the party leaders were represented by small pigs. Because it was a Daily Mail story, the small pig David Hameron won. Unless David Hameron really is a super-fit pig who will stick to the plan, or Ed Swilliband, Nigel Forage and Pork Clegg (really?) were drugged by representatives of CCHQ, this is good news for the Tories, whatever the polls say today. As it was, when, during the 1987 general election campaign, the Sun asked psychics to probe the voting preferences of dead tyrants. Only Joseph Stalin endorsed Labour; you can’t libel the dead. Which makes me think they needn’t have ‘empty-chaired’ David Cameron at that leaders’ debate. They could have got David Hameron; he surely has an agent. He might have carried the Tories to the line, snuffling in a bloody lively fashion. I wouldn’t mind being led by a small pig, when you consider the alternatives; and that is all I have to say.

Back to the restaurant. It is peaceful staring at Nelson’s bum and the tourists hugging Yoda for pennies — Star Wars-crazed punters seeking a small green tart? Why, when Richard III is here? There is something very reassuring about the National Portrait Gallery. The faces, as C says, speak to you but they cannot hurt you, being dead. (And unlike the -National Gallery, it does not hang the trash; or rather, the trash has value here, because the faces are real. A wonky politician is always more interesting than a wonky goddess or cow.) The Portrait restaurant does not try to compete with the fury and ambition below or beyond the window; I would say it is impeccable. The staff shine; the surfaces smile; and Cary Grant — beautiful, sexless, unhappy Cary Grant — is on the wall. The food, meanwhile, smooth Italian cuisine, is excellent. We eat: garlic soup; rabbit and pancetta agnolotti with parmesan and sage butter; roast cod with parsley butter; a marvellous jellied trifle. It is calm and efficient though slightly blank, like a naked gallery wall, and this is right.

Portrait Restaurant, National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE; tel: 020 7312 2490.


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