Starved for great art? Just plain starved? Lately dining at art museums has become as enticing as seeing the exhibits. The cafeteria chow, wilted salads, or soggy sandwiches have made way for white-linen, full-service gourmet fare. It’s a win-win-win. Top chefs and innovative restaurateurs set up shop in a dynamic setting with a guaranteed clientele. Museums get a chic amenity that can boost traffic at new and ongoing exhibitions. You get a good meal.
Not a card-carrying museum member? There are no promises you won’t join after finding plate presentations that could rival some masterpieces, but no worries about getting a table. Most of these restaurants have separate entrances. And although many still shadow their landlords' days and hours of operation, it’s a good idea to call and verify when the cafés are open.
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle; (206) 903-5291
“Contemporary yet inviting” is how Taste describes its space within the newly expanded Seattle Art Museum. The same can be said for the menu under the watchful eye of executive chef Craig Hetherington, who has forged relationships with regional cheese makers, farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. Lunch might include a Chardonnay poached chicken salad or mini organic beef burgers with gouda, Dijon aioli, and pickled jalapeno, while dinner might feature slow-roasted organic short ribs. Washington state’s short growing season keeps Hetherington on his toes, and he constantly changes offerings to reflect local availability. “My favorite items tend to be the ones that we can only get for two months or in small amounts. For example, Jones Creek Farms sells us heirloom tomatoes, but we only get them for about six weeks. But it’s worth it,” he says.
Denver Art Museum, Denver; (303) 534-1455
When the Denver Art Museum—with its chic new building by architect Daniel Libeskind—opted to offer patrons more than just a cute café, it called on celebrity chef Kevin Taylor and his partner Denise Mease. Collaborating with the museum, they decided to fill the sleek, glass-and-steel dining room with artwork—all original and for sale—from a local gallery.
And patrons do buy—not just signature dishes like Colorado lamb chops with goat-cheese mashed potatoes or crispy potato-crushed diver scallops with cauliflower and caper-raisin emulsion, but oils, collages, mosaics, and other pieces ranging from $4,000 to $25,000. But perhaps what really draws diners is the artistry of the Cobb salad, a nine-year menu tradition, which is presented to resemble a painter’s palette. In fact the only complaint about this sleek spot, famed for its ever-evolving “contemporary American” cuisine, is that it’s only open for dinner on Friday nights.
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art; Madison, Wisconsin, (608) 663-7374
Whether guests come for the sculptures and stay for the food or come to eat and discover an unexpected world of art, neither Fresco nor the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art disappoints. Perched on the rooftop, Fresco boasts panoramic views of the Wisconsin state capitol and its surroundings. Dine indoors, or in warmer months, “al fresco.” In fact, that phrase’s literal translation, "fresh," is the watchword for executive chef John Jerabek, a Saturday regular at the famed Dane County Farmer’s Market, one of the largest in the country. Menus change bi-weekly based on seasonal ingredients, such as Kodiak Island halibut or sashimi-grade scallops served with mascarpone polenta and applewood-smoked bacon. Jerabek is so in tune with local farmers that he hosts a monthly five-course Farmers’ Market Dinner, with local suppliers on hand to talk about their products. Your only distraction may be the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that front the museum’s Sculpture Garden, which showcase works by such artists as Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen, and Tony Cragg.
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri;
Even executive chef Jennifer Maloney admits that the interior of Cafe Sebastienne is “loud.” What she means is “bold, colorful, dynamic—wow!” The History of Art, a series of 110 paintings by Frederick James Brown, fills the restaurant’s walls. But this eye-popping gallery doesn’t divert from Maloney’s artful, ever-changing menu, known to draw clientele from neighboring states. The reason is clear: devotion to seasonal ingredients, sustainable seafood, and organic produce. A grilled, molasses-brined pork chop from nearby Kurobata farm, served with potato puree, braised red cabbage, and spiced-pear butter or pan-roasted chicken with lemon-caper-rosemary jus and creamy polenta, please both the eye and the palate. And should you want to discuss your surrounding art-scape look no further than the waiters, many of whom are working artists. At least they aren’t starving.
Museum of Modern Art, New York City; (212) 333-1220
This four-star restaurant proves that art doesn’t just live on walls. Under the skillful watch of executive chef Gabriel Kreuther, The Modern has set a new standard for art-museum dining. To accommodate a variety of budgets, moods, and dining schedules, The Modern encompasses two areas, each with distinctive menus. The Bar Room is inspired by Kreuther’s Alsatian roots, with casual and rustic offerings, like beer-braised pork belly with sauerkraut and ginger jus. The dining room favors French-American cuisine with chorizo-crusted codfish, a favorite for East Coast diners. Both prix-fixé and tasting menus are offered at dinner, while lunch is à la carte. Everything from the artwork to the Danish furniture and tableware by modernist designers reflects the MoMA style. The dining room overlooks the famed Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden; while the Bar Room boasts a single, huge photograph called “Clearing,” by artist Thomas Demand.