Lunch Out: the Rex Whistler Restaurant at the Tate Gallery

The Tate Gallery Millbank.  Triple P's meeting was, handily, in the building in the background

Agent Triple P had a meeting on Millbank the other day and ran into an old friend, the luscious M, in all of her Mediterranean glory, coming out of the same building afterwards.  Having just both finished somewhat tedious all-morning meetings, and given it was a nice sunny day (it's been our hottest April since records began with 26 degrees Centigrade or 79 Fahrenheit), we decided to repair to the nearby Tate Gallery restaurant for lunch.  Now, the Tate (or Tate Britain, as it is now annoyingly called; to distinguish it from the Tate Modern) was one of Triple P's favourite galleries and used to be Triple P's favourite in London, but more on that later.
First let us go into the Rex Whistler restaurant.  The restaurant is named after the artist Rex Whistler (1905-1944), who painted the murals adorning the walls.  Having been thrown out of the Royal Acadamy, Whistler went on to study at the Slade Art School.  Whistler became famous for his murals and trompe l'oeil works and painted the mural in the Tate Gallery restaurant in 1927 when he was only 22.

The original bright young things:  left to right: Zita Jungman, William Walton, Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Georgia Sitwell, Teresa Jungman, and Rex Whistler. Photographed by Cecil Beaton

Whistler was one of the original "bright young things" and is believed to have been the model for Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited; required reading for a certain type of young lady when Triple P was at Oxford.  The great love of his life was Lady Caroline Paget, daughter of the 6th Earl of Angelsey. It seems that his love was unrequited but he did numerous drawings and paintings of her including one nude, whether from life or imagination is not known but she did have something of a racy reputation.

Lady Caroline Paget by Rex Whistler

It was at her family home, Plas Newydd, in Angelsea that Whistler painted his greatest work, a 58' by 12' painting which is the largest canvas painting in Britain.  Like the Tate mural the picture is of an Arcadian fantasy landscape. 

Whistler's immense canvas at Plas Newydd

Whistler was paid £5 a day for the eighteen months it took him to complete the Tate mural.  The subject of the mural was devised with the novelist Edith Olivier (1872–1948), a friend of his.  It was at Edith Oliver's house that Whistler first met lady Caroline Paget.  The story of the mural relates an expedition by seven people who leave the Duchy of Epicurania in search of exotic meat, to relieve the diet of their own people who subsist solely on dry biscuits. 

The Tate Gallery in January 1928.  Sandbags attempt to keep the flood waters at bay

The mural survived the Thames flood on January 7th 1928, when the Thames, swollen by melted snow, burst its banks at Hammersmith.  Despite being under two feet of water, Whistler's mural was robust enough to be largely undamaged.

Self-portrait of Rex Whistler (1940) in his Welsh Guards uniform,  This picture is now in the National Army Museum in Chelsea, just a couple of miles from the Tate


Whistler joined the Welsh Guards at the outbreak of World War 2.  Commanding a Cromwell tank he became the Guards Armoured Division's first casualty in Operation Overlord when his tank's track became entangled with wire.  As the crew tried to free the track they came under heavy machine gun fire. 
Whistler sprinted 60 yards to another tank to call in supporting fire but was killed by the concussion from a mortar, after completing his task.  There was not a mark on his body but his neck had been broken.  He was buried in Normandy and his brother, the famous glass engraver Laurence, designed a wonderful memorial prism to him which is in Salisbury Cathedral.

The Whistler memorial prism in Salisbury Cathedral

Anyway, on to lunch.  Triple P hasn't eaten in the Tate Gallery restaurant (the appellation "Rex Whistler"is comparatively recent) for some time.  In fact it could be over twenty-five years!  It was really famous, not so much for it's food but for its wine list.  It was, as it still is, unusual in that it maintains its own cellar rather than buying wine in as its needed, like most restaurants.  This meant that it was able to buy fine clarets en primeur and cellar them; meaning that they could sell them in the restaurant at a good profit but keep the prices far below other restaurants who would have to pay market price. 

Rex Whistler Restaurant

Triple P thinks he has been thee times before, back in the eighties.  Firstly with HMS and Agent DVD, secondly with his former work colleague and on-off girlfriend SA and finally with Stinky C, the paratroopers daughter.  Stinky C worked as a graduate trainee at one of Triple P's previous organisations.  She was very posh and had gamine short, brown hair which reminded Triple P of Leslie Caron (who Triple P once saw shopping in Guildford, whilst she was performing in a play at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre).  Several of her fellow trainees complained that she stank and Triple P was nominated to break this news to her.  Deciding that it was best done over dinner we were not prepared for the fact, that evening, that she had changed out of her smelly work clothes and presented herself in a tiny, very low cut little black dress which displayed her quite awesome bust to distracting effect.  Taking her to the Archduke winebar she promptly hammered her way through several bottles of claret and half a bottle of port, displaying, along with her cleavage, a thorough knowledge of Bordeaux wines.  Much impressed, Triple P and C embarked upon a quite inappropriate relationship for someone who was supposed to be mentoring her and her fellow graduates (we have a horrible feeling that it actually started that very night).  Anyway, a Saturday lunch followed where we sampled the Tate's extensive wine list during a very happy afternoon (it tends to be one of those restaurants that you linger in).

Anyway, back to the other day, rather uninterestingly, we both had the same lunch.  The restaurant does a good value set lunch or you can go a la carte.  With the set lunch each possible choice is accompanied by an optional  recommended wine.  Two courses is £16.50 and three is £20.50.  Wine is £3.75 for one glass, £7.25 for two or £10.50 for three.  We started with a potato and watercress soup.  This was excellent and not as heavy as we might have imagined.  It was a substantial bowlfull, however, and given that on the set lunch you can pay for two or three courses  you could easily have had just this with some cheese for a light lunch.  A good excuse to access the wine list!  With the soup the recommended wine was Quinta de la Rosa Branco 2009 from the Douro.  Made  from the same grapes that go into white port (60% viosinho) it balanced the thickness of the soup well and had an unusual English-style, grapefruit finish with the viosinho giving it a floral smell.

To be fair we had already eaten one of the slices of beef before we remebered to photograph it.  Still...

The main course was rare roast beef with devill sauce, fat chips and carrots.  This was, we have to say, not a full-sized course but after the soup that was less critical. If you had opted for a main course and a dessert you might feel a bit short changed, however.  The beef, however, was meltingly good and the sauce was only mildly hot and quite subtle.

To accompany this, we decided against the recommended wine, Château Bernadotte 2007, and went for the rather more splendid Château Prieuré-Lichine 1995, at a very reasonable £52 a bottle (given that we were charged £40 for a bottle of Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc in a wine bar last week).  A this sells over the counter in the UK (if you can get it) for around £40 a bottle we didn't think that this was an unreasonable mark-up. 

Even though the days of Chateau Lafite for £11.00 a bottle are long gone at the Tate (at least now they take credit cards, for a long time it was cash only) there are still some bargains to be had in the fifty page wine list and we need to arrange some further visits.  The selection of Bordeaux is still impressive with an average of four to six châteaux per Bordeaux region (the list is very French heavy).   For example they have six wines from Margaux, from Château Labégorce, a cru bourgeois at £21.50 for a half bottle, up to a Château Margaux itself for £370 for a 1989 vintage.  The key thing about the restaurant's cellaring policy is it means that you get access to older wine than you usually can find in restaurants. The list also contains a very wide selection of wines by the half bottle.

The restaurant decants wine properly which, with one like the Prieuré-Lichine really is necessary.  In fact, it probably could have benefited from another hour in the decanter.  Although a nice deep garnet colour still it is probably at the end of its life and wouldn't be worth keeping much longer.  However, it was still a very nicely balanced claret which was still very fruity and even slightly herbal. 

We finished the wine with a rather paltry, but delicious, serving of mature cheddar cheese.  We ordered a another serving to split between us.

All that's left of the permanent collection on display

All in all it was an excellent lunch in a very pleasant restaurant and, in fact, the only slight negative about the afternoon was the gallery itself.  This used, as we said earlier, to be our favourite gallery in London but now, other than the Turner wing, most of the permanent collection has been removed to be replaced by trendy one off exhibitions of inferior art or schools' areas, leaving the glories of the Tate largely confined to one room.  Save us from trendy curators!
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