Walking into the Victoria and Albert Museum’s café feels a bit like entering the inside of a Fabergé egg: No space is left untouched by the grandeur of gilded domes, ornate tiles, and ceramic wall reliefs.
The first museum café in the world, the V&A’s original “refreshment room” opened in 1856, but was subsequently demolished and reopened in 1868 as three separate refreshment rooms, which still exist for visitors’ enjoyment. Named after their principal designers:—James Gamble, Edward Poynter, and William Morris—the original design elements remain today, somewhat worse for wear, but steadfast in their glory.
The largest of these, the Gamble Room, has an enameled iron ceiling festooned with beautiful bulbous lighting fixtures whose lingering glow falls on the ceramic-decorated columns and stained glass windows of the spacious central hall. Outside, in the hallway, a modern culinary world bustles, with separate counters for hot food, sandwiches and salads, and beverages and cakes. Visitors can take a tray, choose their meals, and, after paying, find a seat amid the café’s Victorian opulence.
Enjoy a very British green pea and lemon cake or an Earl Grey–infused raisin scone with clotted cream and jam. For a heartier meal, there’s a wealth of options: from crayfish mac and cheese to grilled salmon to a cheddar, scallion, and potato quiche.
Adjacent to the Gamble, the Poynter room is distinct in its blue-tone ceramic walls, depicting effulgent fountains and elegant women in various poses of ennui. Meant to serve as a grill room, the original cast-iron grill jutting out of one wall panel remains on display (it’s not operational).
Stop for a Victorian afternoon tea in the stained-glass, emerald splendor of the Morris room. Sit under the plaster relief of winding olive boughs on the walls and nibble on Mrs. Beeton’s cucumber sandwiches and gooseberry tarts, with a pot of mid-season Darjeeling. The original design by William Morris—famous for wallpapering the estates of Victorian aristocracy—features a merry mingling of zodiac signs and bursts of floral whimsy.
For over a century and a half, the V&A’s museum café has offered sustenance to the marveling masses that have browsed through the museum’s ample collections of art and artifacts from all over the world. As rich as the holdings in the galleries, the refreshment rooms of this first museum café offer a chance to rest and rejuvenate in the midst of a vital slice of culinary history.