City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Scottish National Portrait Gallery Café - Café Portrait

Average Rating:
Restaurant Photos
Photo of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery Café
Restaurant profile
Edinburgh Area: 
New Town, Edinburgh
Serving times: 
Daily: 10:00-16:30, Thursday 10:00-18:00
(0131) 624 6200
Restaurant Established: 

Refectory style cafe in Scottish National Portrait Gallery serving seasonal food.

The Reviews


Recently refurbished gallery cafe selling seasonal food

Reviewed by Irene Brown

Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 8:51am

Richard Waitte’s 18th century painting of The Fool of the Earl of Cromartie smiles down from a wall in the café of the recently refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery, known as Café Portrait. It shows the ‘earliest depiction of club root in European art’ according to an Irvine Brussels sprout expert who was consulted by former SNPG director James Holloway. The image is an apt one in a catering establishment, run by Heritage Portfolio, whose claim is that they “[Serve] a delicious menu of fresh dishes and classic recipes … [sourcing] the very best local ingredients and seasonal produce.”

Brussels sprouts were not on the menu on the day we chose for lunch but based on previous experience, we did not expect to be disappointed with the choices on the menu.

The café’s previous incarnation in this magnificent gothic 19th century building whose design by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson was based on the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and is the world’s first purpose-built portrait gallery, was in a small, two-roomed part of the east wing of the building pre refurbishment.

There was something endearing about the mildly chaotic nature of a visit there but the promise of the wholesome, colourful and delicious food on offer made the perpetual queue and gamble of getting a seat worthwhile. Its new incarnation takes the form of a spacious, light refectory style eatery with a more intimate space at the back. Tables are of light wood with wipeable white tops, the chairs are comfortable, the floor is slate tiled and the cutlery is pleasantly substantial.

As before, the café functions as a self-service establishment. There is a menu on the wall as you approach the servery offering among other things soup of the day at £3 and a child’s choice of roll with cheese or ham, a carton of fruit juice and brownie for £3.75.

The first thing on display there is an array of tempting filled rolls but on the day we were there, we wanted a knife and fork lunch. The choice that day from the usual offer of two mains, was a vegetarian pasty or kale and mushroom lasagne, neither of which appealed so I opted for a combination of three of the salads, leaving H. with Hobson’s choice of the unusual take on lasagne accompanied by a little gem salad. The verdict was that it was bland, soggy and rather tasteless which was a disappointment to say the least especially at the cost of about £8.50, a price we can pay for a two course lunch elsewhere, as can be verified on Edinburgh Guide’s £10 Challenge reviews.

My choice of three salads of orange, rocket, hazelnuts, fennel, cous cous, mint, mange tout; puy lentils, carrots, sunflower seeds, red chard, sultanas, parsley, feta; red and green pepper, coriander, parsley, pearl barley, green beans (£5.25) was the better deal. They were bright, fresh and bursting with flavour and the slice of olive and tomato bread that I chose as accompaniment was just right. Our New Year tipple was a fine New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Sherwood Estate in Marlborough which was sharp, tangy and delicious. Wine costs £3.50-£4.50 per glass, depending, of course, on the wine.

Coffee is always good in Café Portrait and they have now sorted out a token system that saves the frustrating double queuing when the place re-opened in 2011. They also do a handy loyalty card for these canny folk who are not loyal at all but just carry lots of cards for an eventual free coffee! Tea is too wet without some cake and while the café’s famous scones are as tempting as ever, H. chose a square of brownie cake that was soft in centre, lightly crisp on outside and nice and chocolaty. My choice was zingy lemon sponge cake that was light and, well, lemony. M. who joined me later in the meal opted for another Café Portrait regular, the scrummy date and oat slice.

Good company is an essential part of the eating experience, but even if you choose to dine alone in this café, you will have in the main part of the café the virtual company of some of the great and the good of Scottish cultural and sporting life such as Dame Muriel Spark, John Byrne, Jean Redpath, Kenny Dalglish, Stephen Hendry and Sir Alex Ferguson. In the small room, the works of two of the Glasgow Boys, Sir John Lavery and Edward Walton, along with portraits of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Robert Louis Stevenson and J. M. Barrie can be enjoyed.

There is little information about the café’s menu and certainly no prices on the website but the wonderful Della at the Desk was extraordinarily helpful in gathering missing data on my behalf. Top marks!