You’re visiting a fascinating museum when suddenly you realize you’ve been caught up in the displays for hours and somehow forgot you hadn’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.
COURTYARD CAFÉ
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 a tepary bean hummus, made from this indigenous Arizona bean that’s long been a staple of the American Indian diet, accompanied by the indescribably beautiful 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 dish- es 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 delightful 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of the most spectacular museums in the world, a visual feast ranging from jewelry and pottery to textiles, paintings, historical documents, photography, and an astounding collection of katsina dolls.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.
PANORAMA
ST. LOUIS ART MUSEUM, (SLAM)
S.T. LOUIS, MISSOURI
This is an art museum restaurant with a unique appeal. 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 delicious 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 the 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.
CAFÉ BERLINKA
THE SLOVAK NATIONAL GALLERY, BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA
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 with the ceiling vaults, a long, almost boat-shaped bar, and a D.J. 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 halloumi, creamy 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.
AGA KHAN MUSEUM,
TORONTO, ONTARIO
This stimulating museum is devoted to Muslim culture, and its restaurant likewise explores the cuisines of North Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East with a deft modern touch. First, tour the museum, where revolving exhibits showcase the arts of Muslim civilizations from the 9th to the 19th centuries, with objects ranging from architectural pieces to incredible ceramics, textiles, and glass. Then it’s time for lunch. Have a seat among the elegant but homey environs, with walls covered in elaborate wooden panels that once adorned an eighteenth-century Syrian home. Choose among starters ranging from sweet onion bhaji and lamb samosas to the familiar hummus and baba ghanouj. There’s even a take on the very-Canadian poutine using akkawi (a Middle Eastern cheese) and toum (garlic sauce). Chicken tikka salad is a favorite, offering a spiced-up version of this old standard, while you can enjoy such filling mains as the Indian favorite butter chicken or Cornish hen spiced with fiery Moroccan- style harissa and accompanied by an exciting dill pickle labneh (a spinoff of this traditional thick yogurt dish). Menu items often change to reflect the themes and origins of the current exhibit, so while a few standards will always remain, Diwan (like the Aga Khan Museum itself) is a constant voyage of discovery.
CAFÉ SERAI
RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART,
NEW YORK, NY
Focusing on Himalayan art, the Rubin Museum of Art is a unique spot for New York museumgoers, so it’s no surprise that its restaurant, Café Serai, also offers something other than your typical museum dining experience. With its emphasis on the tastes of the Himalayas, it attracts not only museumgoers but a variety of Chelsea denizens and others interested in a relaxing meal or an adventure into the dining of this singular region. Any given day might actually find more non-museum goers hanging out than those who arrived after a visit to the galleries. While the menu changes seasonally, some modern standards remain, such as mulligatawny (this deliciously fragrant soup is supplemented by another soup of the day), chicken tikka, and coconut shrimp. Try the pulled chicken bao buns for maximum piquancy, slightly smoky with a sriracha-like sauce, for a compelling blend of flavors and textures. Accompany it, perhaps, with a side of asparagus a la plancha, coated in tofu tikka masala and garnished with roasted peppers. Desserts like matcha ice cream or Indian spiced coconut/rice pudding round out the offerings. By all means, visit the museum, and you’ll find that its exhibits, which run the gamut from ancient to modern and are organized around annual themes such as 2019’s “Power,” are as diverse and fascinating as the region, which stretches from India and Nepal to Bhutan, China, and Mongolia. The atmosphere throughout the institution is one of relaxation and warmth, offering a respite from the city, where you can linger over a beautiful lunch in Café Serai.
SALONPLAFOND
MUSEUM OF APPLIED ARTS, (MAK) VIENNA, AUSTRIA
Located in MAK, Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts, Salonplafond is a wonder of high design and great food. The large, open room nods to Vienna’s storied past with the cross-like patterns across high, coffered ceilings. Huge windows and parquet floors give a timelessly elegant air, while shelves hold a variety of ceramics, and, at the front, a series of prints dancing across the wall lend a distinctly modern air. The menu is comprehensive, from duck breast with salted cherries to pike-perch with an Anapurna curry. Cold cucumber soup is mint-green in hue, with chunks of chewy, slightly spicy smoked trout, swirls of oil, and a dusting of microgreens, for a bold color and flavor palate you wouldn’t expect from this usually mild dish. Linguine is topped with an egg, little rounds of asparagus, and a creamy white sauce. Whether you choose dishes from bouillabaisse to pork belly, by all means, top it all off with an amazingly creamy dessert-like chocolate mousse with roasted plums and plum ice cream. I definitely spend some time in this fantastic museum, one of my favorites in Vienna, which explores the world of design from Renaissance to Art Nouveau, Gothic to the current day. Then sit in this stylish room and enjoy a meal that combines familiar with creative in very winning ways. One added advantage: it’s one of the few museum restaurants open for evening meals.
DENVER
Denver’s food scene is growing exponentially, with new spots opening every week. Residents, as well as visitors, are loving the excellent variety of unique choices available. Much of the scene is chef-driven, with local celebrities fueling the renaissance. New spots are springing up from RINO (the River North district) to Capitol Hill to the bustling market scene all over the city, and if it gives you an idea how recent a phenomenon this is, every restaurant in the list has been in its current location less than ten years or so, with most younger than five years old.
TAG
At TAG, Chef Troy Guard’s menu of “continental social food” travels the world, linger- ing in Asia but melding a global set of influences with ease. Have a seat in the plush booths that line the walls, and order one of the intriguing cocktails, like a Black Rose, which combines vodka, lime, blackberry, and sparkling rosé, or perhaps a kumquat/jalapeño mojito. The deliciously inventive drinks are just a hint of what’s to come. Then dig into such amazements as velvety burrata that sits amid swirls of salted pear butter and hazelnut puree. Their taco sushi is just on the right side of cuteness. The smooth sushi rice contrast with the crispy taco shell, with guacamole somehow uniting them perfectly. Brown butter halibut is served on a bed of fava beans, with black trumpet mushroom puree and tangy kimchee vinaigrette, while miso black cod is strikingly plated with edamame, shiitakes, and artichoke. Dessert? Indulge in one of the most surprising sweets I’ve had, carrot cheesecake wrapped around a creamy sweet pea puree with crunchy pecan butter, almond flour madeleine cakes, and lacy candied carrots. I see that look on your face, but trust me on this one.
CHOLON
At ChoLon, a modern Asian bistro, Executive Chef Lon Symensma gives intriguing spins to familiar dishes, often unexpected and always delicious. The menu is divided into parts: small bites, slightly larger appetizers, main dishes, and wok dishes. Don’t miss the French onion soup dumplings, the best incarnation of this dish I’ve ever had, in which the creamy soup, deepened by cave-aged Gruyere cheese, is actually INSIDE the dumplings. Put the whole thing in your mouth and feel the explosion of flavor as the soup pours out of the dumplings onto your taste buds. Lobster crepes are served with a lettuce wrap, so you have a wrap within a wrap, fresh cilantro, and mint and a tangy nuoc cham dipping sauce giving them the taste of many dishes in one. Brussels sprouts come with ground pork and kaffir lime, rich butter chicken is dotted with English peas and spring onions. Take a seat beneath the cool deep brown walls, recessed lighting giving a soft glow, or on the large patio. Then prepare to go on a gastronomic adventure of modern Asian cuisine.

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