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Museum Restaurants Upgrade from Ho-Hum to Oh, Yum


It’s been 20 years since the much-decorated chef Danny Meyer opened The Modern, his Michelin-starred restaurant in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was a gambit that declared museum cafés could do better than stale sandwiches and plastic-wrapped fruit. These days, lunch entrées like the restaurant’s scallops glazed with goldbar squash and chanterelle mushrooms or hand-cut tagliolini with shaved black truffles remain extra special, but they’re no longer an outlier.

Across town, for example, in the Neue Galerie—a much smaller but elegant museum devoted to Austrian and German art and design (one of Gustav Klimt’s most iconic works, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, resides here)—Café Sabarsky is an iconic European café. After a recent renovation of the gallery’s Beaux Arts mansion, this spot-on Kaffeehaus is still the place to sink into a banquette covered in a floral Otto Wagner-patterned fabric, grab a newspaper from a wooden rack, and flag down a waiter in a black vest and long white apron to request Viennese delights like Einspänners and Sacher torte.

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Restaurants like these have proven that appealing to a multitude of senses makes, well, sense for weary museumgoers 
(and even, in some cases, as destination restaurants). Tasked with the challenge of extending the cultural immersion beyond the exhibition halls, these dining spots “foster a deeper appreciation for the surrounding artwork,” says Emily Burster of Constellation Culinary Group, which operates more than a dozen such eateries across the country.

The Barnes Garden RestaurantThe Barnes’ Garden Restaurant; Photo courtesy of Constellation Culinary Group

One of those is Hudson Garden Grill, which enjoys an especially beautiful setting in the Bronx. Located at the New York Botanical Garden, the restaurant’s arched windows and blonde wood paneling establish a serene tone, while its sprawling terrace rests in the shadow of the garden’s iconic 1902 Conservatory and is surrounded by potted zinnias and coleus. 

Constellations is also behind two beautiful museum restaurants in Philadelphia. At The Barnes, sate yourself on Renoir’s lavish landscapes and Cezanne’s bountiful fruit arrangements. Then move on to the Garden Restaurant, a bright room where the view (of a verdant walled terrace) and the food (locally sourced but globally inspired) compete for your attention. A thrumming open kitchen and graphic wool tapestries (an homage to Matisse’s La Danse, found elsewhere at the museum) by Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra complete the picture. The menu typically includes a few classic sandwiches and brunch entrées along with seasonal offerings tied to special exhibits.

decoratively plated food Museum restaurants’ colorful, flavorful fare can be an artwork itself in dishes served at Crystal Bridges’ Eleven; Photo courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

A few blocks up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently unveiled its fine dining offering: Stir. Part of a 110,000-square-foot substantially subterranean expansion designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, this intimate restaurant is a subdued symphony of coffee-hued leather chairs and marble tables nestled under a suspended fixture of woven Douglas fir beams that fold in and over themselves.

In Baltimore, not only was Chef John Shields a pioneer in bringing the farm-to-table movement to town, but he did so by opening Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen at the Baltimore Museum of Art. For nearly 25 years, diners have dipped into a sprawling menu of all things oyster and crab while enjoying views of the museum’s lush sculpture garden, where works by Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi and Auguste Rodin await. The room’s upholstered banquettes and white tablecloths ensure a grown-up experience, making it popular for Sunday brunch and weekday dinner, which are offered even when the museum is closed.

The new Cardamom restaurant at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center also overlooks a sculpture garden, one best known for its iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. A garden-like atmosphere permeates the sun-splashed and plant-filled dining room outfitted with natural wood tables, woven cane chairs and bright blue tiles. The sophisticated but casual menu is sprinkled with Turkish and Moroccan spices like sumac, za’atar and, yes, cardamom, but kids also are attended to with grilled cheese, chicken tenders and burgers.

Cardamom at the Walker Art CenterCardamom at the Walker Art Center; Photo by Anne Victoria Photography/Courtesy of Walker Art Center

At the Garden Terrace, a beer garden at the Indianapolis Art Museum and Galleries at Newfields, tables shaded by broad umbrellas beckon outside of a 1940s brick building that once served as the “playhouse” for the family of pharmaceutical heir J.K. Lilly, whose estate serves as the museum’s grounds. Start with a cold glass of Indy-brewed beer (choose from a half-dozen local options), and then order up a Bavarian pretzel and grilled bratwurst—root beer and American hot dogs are available for kids—or a glass of wine and a hummus plate.

With its arching wood ceilings, expansive glass windows and suspended sculpture—Hanging Heart by Jeff Koons—Eleven at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is a work of art itself. As with the rest of the Bentonville, Arkansas, complex, which was designed by architect Moshe Safdie and employs a series of curving pavilions and pedestrian bridges, it lovingly nestles in the embrace of the surrounding Ozark landscape. That sense of place extends to Eleven’s menu, which skews Southern, with lunch items like a classic muffuletta and pork shoulder and grits. Every Thursday and Friday evening, the menu switches to cocktails and light bites and often offers a special five-course dinner from Executive Chef Timothy Ordway.

Each of these restaurants emphasizes that just as its host institution contributes to a region’s cultural capital, so, too, does the experience of enjoying a glass of wine and a civilized meal in an artful setting.