A wonderful art gallery with a not so great café

This piece was originally uploaded in June 2023.

Before you wonder what the image above is about – it is a digitally altered photograph of the National Gallery of Australia here in Canberra. I’ll explain later in this piece.

The National Gallery holds fabulous collections. I enjoy being able to wander in to see old friends as well as to ponder on new arrivals. Part of the experience used to be to also take time out alone or with colleagues in the NGA café when it was downstairs to the north of the building.

Over time this café lost some of its appeal. Part of that was probably the introduction of paid parking. For whatever reason, several years ago it was closed and the only café now is the outside sidewalk tent café near the entrance.

I am sure it is used by some tourists, given they have little other choice. But given the extremes of heat and cold in this city, plus on week days you will also be paying for your parking, the NGA sidewalk café would not be rated highly as a place to go.

It has been disappointing that over the decades something was not done to get the café located somewhere significant inside near the entrance. When the building of new wing and entrance was announced, there was an expectation that the gallery would have the architects include a new restaurant and café somewhere along the new frontage. Not so.

The opportunity is still there and there are stories of a new one being contemplated. It could be built into the building on the southside next to the entrance and extending into the special venue so that the restaurant and café would open out onto the new gardens on the south side and not bound by the gallery opening hours. We can only hope.

Meanwhile I have my own café experience to tell.

At the end of 2021, the NGA’s Jeffrey Smart major exhibition had opened and I had identified a day that was most likely to be fairly quiet. I was correct. Few were there, so it was a peaceful amble around the works.

After about 40 minutes I suddenly felt unwell. I sat for a minute or two and realised that it was more likely the after effects of the Covid vaccine the day before. It was time to eat and drink something.

I went off to that sidewalk café for a sandwich, coffee and some water. Unfortunately, they did not do sandwiches and instead was offered one of those pre-prepared stored-in-the-fridge rolls. She said it was turkey and something. I also ordered a coffee and a sparkling water.

The roll was just edible and that’s being kind. I am still not sure what it resembled but the taste stays with me till this day. The coffee was OK. The surprise was the sparkling water as it was in fact a can of still water.

I had read about the massive scam with plain water being packaged into expensive looking cans and bottles to be sold with the matching expensive pricing. Here was one in front of me. Rather than taking it back (in exchange for sparkling if they had any), I decided that this was worth keeping as a souvenir.

Every time I approach the NGA and see that sidewalk café to which I have yet to return, I think of that unpleasant food experience and the expensive plain water in that designer can.

In the photo above of the front of the NGA, the artwork on the lawns has been replaced by that can of water to represent my thoughts as I approach the gallery. Not a pleasant memory.

The NGA remains a great art collection but the same kind words cannot be said of their café. Maybe it has improved – but I remain hesitant to find out.

I have written about the NGA’s fabulous sculpture garden before, City News July 23 2022. Therefore, I will not repeat all that.

Do remember that the sculpture garden is there waiting for you to take a stroll and enjoy the shrubbery, the open spaces, the artworks as well as the views over the lake. It remains a treasure to be enjoyed.

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