The production was conceived to tie-in both with the BBC's Africa Lives season of programming, and with the global Make Poverty History campaign, for which writer Curtis was a prominent campaigner. As such, it was also shown in South Africa on the same day as its UK and US premieres. Curtis was better-known as a writer of romantic comedy films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually (the latter of which he also directed and had featured Nighy). Although The Girl in the Café does contain some of his trademark comedy elements, it is generally more serious in tone and attempts to highlight the issues of poverty and fair trade.
On BBC One, the programme gained an audience of 5.5 million, a 29% share of the total television audience watching over its ninety minute duration, winning its timeslot. The opinions, however, were divided.
No one among a first rate cast seemed sure if they were in a lightweight film with a heavyweight theme or a heavyweight film with lightly drawn characters. The tone was strangely solemn and the atmosphere cold, as though the film-makers had done a crash course in serious European cinema and decided that the key to its success was stilted conversation... There will be those who will argue that the normal critical judgments ought not to apply when the cause is so worthy. But drama is no more exempt from protest than economics.
Sarah Vine, being herself a wife to a conservative politician, argued in The Times that the message was devaluated by the oversimplification of the problem. In her opinion the main weakness of the film is the belief that the leaders of G8 can do anything to actually handle poverty.:
The Girl in the Café had one unforgivable and entirely avoidable flaw: oversimplification. Presenting a complex issue in such a one-dimensional way is not only patronising, it also devalues the message. Michael Moore-ism has its place in this world, but not on the BBC, and not at the taxpayer's expense.[...] It is deeply wrong that 30,000 children should die each day because of poverty. But it is equally wrong to suggest that eight men in a room, however deep their pockets or willing their hearts, can simply wave a magic wand and make it all go away.
However, the film gained positive reviews too, with Alessandre Stanley from The New York Times stating:
The film may seem preachy and quixotic, but actually, celebrity finger-pointing seems to work. The film tries to humanize a vast, complex problem, not through the African victims, but through pampered Western protagonists who lack the courage of their convictions. That approach is not consistent with the structure of the film. It doesn't matter. The awkward romance is compelling, mostly because Mr. Nighy is so good.
There were also more positive reactions. Previewing the programme before transmission, Sarah Crompton was very enthusiastic when writing for The Daily Telegraph:
Though I am convinced by the need to take radical action against extreme poverty, I recognise that others are doubtful. But what I find so moving about The Girl in the Café... is its absolute belief in the power of drama to transform thinking.
Macdonald and Nighy were both nominated at the 2006 Golden Globe Awards for their performances in the production, while the film and Macdonald received Emmy wins. David Yates and Fiona Weir were also nominated at the Emmy Awards for Outstanding Directing and Casting respectively.