Continuing caterer Benugo's bid to re-envision the catering in public spaces, the Serpentine Bar & Kitchen has performed a long-overdue transformation to Hyde Park's lakeside café. Tom Vaughan reports.
"Typically," says Ben Warner with characteristic sangfroid, "public space catering is a rip-off."
It's a statement that rings particularly true about the old Dell café, the largely unpopular sandwich-peddler that until early this year inhabited Patrick Gwynne's angular glass building on the eastern edge of the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park.
Before Benugo - the company run by Ben and his brother Hugo - moved in a month ago, the café fell foul to the mentality many public space caterers are susceptible to, according to Warner; the thought that because they have a seated audience they can charge what they like.
So the first thing you notice about the menu at the new Serpentine Bar and Kitchen is its good value, especially for a location that, on a sunny day, ranks among London's biggest tourist traps. Main courses are all under £10.
The reason behind the fair pricing, says Warner, is that on a sunny day, the cover numbers will be naturally high anyway - a recent sunny day brought 400 covers, not including grab'n'go sandwiches - while on rainy or cold days, the site needs to be good enough value to work as a destination.
The room itself has taken on a more pastoral look, almost like an upmarket nursery, with plants on the table, wooden deckchairs lining the Serpentine and tables of homemade cakes and jams inside.
The food is the type you could expect in a decent gastropub, just £2-£3 cheaper, and with a light lunch kind of focus. Costs are kept down with an emphasis on cheap but summery fish and meat cuts.
A ham hock and tarragon terrine comes with piccalilli (£6), chargrilled sardines with a pea shoot salad (£6.50), and chunky courgette and feta croquettes with purple sprouting broccoli (£7.50). There's an English garden salad with a softly poached egg (£7.25), a grilled tuna niÇoise salad (£9.50) and cold roast leg of lamb with haricot bean purée (£9.75).
The whole menu exudes an English summeriness (at present - wait for winter's braised meats and stews) with the happy invasion of one or other cultures, most notably the wood-fired oven pizzas, ranging from £7.50 to £9.50.
One plan is for Sunday roasts to be introduced. Surely they'll have to broach the £10 price ceiling for that?
"We hope not," says Warner. "It's about volume. If you're at a good price point, plenty of people will be using you and it's about ensuring that a lot of those are not just doing it at sunny, peak times."
The café still has a grab'n'go feel to it despite the kitchen and the à la carte menu. There are cakes, sandwiches and salads stocked on tables and cold units by the door. There's a coffee point in the corner and customers still order at the bar.
It's this informality that will play into Benugo's hands in the summer. With 20 staff needed to manage the 150 covers inside, let alone the 150 outside seats, customers can just buy a sandwich inside and eat it at one of the many picnic tables.
There are plans for an ice-cream van selling Benugo's own gelato, as well as a decked out garden shed selling drinks and coffees.
After displaying the Midas touch so far in their re-envisioning of public space catering - including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Museum of London - the brothers look set to continue their lofty and overdue aim, in Warner's words, "to change perceptions of public space catering."
ALSO ON THE MENU
- Soup of the day, £4.50
- Roast meat sandwich, £6.50
- Warm fennel, courgette and baby leek salad, £7
- Salmon fish cakes with herb leaves and coleslaw, £6.50
- Mussels with shallots and cider, £9
- Potted brown shrimp and crayfish with toast, £8
- Roast spring chicken with shallots and orange, £9
- Tomato, mozzarella and oregano pizza, £7.50
- Courgette, pine nuts, pesto and Cashel blue pizza, £8.50
Serpentine Bar & Kitchen, Serpentine Road, Hyde Park, London, W2 2UH