Lambeth doesn’t sing with opportunities for lunch. Sorry if you live there, but you probably know that already. Down the river a bit there’s Brunswick House, as jolly an afternoon as ever. There are a few pubs and cafes, but that’s about it. The Archbishop of Canterbury can’t be much of a gourmet.
Enter, surprisingly, the Garden Museum. I suspect it’s one of those places lots of people see in the listings page of Time Out and vaguely imagine visiting but never quite get round to. A museum… of gardens? I’d include myself in that camp were it not for the fact that my first job in journalism was as a gardening editor – deputy gardening editor, sorry – for one of this paper’s fiercest rivals. The Garden Museum was more on my radar than it probably was for other 20-something Londoners who don’t know what a tree is. I still don’t know much about gardens, but garden people are a wonderful bunch. You can’t be a garden person without patience and a certain fatalism – sometimes plants die, sometimes it rains, sometimes the rain is good – that are fine traits in anyone.
Over the past decade the museum was spruced up, and the revamped cafe has been open since the summer of 2017. It’s now a lovely, airy space built around the museum’s internal courtyard, with tables inside and out. They asked me to come and have lunch earlier in the summer. It was a surprising invitation, so long after it opened, but perhaps a sign they think more people ought to know about what they’re doing.
You can see why. Most museums outsource food and drink operations to a third party; here, the senior management, led by director Christopher Woodward, took it upon themselves. This approach could easily have gone wrong, but here it evidently means attention to detail and a pride that the cafe is of a piece with the museum as a whole: grown up and low-key classy. As soon as you walk in you sense the confident buzz of a room being run by people who know what they’re doing.
The head chef is George Ryle, of Padella and Primeur. If you were trying to create a monstrously popular British-ish, casual-ish lunch spot, you couldn’t really come up with a better couple of CVs. It’s open for lunch every day, and dinner on Tuesdays and Fridays, with a menu that changes daily, but never strays too far from the simple.
When I went we started with asparagus and crab. No mucking around there. Stout stalks of lurid green asparagus were piled on their sides like logs, next to a pond of brown butter sauce, swimming with umami. The crab flesh was expertly seasoned and gently warmed with chili flakes. For the mains there was a piece of hake seared golden brown on one side, with garlic and capers to cut through the fish and green beans for health and vitality. The other main was more autumnal, despite the date: a broodingly rare featherblade, thickly sliced and served with long, wide roasted onions that flashed dark brown, silver and violet. Some puddings: a satisfyingly bitter chocolate mousse with salted creme fraiche; an oblong of firm sponge in bright custard. You’ll find more complex cooking elsewhere – everywhere, in fact – but I couldn’t really fault anything.
Something else struck me about the Garden Museum Cafe, which I hadn’t noticed for a long time. The tables were almost all for two people, and everyone was talking to each other. You know, conversation: looking at each other, asking questions, listening to the answers, laughing. They weren’t taking pictures, they weren’t gazing into space, they weren’t on their phones or staring quizzically at the other diners. Well, I suppose I was. But the others were looking at each other, eating, happy to be in company again. True, this was in the days soon after lockdown, so perhaps they were simply delighted not to be at home, but it’s also the case that the Garden Museum Cafe is a venue that prompts conversation. Simple food; bright clean room; plants everywhere. Garden people deserve a brilliant place for lunch, and they have one. In Lambeth, of all places.
Garden Museum Cafe, 5 Lambeth Palace Rd, London SE1 7LB | 020 3640 9322 | gardenmuseum.org.uk/cafe