The Frugal Forager: London’s museums nourish both the soul and the body

Although we didn’t make it to the royal wedding, husband Eric and I were in town for a glorious stre

LONDON — Although we didn’t make it to the royal wedding, husband Eric and I were in town for a glorious stretch of warm weather this spring that opened the lilacs and set bluebells nodding under the trees at Kew Gardens.

One of the reasons we travel is that we love to visit museums. Artists teach by showing you what’s in their minds and offer new perspectives, whether modest, inscrutable or revelatory. Thick glass, distance and velvet ropes kept the “Mona Lisa” at arm’s length, but we were the only two people in a solemn room in The Hague, standing before two of Vermeer’s masterworks, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “View of Delft.”

Another thing we’ve learned along the way is that museums have some of the best cafes. They are not expensive, offer local cuisine and are usually very good. The best are elegant and historic.

Historic cafeteria

After visiting the lilacs at Kew, we headed to the Orangery for some lunch. The stucco-covered Classical-style glasshouse, built in 1761, served variously as a hothouse, a timber museum and tea room. Now it’s a restaurant with cafeteria service. It’s airy and capacious, large enough to house citrus trees, seating 180 at casual tables. In warm weather, enormous glass and iron doors are thrown open to the sunny patio.

London museum cafes

The Orangery at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens is 10 miles from Central London. Take the London Underground District Line’s Richmond train to Kew Gardens.

Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London. Take Underground to Barbican (Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines). Construction has closed this station on weekends, however.

Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London. Take Underground to South Kensington Station (Piccadilly, District and Circle lines).

As on our last visit, the restaurant was bustling, almost full. We didn’t wait long to get our food, though. There are separate counters for hot food and salads, and refrigerators with sandwiches and drinks. The food is astonishingly good. We intended to see everything first, but halted at the salad counter, mesmerized by the bounty of colorful, picture-perfect vegetables.

There was a special: a slice of pie or entree with a side of salad for about $12. A slice of ham and chicken pie with Caprese salad was dished up for me on a real plate. Eric ordered salmon with Caesar salad. We picked up glasses decorated with bees for our drinks and metal flatware, stocked up with napkins and found ourselves a table.

The salmon was smoked, then poached and served chilled, Eric said, topped with a mustard, lemon and chive dressing. His Caesar salad was outstanding, with Romaine that was exceptionally ruffly, equal parts pale green and vivid yellow. The slice of meat pie was marbled with seasoned, moist chicken and roasted pork in a crust that was more bread dough than short crust. My Caprese salad, a dizzying assortment of red and yellow ripe tomato slices and wedges, with purple onion, tender sundried tomatoes, soft pillows of mozzarella and slices of fresh basil, was lightly seasoned with vinaigrette.

Art center

Another favorite cafe is in the Barbican Centre, the largest performing arts space in Europe. It is home to the London Symphony Orchestra, two theaters, art galleries, cinema screens, library and trade exhibition halls. Rising out of the ashes from the bombing of World War II, the hard-to-love brutalist-style building is surrounded by apartments. It was voted “London’s Ugliest Building” in a poll in 2003, but we find the lakeside terrace cafe charming.

When the weather is sunny, you can sit outside at a table facing the man-made lake, with fountains and a good view of the apartment terraces. Birch trees and tulips soften the landscape. When the wind is right, you can watch airplanes making their final approach to Heathrow while others turn toward London City Airport.

Here the food is served cafeteria style as well, and in the middle of the day our choices were limited to sandwiches and cold salads. Eric enjoyed a very English smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich with cucumber on whole-wheat bread, while I snacked on chips.

Most of the British museums are free, although they ask you to make a donation, so you don’t feel committed to staying a whole day. We often visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, established in 1852. Their cafe is the oldest museum restaurant in the world, built to be a showcase of modern design and craftsmanship.

The adjoining Morris, Gamble and Poynter rooms, the original refreshment rooms, are breathtaking. Across the hall is the courtyard Garden Cafe, with patios, gardens and fountain, open in summer for drinks and snacks.

Food service is in the hallway between the two, with a hot food station, sandwiches, sweets and an impressive tea station. We took our cheddar basil scones and drinks to a table in the middle room, with simply designed tables and padded chairs. We liked the upholstered banquette that lined the room and the bowls of brown sugar lumps on each table.

Flavored scones

The scones were easy on our jet-lagged stomachs. Golden and flaky, and glazed with egg, they were served with rounds of salted butter. And they were delicious, studded with bits of sundried tomato instead of raisins. Flavored scones were new to us, but these, with flakes of orange cheddar and fresh basil, seemed just right. Eric finished off the last of my large scone, while I polished off the tea.

Even the beautiful sunny weather could not coax us from the ornate, tiled rooms. We ate our snack inside, admiring the gilt, columns and decorative tiles, the fireplace mantel held aloft by statues of (no doubt) sturdy women.

What museum cafes have in common is excellent quality food made from fresh ingredients, comfortable seating in unique or beautiful surroundings, real dishes and glassware and a wide range of beverages, which always include wine. They feel expensive, although they are usually not. So surely they vary, but can be depended upon for a tasty meal in an unfamiliar city.

Categories: Food, Life and Arts

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