Top Museum Restaurants: Where the Fine Arts Meet the Finest Food
Photo By: SCOTT SUCHMAN ©Photo by Scott Suchman
Photo By: Sara Ketterer ©Sara Ketterer
Photo By: Piper Warlick ©©2013 Piper Warlick Photography
Photo By: Alice Gao ©Alice Gao Photography
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©Todd Porter & Diane Cu-Porter
Photo By: Jeff Kauck for Terzo Piano
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Photo By: Renée Comet ©© Renée Comet 2009
Sweet Home Cafe at National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.
Sweet Home Cafe, overseen by culinary ambassador Carla Hall and award-winning Executive Chef Jerome Hall (previously of Mitsitam), showcases the culture and history of African-Americans through food with traditional dishes and modern interpretations. Ingredients are sourced from local, sustainable growers when possible, and the cafe favors products from African-American-owned businesses. Those components are used in four distinct stations that represent regions deeply impacted by African-American culinary traditions. The Agricultural South station serves items like buttermilk fried chicken and Brunswick stew. At the Creole Coast station, you’ll find pan-fried Louisiana catfish po’ boys. In the North States, you can try Caribbean-style pepper pots and oyster pan roasts, and at the Western Range, you can order dishes like “Son of a Gun” stew and pan-roasted rainbow trout with cornbread.
Go to: Sweet Home Cafe
In Situ at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
In the art world, the term “in situ” refers to works of art housed in their indigenous locations. It’s an interesting play on words, because this place does the exact opposite of what the title indicates. French Laundry alumnus Corey Lee (also of Benu and Monsieur Benjamin) teamed up with international culinary icons to create a menu of famed dishes sourced from their acclaimed restaurants. None of the menu items are original to Lee. Instead, he flawlessly executes items like Wylie Dufresne’s modernist shrimp and grits from WD-50, Thomas Keller’s Liberty Ducks duck breast from The French Laundry and David Chang’s spicy sausage rice cake straight out of Momofuku Ssam Bar.
Go to: In Situ
The Modern at The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Set in one of the most-beloved museums in the city — which is certainly a statement in a city known for its cultural institutions — The Modern’s setting is nearly as impressive, with a prime view of The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. The interior blends harmoniously with the rest of the emblematic, contemporary-design institution. With Danny Meyer running the show, the food is just as striking, and has earned multiple James Beard Foundation Awards and two Michelin stars. Executive Chef Abram Bissell offers visually appealing a la carte dishes with clean flavors, such as marinated hamachi with green apple relish and sorrel, olive oil-poached black bass, and chicken glazed in foie gras. End with a visually striking dessert by Pastry Chef Jiho Kim, like truffle-corn bread pudding or green apple vacherin.
Photography courtesy of Nathan Rawlinson
Go to: The Modern
Bixby's in the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis
Inspired by the late cultural philanthropist William K. Bixby, this light-filled restaurant serves American fare made with regional ingredients for lunch and Sunday brunch. Fun and comforting entrees include a pastrami Reuben, the Ultimate Grilled Cheese (made with cheddar, Swiss, Havarti and housemade herb cheese) and pan-seared kohlrabi “scallops” with butter bean puree, quinoa and Brussels sprout slaw. On Sundays, the champagne brunch buffet, a local favorite, includes a la carte Belgian waffles, customizable omelets and a Benedict of the day, all with idyllic panoramas of Forest Park as a backdrop.
Go to: Bixby's
Le Beaux Eats
Museums may be lovely places to view art, but traditionally most hadn’t mastered the art of good food. But across the country, cultural institutions are upping their dining game. Museums in cities of all sizes are bringing in local favorites and national celebrity chefs and restaurateurs to overhaul and enrich their culinary offerings, sometimes matching cuisines to the works on display. Looking to take in both culture and quality food? Here are a few top museum restaurants around the country.
Photography courtesy of Piper Warlick Photography
Untitled at the Whitney, New York City
Danny Meyer’s latest art-centered establishment is housed in the relocated Whitney Museum of American Art in New York’s Meatpacking District. Encased in floor-to-ceiling glass windows with light-wood accents and minimalist dining tables and chairs, the space feels like a gallery, blending seamlessly with the Renzo Piano-designed museum. The fare echoes the modern feel with beautifully plated, seasonal, vegetablecentric dishes prepared by James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Michael Anthony. Anticipate items like grilled white shrimp with green beans and cornbread, a lunchtime burger with pimento cheese, and Arctic char with cabbage, anchovy and trout roe. End a meal with one of the desserts by Pastry Chef Miro Uskokovic, which include matcha cake with strawberries and almond sesame brittle, and triple chocolate chunk cookies with milk. It’s all paired with an extensive selection of wines sourced from around the globe.
Photography courtesy of Alice Gao
Go to: Untitled at the Whitney
The Source by Wolfgang Puck at The Newseum, Washington, D.C.
Attached to the newscentric Newseum, Wolfgang Puck’s well-named The Source is Washingtonians’ source for high-end pan-Asian food. Executive Chef Scott Drewno has earned numerous accolades for his widely varied dishes, including delicate dim sum, Hong Kong-style whole fish and spicy tuna cones. Drewno, who regularly travels throughout Asia to improve his techniques, recently unveiled a Szechuan-inspired hot pot of 20-hour broth simmered with assorted meats, searing Szechuan peppercorns, chiles and chile oil, served family style at a special custom-designed table.
Go to: The Source
The Norm at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn
Manhattan’s cultural institutions may get more attention, but one of Kings County’s best-kept secrets is the impressive collection at the Brooklyn Museum, including remarkable Egyptian art. At house restaurant The Norm, diners can gaze at some of the works while noshing on globally inspired fare, since the back wall of the intimate dining room is lined with masterworks from the museum’s treasury. To match the worldly ambience, Chef Saul Bolton prepares dishes that represent Brooklyn’s cultural diversity, inspired by India, the Middle East, Japan, Mexico, the Caribbean and various regions of the United States. On chilly days you can settle in for tonkatsu-style ramen. When eggplant is in season, Bolton grills it and layers it with a sweet tomato marinade, topped with sesame seeds, mint and pickled red chiles over tahini. There’s even roast chicken slathered in mole poblano, which is like the culinary version of a Pollock painting.
Verde at Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami
Admire vast views of Biscayne Bay on Verde’s outdoor terrace or from the modern, airy dining room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. Just like the rest of the contemporary museum, the restaurant was designed by renowned architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, featuring concrete walls contrasted with gauzy draperies, light-wood tables, neutral banquettes and cool pendant lamps. Executive Chef Kaytlin Brakefield’s menu showcases local seafood dishes and meats, served in appropriate (not gigantic) portion sizes. Anticipate lunch dishes like tuna tartare, seasonal ceviches, housemade soups, thin-crust pizzas and large plates such as pan-seared striped bass, sweet-corn ravioli and chicken under a brick. The drinks menu includes a well-curated list of wines, specialty cocktails (like Bayfront sangria) and excellent coffees.
Go to: Verde
Ray’s and Stark Bar at LACMA, Los Angeles
Art is all around at this fine Mediterranean restaurant, just steps from LACMA’s legendary Urban Lights installation. All the design aspects, inside and out — the retro red chairs, the white wire bar stools, the fanciful blue and gold wallpaper — are completely unique, creating a setting that feels like walking into the home of that cool friend who went to art school. The cocktails and food are interesting, too. Mixologist Evan Charest crafts drinks that pair well with the creative, globally inspired fare. Options include a white Negroni and a mezcal-Campari drink that tastes similar to a margarita. Executive Chef Fernando Darin serves classic wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas and genre-defying plates like gnocchi with sunchokes and mole, and chicken with black barley, sumac yogurt and an almond crust.
Go to: Ray's and Stark Bar
Cafe Noma at New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans
Set inside the New Orleans Museum of Art, Cafe Noma is run by NOLA restaurant royalty: Ralph Brennan, one of the third-generation cousins of the Brennan family. He co-owns Mr. B’s Bistro and the storied Commander’s Palace, in addition to more than a half-dozen of his own restaurants, including this modern Louisiana bistro that overlooks City Park. Executive Chef Chris Montero offers his unique spin on lunch fare with dishes like roasted beet or beef brisket sliders and house-cured salmon bruschetta with cucumber cream cheese, green onions and capers. In summer, don’t miss the peach salad with honey-roasted peaches, baby spinach, toasted almonds, shaved red onion and dried cranberries with honey-yogurt dressing.
Go to: Cafe Noma
Terzo Piano at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
The bright dining room of James Beard Foundation Award winner Tony Mantuano’s upscale restaurant inside the Art Institute of Chicago feels like a gallery itself, with beautiful monochromatic decor and plenty of natural light. Chef Carolina Diaz prepares simple yet inventive lunch and brunch dishes, such as bourbon-espresso French toast and charred octopus salad with eggplant, chickpeas, arugula and carrot-ginger puree. Make sure to plan an evening visit on a Thursday, when Terzo Piano is open late for dinner. The views are even more brilliant when the sun sets, and the extensive wine and cocktail list goes well beyond what is required of a museum restaurant, with Italian aperitivi and new inventions like the Fashioned Pumpkin, a seasonal riff on the old fashioned.
Photography courtesy of Jeff Kauck
Go to: Terzo Piano
Palettes Contemporary Cuisine at the Denver Art Museum, Denver
Opened in 1997, Palettes was far ahead of the chef-driven-museum-restaurant curve. Run by Chef Kevin Taylor, the breathtaking restaurant serves modern American fare with global influences —popcorn shrimp and grits, crispy eggplant gateau. On weekdays, diners can try a three-course prix-fixe menu for $34. Weekends mean specials on mimosas and Bloody Marys. With soaring windows, the sleek space offers sweeping views of the iconic, postmodern Hamilton building, but there’s even more eye candy inside: Original artworks are displayed throughout the space.
Eleven at Crystal Bridges, Bentonville, Ark.
Founded by the Walton Family Foundation in 2005, Crystal Bridges opened to the public on 11/11/11 with the goal of celebrating the American spirit through a permanent collection featuring five centuries of American masterworks. The aptly named on-site restaurant, Eleven, has a natural feel, with arched ceilings and soaring windows overlooking the museum’s spring-fed ponds and surrounding forests. The cuisine leans toward modern comfort food inspired by the works and regional history of the Ozarks. The High South Chef Salad uses local pork with Ozark root mash and mustard-cider sauce, and is served with jalapeno cornbread.
Go to: Eleven at Crystal Bridges
Bravo at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
A welcome break from the 500,000 pieces at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Bravo sits on the second floor of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. The seasonally rotating menu features skillfully prepared local ingredients for lunch, dinner and brunch. Dishes incorporate beloved Boston ingredients, like corn veloute with a New England-approved lobster beignet. Brunch tends toward crowd-pleasers, including Nutella French toast and a vegetablecentric plate of eggs and hash. Linger over a well-curated wine list that’s earned accolades on its own.
Photography courtesy of Chuck Choi
Go to: Bravo
Halcyon, Flavors From the Earth at the Mint Museum Uptown, Charlotte, N.C.
Complementing the contemporary craft and design collection of the Mint Museum Uptown, Halcyon displays its own visual feast inside the dining room, with a stone fountain, a chandelier of branches and stunning tables made from the cross-sections of giant trees. Chef James Stouffer’s fare nods at nature with rustic fare, including housemade charcuterie (think cured duck, wild boar, saucisson sec), braised bison and fried oysters.
Photography courtesy of Piper Warlick Photography
Mitsitam Cafe at Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.
Long considered one of the best restaurants on the National Mall, this cafeteria-style restaurant within the Smithsonian’s American Indian museum specializes in Native American cuisine from various locations in the Western Hemisphere. Mitsitam means “Let’s eat!” (a fitting sentiment) in the Native language of the Piscataway and Delaware peoples, but the cafe offers a large variety of foods from many places. Each of the five stations represents a geographic region’s culinary heritage, and all change with the seasons. From the Northern Woodlands — spanning much of the East Coast — try crawfish cakes and autumnal maple-brined turkey with cranberry relish. The Great Plains station serves excellent buffalo chili fry-bread tacos. Mesoamerican slowly braised beef tongue tacos and tamales with chorizo await in South America, and there’s cedar-roasted salmon and a live-action poke station representing the Northwest Coast.
Photography courtesy of Renée Comet Photography, Inc., Restaurant Associates and Smithsonian Institution
Go to: Mitsitam Cafe
Bajo Sexto Taco at Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville
Translating to “sixth bass,” a bajo sexto is the largest guitar used in a mariachi band. The ties to Nashville are not direct, but they’re close enough, and the food here is fantastic. Handmade tortillas are the base for flavorful tacos like the smoked local pork carnitas, guajillo-rubbed beef and chapulines (roasted grasshopper). The taqueria has a team of culinary rock stars behind it: It’s co-owned by acclaimed chef Jonathan Waxman and overseen by Oaxacan-born chef Kaelin Ulrich Trilling, son of one of Mexico’s most-important culinarians, Susana Trilling. While there’s a second location with a deeper menu and expanded hours on Charlotte Avenue, this quick-service outpost serves excellent nachos, flautas, burritos and quesadillas, along with some of the best margaritas in town.
Go to: Bajo Sexto Taco