Swimming in a sea of rainbow sprinkles is not just the stuff sweet dreams are made of — unless you’ve dreamed about the Museum of Ice Cream. This palatable pop-up is devoted only to its namesake cool, creamy confection, with tickets selling out in New York first, and now sold out since reopening in April in Los Angeles, where Gwyneth Paltrow, the Kardashians, and Fergie all took their kids. Katy Perry went for herself. No judgment there. We’d dive into those sprinkles in a heartbeat. Maybe a smidgen less cutesy, haute museums without a food focus are also curating this other art with more care. You know, the culinary kind of art. There must be a reason palate and palette sound so similar.
Museums devoted to art, history, and science have long overlooked the importance of their food offerings. It was an afterthought. But that’s not smart. Absorbing a museum’s worth of culture can work up an appetite for more than a sad burger, soggy fries, or vending machine Milky Way. And staff won’t have to worry about crumbs and ketchup ruining the priceless brush strokes of a Monet or the trophy bear replica hunted by former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Like the gift shops, it makes economic and aesthetic sense to flesh out the dining space at America’s museums, and do it in a way that fits the museum’s theme. Museums nationwide have taken note and are improving their menu offerings over the past few years. Some of them have artist-themed dishes. Many focus on farm-to-table freshness. And of course, several of these restaurants create art so beautiful on your canvas (ahem, plate), you don’t want mess it up after you Instagram it. But it tastes so damn good. Food is also experiential art. These are some of our museum favorites:
San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, California
In the same way the museum curates a collection of artists, In Situ opened in June 2016, assembling dishes from chefs and restaurants around the world. The restaurant’s name is the Latin word for art that remains where it was made. The original concept means no dish is original, from the lamb shank in spicy tomato sauce, smoked yogurt, and sumac by Chef Mehmet Gürs at Mikla in Istanbul, Turkey in 2012, to the crispy crepe with grilled green garlic jam and preserved smelt by Chef Blaine Wetzel at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington in 2013.
National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.
Executive Chef Jerome Grant’s café was named a 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. Celebrity chef Carla Hall is the culinary ambassador at the Smithsonian museum. Four distinct stations tell the tale of regional cooking: the agricultural South, Creole coast, North states, and Western range.
Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, New York
Designed by architect Renzo Piano on the ground floor of Whitney Museum’s new downtown home, Untitled won a James Beard Award in 2015 for Best Restaurant Design. This is Danny Meyer’s (Union Square Hospitality Group) second museum restaurant featuring the same dedication to farm-to-table seasonality and presentation that looks like a culinary work of art as seen at Gramercy Tavern. Untitled’s Executive Chef Suzanne Cupps trained under Michael Anthony before taking the helm. The group’s first museum restaurant was the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in the same city.
Missouri History Museum, St. Louis, Missouri
Since late 2010, when the museum’s restaurant changed its name and management, the restaurant has been making top museum restaurant lists. In 2017, Food Network named it one of the country’s best. We’d love to try the E. Woods root tart with artichoke tapenade, spring vegetables, quinoa, and salsa vert or the lavender-honey chicken with asparagus and fingerlings.
Cleveland Museum of Art
Opening late 2012, the 76-seat fine dining restaurant led by Chef Douglas Katz features locally sourced and globally inspired cuisine using a prix-fixe menu that complements the current museum exhibitions. Main dishes range from duck confit fried rice with spring vegetables, pork belly, fried duck egg and duck cracklings to za’atar rabbit with polenta, lemon-braised greens, turkish piyaz, feta, and mugolio. Yeah.
Check out our list of great food museums in the United States.
— Head photo: Camille Collard/@captaincami.