Long Reads

Why I Love the Ever-Underrated Museum Café

June  8, 2016

No one is on an airplane because they want to eat plane food. But there's something undeniably pleasant—at least to me—about the performance: the flight attendants wheeling the cart down the aisle, the distribution of foil packets of the World's Saltiest Peanuts or pretzels, the way passengers stop rustling nervously and settle into the flight as they eat them, suddenly quiet and content as a bunch of snacking kindergarteners on a rug.

Similarly, most people aren't going to museums to eat. They're going to museums to see art. (And fair enough; that's why I'm at the museum, too.) But if there's an overlooked area of food service, it's museum cafés—especially the smallest ones—which emerge as a weird sort of oasis right when you need one.

The café is the place you go when you begin, having pressed yourself through the art exhibits, to fray at the edges with museum fatigue: There's always some kind of subtle jazz music playing, like the kind played at fancy outdoor weddings, the floors are soothingly cold and hard and probably gray. There might even be a frothy potted palm.

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The rest of the café is decorated in what can only be described as a selective minimalism: white napkins, white plates (maybe square), white tablecloths, cloth napkins folded grandly, enormous bouquets, a piece or two of art (small busts or very large canvases), and menus that often read like small explosions of the nineties. Salads with dried cranberries! Seared duck! Panini that arrive cut on the bias, with one triangle angled down over the other like a tiny sculpture!

Order the panini, which will pride itself on its grill marks and come with the tiniest tangle of frisée alongside. Order a glass of wine to go with it. The café assumes (correctly) that if you are having lunch at the museum—especially on a weekday—you should be drinking a glass of wine, which is why your table was probably set with the glass to begin with. When you finish lunch, during which you will not once feel tempted to pull out your phone and check email or Instagram, order a coffee. It will be about the same as your last cup of airplane coffee, and you will drink it with exactly the same contained joy.

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Top Comment:
“I under-estimated the menu options, one would be offered at a museum café. I wish I could tell you exactly what dishes we ordered, but I know we ordered items from the snacks, cheese, plates and sweets menu. All this with a bottle of wine, gave us the nourishment to continue exploring MoMa. Now, when we visit a museum, we make it a point to take in a meal at their café or restaurant. Great food, great wines, great exhibits! What more could anyone ask for? ”
— Cecilia

This what museum cafés are for: for giving you space to "think about the art" or, you know, sit quietly by yourself with all your museum pamphlets spread out on the table and your weird square plate and your glass of lunch wine and let your mind move more slowly. A napkin will flutter off a table on the café's patio and your brain will interpret it, in a way that you will not admit, as a kind of modern art.

You feel yourself getting a little abstract and you let it happen, because the café feels completely removed from the world—just like in an airplane, where, 39,000 feet off the ground, it seems logical to let your mind move off awkwardly and relaxedly, like it's jogging underwater. You have no other place to be. And then, when you've had enough, you simply float out onto the sidewalk and go home.

Recommend a few museum (and their cafés) in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • mpeterse29
  • Elaine
  • sarahbeyondwords
  • Zensister
  • Cecilia
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


mpeterse29 July 12, 2016
I like the restaurant at the DIA in Detroit. Very nice salad bar and often decent "hot" options. It's not fancy (cafeteria style), but it's a lovely sanctuary. I also really appreciate that the staff has a pretty heavy hand with the wine by the glass pour. (-:
Elaine July 4, 2016
And the best is at the D'Orsay in Paris.
Elaine July 4, 2016
We have found that when visiting a new city, the best place to go for a tasty lunch is at a museum cafe' or dining room. We have never been disappointed.
Here are just a few, DeYoung Museum, Asian Art Museum, SFMOMA, Legion of Honor and Jewish Contemporary Art Museum in San Francisco; the Cantor at Stanford University; The Reno Museum and the Denver Art Museum and on it goes.
sarahbeyondwords July 4, 2016
Gertrude's Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art is terrific. Also love the restaurants at the Chicago Institute of Art and Virginia Fine Arts Museum. I would have lunch at any of these cafes, whether or not I was touring the exhibitions.
Zensister June 15, 2016
And then there was the time my art history professor smuggled cheap wine into the art museum cafe in iced tea bottles. Of course, he also appreciated that I'm an unapologetic smart-aleck... But in all seriousness, I love the place (Panana 66) that now occupies the Sculpture Garden Cafe at Balboa Park's art museum. Live jazz, housemade charcuterie and roasted meats, well-curated cheeses, great wines and local craft beer.
Cecilia June 9, 2016
A few years ago, I was in NYC and one of our stops on our week-long itinerary was MoMa. After hours of wandering from one beautifully executed exhibit to another, my husband and I were ravenous. I suggested we try one of the restaurants in the museum—normally we would find some hot spot restaurant outside. We opted for The Carroll and Milton Petrie Café, and can I say we were pleasantly surprised. I under-estimated the menu options, one would be offered at a museum café. I wish I could tell you exactly what dishes we ordered, but I know we ordered items from the snacks, cheese, plates and sweets menu. All this with a bottle of wine, gave us the nourishment to continue exploring MoMa. Now, when we visit a museum, we make it a point to take in a meal at their café or restaurant. Great food, great wines, great exhibits! What more could anyone ask for?
Samantha W. June 8, 2016
After working in museums for several years, I've come to appreciate these parts of museum cafes: When what they're serving is not an afterthought; when what they are serving reflects the work or the surroundings in some way; when there is space to relive and think about what you've encountered.

And Russ & Daughters Cafe at the Jewish Museum in NYC!
Greenstuff June 8, 2016
I agree completely. I've been thinking all day about all the museum cafés I reallylly like, and I take exception to the title, calling them "ever-underrated." Some of them even have great coffee.
O June 8, 2016
The Dalí Museum -
St. Petersburg, Florida
After exiting the collections on the 3rd floor -
You descend down their
single helix / DNA / staircase -
the cafe flows into the
beautiful Avant gardens through their truly one of a kind glass windows - you can enjoy nature and relax - they serve Catalonian influenced fare-
A lovely location with
yummy food
Annie C. June 8, 2016
Cafe Leopold at MuseumsQuartier in Vienna is truly the best breakfast ever
Ness June 8, 2016
Glyptoteket in Copenhagen is the epitome of this, especially on a calm, temperate weekday.
Olivia B. June 8, 2016
I love this! I never feel more civilized than when having a light lunch and a glass of wine at a museum cafe.
AntoniaJames June 8, 2016
Columbia Cafe in the Tampa Bay History Center - find many of the favorites from the venerable Ybor City establishment, in a light, airy setting. ;o)
Sauertea June 8, 2016
The cafe at the Acropolis Museum has delightful food and a killer view! Lunch at the D'Orsay is tasty as well.
Alanna R. June 8, 2016
The Vancouver Art Gallery has a lovely café. It's on the upper level, and flows outside. You have a view of Robson Square from the patio, all while listening to classical music in a wonderful garden setting. I sometimes go there for lunch during the work week and it feels like such a treat. Highly recommend it if you're ever in Vancouver. Plus, the art gallery is pretty cool too ;)
Cristina S. June 8, 2016
I second the Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Museum, particularly for cakes and coffee. For similar cakes, I recommend sitting outdoors at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna in fine weather.

In college, I used walk to the National Galleries to study in their lofty-ceilinged indoor garden spaces--their cafeteria has an excellent salad bar. Finally, the proper cafe in the Musee d'Orsay is a lovely place to have lunch.
Samantha W. June 8, 2016
Oh heck yes Cafe Sabarsky -- best dang chocolate cake in NEW YORK CITY.
labingha June 8, 2016
The cafe(teria) at the National Museum of American Indians. A welcome respite from everything else on the Mall, this cafe offers modern interpretations of what native americans in different parts of the country would have eaten (think salmon with blackberry sauce and hazelnuts in the Pacific Northwest).
Greenstuff June 8, 2016
That's a great choice. Lots of people eat there even when they aren't looking at the exhibits.
ChefJune June 8, 2016
I've always liked Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Museum, I haven't been there yet, but Chef Michael Anthony was talking up his veggie-centric museum cafe upstairs at the Whitney Downtown.
In Boston I've always been a fan of everything about the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, including the cafe.
Greenstuff June 8, 2016
The National Portrait Gallery's restaurant looks out on the rooftops of London. I don't get to London often, but it's a favorite for my first day of a trip.
jamcook June 8, 2016
I love the portrait gallery cafe too. Beautiful views , lovely food, very English desserts. Had a rhubarb Eton Mess that lingers in my mind as the best dessert ever
702551 June 8, 2016
The Cafe Angelica at The Louvre is pretty good. Of specific note would be their pastries, but then again, it's Paris.

The Café-Restaurant at the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna is pretty decent, as is the restaurant (and café) at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich.

I find that a lot of these European museum eateries blow doors on their American museum counterparts, even the ones in New York.

Same thing with the cafés/snack counters at European opera houses and symphony halls compared to those at American equivalents.
702551 June 8, 2016
Oops, the name of that Louvre cafe is Le Café Richelieu / Angelina (not Angelica) and is in the Richelieu wing. It is one of fifteen dining establishments in the palace museum. It is operated by Angelina, the well-known Parisian pâtisserie.

The high end one is Le Café Grand Louvre, serving cuisine traditionelle which I've never been to. I've heard it is excellent as one would expect for a flagship restaurant in one of France's most important cultural monuments.