The Saatchi & Saatchi ad for the Victoria & Albert in the late 1980s described it as “an ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached”, in a bid to make the museum more accessible and attractive. It was viewed as a redundant, dusty relic and was given six months to justify its existence to a confused and increasingly apathetic public who did not seem to know what it was for.
The Hepworth Wakefield hasn’t had such a struggle. The gallery, named after the sculptor Barbara Hepworth who was born in the city, is housed in a David Chipperfield-designed concrete building on the banks of the River Calder. Opened in 2011, it has been an astounding success. There were 210,275 visitors in 2016 and in July it was named Museum of the Year.
Outside, the modernist design is a thrilling treat for the eye; inside, the exhibition spaces are vast and airy. The permanent Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore pieces are stunning and the breadth of exhibiting artists’ work is impressive; the sight of school kids sketching and having fun makes my heart sing – the Hepworth is totally inclusive and not remotely po-faced – there’s no need to whisper.
You can sense a ‘but’ coming, can’t you? Up until now it’s been a nice museum without Charles’s Saatchi’s ace caff attached. I’ve been a dozen times and kept holding out hope for a decent lunch, but somehow it wasn’t forthcoming. Rubbish coffee. Unimaginative sarnies. Perfunctory service. So hooray for a new dawn breaking. Local lad and 2016 MasterChef quarter-finalist Chris Hale has taken control of the kitchen.
Chapel Allerton-based House of Koko, an “independent coffee & tea house”, has partnered up with Hale and the Hepworth and they’ve given the cafe space a bit of a facelift. It’s very stylish, all dark grey walls, cool prints and sculptural house plants; Hale has completely redesigned the menu and it’s much more appealing.
You won’t find the offerings John and Greg raved about, but it’s perhaps not wise to frighten the horses from the off. What you will find is a bunch of wholesome rustic plates, mostly leaves and legumes – I counted just two meat dishes (steak and ale pie and chicken Caesar); Nirvana for you veggies.
As is customary we order almost everything. All of it is good (with one or two minor niggles) and there are a couple of stand-out dishes; fig and goat’s cheese comes on a slice of gluten-free bread (hell, it’s horrible, I’d rather do without, but it’s a concession to my mate’s intolerance – you can choose sourdough or rye too) and the combo of sweet, ripe figs and soft, sharp cheese is a fabulously vibrant match with honey and micro mint.
A bowl of beets is one of the best things I’ve eaten in a while; sweet, earthy multi-coloured roast beetroot with a scatter of toasted walnuts, more goat’s cheese, peppery leaves and a punchy dressing – and a shoelace of carrot lacing through the lot. A burst of freshness on a dull day.
Who wouldn’t order the Old Boy if you saw it on a menu? Of course we did. Turns out to be smashed avo on toasted sourdough with chillies, pine nuts and pickled radish – I felt healthier just looking at it. The Full Vegan involves avocado, sweetcorn fritters and a spikey tomato and chilli jam. A tangle of crispy red onions tops the lot but the crowning glory is a pile of homemade baked beans, and they’re a joy; sticky, sweet and completely addictive.
There are buttermilk pancakes for pud, partnered with a either a mixed berry or apple compote. Three humongous beauties fetched up, nearly as good as the ones my mum makes to go with stew. It’s a Sheffield thing.
That’s just about it, apart from a kids’ menu (a Bento box plus pasta with pesto) and boxed sandwiches, which actually look edible. I applaud the brevity of choice; catering for an unspecified number of people seven days a week is a hard trick to pull off, but Hale’s got it spot on. If you just want a cuppa and cake while you gird your loins before another bout of art, the coffee is exemplary (from North Star roasters in Leeds) and the cakes and scones look just fine. There’s a good selection of craft ale from Magic Rock Brewing and North Brewing Company as well as Yorkshire Blonde from Ossett Brewery just down the road.
Service is much more engaging – when I asked a hirsute young man for some maple syrup to pour on my (ludicrously light) pancakes he said yes, of course, do you think we should serve them like this? Yes, I said. I’ll have a word with the kitchen, he said, smiling sweetly.
There are many, many reasons to visit the Hepworth; the building is magnificent, the staff are charming, the exhibitions are inspiring – and now there’s an ace caff.
Cafe at the Hepworth, Gallery Walk, Wakefield WF1 5AW. 01924 247360, hepworth.org. Open daily, 10am-5pm. Prices range from around £6 to £8.50 per dish.