maritime windowImagine if you were given the opportunity to run a restaurant in one of the city’s key tourist attractions, situated in a prime tourist hot spot. Imagine, too, if the tourist attraction was free to enter, ensuring a steady footfall of potential customers.

Throw in some of the best views of the city, and a historic building setting – resulting in a restaurant offering that was unmatched in the area – and you’d think that the cash registers would be ringing from dawn to dusk, wouldn’t you?

Why, then, has the Merseyside Maritime Museum got it so, so wrong?

NML Trading is the quasi-separate trading body for National Museums Liverpool. Its remit? To bring in cash.

Its shops are doing well – busting their targets, and shifting rubber dinosaurs, model ships and smelly soaps galore, although the latest published figures (2008) show that, taken as a whole, NML’s profit and loss account is trading at a loss. Not a huge one, but a loss all the same.

It wouldn’t take much to turn it around, then.

SevenStreets understands that things haven’t been going well in the Maritime catering department. Eighteen months ago, we interviewed their new ‘Executive Chef’, Nigel Smith. He had big plans. He’s gone now.

The former fourth floor cafe space was closed for 18 months while Austin Smith Lord architects set to work to design an evocative Maritime Dining Room, set to become one of the city’s top food destinations. We’re not sure what they spent their time doing. Maybe carpet tiles are trickier to lay than they look. Whatever, they’ve taken one of the city’s most iconic interior spaces and sucked every ounce of atmosphere out of it. We sincerely hope NML queried the bill.

Plans were talked up to open the restaurant in the evenings, and for it to be the perfect private function venue. A little taste of the Titanic, the romance of the great cruise liners, the perfect fusion of heritage, tourism and that modern-day boom industry, the museum cafe.

Sadly, it takes more than a Poirot typeface and piped in 1920’s Jazz to evoke the Golden Age of travel. We doubt even Leonardo DiCaprio would have put up with the Maritime’s soup-stained and dog-eared cardboard menus.

“I think there’s a massive market in Liverpool for really strong banqueting and for restaurants in general,” Nigel said at the time. “The next five years are going to be really interesting for food, as people’s palates change and new places open.”

Maybe. So why, then, does the Maritime Restaurant resemble more Mary Celeste than Queen Mary 2? And why do they seem to be in no immediate hurry to do anything more than rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic? (too many cruise ship references – ed).

Probably because the Maritime Dining Rooms hasn’t got a clue what it’s supposed to be. The menu offers £8 burger and chips (about the same price at What’s Cooking, on the other side of the dock), and distinctly grey looking fish and chips. Waiters bring wine to the tables in ice-buckets and loiter, awkwardly. But ambience? That’s off, sorry.

Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a feature about how museum cafes are morphing into fine dining restaurants. “Increasingly museums are moving away from the school approach to feeding visitors, with its emphasis on a lowest-common-denominator menu, in favor of stylish restaurants that offer fine dining to go with the fine art…” the editorial commented.

They’d obviously not visited the top floor cafe of World Museum, Liverpool. The floor that time forgot. Best seller? Chicken nuggets and chips. As a museum piece, it’s brilliant in its reconstruction of 1970s service-station catering. But as 21st century lunch destination for city workers?

Of course, museum dining isn’t just a stateside phenomenon. Smart museums the world over understand a simple truth. Feed our minds, and you’ll get a good Trip Advisor score. Feed our bellies, and you’ll be able to afford that new Daniel Libeskind extension and give your shareholders a nice little nest egg.

Not for nothing did London’s V&A Museum let loose that notorious Saachi advertising slogan: ‘An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached.’ Visit the V&A and, cynicism aside, you can see where they’re coming from. Their courtyard Garden Cafe, complete with bubbling fountain and fresh daily specials really is a destination in itself.

Now, as arts cuts start to bite (NML are expecting cuts from central Government amounting to around 30% of its income), isn’t it time for NML Trading to induce us to do a little biting too?

It’s hardly the bravest strategy. The punters have already arrived in the building. They’ll be eating somewhere. Why let them escape? Keep them a little longer and, maybe, NML’s proposed cost-saving exercises (closing the excellent National Conservation Centre, closing the Piermaster’s House outside of holidays, for example) might not be so brutal.

To survive, museums need to enhance their experience. At the Albert Dock, Liverpool ONE is so close, you can smell the chain-restaurant’s pre-packed Bolognese sauce, luring the tourists across the Strand super-crossing.

The irony is, NML do know how to get it right. The Lady Lever Art Gallery has an excellent, always-busy refectory, serving good, freshly made meals to a regular crowd of devotees.

SevenStreets visited the Maritime Dining Rooms on an October half-term lunchtime. The museum was bustling, there was a queue at the tills in the shop. There were four diners in the restaurant. They looked like they’d just spotted an iceberg dead ahead.

We’re as proud as anyone of our excellent museums. That they can unravel and celebrate the wonders of the world around us is in no doubt.

But, come on. As countless other museums around the globe are proving, running a successful museum restaurant isn’t rocket science. It’s rocket salad.

28 Responses to “A Fright at the Museum”

  1. I have been to both the cafes in the Maritime and the World, as well as St George’s Hall (although I know that’s not NML), but I felt that the staff on each occasion were really unfriendly. It ranged from feeling like an intrusion in their day, through to feeling downright insulted by a poor attitude with teapots slammed down on trays, no smile, no thank yous, etc.
    Seriously, for ambience, the museums could do with taking the stick out and firing anyone in a customer service role who refuses to give good customer service!

  2. I’ve felt unwelcome at the Bluecoat too, while we’re at it. It really bugs me. Any scouser in a key tourist role who can’t have the sense of civic pride to present a smile to serve a visitor really just should not be serving!

  3. Great article. You’re right about The Lady Lever. My grandfather swears by the place, and goes for lunch there every day. And I have to admit, the food is pretty good.

  4. The Walker cafe is a great place for tea and a cake. But I agree about the World museum: I visited there during the summer with six hungry adults and two thirsty kids, and we still weren’t even slightly tempted – we headed to Queen Square, where we could get a decent unpretentious and cheap meal at the Tavern Co. I had no idea the Maritime Dining Rooms were even there – considering the escalators at the underground stations are all plastered with ads for the exhibitions; no room for a brief mention on them?

  5. I couldn’t agree more. Museums are supposed to be fun, right? There’s none of that in evidence at here. And since FACT introduced that concession the place has gone right down, and that’s not just in my experience, it’s shared by many. The Tate’s place is the best of a bad bunch in my opinion.

  6. Where’s Phil Redmond in all of this – if anyone knows how to make a wad it’s him. The Manchester Art Gallery cafe is fantastic, and always full at lunchtimes. Maybe the problem with the maritime is that it’s on the fourth floor. Maybe they should have shifted an exhibition floor up and had the restaurant lower down, people are very lazy, remember.

  7. I’ve been to some fantastic museum restaurants in Paris, London and Manchester. I’m not saying the Maritime should attempt to rival the rooftop restaurant in the Centre Pompidou, but there are enough good museum cafes in the region to show it can be done. Couture runs the cafe in the Manchester Museum and evry time I’ve been there’s it’s busy; the menu changes, the food is pretty good and the service is helpful.

    The problems with customer service in Liverpool aren’t limited to the cultural attractions; I don’t think there’s a strong enough emphasis on providing good customer service in the majority of shops or ensuring staff are actually doing it after their induction.

  8. Had a very odd experience in the Sudley House cafe recently, when the only member of staff studiously ignored us for five minutes until we managed to catch her attention. Quite incredible.

  9. Hmmm. I must admit, it is curiously coincidental that an ailing (and decidedly middling) restaurant gets a full page splash in the paper. Surely that’s not the hand of PR agencies directing our local, impartial paper, is it?

  10. Shiver our timbers. It’s always a blow to get a bad review, especially when there’s not one mention of our wonderful food! What a shame.

    Our restaurant, situated on the fourth floor of the Maritime Museum, opened on August 7 last year. Things are going really well, with a steady stream of diners and some great feedback from our customers. We are in a stunning location, a listed building overlooking the Albert Dock and the River Mersey/Liver Buildings. Our location is so good that BBC Five Live broadcast live from the restaurant with 200 guests last month. Which meant that six million people got to hear of our existence. A journalist from The Spectator blog who attended described the location as “stunning”.

    Our conference and events business at the restaurant is going from strength to strength. We’ve had a mention in the Michelin Guide, which for a brand new restaurant is pretty good going. I think that the Michelin mystery diners know what they are taking about when they say: “Spacious brassiere located in superb museum with great views of the Albert Dock and three graces. Well priced, appealing menu of tasty, modern brassiere dishes.”

    The reviewer questions the ambience. Well lots of our customers like it. One said last week: “We always come in here because we like the atmosphere.” Sorry if we don’t boom out Kings of Leon – we’re not thw kind of place were atmosphere is forced. But yes there are challenges with opening in a listed building which is a museum. You can’t change much to the structure of the place and hang on, why would we? It’s magnificent. But yes, of course we’d like more customers to add to the atmosphere.

    Menus a bit battered? We will look into it this. Yes agree this is not good. But maybe it’s got more to do with so many people looking at them. And we do cater for the youngsters too. We are family friendly and proud of it unlike some of the other restaurants in the city.

    As for the comments about the design, I disagree and so do the judges of the recent Roses Design Awards where our designers Austin Smith Lord scored a hat trick and won a Gold, Silver and Bronze award, one specifically for the interior design at The Maritime Dining Rooms.

    The top floor restaurant at The World Museum did look like the place time forgot, but we have made changes and will continue to improve standards for our customers.

    The reviewer mentions our trading performance. All the money we make, yes we do make money, goes back to support the brilliant work at National Museums Liverpool.

    The main point to all this is: Why don’t you find out for yourself? Come and visit and make your own minds up. And while you are here, take in the wonderful Maritime Museum, International Slavery Museum and Seized! gallery – great free venues and great grub too.

  11. “Sorry if we don’t boom out Kings of Leon – we’re not thw kind of place were atmosphere is forced”

    Whereas I LOVE forced atmosphere, especially when the Kings of Leon are involved!

  12. That sounds suspiciously ostrich head in the sands to me. The burger vans outside Goodison might have the best burgers in the world, but if the van don’t look good, I’m not eating from it.

  13. Gotta say, I go to the MDR with the kids and haven’t had a bad time yet. Views are great, food is good and I’m not lining the pockets of shareholders of some boring, identikit chain restaurant.

    And come on guys, if you’re going write a review at least put the author’s name to it.

  14. I have dined at the Maritime Dining Rooms for years, well before it was refurbished. The new dining room is great, the views are the best in Liverpool, the atmosphere is good and the staff really friendly. The food is good too.

    I think this is unfair criticism – MDR is not another boring chain restaurant with fancy prices to boot and portions that wouldn’t feed a mouse. It doesn’t hold itself up to be some pretentious eatery for the glitterati.
    I think if the Museum moved some of their fantastic ship models in there and a few other artifacts they would help cement the atmosphere.
    I’ve been in Museum restaurants all over the UK and abroad and the MDR is one of the best. I have to say that I have loathed some of the others which just remind me of upmarket cafes. MDR does not fit into that category.
    The afternoon tea is cool too!
    I also think that if you are going to write any review you should have the courage to put your name to it, otherwise I would discard it anyway.

  15. It’s interesting, isn’t it – that National Museums Liverpool are so convinced this is an inside job, they’re resorting to any measures to try and pin the blame on some poor, overworked and underpaid minion. SevenStreets is the name, and that’s good enough for me. I trust them, because they’ve zero axe to grind. More power to you guys.

  16. Sorry, Sandy and Ian, we don’t hide behind anonymity because we fear the chef will turn our balls to sweetmeats: SevenStreets just isn’t the sort of site that favours the soap-box school of trial by ego centric journalist. Christ, isn’t a world with one Giles Coren in it a grim enough place?

    David Lloyd

  17. David – you are, of course entitled to an opinion, but it doesn’t make you anymore virtuous because it is a website rather than an ‘ego centric journalist’ delivering it. It can still have the same impact on those behind the service you diss. Of course, we’re talking personal experience. Some will like, others will not. I like the space in the restaurant which makes it me more inclusive for people like me struggling with prams. They cater for the family, it’s reasonably priced and I’ve found the food on several occasions to be tasty and value for money. The views are boss. Could it improve – absolutely in terms of doing more to showcase the museum itself and I do think being on the top floor isn’t always a draw unless there is a super fast lift or plenty of them. I may be on my own but personally unlike the advice of the New York Times I don’t want a ‘fine dining room’ if that means fine dining prices, especially as I’ve come to enjoy the museum with my family for free. Enjoying some history and culture for ‘nowt’ and then being fleeced for food wouldn’t do it for me.

  18. Cheers for allowing us to use our own website to have an opinion. And, you’re right – I love the fact the restaurant is so brilliant and popular and bang on the money that it has acres of space. I’m a carer for a registered blind person, and I hope the museum keeps up its successful use of empty space, because it’s certainly a breeze for us to negotiate a path to a table. Keep it up!

  19. Wow! Can’t believe the reviews and the talk on here… I took a group of mums, with a group of 6 year olds and a new born to the maritime muesum. The only little girl with us, with a huge personaility asked if we could eat here because of the views. We all agreed, thought the menus where FAB! you give me another place where the kids can have ‘proper’ food which isn’t fried on the Albert dock! The kids love the egg and soldiers and the kids sized bangers and mash. Service was SUPERB!! The kids wanted to meet the chef, and so she came out. What a fab lady, kids were inspired about her. Waiting on staff looked after all of us really well, not an easy thing with a big bunch of 6 year olds!! The staff told us of other events coming up at the museums, and we’ve just come back form that event. Kids, and adults, have all had a another superb time. So as far as we’re concerned, keep up the good work because we’ll keep coming back and shouting what a fab time we had there!!!

  20. I’m sorry Julie, but here’s one example of veni, vidi… ekhm, want to forget.

    My boyfriend and I went to the Maritime Dining Rooms last year, full of hope, only to be greeted by an overpriced scarce menu presented to us by a grumpy waiter.

    It would have been a weekend (work through the week, so no time for dining out), between 1 pm and 4 pm. The museum was packed. We got to the top floor and found two other diners (plus five or six floor staff) in the giant room.

    We sat down and enjoyed the amazing views (throught dirty windows, but I understand it’s not an easy job to keep them clean); I even expressed the opinion that I could see myself having my wedding reception there.

    Like I said before, we were very disappointed by the menu, but having read about the quality of food, we were still in good spirits.

    And then the food arrived. I can honestly say I have never before or since had such a bad meal anywhere else in Liverpool, museum-based or not.

    Taking into consideration the number of diners and the fact that the staff had NOWT to do, waiting 25 mins for a bill was a bit much, too. In the end I just walked up to the bar and paid.

    Needless to say, we won’t be coming again any time soon, unless you radically change your ways and SevenStreets lets us know about it.

  21. Stephen F.

    We had perhaps THE WORST RESTAURANT EXPERIENCE EVER at the Maritime Museum Dining Rooms yesterday, a family gathering. Astonishingly bad service, cold and indifferent food (6 or 7 meals sent back), inexperienced staff, very slow service, lack of care and very little attention given. Simply unbelievable. Such potential – what a waste. This was a special day for us and a rare family gathering – marred by amateur night at the Museum. A Toby Carvery is better: food of a similar quality but a lot cheaper and with better trained and friendlier staff.

  22. I know from sources within NML and NML Trading which is the business side of the venture that looks after the restaurant and several others.
    It seems to me the Blind leading the blind here, if it was a commercially run restaurant something would of been done about this months and months ago but because it sits under the umbrella of NML and the goverment its left to roll, This must be haemorrhage thousands of pounds everyweek as i have never seen t full how do they get away with this, and more to the point its never going to get full with the remarks that are on here,
    It would be more use as a derelict restaurant that way it would not haemorrhage governments money that could be used for hospitals, nurses etc.

  23. I went along to the Maritime Dining Rooms recently to see it for myself – open mind and all that.

    It was around 3pm on a Sunday and we were looking for some afternoon tea, perhaps a late lunch, but told there was no ‘hot food’. Oh, what about some sandwiches then? Nope – not sure how this was included among the hot food, but there you go.

    We sat down in the chilly and quite empty room, perused the menu for ten minutes, didn’t see anyone come back for our order and made our way to the Tate cafe instead.

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