You’re visiting a fascinating museum, when suddenly you realize you’ve been caught up in the displays for hours and somehow forgot you haven’t eaten anything! Luckily, museum restaurants are getting more and more appealing, and you can step into a room just off the exhibitions and have a wonderful meal. While we all know about some of the famous ones like Danny Meyers’ spots in the Whitney and MOMA in NYC, the Renzo Piano-designed restaurant in the L.A. County Museum of Art, and the well-known venues at London’s Tate and Tate Modern, I’ve found some others you might not know about, intriguing in their diversity and well worth a visit. Of course you can eat in the restaurant without visiting the museum (or vice versa), but let’s do both, as these winning spots offer not only a convenient way to visit a captivating museum, but a culinary reason in themselves to pay a visit.
HEARD MUSEUM, PHOENIX, ARIZONA
As the country’s foremost museum of Native American art and culture, it’s no surprise that the Heard Museum’s restaurant, Courtyard Café, would have a uniquely Southwestern bent, foraying into not only native dishes, but those from nearby Mexico as well as some international favorites. Take a seat in the lovely room, adorned with photos of American Indian artistry, or on a sunny day (which they pretty much all are in Phoenix) in the umbrella-shaded courtyard surrounded by the museum buildings. Start with a dish like tepary bean hummus, made from this indigenous Arizona bean that’s long been a staple of the American Indian diet, accompanied by the indescribably wonderful Indian Fry Bread. Chilled “Three Sisters” soup is made from that trio of staples (corn, beans, and squash), while Posole and Shrimp Diablo Street Tacos show the Mexican influences so predominant here. You can also get dishes from BLTs to Impossible Burgers (and even a Vietnamese-style Shrimp Banh Mi), but my preference here is to go as Southwestern as possible for a delicious excursion into the native and local. I mean, how many other museum restaurants serve fry bread sundaes for dessert, or offer drinks like prickly pear lemonade? Word of advice: don’t plan to eat and run, as this is one of the most spectacular museums in the world, a visual feast ranging from jewelry and pottery to textiles, paintings, historical documents, photography, and an astounding collection of katsina dolls. When you’re finished with that, a feast of a different type awaits you. 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ. Tel: 602-252-8840. www.heard.org/visit/dine
ST. LOUIS ART MUSEUM, (SLAM)
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI
This is an art museum restaurant with a special appeal. Sharing the 2013 annex with several exhibit spaces, it’s a contemporary wonder (quite a contrast to the 1904-vintage museum) and boasts a spectacular view of Forest Park, where the museum is located. The cuisine here is equally modern, with the chef displaying a light touch, creative but not fussy. A must is the appetizer of crispy brussels sprouts, perfectly charry and livened by the unexpected addition of ricotta salata and sweetened by a touch of honey. Shrimp and crab top warm spaghetti squash strands in a dish that’s so good you hardly expect it to come from such healthy ingredients. An array of sandwiches, salads, and quiches is available for those wanting something a little lighter, though you might decide to splurge on banana toffee cheesecake or a luscious salted caramel brownie bar. While Panorama has its own entrance, you’re going to want to explore the museum, whose inscription in front indicates its philosophy: “Dedicated to art and free to all.” With everything from 11th century Chinese statuary and Dale Chihuly glass to paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Max Ernst, there’s enough to see here to walk off all the calories you’ve just so gloriously imbibed. As you leave, you notice the inscription on the back door: “Art still has truth—take refuge there.” That could apply to Panorama as well as the museum itself. One Fine Arts Drive, St. Louis, MO. Tel: 314-721-0072. www.slam.org/dining
THE SLOVAK NATIONAL GALLERY,
Café Berlinka is a revelation. This restaurant of Bratislava’s Slovak National Gallery is like a traditional coffeehouse catapulted into the 21st century, much like the museum itself, where rotating exhibits of stunning contemporary art fill the walls of this historic palace. Tall stone pillars, vaulted ceilings, large windows, and hanging mirrors create a classic café look. Wild murals along the ceiling vaults, a long, almost boat-shaped bar, and a DJ spinning tunes add a modern overlay. You can come for a drink, coffee and cake, or a full meal. For vegetarians, nothing beats the grilled haloumi, rich with paprika, on a bed of quinoa whose smoothness melds perfectly with the crunch of sugar snap peas. Confit chicken is accompanied by cabbage dumplings in the Slovak way, while chicken schnitzel is updated with panko and served with green beans, sesame seeds, and potato. Dessert? Choose from the daily offerings in the case, which might include a rich, hazelnutty Esterhazy cake or blueberry cheesecake, which I instantly proclaim my new favorite dessert (and I’m not even a huge cheesecake fan). The lovely staff helps you feel at home, and the crowd is perhaps the most diverse I’ve ever seen in a museum café. As I sit there, a woman perches under the bar playing with her child. A sad-eyed man nurses a beer at the next table. A guy strolls up to the bar in a suit with skulls printed on it. Two girlfriends raise glasses of red wine. It’s scene-y, not-the-usual, and fabulous. Námestie L’udovita Štúra 4, Bratislava, Slovakia. Tel: +42 1 917 392 607. www.berlinka.sk