Painting, Sculpture, Soup – New Museum Restaurants

9 May

I’m not the first person to bring up the fact that museums have been steadily revamping their dining options for some years now.  Most people try to be as tactful about the causes of this phenomenon as possible, using quotes about the “discerning clientele” of art museums who want “a better experience.”  It all sounds nice, but the fact is that the aim of these new restaurants is simply to make money.  Perhaps that sounds a bit negative, but in reality it’s a very positive thing for museums and even more for their visitors.

For years dining in museums was limited to a cafeteria that provided lunch for staff and students on field trips.  You could have found better food on an airplane.  But then in the late 1990’s there was a remodeling boom for museums worldwide and they needed new ways to pay for their expansion plans.  This was all taking place at the same time that “foodie” culture really began to take off, so the logic was simple.  Why not add a nice restaurant or two to help boost profits?  Donors could only be counted on for so much, and museums had to be careful about raising entrance prices lest they lose attendance.  Thus they adopted something almost like an amusement park’s approach – just get them in the door, and then find any way you can to take their money.

Despite how horribly cynical that may sound, it actually improved the museum-going experience for patrons.  You don’t have to resign yourself to a day-old chicken salad sandwich if you want to stop for lunch.  There are plenty of options, as well, ranging from family friendly offerings to more expensive gourmet restaurants.  Some of the nicer options are even open outside of museum hours for dinner, although lunch is still the main meal.  We’re all aware of that unique feeling of exhaustion we get after a few hours of strolling through a museum; having a chance to sit and eat or drink something that actually tastes good in a welcoming environment does wonders to remedy that.

You can also feel good about eating at museum restaurants.  Museums are still mostly non-profits relying on donations to continue their work.  You might not be able to endow a gallery, but something as simple as stopping for a plate of pasta can help museums continue their work in education and preservation.  Plus the more revenue that museums make from other sources such as dining, the less they have to charge for admission.  It’s really a win-win for everyone.

And although most dining options are still glorified versions of the cafeteria, there are some truly unique experiences to be had.  Some of my personal favorites in the U.S. are Café Calatrava at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which features a stunning view of Lake Michigan, and the L.S. Ayres Tea Room at the Indiana State Museum.  The Tea Room is especially interesting and is almost a museum piece in and of itself – it’s a replica of the café that was located in an downtown Indianapolis department store from 1905-1990.

It might seem rather trivial, but museum dining has become big business in recent years.  I won’t even try to pretend that I’m any kind of gourmet, but I will say that many of the new options are actually pretty good.  Sitting down to reflect on what I’ve seen and enjoy my lunch has actually become one of my favorite parts of any museum trip.  Take the time to enjoy it, as well, and you might be surprised what you can find.

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