One of the most anticipated openings at New York’s MoMA PS1 last year didn’t involve a painter. It was the debut of M. Wells Dinette, where chef Hugue Dufour’s one-of-a-kind dishes are as experimental as the contemporary works on display.
The latest museum restaurants have embraced haute cuisine, artist-themed menus, and farm-to-table freshness. Far from relying on travelers as a captive audience for business or sticking to packaged fast foods, restaurants such as Ray’s and Stark at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hold their own with the city’s trendiest tables—and inspire both travelers and locals to make advance reservations.
“We attract an international crowd as well as Chicagoans,” points out Tony Mantuano, executive chef of Terzo Piano at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Both groups of diners are always on the lookout for the cutting edge.” At Terzo Piano, that means bold flavors like a pork belly appetizer with brown sugar–aleppo pepper crust, plus a preference for the organic.
The strongest trend we noted among such museum restaurants is a commitment to locally sourced food made from scratch. Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO), which operates restaurants at more than a dozen museums and specialty venues, now offers crate-free pork, cage-free eggs, and humane ground beef.
“Museum food used to be an afterthought,” admits Fedele Bauccio, CEO and cofounder of BAMCO. “We’ve worked to extend the reach of the museum into the restaurant. Our chefs like to challenge themselves with special menus that enhance the guests’ experience of an exhibit,” he says, citing an example of highly stylized, black-and-white dishes prepared to complement an exhibit of Herb Ritts’s black-and-white fashion photography.
In Minneapolis, the Walker Art Museum stays open late the first Thursday of each month, and its restaurant Gather obliges with happy hour discounts and a tasting menu created by a guest chef.
Even family-friendly museums are getting creative with their food offerings. San Francisco’s Exploratorium is slated to reopen in April 2013 with a waterfront seafood restaurant that has interactive exhibits and a casual café that will host periodic food events and challenges. Can you tell the difference between a devil’s food cake with vanilla icing and a black bean cupcake with sour cream?
It’s just one of the surprises waiting at the best new museum restaurants.