The Café at the Victoria & Albert Museum

In and of itself, lunch is usually not a big deal. Most of the time it’s partaken solo either on the run, at one’s desk, or even in the car. Unless there’s a good reason to actually “plan” lunch as in sharing time with a friend or colleague, lunch usually means little more than just putting gas in one’s tank so as to be able to make it through the afternoon with enough energy to think profound and creative thoughts, while pretending to be productive. At least, that’s the intent. 

As for lunch venues, they range from the afore mentioned car, the kitchen counter (or hopefully table), or various restaurants; these can run the gamut from fast food joints (of which the very smell should make one cringe and run away) to sandwich places to actual sit down, be waited on, and pay a lot of money dens of fine dining–with everything in between.

What makes for a great lunch spot? Most of the time it’s literally the speed and trajectory of just how fast one can show up, eat, and then bolt from the premises that determines one’s choice of venue. It’s also nice if the food is edible and doesn’t end up becoming the gift that keeps on gastrically giving for the rest of the afternoon. Your office mates always appreciate that too. Beyond the land speed dining factor, there are other criteria including the menu provided and the actual venue itself along with accompanying atmosphere. One of these is reason enough to at least try a new place, two of them might make it a regular lunch haunt, and all three—as in speed and quality of service, great menu choices, and outstanding venue—will end up making it a place that you will compulsively be drawn to, like the ever curious moth to a bright flame. 

Not surprisingly, I have favorite lunch spots I’ve frequented over the years. But there are two places—and only two—that stand out as the pinnacle, the holy grail of midday gastronomy for me. That’s the good news. The bad news is that both are very far from home in San Francisco. However, I guarantee I would revisit them in a heartbeat for reasons to be shortly described. After reading about them, I’m sure you will too. Without further ado, here they are.


The Café at the Victoria & Albert Museum

First, I have to confess that the Victoria and Albert, or the V&A as it is fondly called, is my very favorite museum. As much as I dearly love painting and other great museums such as the National Gallery, the Uffizi, the Louvre, and more, for me the V&A is winner takes all. Every time I’m fortunate enough to visit London, I make a point of spending the first morning at the V&A and simply because it’s unlike any other major museum in the world. I’ve even heard the V&A called your Aunt Gertie’s attic. If that were the case, then Auntie would undoubtedly have been a brilliantly eccentric, massively wealthy, compulsive collector with more than a touch of ADD in terms of displaying an insane interest in everything in the art, design, and craft world. The museum’s collection ranges from jewelry to stained glass to vintage middle eastern carpets ( including the largest one of the world) to sculpture to painting to plaster cast models of great works of art and so on, to an extent hard to believe. To wit, during my last visit in June, one of the highlights was an exhibition of formal ball gowns by British designers from 1940 to the present. It was brilliant. 

After several hours of strolling through the galleries mouth agog taking photos here and there, I inevitably get to the overwhelm stage where too much beauty and creativity literally stuns the naked mind. This is also about the time I get hungry as well. Funny, the two may actually be connected (Ya’ think?).  At that point, I stroll across the courtyard with its immaculately trimmed lawn to the café. Inside, one quickly realizes that the café is more than serviceable with delicious sandwiches, salads, and crisps (as in potato chips which are light years better than ours in the U.S.). You can have a superbly brewed cup of tea or a really excellent espresso drink as well. 

By now you may be rightfully asking yourself, so what’s so great about the place? Why is it so special, so remarkable? Easy answer, it’s the room. Once you’ve gathered up and paid for your luncheon victuals, you’ll amble through one of two high arched doorways into the largest of the three dining rooms and probably stop dead in your tracks just as I did the first time. The Gamble room, as it’s called, is really difficult to describe. Suffice to say it’s probably one of the most beautifully ornate rooms in which one could ever imagine dining. 

The Gamble Room was the museum’s original “refreshment” room. When first opened in the 1860’s, it would have been a visitor’s first view of the museum’s interior. Even then the Victorians would have been astonished by the extraordinary décor of the interior. Designer Henry Cole was responsible for many innovations in the room’s design, including the first artificial lighting in any museum in the world so workers could visit in the evenings. The dazzling walls and columns are covered in beautifully ornate ceramic tiles that not only provided a washable and hygienic surface needed for a restaurant, but also a fireproof surface within the museum. The long and short of it is that enjoying a simple lunch of curry chicken sandwich with Marmite crisps (true!) and tea becomes a scene straight out of a fairy tale. It has to be experienced to be believed.  And if that’s not enough, there are two other smaller rooms adjacent to the Gamble: the Poynter Room (after designer Edward Poynter) with its elegant combination of stained glass windows and blue Dutch tiles; and the Morris Room (named after designer William Morris), with its ornate designs of myth, legend and the zodiac in wood and stained glass. Both are definitely worth seeing.

In the end, it’s hard to leave but leave you must because there’s so much of the V&A still to see. But you’ll doubtless promise yourself to return soon, if only to sit and have tea and appreciate such a remarkable room.


Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander Winery, Yarra Valley Australia

There are very few things in the world that I covet in the biblical sense. One is pair of Magnepan MG 20.7 speakers with all the appropriate accompanying electronics and a very large room in which to put them; number two is a gloss-black ’57 Studebaker Golden Hawk with burgundy leather interior. Beyond these two delightful toys, there’s a place that I often crave/fantasize about having in my neighborhood. Yes, if said place was on West Portal here in the city next to the Muni tunnel, life would be just this side of perfect. There’s no doubt in my mind you would feel the same way.

Amazing lunch place number two is about 90 minutes outside the beautiful metropolis of Melbourne, in Healesville, a small hamlet in the Yarra Valley. It’s actually a winery with two labels: Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander. But this is not just a winery. To call it a winery is like calling a Botticelli a mere painting. This, meine freunden, is different. GS/IB is nothing remotely like the gazillions of other wineries around the world from Bordeaux, Napa, Tuscany, and beyond. Why? Just step through the front door and you’ll immediately know that it’s a completely different paradigm. Your nose will seduced by the combination of the warm aromatics of freshly roasted coffee, the heavenly aroma of bread literally just out of the oven, and the heady spice of roasted garlic from the pizza oven. Need I say more?

After returning to your senses, so to speak, you’ll look to the left and realize that the entire wall, some 30-plus feet from floor to ceiling, is completely made up of large panes of glass. Peering through the glossy expanse you’ll quickly discover a dimly lit cellar full of barrels, a press, and bottling line—literally the necessary innards of a working winery. That’s also about the time you’ll spot some crazy-ass cellar rat behind the glass driving a fork lift around way too fast to move a couple of barriques from one row to another. Whoa. You get the idea. But GS/IB is not just a working winery, it’s also a bistro with one of those Italian certified pizza ovens, a coffee roaster, and a bakery. Oh yes, throw in a cheese aging room, a fantastic deli, and a wine shop just for grins. 

Imagine stopping in for lunch after spending all morning visiting Yarra Valley wineries and discovering just how amazing cool climate Aussie wines can be. You’d tuck into a perfectly done Margherita pizza and a crisp salad of locally harvested organic greens while sipping a glass of winemaker Phil Sexton’s steely and shockingly citrusy Giant Steps Chardonnay that was bottled literally 50 feet away. Then to finish it off, a slice of pie just baked that morning with a cup of “wake the dead” French Roast coffee made from beans roasted so close you could hit the machine with the napkin dispenser. Before heading out for afternoon winery stops, you’d pick up a few bottles of vino, some cheese from a local producer, a loaf of bread, and a pound of the aforementioned French Roast. Life would be grand. In fact, I’m not sure how it could possibly be better in the moment. 

Honey, we’re booking tickets to Melbourne. Right now.