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As Ikea revamps its restaurant menus -  why there's nothing more perfect than the department store café

Ikea cafe
Ikea now offers vegan meatballs

Stand by for big news, hold onto your lingonberry jam and cream sauce... Ikea has overhauled its menu to include vegan meatballs. Clearly, this is possibly the biggest change in the world of retail since the introduction of self-service tills.

In the interests of full disclosure, the prospect of meatballs is what keeps me going back to Ikea (how many tea lights does anyone not running a shrine on a semi-professional basis really need?).

I go to the café first, skipping around the laid-out path in what feels like a subversive act, in order to avoid a red-zone melt down around about lamps and lampshades.

The truth is, I have always loved a department store café. As a child, my favourite Saturday treat was to visit the café at Fenwick’s in Newcastle with my mum and my godmother, Pat.

Perched on the high velour banquette, I would eavesdrop on their grown-up talk over tea and toasted teacakes and watch all of the other (mostly) women, leaning forward into their conversations, elbows on the table, confiding, heavy green-and-white shopping bags at their tired feet.

Tea Girls at Fortnum and Mason

This affection for the in-store café has never left me. The combination of fairly low expectations and anonymity, invisibility, is what reels me in. In a world where every restaurant seems to be striving for a “unique offer”, and every recherché ingredient is practically signposted in neon, all the better to genuflect in front of it, there is something enormously soothing about an egg sandwich on white bread and a cup of coffee which doesn’t require a ten-minute lecture on its provenance.

In department store cafés, you seldom feel rushed. No one is turning tables. You can watch the gentle drama play out around you, creating narratives for the occupants of other tables.

There are the tired parents with bags filled with new school uniforms, slightly too big for the children burbling the last of their milkshakes through straws; the old ladies sitting cheerfully over their cups of tea, chatting, pulling scarves or brightly coloured, sturdy shoes out of shopping bags to admire one more time; and the young couples trying on domesticated adulthood for size.

I know it’s terribly fashionable now to say that you’re very happy to go to a smart restaurant on your own. But it’s not for me. If I am eating exquisite food, I want to share it with a real, live person, not just Instagram. If I’m on my own in the middle of the day, I am quite happy in a shop caff. I even like the companionable queues, picking out my own food because I like the look of it and plonking it on a tray, with no one explaining a menu concept to me. 

And the most soothing thing about department store café – or a supermarket one, or a garden centre one – is in being alone together. For some, it fulfils a similar, albeit Mammon-ish, yearning that church does for others. Side-by-side, watching the world go by, in the peaceful, low-expectation, life-enhancing calm of it.

Ikea

In my twenties, long before I had my own place, I used to love wandering around the clever little room sets in Ikea, dreaming up tiny-flat-sized schemes of my own. Today, I still love it.

The endless possibilities of myriad tubs, boxes and “organising solutions”, the cheap rugs, baskets, enamel jugs and melamine trays which, if you tricksy them up just right, can look like you bought them in Anthropologie for five times as much.

All of that, and the blessed Billy bookcase, too… no wonder you build up an appetite. Along with the totemic meatballs (they sell 150 million of them worldwide each year), who can resist the cinnamon buns, coffee and cardamom cake, or sugary, almondy Princess cake?

They were all so hygge before we even knew what hygge was. Take your beloved, if you dare. Don’t be the couple glowering at each other in silence over the Daim cake.

The roof terrace at John Lewis, Oxford Street

John Lewis

As so many of the former high-street flagships close, John Lewis is almost the last department store standing. I firmly believe nothing bad can ever happen within the cossetting bosom of John Lewis, and though its food now includes a nod to voguish wellness, with granola and Greek yoghurt, avocado toast and roast butternut squash salads, there are still enough of the comforting old regulars such as jacket potatoes, quiches and toasties which would probably have sat quite nicely on the menu at Grace Brothers, circa 1978. And thank goodness for that.

When the Oxford Street branch opened a Comptoir Libanaise, serving Lebanese food, it was a little like granny getting a tattoo – surprising, but not unwelcome.

Posh shop cafés

It used to be that a trip to Fortnum & Mason for some smart food or stationery or spoiling presents for self or others would be rounded off with a reviving pot of tea in the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon or a sundae in The Parlour, or more sustainingly, lunch in The Fountain Room.

But since 2015, the dear old Fountain Room has been replaced by the chic 45 Jermyn St, home of grilled bones with ox cheek soldiers, tagliatelle of rabbit ragout with Kalamata olives, lobster spaghetti for two (thrillingly flambéed at the table) and seriously delicious and inventive cocktails. Take a hot date. Fit some shopping in, if you must.

Supermarket cafés

I recently spent a very happy hour with my mother in the café of her local Sainsbury’s, chatting over a decent pot of tea and scones with raspberry jam and Rodda’s clotted cream. The café is on a high mezzanine, looking out over row after soothing row of produce, and pleasingly low enough still to spy on what people have in their trolleys: I wouldn’t have taken him for a coconut water guy, or her for a llama planter sort of girl, but there you are.

People are a constant surprise. A local branch of Morrison’s also has a book club which meets there every other Thursday. With the much discussed death of the high street, supermarket cafés have stepped into the breach as local hubs and meeting places. Added bonus: you can try out their ready meals before you buy a freezer-filling load of them.

Garden centre cafés

Prod a serious plant person and they won’t be able to resist telling you that nurseries, and their behemoth big brothers, garden centres, have gone to the dogs (“I have to do all of my important shopping online now,” they wail). And this is because where all was once rare and precious, green and fragrant, there are now scented candles, pet toys, bunting, chimineas, fairy lights and humorous plaques (“We’re in the garden, drinking Prosecco.” Oh, you are a one).

And cafés. Wyvale Garden Centres, one of the country’s biggest chains, offer bubble and squeak, cod and chips, shepherd’s pie, soup-and-sandwich meal deals, and over-60s offers alongside the bedding plants and perennials.

Then, there is Petersham Nursery in Richmond, which began life as a purveyor of special plants and beautiful objects with a simple teahouse on its grounds, and became – initially in the supremely talented hands of Skye Gyngell – a Michelin-starred restaurant, albeit with rush matting floors on the bare earth and bougainvillea and jasmine twirling about the place. Could there be a better place to sustain yourself while you shop? I think not. Take someone you really care about (who also has a largish wallet).

Are you an advocate of department store cafés? Let us know where your favourite cafés are in the comments section below.