DISH DETECTIVE: After the turmoil, tranquility is restored to Victoria Park’s lodge

Simple elegance at Cafe in the Park, the former Arts Lodge in Victoria Park, Portsmouth
Simple elegance at Cafe in the Park, the former Arts Lodge in Victoria Park, Portsmouth

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It’s a controversial subject and one that has provoked riots in the city in the past, but the Dish Detective wants to talk about the cafe in Victoria Park.

The Cafe in the Park, once called the Arts Lodge and run by artist Mark ‘Rocky’ Lewis famous for his city murals, changed hands this year when Portsmouth City Council evicted Mark and the artists at the end of their contract after more than 15 years.

The situation caused uproar, with petitions being signed by thousands and protests taking place in the park and outside the civic offices, which even led to Mark and four others being arrested.

Despite all that furore, the council stood firm and said it was part of a plan to upgrade the park and its facilities and also an opportunity to ‘provide adults with learning disabilities with employment’.

Fast forward nine months, and the Dish Detective is curious to see if the cafe matches up to its past charm – and if it’s living up to the council’s promises.

It reopened in June and is now run by the Society of St James – not a learning disability charity but a homeless charity. Still a worthy cause and with the growing homeless problem in Portsmouth, a charity that’s well needed and used. We’ve chosen a quiet Monday morning to visit. It’s a gloriously clear but crisp autumn day and Victoria Park is an ideal setting to stroll around with a friend and have a catch-up.

The cafe looks great. It’s had a serious makeover. It’s still the same old building, an old park keeper’s lodge built in 1877 with shutters (although these have changed colour), but the enclosed garden of days gone by has been removed and opened up with a new terrace.

A few outbuildings have gone and there are new benches out the front. It’s cold and quiet today so the front hatch is shut, and we go in via the main entrance which has also been upgraded to make it accessible for wheelchairs and pushchairs with a smooth ramp and an automatic door. We appear to be the only customers, with one table taken up with some kind of work meeting.

The counter is immediately as you walk in, with a huge chalkboard displaying the menu and a nice selection of cakes near the till.

The place feels light and bright – it’s clear to see that some serious cash and effort has gone into smartening the place up. There are highchairs and toys, which make a little boy very happy when he comes in with his grandparents shortly after us.

It takes a while before we are served, but when we are the waitress is pleasant and polite and patiently goes through the menu. My friend is a coeliac and I’m avoiding cow’s milk so between us we could be tricky customers. However we are warmly accommodated, with soy milk and gluten-free cake. There’s no gluten-free bread, but we still go for full English breakfast (£4.95). There’s also a problem with the sausages, but the chef says he’ll load our plates up with the other items.

We get two eggs, plenty of mushrooms and beans and a slice of bacon, plus toast for me. It’s a filling meal and it’s cooked fresh and is tasty. We wash the breakfast down with a can of San Pellegrino (£1.20) and a coffee (£1.95) each. It’s not just breakfasts – there’s a good-looking lunch too – with spuds, paninis, sandwiches and salads. There’s a kids’ menu too. We enjoy our meals and the atmosphere.

The waitress says that everyone working at the cafe has been affected by homelessness, and that it’s doing great work.

The Cafe in the Park may not have the ramshackle charm of days gone by, but it’s not lacking in quality – and at a reasonable price. Although the Dish Detective was sad to see the chain of events this year, the new owners are doing good work and we shouldn’t punish them for the way the council handled matters. It’s worth a visit to enjoy a bit of tranquillity in the heart of the city while supporting a good cause.

Ratings out of five:

Value 5

Children 5

Ambience 4

Food 3

The Cafe in the Park, Victoria Park, Portsmouth

Telephone 023 9282 5058