Springtime in Europe! If you have been longing for sunny mornings in London – they are finally here (just don’t forget an umbrella for the rest of the day). We cannot imagine a better way to start a sunny day than a museum visit, especially if a museum restaurant serves delicious breakfasts. For traditional English yet light breakfast, we visited The Portrait restaurant located in London’s National Portrait Gallery overlooking Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye.
This elegant restaurant is a courtesy of Company of Cooks – a celebrated catering firm working with many London cultural institutions, including the Royal Opera House and the Southbank Centre. Chef Matthew Harris is responsible for generous, carefully considered dishes based on British and European traditions with seasonal, local foods. He is also behind special menu additions, that echo the NPG exhibitions. As any other museum restaurant Portrait is limited by the Gallery opening hours, but it works around it, offering a variety of menus. You can visit the restaurant every day for Breakfast 10-11 am; Lunch 11:45 am – 3 pm and Afternoon Tea 3:30-4:30 pm. Also you can visit for Pre Theatre Thu-Sat 5:30-6:30 pm; or Dinner Thu-Sat 6:30-10 pm (last order at 8:30 pm).
What we particularly loved about the place – it is a restaurant where you can hear each other talk, but not others, without loud music on the background. We talked to The Portrait spokesperson Gigi Huon about the restaurants’ menu, events and so much more:
We were delighted to see that the restaurant holds special events for various holidays – like Christmas or Valentines – what to expect in spring?
April 29, Portrait Restaurant will be holding a Supper Club focusing on the cuisine of south-western France, with dishes selected and cooked personally by chef-director Matthew Harris, formerly of Bibendum. His father was an importer of fine French digestives, so he will be cooking his favourite ingredients from the region. Most of the 'special holiday' occasions tend to be on Sundays, so the menu tends to be an extension of the usual Sunday menu.
How do exhibitions find their way into the menu? And what was the most significant menu addition for past exhibitions?
Recently the restaurant created special dishes and cocktails for the Audrey Hepburn, Vogue 100 and Picasso Portraits exhibitions, as well as a John Singer Sargeant Afternoon Tea which was very successful.
The Hepburn dishes were especially particular, because the idea was to hark back to the early days of Audrey Hepburn's career when she worked at Ciro's club on Orange Street, this place is now part of the Gallery. The dishes were based on Ciro's menu and food, popular at that time.
Does the main menu in any way depend on or maybe is influenced by the museum collection?
I should first point out that because of its central location, Portrait Restaurant has a sizeable fan base of customers who come to eat without visiting the collection at all. The food is modern European in style, firmly rooted in classic French, Italian and British cuisine with an emphasis on fine British ingredients.
The main menu is not so much influenced by the collection, it's influenced by the way Gallery visitors want to eat. For example, two courses rather than three is increasingly the preference. Today people want to eat more lightly in general, even when they are having two or three courses, so there is more emphasis on fish, chicken, vegetable dishes.
Portrait Restaurant offers a variety of menus – Afternoon Tea and Pre-Theatre, can you say a few words about those menus?
Afternoon tea is very important to Portrait Restaurant, because of the view and because many customers find afternoon tea the perfect way to unwind at the end of a Gallery visit. Taking tea is also a quintessential London experience for tourists, which the view particularly enhances.
Pre Theatre is the clever time slot to eat in any restaurant in the West End – not just at Portrait. Great deals, from market-led menus, quick service guaranteed. Here you can enjoy all sorts of views as the 5.30-6.30 pm timeslot changes with the seasons – twinkling lights in winter, a twilight feeling now, and once clocks go forward it will be broad daylight. The thing to remember about Pre Theatre is that it's really 'early supper' - you don't have to rush off to the theatre unless you have theatre tickets! The point is to sit down to eat before 6.30, and get great value cooking while you do so.
What would you say is the best time to visit the restaurant in spring?
Early lunch or early supper, or the late lunch slot (if you sit down at 2 pm), after the 1 pm rush. Spring is one of the most exciting times to eat savory dishes in England – asparagus, peas, broad beans all start coming in. There's great lamb and seafood available, and plenty of rhubarb and spring greens. So, starters and main courses best suit that time of year.
Next time we will treat ourselves with the Afternoon Tea (so we can add it to our research of best Afternoon Tea locations in the UK) or a Pre Theatre menu and try the goats cheese starter and the hake main course – some of restaurant’s most popular dishes. And we will surely pre-book a table. Although the restaurant is rather costly, you can opt for Pre Theatre menu with a set price 2 courses 19.50GBP per person, 3 courses 23.50GBP per person. Judging by our experience, Portrait dishes are worth every penny and the special cocktails are actually special – for example “God save the Queen” with Earl Grey Gin and Tonic. Oh, so British!