Imagine 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.