Museums have long been palaces of fine taste, but they are also becoming masters of what tastes good. If contemplating Claes Oldenberg's sprawling 51-foot long Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center stirs your appetite, for instance, visit the elegant new 20.21 Restaurant. For $8 you can savor the "Spoon, Cube, and Cherry," a tower of dark, crunchy chocolate, filled with creamy chocolate mousse, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a whimsical chocolate replica of a spoon cradling a maraschino cherry.
Forget dried-out ham and cheese on white bread in a dimly lit basement cafeteria. After years of hearing complaints about how fine food and fine art rarely mix, more and more museums are upgrading their eateries. They realize that "you learn about art through all of your senses," says Marjorie Schwarzer, director of museum studies at John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley, Calif. "A fine dining experience can complement the mission of the museum."
Certainly, the idea is proving to be a hit with visitors. When the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced the opening on May 6 of its Puck's restaurant, it was flooded with calls from patrons who wanted to reserve tables for Mother's Day brunch. That meant some families marked the holiday on Saturday instead of Sunday. The Modern -- at New York City's newly refurbished Museum of Modern Art -- has little trouble collecting $125 a person for a seven-course tasting menu. There's a more moderately priced menu, too, but dining at these restaurants is not cheap. For a three-course dinner, expect to spend about $40 per person before drinks, tax, and tip.
Big-name restaurateurs such as Wolfgang Puck, whose Wolfgang Puck Catering runs the Indianapolis and Minneapolis eateries as well as museum restaurants in Chicago and St. Louis, like the additional publicity and reach they get by offering haute cuisine in highly trafficked destination venues. Puck has signed on to create dining spots at the new home of the Newseum, slated to open in 2007 in Washington, and at San Francisco's de Young Museum, where he will provide catering. Puck says he loves to while away an afternoon in art galleries and "stay for dinner and a drink" -- and he thinks others will, too.
Museum officials are also hoping to attract those who might not otherwise go to a museum and encourage those who do come to stick around longer, says Burbank (Calif.) restaurant consultant Art Manask. Visitors, he says, too often "go out to lunch and don't come back." What's more, museums can use the restaurants for fund-raising events, wining and dining donors.
WHERE THE WALLS HAVE SPIES
So who best pairs the palate and palette? Judging by its waiting list, The Modern. The restaurant, which opened on Feb. 7, offers French and American fare in a milieu where the furniture and tableware were created by top Danish designers. Would-be diners are being advised to reserve spots 28 days in advance.
Other museums win points, too, for integrating their decor with their mission. Few can top Zola, the spiffy restaurant at the International Spy Museum in Washington. Black silhouettes of faceless figures in trench coats march across 8-footby-10-foot tempered glass panels that line the dining room. Diners in booths can even look through peepholes into the kitchen. Gertrude's Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art features al fresco dining in the sculpture garden, where local crabcakes and oysters are on offer near Four Dishes, a 12-foot-high Alexander Calder work.
Restaurant critics have warmed to the trend. The food at such spots as The Modern, Puck's, and 20.21 -- named to reflect the Minneapolis museum's 20th century and 21st century bent -- has won kudos from local reviewers. If you go to 20.21, be sure to try the spinach risotto starter, which is perfectly smooth and accented with sweet shrimp and morel mushrooms. The Cantonese duck, with roasted crispy chunks in wild huckleberry sauce, is strikingly unfatty compared with similar fare at less discerning restaurants.
Chefs love to get playful when important shows come to town. Chef Tracey Hopkins created a chicken dish topped by a red lobster shell that looked like a phone receiver when the Philadelphia Museum of Art staged a Salvador Dalí exhibit featuring the artist's sculpture of a phone. At the Dallas Museum of Art's Seventeen Seventeen Restaurant, Executive Chef Dan Landsberg served a tower of crimini mushrooms and arborio rice mimicking a granite work by sculptor Jesús Moroles.
You can't have a top-drawer eatery without a worthy wine list. The Modern's stretches to 58 pages. Zola's 11-page list features an ample selection of half-bottles and wines by the glass.
Museums both at home and abroad have climbed on the bandwagon. In London, the Restaurant at the Tate Modern is luring crowds. In Paris, the biggest names in museum dining are at contemporary galleries -- the Restaurant Georges at the Pompidou Center and Tokyo Eat at the Palais de Tokyo. Back in the U.S., dining spots at the Denver Art Museum and the de Young are being overhauled. These days, looking at art is now a feast for more than just the eyes.
By Ellen Hoffman