Galleries show off their latest acquisitions

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The Independent Online

Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery, stood in his new rooftop restaurant with its striking view down Whitehall to the Palace of Westminster.

"Better than the pizza oven they're thinking of opening next door," he said.

The "pizza oven next door" is the National Gallery, which has been considering plans to install a pizza hob in its brasserie. For the first time in art history the rivalry between galleries is not just about the pictures on the wall.

Britain is at last waking up to what galleries in Europe and America have known for years - a great restaurant or café is a key part of the package used to persuade visitors to look at the artworks. A decade ago, the Victoria and Albert Museum was castigated for the Saatchi slogan "An ace caff with a nice museum attached".

But one of the talking points over the next month is which art gallery director has the trendiest "caff" with the best vista as if they were the latest artistic status symbols.

This spring sees the biggest flurry of art gallery openings for more than 100 years. The Queen will be at the Tate's new modern art gallery in Bankside, London, and the New Art Gallery in Walsall. The Queen Mother will preside over the revamped Somerset House, in London. The Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Wallace Collection, in London, will also shortly show off major revamps. The Lowry in Salford has just opened.

Any award for top art gallery restaurateur will have some notable runners. Oliver Peyton, who runs Coast, Mash and the Atlantic Bar and Grill in London, will be in charge of the Admiralty restaurant at Somerset House, home to the Gilbert Collection of decorative arts. With only 60 seats and overlooking the Thames it is likely to be one of the pricier but most sought after gallery meals.

Another London restaurateur to take an interest in gallery fare is Jeremy King, owner of the Ivy and Caprice in London. He has been an adviser to the Tate for its two Bankside cafés.

At the Wallace Collection, the centenary redevelopment boasts a new glazed courtyard restaurant. Its creative director is the top London restaurateur Stephen Bull, who has devised the menus.

But the Lowry at Salford has tried to go one better with a television celebrity chef - Stephen Saunders of Ready, Steady Cook. The gallery restaurant is called "Stephen Saunders at the Lowry". The ground-floor restaurant has outdoor terraces. And for those with little interest in art, there is an added bonus - the restaurant terrace has a view of Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United.

Another out of London opening is the New Art Gallery in Walsall with a rooftop restaurant overlooking the town centre. "It's a beautiful space with natural light, clad in douglas fir wood," said the gallery's marketing officer, Rebecca McLaughlin. "We have the best view in the West Midlands."

Competition for the best vista is hard fought. At Tate Modern, the Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, reckons the level seven rooftop café looking across the Thames to St Paul's Cathedral has very few rivals.

And while the café may not boast the celebrated wine cellar of the Rex Whistlerdecorated restaurant in Tate Britain at Millbank, it will have crockery designed by Tate Modern's Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron and also eye-catching, slender metal and wood tables and chairs.

The revamped Dulwich Picture Gallery will have a suitably relaxed and sedate eaterie, run by the caterers Digby Trout, in a glass conservatory overlooking the lawns.

The National Portrait Gallery, says Charles Saumarez Smith, will have a bar adjacent to its new Searcy's restaurant, so that the top floor of its new wing with its vista along Whitehall can become a gathering point for people in the evenings. "We will also have to decide quickly whose portraits we put in the bar and restaurant," he said. "It is important to get that right. It is such a key part of the gallery."

Not to be outdone, the National Gallery next door - while it is one of the few big galleries not to have an opening or redevelopment - has changed caterers and is using the people behind north London's trendy Red Pepper and White Onion restaurants for a trendier and more youthful image.