Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Review: The National Museum of Scotland Brasserie

I'm not a fan of generalising, but I've recently come to a slightly sad conclusion.
Most museum cafes are crap.
I've pondered the reasons for this on and off for a while, ever since I had some particularly bad experiences at the National Gallery of Scotland's cafe on three separate occasions. I know, more fool me for going back, but generally I believe in second chances.

There are a couple of reasons I've come up with, most involving franchising and tenders - areas I'll admit that I don't know a vast amount about. If the profits of the enterprise are not being put back in to funding the museum or gallery, but in to the pockets of the owners and shareholders then it is perhaps sad but not entirely surprising that cafes and restaurants are not often up to the standard of the museum itself. They're not so much income generators, but a service that museums provide because they are expected to. Of course, there are exceptions - hence my reluctance to generalise - but sadly in the big tourist spots of Edinburgh and London it increasingly seems to be the case.

The National Gallery of Scotland's cafe is, for example, run by the Contini family, who also own Centotre on George Street. Until recently, they also had Zanzero in Stockbridge, but perhaps tellingly that has vanished rather quietly and become something else instead. They've renamed their NGS venture "The Scottish Cafe and Restaurant" and have managed to fill the venue rather admirably with diners in the time they've owned it, but there have been problems - poor service, soup so salty it had to be returned, drinks orders that were taken but never delivered...

Anyway. I digress. I am not supposed to be reviewing The National Gallery's efforts, but those of the newly re-vamped National Museum of Scotland instead. I fear this has also fallen foul of the franchise.
Mr FS and I decided to take a wander up to the museum last Saturday to see what had been done since the revamp and, of course, decided to partake in a midafternoon snack. The cafe section is in an interesting spot - nicely nestled in the main hallway entrance of the old building, underneath archways and tucked away to the side behind glass panels. It's a nice spot for people watching, with comfy chairs and fairly well spaced tables (although I did notice that the slightly haphazard layout seemed to be causing space issues for a gentleman in a wheelchair). And - best of all - the food looks amazing. The museum has rather cannily placed the cafe at the bottom of a staircase, so as you walk down you are faced with a wall of enormous home made cakes and pastries.
Strong contender for the largest scone I've ever had. And yes, that is real clotted cream!
The entrance to the cafe is a little gap in the glass screens. When we arrived at about 3.30, we wandered over to find a crowd of people looking confused by the entrance - and were then told that we would have to wait 15 minutes until the lunch service was finished - even though the cafe was half empty and there were tables ready. We had a wander around the shop and went back when the crowd had vanished, whereby we were greeted by a girl in jeans and a cardigan who presented us with menus and pointed to a table. The waiting staff were also messily dressed - some in jeans, some in black trousers, some in white tshirts and some in smarter white shirts. Confusing. Nice blue butcher's apron's though. So, we sat down and began to inspect our menus - which were different. Mine had Cheese Scone's listed, Mr FS's didnt. Confusing. We told our waitress, who replied with a mumbled apology, and then put our menus back on to the pile with the rest anyway.
They don't even look the same!
After about 15 minutes, our order was taken - they'd run out of Cheese scones (unsurprising, considering we didn't know if they were being offered at all), so we went for two Fruits, a coffee and an Earl Grey. The tea was loose, served in an unbleached paper strainer - for once not too much tea for the pot, although slightly disappointing that I wasn't offered lemon. The scones themselves were fantastic - huge, quite dense and cinnamon-y, and served with liberal portions of jam and cream.When I asked for butter it was brought straight over in another generous portion, nicely served in little ceramic pots - no paper packets here! I'm sad to say, I couldn't finish mine. Always disappointing when that happens.
We then waited about 15 minutes to get someone's attention for the bill, and decided to leave a tip because we couldn't be bothered waiting for our change.

I don't really like being negative in a review. The cafe had only been open a few weeks, it's all quite new, the staff looked very young and inexperienced - but I have to say, the service was shockingly bad, especially considering it was rather pricey even for table service. It was disorganised, waits were lengthy, and the staff appeared seriously in need of some training in the basics. A real shame. I won't be rushing back to try their lunch menu.

Tea and scones for two (including small tip): £10.


  1. Hmm. I find this too. I don't know if you've been to GoMA, their cafe is lovely. Those scones look immensely good, I'd maybe consider the issue to have one!

  2. I've not but I will have to try it - I'm sorry to say that I'm yet to venture over to Glasgow's museums! I really need to get on a train - any other suggestions for me would be brill!
    The scone was lovely, shame the service was rubbish.

  3. Same story here. Only half full, but service was abysmal. Ordered scones and tea. Came back later to tell us there were no scones. Asked to see the menu again, the waitress said there was no need as she could list everything on the menu -- which she proceeded to rattle through at top speed. (What was the first one again?) Cakes arrived after 10 mins, Earl Grey and a coffee 10 minutes after that. The Earl Grey tasted and smelled bizarre, like it had been infused with the gel contents of an air freshener. We asked one of the loitering waiters to check it was Earl Grey, which they confirmed. Brought another one, which was slightly less weird but still undrinkable -- and left undrunk. Got the bill, asked to have the tea taken off the bill, but were refused as it was "definitely Earl Grey". At that point lost the will to argue and left. Really disappointing service.