The old National Portrait Gallery café was a firm favourite when Caroline and I worked in the East End (this was before the gallery refit), but changed jobs mean that we are rarely around that part of town at lunchtime. We enjoyed the old café’s home-cooked feel and good selection of vegetarian options, putting up with the lack of tables and an obsession with cheese & cream. Last bank holiday Monday, we headed into town to meet a friend off the train, stopping into the portrait gallery café for a quick bite.
The café offers a light and airy space with beautiful tall arches of windows, creating a relaxed space for diners. We sneaked through to the smaller back room where it is a little quieter and the selection of fabulous portraits on the walls gives a bit of a special feeling to the space.
Food is purchased canteen style from the main counter, but the space and the quality of the offering mean that you do not feel you are in a canteen – they are a proper professional restaurant.
We were in for lunch and there were five main food options:
- Soup – French onion or tomato (with basil, and other Mediterranean herbs). Caroline loved the onion soup but the tomato was my favourite.
- Salads – Mixed bean salad, pasta salad, potato and chive salad, and a crunchy-looking shredded green salad.
- Sandwiches/rolls – Ham, brie with walnuts, or pastrami. Each comes on a selection of white or brown rolls, or croissants.
- Mains – Vegetable lasagne or chicken stuffed with pesto on dauphinoise potatoes
- Desserts – A mixture of tempting options (puddings and tray bakes).
Caroline had chicken with bean salad. Both the chicken and potato dauphinoise were well cooked, with the chicken being raised by the lovely herbal flavouring of the pesto stuffing. While the potato looked a little dry, it was a very good dauphinoise (creamy without being overwhelming). The salad was a lovely mix of beans, potatoes, carrots, celery, tomatoes and cucumbers. It was very lightly seasoned with a hand confident of the tasty combination of good quality ingredients. Caroline prefers a lightly dressed, or even naked, salad and this was just right.
After a quick taste of the soup options, I decided to have the tomato & basil soup with a brie sandwich. The soup was delicious: a homemade tomato soup with a good hit of basil and herbs. I am a big fan of tomatoes, and make soup at least once a week, and immediately planned to adjust my own seasoning to be the same as that at the portrait gallery. The sandwich was a crispy sesame roll with cranberry jelly, spinach and walnuts. The brie was fresh creamy, and was the clear flavour with the cranberry jelly adding a light sweetness and the walnut giving crunch and a lovely lingering taste in the mouth.
We had planned to pop back for a pudding, but changed our minds: the food was not only good, it was very filling! There simply wasn’t space for cake.
The Portrait Museum is a popular spot so at peak times there can be queues at the counter, and the main space can become noisy when full. On the other hand, classic combinations of quality ingredients, and a lovely airy dining space, makes this a new favourite lunch spot.
To me, the simple sandwich I ate summed up the ethos of the café: good ingredients, classic combinations that are seasoned and cooked by a sympathetic hand. I would have no hesitation recommending the Portrait gallery to a friend looking for a lunch venue.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
1 Queen Street
Edinburgh, EH2 1JD
Interior and exterior shots courtesy of CM Porter Novelli.