The Culinary Arts: Museum Restaurants

David Sokol and Julie Besonen, 02/24/2010

It is common wisdom that uninspired food courts are a necessary evil of the museumgoing experience. Right now, though, a revolution in museum dining is taking place in New York City, striving to eradicate memories of the mediocre canteens of days of yore. While the self-service venues still exist—cafeterias offer a particularly welcome snack break for families—the most recently launched museum restaurants feature carefully constructed dishes and interiors. At The Wright, the Guggenheim's new restaurant, chef Rodolfo Contreras' gourmet meals provide counterpoint to the sleek, spare setting designed by architect Andre Kikoski; farther south, at the Museum of Arts and Design, diners enjoy tremendous views of Central Park, a jubilant assemblage of well-known and commissioned furnishings and the handiwork of new chef Matt Kaufman. These and other sensitively curated culinary projects not only rival the efforts of Manhattan and Brooklyn's better establishments, they also complement their host museums' enviable collections of art and artifacts. —David Sokol

Photo: Harry Zernike

The Café at Cooper-Hewitt
The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is located in the Andrew Carnegie Mansion. When the residence was completed in 1902, it was as expansive as it was sumptuous. In its current incarnation, as a repository of great design from across the centuries, the landmark retains its lavishness—but as a museum, it qualifies as one of the smaller and speedier experiences. The Café at Cooper-Hewitt is equally efficient. Chef Vinay Swarup has limited the menu to breakfast bites and midday treats like panini, soups and salads, with accompanying desserts and beverages. Dining here is something like taking tea inside your fabulously wealthy grandfather's solarium. Indeed, seating in the Garden Room overlooks the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden and the rear facade of the fantastical mansion itself. —DS

Photo: R. Mickens/AMNH

Café on One
Stomping about the grounds of the American Museum of Natural History is a sure way to work up an appetite. Not surprisingly, the museum's eating options are as extensive as its acreage, from first- and fourth-floor cafés to carts hawking Dippin' Dots ("the ice cream of the future"). While the dinosaur-adoring throngs will likely hit the sprawling basement-level food court, Café on One tickles more grown-up palates. Located in the Grand Gallery on the first floor, the café serves sophisticated fare such as salads pairing spinach with smoked salmon and shaved fennel or beets with goat cheese, hazelnuts and arugula, as well as a lineup of sandwiches and panini. The food court, by the way, is a certified green restaurant, and in that same spirit, many of the ingredients at Café on One are locally sourced. Another perk for adults here: a wine list. —DS

Courtesy, Café Sabarsky

Café Sabarsky
Many of the works at the Neue Galerie, devoted to Austrian and German paintings, decorative arts and photographs dating from the early 20th century, come from the collection of art dealer Serge Sabarsky, who died in 1996, and it's for him that Café Sabarsky is named. For an authentic re-creation of a Viennese café at the dawn of the age of modernism, look no further. In addition to the dual-language menus, Austrian newspapers hang from wooden poles, cabaret programming occasionally punctuates the milieu and the coffee is strong enough to catapult you over the Atlantic. Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner's dishes—served both at Café Sabarsky and Café Fledermaus, downstairs—are equally authentic. The most delightful aspect of both restaurants is their seamless engagement with the museum collection. The spaces contain furnishings designed by Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, Dagobert Peche and Otto Wagner. Moreover, Café Fledermaus is inspired by the Wiener Werkstätte's renowned Cabaret Fledermaus. —DS

Photo: Will Steacy

The Garden Court Café
Thanks to the lush foliage of the Asia Society’s sun-drenched lobby, The Garden Court Café, run by DS Gracious Thyme Catering, feels like something of a hidden gem. The menu, drawing inspiration from the host institution, spans all of Asia: this winter's appetizers include edamame, curried yellow lentil soup and Thai vegetable spring rolls. Meanwhile, even the Western entrées make subtle Eastern references, such as the Garden Court turkey burger, served with sriracha ketchup. —DS

Courtesy, The Modern

The Modern
When The Modern opened in the newly renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art in 2005, famed restaurateur Danny Meyer single-handedly pushed museum dining toward greater sophistication. The establishment is pretty near pitch-perfect and has made it on numerous critics' favorites lists. The interior, designed by Bentel & Bentel Architects, is really two rooms in one: a hip bar and lounge area and a more formal dining room overlooking the museum's transcendent sculpture garden. Chef Gabriel Kreuther has devised separate menus for the bar and dining rooms that interpret French and Alsatian cuisine in unexpected, elaborate ways. Outfitted with an array of Danish furniture and tableware, the whole restaurant is infused with Meyer's unmistakable brand of hospitality. —DS

Photo: Philip Greenberg

The Morgan Dining Room
In contrast to the elegantly modern Morgan Café, which makes its home in The Morgan Library & Museum’s glass-enclosed courtyard (a major element of architect Renzo Piano's acclaimed expansion), The Morgan Dining Room  will transport you back in time. Situated in the original family dining room of the mid-19th-century brownstone that J.P. Morgan Jr. called home, the wood-clad, molding-rich, fireplace-dotted venue serves a menu that evokes the namesake family's own meals from the early 1900s. That means plenty of dishes with cream sauce, interspersed with more modern fare. With the rise of craft bartending, The Morgan Dining Room's historically accurate cocktail menu is unintentionally trendy, while the desserts are largely contemporary. —DS

Photo: Will Steacy

New Food
In the synthetic spirit of the contemporary art found within the New Museum, its café, New Food, embraces both high- and lowbrow culture. The lobby restaurant looks and feels very much like a miniaturized cafeteria, and the menu embraces the position, offering cheese puffs in addition to soups and sandwiches. Yet the furniture was designed by Sejima + Nishizawa/SANAA, the architects of the New Museum's provocative new building, and the snacks and entrées embody the highest artisanal standards. And for museumgoers and take-out customers who espouse eco-friendliness, New Food's carrying bags may be reused as totes. —DS

Courtesy, Robert at the Museum of Arts and Design

Envision a sky-high, multicolored Jetsons-style restaurant with wraparound views of Central Park, and you've got the hang of Robert in the Museum of Arts and Design, otherwise known as MAD. Named for the late Robert Isabell, a celebrated party planner, the venue is an inspired outgrowth of the museum, featuring futuristic furnishings by Philip Michael Wolfson and Vladimir Kagan, a light installation by Johanna Grawunder and a video installation by Jennifer Steinkamp. The dinner menu is more down-to-earth, with a contemporary Mediterranean bent: beet and frisée salad, pappardelle with wild boar, tagliatelle with lobster, and chicken cooked under a brick. Wednesday through Saturday evenings, a jazz pianist provides accompaniment on the baby grand. Robert also serves lunch and, starting in March, will have afternoon tea service. —Julie Besonen

Photo: Alex Lopez

Roof Garden Café and Martini Bar
For diners who prefer the newest restaurants, a trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art will likely include a meal at the Restaurant Associates–operated New American Wing Café, which opened in May. Longtime fans of the museum's Roof Garden Café and Martini Bar may get the bigger thrill, however. In addition to simple sandwiches and salads, the Roof Garden Café offers folks an incredible perch above Central Park (as well as a rotating series of sculptures). The cool crowds ascend to the café on Friday and Saturday evenings in particular, and the selection of martinis, daiquiris, piña coladas and other cocktails suits the festive atmosphere. The drinks, like the roof itself, are best enjoyed in good weather: the café is only open from May through late fall. —DS

Photo: Alex Lopez

Twenty years ago, the friendly Upper West Side restaurant Sarabeth's Kitchen injected the Whitney Museum of American Art’s basement with a welcome dose of coziness. Now, Danny Meyer's venerable Union Square Hospitality Group is taking the Sarabeth's spot, and the reinvention—rumored to be designed by architecture star David Rockwell—will premiere this fall. In the meantime, on February 25, Meyer is slated to open Sandwiched in tandem with the launch of the Whitney Biennial. The pop-up café will feature a design commissioned from INABA and C-lab and sandwiches commissioned from Meyer's roster of chefs: Michael Anthony (Gramercy Tavern), Kenny Callaghan (Blue Smoke), Floyd Cardoz (Tabla), Robb Garceau (Hudson Yards), Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park) and Carmen Quagliata (Union Square Cafe). To top it off, the sandwiches will be accompanied by desserts created by several of Meyer's pastry chefs. —DS

Photo: Philip Greenberg

The Wright
The Wright, on the Guggenheim museum's ground floor, does not require a ticket for entry (unlike the more casual Cafe 3, on the third floor). It's all curves and vivid color and slick white tabletops, designed by Andre Kikoski. Lunch menu prices run $9 to $26 for seasonal salads, soup, winter squash risotto, lobster salad on brioche and seared halibut with bluefoot mushrooms and cauliflower sauce. The full bar features both classic and creative cocktails, plus an extensive global wine list. —JB