Housed within the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, this Peyton and Byrne café and restaurant is a shining example of how to showcase quality food and drink within a cultural institution.
An expansive room with views across Trafalgar Square (at least for the lucky few who bag the window seats at the far end) The National Dining Rooms is largely a daytime affair, doing a brisk trade in afternoon tea, coffees, cakes and more substantial dishes until it shuts at 5.30pm. More’s the pity, as its a la carte menu shows there’s genuine craftsmanship at work in the kitchen. That said, a long Saturday or Sunday lunch is a great time to sample it, or you can head here on Friday evenings when the gallery stays open late, enabling the restaurant to keep its doors open until 8.30pm. Design is by the David Collins studio so it’s an easy on the eye room, with decadent flourishes such as the marbled bar, expensive leather chairs and filament light features. Natural light floods the room through towering windows at one end and there’s a nod to the arty surroundings with an entire wall dedicated to a mural.
As it’s such a big, open space, there’s quite a lot of clinking of cutlery and animated chatter in the background. Naturally, most customers are resting weary legs after traipsing around the cavernous gallery next door, although this is definitely a destination in its own right. Service is both formal and friendly – a difficult balancing act that they get just right.
Serving a constantly rotating daytime menu – breakfast until noon; lunch and sandwiches from 12pm; a la carte; afternoon tea from 2.30pm; all day British cheese and nibbles – The menu at the National Dining Rooms is constantly in flux. A lot of people seem happy to come for tea or coffee and to gorge on one of their naughty cakes.
Come here for the a la carte menu, however, and you’ll be rewarded with an ambitious offering serving fresh, seasonal British ingredients. As Oliver Peyton (the often acerbic judge from The Greatest British Menu) is one of the people behind the catering, it could easily get a lot of stick if it wasn’t of a certain standard, but the food really is very good indeed.
Starters like the smoked trout, served with a crisp salad and crunchy croutons made out of dense soda bread, with tiny specks of caviar (£9.50) and the daintily sliced scallop tartare (£10.50) not only look very pretty (the presentation is impressive throughout), they taste delicious too.
Mains keep up the good form: a butter poached breast of chicken has a crispy skin and is served with slicks of pureed pumpkin and crispy balls made out of what is described as ‘Marmite bacon and toast’. These dense little things offer a pleasing contrast in texture and everything on the plate perfectly complements each other.
Dessert is another dish that’s aesthetically pleasing and the orange cake, with curd and clotted cream (£6.50) is a winning combo of sweet and sour, with the tart flavour of the orange cutting through the cream.
For those looking to have at least a couple of courses, the set menu offers a saving on your bill, with two courses priced at £25 and three courses for £30.
An impressive selection of teas from around the world is supplemented by cracking coffee – a rocket-fuelled macchiato (£2.60) will soon lift you from your post meal slumber. If you’re in the mood for a treat, they serve their own champagne by the glass: the Baron-Fuente National Gallery Limited Edition Champagne is available at £9.50 per flute. Wine, beer and ciders are also well represented on the all-day menu, but hit the a la carte section for the good stuff. Bottles start from £17.50, with glasses and carafes also listed. Further down the list you will find some outstanding tipples, including a staff recommendation – the Les Perriers Domaine Thomas Sancerre (£8.50/glass; £34/bottle).
The Last Word
Given the quality of cooking on offer at the National Dining Room, it’s a real shame that the gallery opening times dictate it can’t stay open late into the night. Nevertheless, this is a great spot for refuelling at any time during the day. And if you bag a window seat overlooking Trafalgar Square and settle in for the full a la carte service, you’re in for a real treat.