A trip to the Natural History Museum is an exciting way of being both educated and entertained at the same time. All natural life is there, from creepy crawlies to dinosaurs and much else. However, there comes a time when refreshments are needed and the in-house Restaurant is the place to research.
For snacks and quick drinks, the Natural History Museum has a large Central Hall Cafe on the ground floor, while the Deli Cafe has a selection of dishes including vegetarian, gluten-free and specials for children. At the Snack Bar and Picnic Area in the basement you can take your own food, but if you’re after more substantial fare the main Restaurant offers a good choice of light and full meals.
Having walked around the museum you may feel like a break from queuing so The Restaurant is ideal. This is housed in a huge open-plan room that was recently extended –the museum needs to cater for thousands of visitors every week. There are two sections, one with tables with chairs close to the service counter, while towards the back, if you want a quieter area, there are more tables and padded bench seats in an ecological green colour. Either way service is the same and, although you order your food at the counter, there’s a large contingent of friendly and helpful staff and you don’t have to wait too long for your food to arrive.
Because the museum attracts families and school parties, there is always a buzz in The Restaurant, although it’s not an unappealing sound. As it’s housed in a very large space, the sound disperses and generally makes for a very pleasant ambience. It’s a great place in which to sit and just admire the architecture. It’s a fascinating building both inside and out and in itself something to admire, with or without the great collections.
Being an all-day operation that’s open for a late breakfast till noon, through lunch from 11.30am to 3pm, and then for afternoon tea until 5pm, there are probably no quiet times as visitors are constantly arriving throughout the day. Of course, during the school holidays it’s busier than ever, so there may well be a queue during the day’s most critical meal times.
A wide audience ranging from young children to grandparents requires The Restaurant to cater for all tastes and ages. Breakfast offers bacon or Cumberland sausage baps and the usual toast and croissants, whilst lunch has a selection of toasted sandwiches (£6.50), various salads (£7 - £9.50), a choice of hot baked dishes (£7 - £8.50), stone-baked pizzas (£7.50 - £8.75), and a menu labelled ‘Kitchen’ of main course items (£8.50 - £9.50), plus side dishes and puddings. The separate children’s menu (£3.95 - £4.25) offers scampi, cheeseburger, macaroni cheese and fishcake with chips. The afternoon menu has many of the items already mentioned plus an afternoon tea (£10, half price for children) with a pot of tea, finger sandwiches, cake, scones, jam and clotted cream. The weekend family roast on Saturdays and Sundays is £29.50 for two adults and two children.
There are no starter dishes as such but one way of having a first or main course is by ordering from the selection of snacks served on boards, small planks of wood on which are placed your choice from a number of light dishes. One item from each of Boards A and B is £7.50, enough for a light meal for one or a starter for two. Two items from each Board makes a substantial main course for £11. Board A includes Cumbrian air-dried ham, salchichon de Vic, a Catalan dry salami, country pate, Cheddar cheese and pickle, pork pie and piccalilli, marinated mozzarella and sunblush tomatoes. Board B has olives and pickled garlic, coleslaw, mixed salad, sweet potatoes in creme fraiche and herbs, roasted root vegetables and pesto, baby artichoke, red peppers and semi-dried tomato. A mixture of aubergine and mushroom pate from Board A with roasted beetroot and feta cheese from B makes quite a hearty starter for two with some excellent fresh bread and butter. The pate is moist and smooth-textured with a great flavour of both vegetables and beetroot and feta make a good combination to accompany it.
The Bakes are main course items, offering butternut squash and ricotta cannelloni, aubergine, tomato and parmesan and lasagne. The lasagne (£8.50) is a deep oblong dish of piping hot minced meat, pasta and bechamel sauce that’s rib-stickingly good. From the Kitchen menu there’s the Natural History Museum cheeseburger (no dinosaurs here) or vegetable burger with hummus and yoghurt, both with chips, Scottish salmon fishcakes, meatballs and pasta, Cornish lamb shoulder with pearl barley stew, scampi and chips and Cumberland sausages. The traditional fish pie (£9.50) is another piping hot dish, a very tasty mixture of fish including salmon with lots of creamy mashed potato on top. Served with it is buttered kale, a really nice way of eating cabbage. These strips of the curly vegetable are a brilliantly fresh green colour, crisply delicious and lovely and buttery. Side orders of mixed leaf salad and garlic pizza bread complete an excellent main course. The latter is wafer-thin and served with mozzarella, possibly the nicest way of enjoying pizza.
The list of desserts (£3.75 - £4.50) is limited – banana split, ice cream and chocolate sauce, sticky toffee pudding, warm chocolate brownie sundae and a choice of ice creams. The baked cheesecake is a very superior one, however, rich and creamy without being over sweetened. The bread pudding is a fairly solid affair for those of us who like that sort of thing. It’s packed with fruit like Christmas pud and served with a jug of hot custard, to make a really substantial dessert.
Lots of different coffees and teas, all the usual soft drinks, juices and smoothies, bottled beers and ciders and a wine list provide something for everyone. There’s Cotswold premium lager and wheat beer on draught and some rare bottles such as St Peter’s Best Bitter, Aspall’s Suffolk cider and St Helier pear cider to ring the usual changes. The wine list fields mostly French and Italian bottles (£14.50 - £23), five reds, five whites and two rose, all available by the glass (from £3.75) and the half-litre carafe. The Garganega 2008 Italian white is very pleasant, a good straw colour and a light and refreshing drink all round.
The Last Word
The Natural History Museum has such a huge turnover in visitors, it needs to have high standards to cope with the flow. This it certainly achieves and proves that mass catering on this scale can still be of top quality.