Three years after opening, the National Cafe still impresses, whether it’s David Collins’ imperious art deco design, the good quality of the food or the fact that it’s within a sweeping brushstroke of some of the world’s finest art.
Just round the corner from the National Gallery’s magnificent visage, casting its eye over Trafalgar Square, the National Cafe’s comparatively tiny entrance on St. Martin’s Place can easily be missed. Which is a shame, as it plays host to another of David Collins’ superlative designs, with a bold art deco feel punctuated impressively by swathes of black, impeccably polished floors, dark woods and a smattering of bronze and gold. It almost feels timeless were it not for a far wall featuring the goods – and the face – of Oliver Peyton from Peyton and Byrne: the people behind proceedings.
It’s undoubtedly a very impressive interior, with swooping dodecahedrons of amber and gold lighting things up nicely, and plenty of suitably sedate, apt and understated pictures adorning the walls. The restrooms could do with smartening up a little, and tables sometimes wobble, but you’ll still feel like you’re dining somewhere very pleasant indeed.
With such a close association with the National Gallery itself, the National Cafe is always going to attract a varied clientele, especially when you also consider all those who might take advantage of its proximity to the West End. Consequently, you can find yourself dining next to lone art enthusiasts, retired couples, young, idealistic lovers enjoying some culture, eager theatre-hitters and even a few families… families who seem to have remarkably well-behaved children. Perhaps they are just wowed into silence by Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. Still, it’s a vibrant venue, with the general hubbub drowning out the barely audible music in a way that makes it all feel pleasantly informal and relaxed.
Currently playing host to a very fine looking, and very popular Venetian menu from the hand of Ricardo da Pra, the National Café brings good quality food at relatively reasonable prices. The current menu sees some deliciously appetising Venetian-inspired dishes including borlotti bean soup with pasta and olive oil, veal liver and onions with polenta and pasta with shellfish and fresh tomatoes. The pea risotto (£13.50) is certainly worth trying though, with perfectly al dente rice, plump, sweet peas and fragrant strips of rosemary immersed in a rich sauce full of pepper and parmesan.
From the normal menu, the mackerel tartar with golden beetroot is excellent, with well handled, fresh fish chopped, seasoned impeccably with salt and cracked black pepper and stacked on a bed of purple beetroot and its sweeter golden counterpart. It’s elegantly presented, and a flick of a few oregano leaves finish it off, adding a complementary bit of bitterness whilst at it. The Cornish crab and chilli taglioni (£13.50) also proves popular, and there’s certainly plenty to get your teeth into.
There’s an impressive wine list here, perhaps aimed at those affluent and interested enough to match the cultural capital that makes them marvel at the masterpieces next door. A 2009 tempranillo seems like a suitably good house option at £16, but if you do want to spend more you can, with a list that rises slowly but surely up to a premier cru Burgundy at £80, via malbecs at £29 and Bordeauxs at £38. Admirably, quite a few of the options are available by the glass, enabling you not to get too squiffy if you’re popping in for lunch. If you really want to avoid the booze then there are some great smoothies and juices such as the basil and cucumber (£4), a blend of fresh cucumber, basil, apple juice and pear juice, or excellent coffees, where even the simple Americano (£2) is full of rich flavour. Draught beers include Becks, Guinness and Leffe, all coming in at under £4 a pint.
The Last Word
The National Cafe remains popular with visitors to the gallery next door, but with a splendid setting and good food, there’s no reason not to see it as a destination venue in its own right.