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The rise and rise of the museum cafe

These days, good coffee is almost as important as good exhibitions

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

Saatchi & Saatchi started it. ‘V&A: An ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached,’ said the ad campaign of the late 1980s. Other slogans in the series played on themes of taste and tastiness — ‘Where else do they give you £100,000,000 worth of objets d’art free with every egg salad?’, ‘All right, the mirror’s seen better days but the currant buns are very tasty’ — but it was the ace caff quip that stuck.

Egg salad and currant buns seem quaintly retro now. At the V&A last weekend it was seared salmon and caper salsa, cavatelli and butternut squash, beetroot pesto and sriracha wraps. I sat under the olive boughs of the Morris Room and ate my feta and olives to the strains of a baby grand. All very steampunk: Victoriana meets Ottolenghi.

When the V&A caff, then three connecting ‘Refreshment Rooms’, first opened in 1868, two tiers of menu were served. The first-class offered jugged hare (one shilling and sixpence), steak pudding (one shilling) and seasonal tarts (half a shilling). The second-class, veal cutlets (ten pence), poached egg and spinach (one shilling, very keto) and sponge cake (one pence). The inscription over the central room came from Ecclesiastes: ‘There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy the good of his labour.’

The bill of fare has changed but the ‘nothing better’ principle remains. Exhibitions are thirsty work. Out you pant from the British Museum crush, the Sainsbury Wing shuffle, clutching your postcards and thinking: ‘I would cut off my own ear for a pot of Lapsang Souchong tea.’


Coffee matters to museums. Will madam have a latte with her Lotto? A flat white with her Malevich? A gossiping PR told me about the time she had shown a Hollywood actress around the National Gallery after hours. ‘How much is that one?’ drawled the golden one, pulling her heels from the gallery grates. ‘And that one?’ ‘And that one?’ It’s how I feel at the café till. ‘How much for a cup of English Breakfast and a flapjack?’ But I pay anyway because I am captive, exhausted, unable even to consider another altarpiece until I’ve had my hit of tea and oats.

The art world whipped itself into a cappuccino froth last month when Tate advertised for a Head of Coffee (‘extensive experience of cupping’ essential) at a salary of almost £39,500. More than the average wage — £37,300 — of a London curator. ‘Appalling’, ‘disgusting’, ‘depressing,’ yowled the Twitterati arty. Grayson Perry tweeted: ‘I give up. They’ve won.’

It isn’t appalling or disgusting, it’s just the market. But I can see that it rankles when scholarship appears to be valued less than the grinding of coffee. The indignity must be the greater in buildings where visitors have to fight through floors of shop and café before they can get to the art. Tate Modern’s Blavatnik building is a particularly oppressive example. Plans for the new National Portrait Gallery propose a monumental ground-floor gift shop, a sort of Selfridges for souvenirs, with the galleries shunted upstairs.

Museums are in a bind. Arts grants have been cut. Climate activists camp in forecourts calling for BP boycotts. Even to speak of admission fees is heresy. And so you have to sell a lot of macchiatos to make up for Sackler levels of largesse.

Pitting one department against another in social media salary wars — curatorial vs catering, conservation vs sponsorship — doesn’t make for a happy ship. Better the approach taken by Jon Atashroo, head chef at Tate Modern, who collaborates with curators on menus inspired by exhibition artists. For Picasso it was Spanish egg tortillas with aioli and French bacon crapiaux with andouillette. The coming Andy Warhol show will have a ‘snacking menu’ fit for the man who spoke of 15 minutes of bitesize fame. Puddings will riff on Coca-Cola flavours. At the Wallace Collection, a ‘Forgotten Masters’ brunch celebrates the Indian artists who painted for the East India Company with white peach and jasmine G&Ts and paratha flatbread scrambled eggs.

Why not improve the boring brownie/bakewell offer while we’re at it? I have a book on my shelves called Modern Art Desserts. On the cover: a cake cut to reveal a series of plain and coloured sponges layered like a Mondrian canvas. Think: Battenberg Boogie Woogie. I feel a parlour game coming on. Jan Steen: small beer, suggestive oysters. Chardin: partridge pie, perfect pears. Monet: tarte tatin and melon smoothie. For Old Masters and Old Testament scenes of feasting and fasting: milk and honey, mess of pottage, fatted calf and serpent’s choice of crispest apple. For dieters, the hermit in the wilderness option: a lonely locust and an empty glass.


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