Restaurant review: Portrait Gallery Cafe, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Anything worth seeing in there?” asked my taxi driver as he picked me up outside the recently renovated Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

“Um, the cheese scones are quite tasty,” I replied.

What a despicable philistine I am.

On a recent visit to the portrait gallery, I didn’t take in any culture. Just ate in the cafe. But, still, this dining space – which has changed location from one wing of the building to the other and increased in size by half – features a John Byrne self portrait, a painting of Dame Muriel Spark by Alexander Moffat, and a couple of David Mach pieces (one of Steven Hendry, and another of Sir Alex Ferguson).

As befits the season, there’s also a modernist Christmas tree, consisting of a 2D wall mosaic. No tinsel.

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The food offerings, as ever, are looked after by local catering company Heritage Portfolio.

On the walls behind the rear serving area are two flatscreen TVs displaying what’s on the menu that day. They weren’t working on my visit. So, in the swiftly moving queue, school dinner style trays primed, we decided what we wanted as we glided past each item.

Filled rolls, nope. Salad, yes. Mince pies, negative. Cake, AFFIRMATIVE. I came over a bit hunter-gatherer at this point, battling with the retirees for the hot dishes.

They won the last portions of chorizo, onion and potato frittata (£6.50).

However dining partner Claire and I managed to bag a portion of the courgette parmigiana (£6.50), which we munched at our spot, underneath young Hendry’s cue, and squashed at the end of someone else’s table (this place, Wednesday lunchtime, was rammed).

The pair we were sharing with, who were treating themselves to suitably festive Tiny-Tim-esque glasses of tap water, seemed fascinated with our spoils. Fair enough, as the aforementioned was a simple and homely dish, with strips of squishy courgette, mozzarella, and a tart, garlicky, oregano-spiked tomato sauce.

We also shared a portion of winter coleslaw (£2). This was a well considered and seasonal jumble, with beetroot (not a lot of that, to be honest), tiddlywinks of radish, beefy wedges of white cabbage and, my favourite (and that of many chilly sheep), chopped kale. All of it was nicely seasoned with dill and citrusy caraway seeds.

Another salad (£2) was even more vibrant. This baize-green concoction contained crispy green beans, sugar snap peas, a generous contingent of toasted hazelnuts, rocket, chopped chives and a juicy olive oil and orange dressing, complete with orange shreds.

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We washed down our foliage with a thick, pollen-coloured sweet potato and coconut milk soup (£3.50).

It was hearty, if a bit tepid after our longish battle to the tills and hunt for a seat. We’d also forgotten to pick up our inclusive bread from whichever self-service receptacle held it.

Don’t panic, though, as we had a cheese scone (£1.85) to compensate. Apparently, this place is famous for its versions of these. I’ve never really seen the appeal of cheese scones, but these savoury and sweet boulders were very moreish, with a thick skin that made me mistake them for stale, at first, until I realised that this crusty and flakey outer was the nicest bit.

Shame that I could only find Flora margarine to spread on them.

As Sir Alex looked on, we dug into two cakes – lemon sponge and a gluten-free Belgian chocolate espresso and raspberry slice (both £2.85). The latter was slightly disappointing. It had a pleasantly gooey texture, but it didn’t taste sweet or chocolatey enough. Our other option was much better, with a bouncy, icing-sugar dusted sponge that sandwiched a thick filling of intensely flavoured lemon curd.

I promise to revisit the Scottish National Portrait Gallery sometime after Christmas, so I can wow taxi drivers with tales of wonderful paintings and a fabulous new space. At least, for now, I can report that their caff – with its very decent selection of healthy grub – has given this philistine a deep appreciation for an artfully rendered cheese scone.

1 Queen Street, Edinburgh (0131-624 6200,