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Why I Love the Ever-Underrated Museum Café

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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.

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A Haiku or Two, on Traveling by Airplane
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A Haiku or Two, on Traveling by Airplane

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.

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!

A Solo, Meditative Lunch: Anchovy, Creamy Havarti + Pesto Panini
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A Solo, Meditative Lunch: Anchovy, Creamy Havarti + Pesto Panini

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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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.

Use Construction Paper to Make "Modern" Art, Fool Everyone
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Use Construction Paper to Make "Modern" Art, Fool Everyone

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.

Tags: museum cafés