Review: Café at Tate Liverpool
There is a scene in the classic comedy film Carry On Up the Khyber in which a party of dignitaries from the British Raj sits down to dinner in a grand colonial residence. As they work their way through the courses while being serenaded by a string quartet, a full-scale battle rages just beyond the gates and the house comes under heavy bombardment. Sid James and Joan Sims swap polite and dainty conversation while the walls shake, windows are blown in, and great chunks of ornate ceiling fall into the Brown Windsor soup.
I’ve seen that film many times over the years but it’s only now, after having lunch at the Tate Liverpool café last weekend, that I finally know how those diners felt.
As my wife and I approached the gallery through a heaving Albert Dock, we knew that something strange was afoot. There were tall ships afloat and accordions a-plenty, and the North of England’s reserve of Captain Jack Sparrow lookalikes had been well and truly plundered.
“I think it’s the Liverpool Pirate Festival,” said my wife.
“You reckon?” I muttered as I narrowly avoided being press-ganged into some piratical role play by a bloke dressed as Captain Pugwash.
A few years ago, when my boys were still young enough to find face-painting thrilling, I’m sure we would have been out there ourselves doing our best Long John Silver impressions. Now the closest my kids get to piracy is illegally downloading Jake Bugg albums. So with no kids of our own in tow, the Pirate Festival would just have to serve as a distant backdrop to our much-needed Tate Liverpool lunch.
Or so we thought.
What we didn’t realise was that the festival wasn’t simply an excuse for some dressing up and a sea shanty or two. It was also due to feature an actual ship-to-ship sea battle – with cannons – at exactly the moment we sat down at our table.
“I think I’ll have the… KABOOM!… salmon and haddock fishcakes,” said my wife.
Sounds good,” I replied. “It’s the… BADOOOOM!… burger for me. And I’ll add the bacon and… KERBAAAMM!… Lancashire cheese.”
In less cacophonous times, the Tate Liverpool café has been a regular haunt of ours ever since we moved to the city 20 years ago. Back then, it hovered above the gallery entrance on a mezzanine level that was a bit too dark and a lot too small, and its eventual move into the adjacent warehouse gave it some much-needed elbow room. With floor-to-ceiling windows along one side revealing the Albert Dock’s full splendour – the UK’s largest collection of Grade I listed buildings no less – and a series of translucent arched windows along the river side, the room is a dazzling space in which to eat and drink on even the gloomiest days.
Almost ten years ago, the café commissioned the German artist Tobias Rehberger to create an environmental installation for the room, and his vivid acrylic glass garlands became part of Tate Liverpool furniture, suspended in the gleaming white void like streamers from a psychedelic maypole. Now though, that familiar décor is gone and the café is home to a brand new artistic intervention, this time by the fabled Pop Art veteran Sir Peter Blake.
No less vibrant than its predecessor, Blake’s design is based on a grid of primary-coloured squares filled with a variety of stars, stripes, targets and zig-zags. The motifs take up one whole wall of the café and extend across the ceiling where they hang suspended from the vaulted arches, a clear nod to the maritime signal flags used to send messages across the waves.
For anyone who has spent any time on the Liverpool waterfront recently, the graphics are immediately familiar. Earlier this year Blake was commissioned by Liverpool Biennial, 14-18 NOW and Tate Liverpool to create a spectacular paint job for one of the Mersey ferries, and the visually arresting vessel has been ploughing a briny furrow since April.
The design, called Everybody Razzle Dazzle, isn’t only an excuse to give the ferry a souped-up look that would turn the head of any boy racer. The artwork is actually a direct reference to the ‘dazzle’ camouflage that was used to protect British shipping during the First World War. By painting ships with complex geometric designs in contrasting colours, the aim wasn’t to conceal the vessels, but to make it difficult to estimate their range, speed or direction of travel. While Blake has filtered this concept through his own sensibility to create a work that draws on his Pop iconography rather more than any authentic dazzle designs, the visual effect of both the ferry paint job and the café decoration is startling. They make a high-impact addition to the ongoing First World War commemorations.
So with the Pirate Festival rattling our internal organs and Everybody Razzle Dazzle vibrating our retinas, it was time to tuck into some food. Perhaps thankfully, the café’s menu demands rather less attention than the sensory overload of the surroundings. The choice is on the narrow side and the options are unspectacular, but the selections seem well suited to light lunches and afternoon dawdling, perhaps while chewing over thoughts of exhibitions just seen or artworks yet to come.
My burger was good, made from Cumbrian aged beef according to the menu and served on the drier side of juicy, which I prefer as it aids the integrity of the bread. Not that anyone asked how well done I wanted it, but maybe that’s by the by. It was partially encased in molten yellow cheese, like the drippings of a big fat candle, which gave a pleasing tang to each mouthful. Less successful was the bacon which had been grilled to the point of desiccation. Instead of sitting somewhere on the chewy-crispy spectrum, it simply shattered into salty, savoury dust.
Meanwhile, my wife was polishing off her fishcakes, declaring them to be “lovely”. There were two of them, generously sized and perched atop a mound of apparently minted peas. I say “apparently” as that’s what the menu called them, but my wife wasn’t entirely convinced. She liked them – “they’re very nice,” she said – but she insisted that the mint was conspicuous by its absence.
There were chips too – the fat and rough-hewn kind that seem about to transform chrysalis-like into full-blown roast potatoes. They were light, floury and delicious, and though my wife eventually decided the fish cakes would have been enough on their own, she still managed to do plenty of damage to her portion. I finished mine off too, no bother.
Pirate Festival or not, there were no bottles of rum available with which to wash it all down, so my wife chose a glass of Peacock Ridge Merlot while I went straight for a bottle of the exclusive beer “brewed to celebrate Sir Peter Blake’s dazzled Mersey ferry and Tate Liverpool’s café commission”.
While I can’t tell you much about my wife’s wine other than that it was red and yes, it smelt of wine, I can tell you a bit about the beer. Brewed by Liverpool’s Mad Hatter Brewing Company – one of the most consistently surprising and outstanding breweries operating anywhere in the UK – this 5.8 per cent golden ale glowed with a hazy inner light and was topped by a brilliant pure-white head. Not as eccentrically-hopped as many Mad Hatter beers, it was full of grassy, crisp, slightly lager-like flavours that went down great guns. Speaking of which… KABBABOOOOM!
Instead of rounding our battle-scarred afternoon off with a sedate coffee, we chose another glass of merlot and another beer – Liverpool Craft Beer Company’s deliciously grapefruity Love Lane pale ale – coupled with a slice of Bakewell tart each. Neither of our drinks paired particularly well with a Bakewell, though that was no one’s fault but our own, and the tart was tasty if a little too dry to be served without cream. Then, as the cannon-fire began to fade, we shoved our way out into the pirate-loving throng beyond the Tate and walked away from the waterfront, back into a Liverpool afternoon of shopping and preening and chatter rather than gunpowder, salt-spray and grog.
“Fancy another drink?” asked my wife as we entered the vicinity of Brewdog.
“Arrr, that I do,” I replied. “I mean yes.”
What: Café at Tate Liverpool
Where: Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock
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