When you work in the City of London as I do, the urge to get out at lunchtime becomes overwhelming. You are trapped in a hermetically sealed building all day with windows that don’t open and although you can look at the sun shining outside, none of its warmth penetrates into the offices. This is a big adjustment for someone who all her life has had an office with opening windows, lots of sun and (in my last job) a distant view of the ocean! So when it’s summer and lunchtime comes, I grab my bag and head outdoors to explore the city.
Since I work very close to the Barbican, the largest performing arts and residential complex in Europe, I most often head into this rabbit warren to find a quiet corner to have a sandwich and enjoy the sun. Mostly, this entails heading for the little garden sandwiched between the Barber Surgeons’ Hall (home to the Worshipful Company of Barbers since time immemorial) and the remains of the Roman city wall of Londinium. This is a lovely, peaceful oasis in the middle of the City, far less crowded than the admittedly lovely Finsbury Circus. In spring, the beds are planted with great big banks of hyacinths and on a warm day you can smell them whenever you walk past anywhere near the garden. Heaven.
But this week I was meeting a friend for lunch and we felt like sitting at a table as opposed to lolling under the trees, so we headed into the Barbican to another favourite City haunt of mine – the café at the Museum of London.
Said museum in fact looks down on the garden I described above and provides a fascinating insight into the history of London – from pre-Roman times to the present day. They also have a beautiful museum shop with all the books on London history you could possibly need and apart from special exhibitions, admission is free! Travellers on a budget, take note! The café is located on the Barbican highwalk (a system of pedestrian walkways above street level connecting all the buildings of the Barbican) so it’s relatively quiet, given the busy streets around it. The walls are all glass and there are skylights, so even on a dull day it is bright and makes you feel as if you are eating in someone’s conservatory. It is set up as a cafeteria, so don’t expect table service, and the lack of soft furnishings make it rather noisy when it’s busy, but it is very child-friendly and provides some of the best food around at the most reasonable prices. Whereas at a pub in the City, you will be lucky to get a plate of fried fish and chips for less than £8, here you can have a main course for £5.50. The menu changes daily and there are always 2 main courses (one vegetarian), two salads and sometimes also sandwiches made while you wait. In addition there are pre-packaged sandwiches and a selection of drinks (they are licensed). But to me, the piece d’resistance is the dessert and cake selection… but more of that in a moment.
I have eaten there three times now and I can’ t recommend the food highly enough – everything tastes home-made as opposed to mass-produced and it is always fresh and lovely. On my various visits I have had: a very good Mediterranean vegetable pasta bake; a half-half combo of Greek salad and tuna and butterbean salad; and yesterday, a mushroom quiche. When I say quiche, banish all thoughts of soggy Tesco quiches. The pastry was flaky and had that lovely uneven, homespun look to it. The mushrooms were still almost whole (not pulverised into unrecognisable black spots). The cheese on top was proper mature cheddar. And it came with a very good mixed-leaf and tomato salad. So simple and so lovely! But the best was yet to come. A trawl around the freshly-made dessert selection revealed scones with clotted cream and jam, muffins, fresh strawberries, giant choc-chip cookies, flapjacks… and chocolate fridge cake slices. Now I have no idea how they make these, but it tastes as if they melt a slab of Valrhona chocolate, toss in some cream and digestive biscuit chips, chill it till it hardens and slice it. Oh, and then they liberally sprinkle the top with nuts, cherries and little curls of the most exquisitely flavoured ginger snaps. It probably contains your entire recommended 70g of fat for the day and we won’t go into the calorie count under any circumstances. But it is smooth, crispy, melty, chewy, sweet and spicy all at once and it is my number-one-with-a-bullet favourite dessert of the year. And it costs you somewhere in the region of £1.50 (sorry – brain shut down after the first mouthful – can’t remember details like the price…)! I can tell you I went back to the office a happy woman…
So if you are looking for a place to have a delicious, fresh and affordable meal in the City, look no further than the Museum of London Café. The entrance next to the Museum itself and is via the Highwalk above London Wall. And don’t miss out on the fridge cake!!!
(UPDATE: The Museum of London Café has been bought by the Benugo chain)