America's Best Museum Restaurants
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.
Provenance, Cleveland Museum of Art
Provenance does in fact know the origins and lineage of food served in the 76-seat dining room (plus a casual café with atrium plaza seating). “Curator of Food” Doug Katz offers a changing three-course prix fixe menu that ties in with special exhibits, as well as items like pan-roasted striped trout and Moroccan braised chicken. The French-inspired Mary Cassatt menu has included salade de chèvre, beef bourguignon, and crème caramel. clevelandart.org
M. Wells Dinette, MoMA PS1, Queens, NY
Opened in fall 2012, the newest museum restaurant on our list is full of surprises: head cheese, fresh goat liver, and veal brains, for starters. Dishes here are as experimental as the contemporary artwork on display, thanks to chef Hugue Dufour (of Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon) and his wife, Sarah Obraitis. Set up like a classroom, with long desks for communal dining, M. Wells will school you in the art of transforming animal fat and innards into a satisfying meal. momaps1.org
Halcyon, Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC
The restaurant’s tagline is “flavors from the earth,” so don’t be surprised if your server shares exactly which farm provided the ingredients for the day’s menu specialties. Halcyon’s design brings the outside in with lovely touches like a chandelier made from twigs and a trickling stone fountain. Adventurous eaters can add crispy pig ears to salads and pasta or enjoy a tour de force spice-lacquered duck breast with truffled cauliflower and turnip purée, smoked and fried cabbage, and glazed beets. halcyonflavors.com
Gather, Walker Art Museum, Minneapolis
Gather by D’Amico, which replaced a Wolfgang Puck Asian fusion restaurant, has introduced a fresh dose of inventive salads and entrées like buttermilk-marinated chicken with artichokes, sweet peas, chard, and burrata. Every first Thursday of the month, the museum stays open late, and Gather obliges with happy hour specials and a unique tasting menu concocted by a guest chef (5–7 p.m.). gatherbydamico.com
Collections Café, Chihuly Garden and Glass, Seattle
A museum in its own right, Collections Café honors glass artist Dale Chihuly’s passion for collecting objects. Vintage accordions hang from the ceiling, and glass-topped dining tables double as display cases for clocks and toy soldiers. The food is Northwest hearty: a pressed pork sandwich with apple butter and spicy cider vinegar slaw; grilled wild salmon with green onion spaetzle, cauliflower, and porcini butter. And you can expect plenty of craft beers and regional wines. chihulygardenandglass.com
Ray’s and Stark Bar, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Named after legendary film producer Ray Stark, this Renzo Piano–designed glass box with an open-air bar is a perfect setup for people-watching. Chef Kris Morningstar’s wood-burning oven and wood-fired grill produce trendy rustic fare like steelhead salmon with beet purée, chanterelle mushrooms, boudin noir, kale, and lime brown butter. His bar bites menu includes a wood-roasted chile stuffed with chorizo, and dates and local goat cheese with an almond sauce. Stop by on a Monday night for the three-course tasting menu and signature cocktail flights. raysandstarkbar.com
Palette, Phoenix Art Museum
Newcomer Palette has already become a go-to local choice for Sunday brunch alfresco—say, bread pudding French toast or lump blue crab cakes and a mimosa. Follow up the meal with a screening from the museum’s film series. Lunch features seasonal tarts, truffled wild mushroom macaroni and cheese, and slow-roasted pork tacos. For the First Friday of each month, when the museum is free, Palette offers a special on appetizers or local wines. phxart.org
Bixby’s, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis
Since 2011, visitors to Forest Park’s three museums and zoo can look forward to the added treat and pick-me-up of a meal at Bixby’s. Fans rave about the charred Amish chicken and special menu inspirations like this winter’s persimmon theme, which inspired dishes like a persimmon and black walnut chicken salad with radish sprouts and pea-shoot pesto. bixbys-mohistory.com
Café Noma, New Orleans Museum of Art
With floor-to-ceiling windows and couches as well as seats at the bar and at high and low tables, Café Noma feels more like a living room than a restaurant. It’s open for lunch or snacking on bruschetta, a pulled-pork slider with slaw, a roasted gulf shrimp salad, or whatever else tickles your fancy. Owner Ralph Brennan’s “Eat Drink and Play” option of flatbread pizza with a glass of house red or white wine is available for $10 on Fridays. cafenoma.com
Robert, Museum of Arts and Design, New York City
Make a point to reserve a window seat at Robert in advance, as the biggest selling point is the entrancing view of Columbus Circle and Central Park below. Live jazz during dinner and Sunday brunch amplifies the romantic mood, as does the design: orchid-pink hues, cushioned furniture, and light and video installations. Food is sophisticated contemporary American, such as chorizo and potato encrusted halibut and braised pork tenderloin and pork belly with rhubarb purée. Order another round of elderflower cocktails; you won’t want to leave.
Mitsitam Native Foods Café, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.
Mitsitam, which means “let’s eat” in the Piscataway and Delaware languages, serves foods indigenous to the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Categorized at serving stations as Mesoamerica, Northern Woodlands, South America, Great Plains, and Northwest Coast, menu items range from pork shank marinated in chocolates with guava chili sauce to maple-brined turkey with cranberry maple syrup and green apple compote. Mitsitam recently launched a new espresso bar that serves Native-inspired drinks. mitsitamcafe.com
Terzo Piano and Piano Terra, The Art Institute of Chicago
Chef Tony Mantuano, whose Spiaggia is one of the country’s best Italian restaurants, is also behind Terzo Piano, a beautifully minimalist dining room flooded with natural light that overlooks the city skyline, Millennium Park, and Lake Michigan. Diners are in for bold (and organic) flavors like a pork belly appetizer with brown sugar–aleppo pepper crust and a crispy chicken breast with butternut squash, pine nuts, and currants. terzopianochicago.com