Museums looking to spice up their traditional cafés have found an appetite for developing their dining venues into bistros and brasseries that serve tastier, healthier, and out-of-the ordinary dishes. A restaurant with its own allure, inside a museum, can draw in more visitors and keep them there longer, leading to increased revenue.
The renovated café in San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, Sunday at the Museum, has seen a 70 percent increase in restaurant traffic with its adventurous new menu created by chef Deuki Hong. Born in Seoul, Korea, Hong moved to the United States at the age of 1, and at 15, he worked for celebrity chef Aarón Sanchez (of “Chopped” TV show fame) in New York City.
His Asian cuisine and signature dishes served at Sunday at the Museum include jasmine tea leaf salad and garlic prawn noodles. When asked how his food choices carry out the theme of the museum, Deuki said, “It’s a global menu but sticks true to its roots as an Asian-focused café/restaurant. We change menus exhibitionally to be on theme with the whole museum-going experience.”
Another entry for fine gastronomy, Eleven, inside the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, offers a place where museum visitors can take a break from their gallery experience, relax in an atmosphere surrounded by nature and nourish themselves with food inspired by the region. Chef William McCormick, who trained at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, calls Eleven’s culinary concept “high south.” Dishes authentic the local cuisine, like herb-rubbed roasted chicken breast and rip-and-dip yeast rolls with southern turnip greens and bacon dip, are served at the restaurant.
Art is delivered in a variety of forms both at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and its haute cuisine restaurant Nerua in Bilbao, Spain. Cuisine is a key element of the Basque culture, so Juan Ignacio Vidarte, director general of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, bet on offering high-quality cuisine when nobody else did it, 21 years ago.
Nerua has one Michelin star and three Repsol Suns (prestigious distinctions awarded to the best restaurants and chefs in Spain and Portugal). Chef Josean Alija describes his dish named “Surprise” as “a handful of small tomatoes of different varieties, shapes, smells, colors, and sizes with a selection of different herbs infused into the heart of each tomato. Every mouthful is different; each sensation is unique.”
Unique Dishes that Draw Museum Patrons to Dining
Reservations must be made one month in advance to dine at Odette in the National Gallery Singapore. Signature menu items include the heirloom beetroot variation and a rosemary smoked organic egg. The aerial installation and art pieces inside the French restaurant in Singapore are a natural extension of the museum and were inspired by chef-owner Julien Royer’s cooking philosophy and respect for his ingredients.
Royer’s career has taken him from the French West Indies to Polynesia and then London, where he worked as the sous chef for Antonin Bonnet at a Michelin-starred restaurant. In 2008, he moved to Singapore. Besides giving diners a fresh perspective on art, cuisine, and what fine dining can mean, his staff also remains inspired.
In Copenhagen, only lunch was previously served at the Designmuseum Danmark’s café. With the overall modernization of the museum, came a strategy designed to raise the quality of the visitor’s experience, of which Klint Café is an integral part.
Head chef Asbjørn Auring Grimm, who previously worked at Denmark’s most popular South American restaurant, is known for his spicy ox hearts and transforming the classic Danish open-face sandwich on rye into something new and exciting. That may include adding pickled herring marinated in Szechuan pepper and served with crème fraiche, puffed black rice, and fennel.
“Dishes (like the above) are always based on craftsmanship and quality in execution and finish—very much the same ideals that shaped the famous Danish furniture tradition,” says Jacob Wilfert-Nielsen, owner and manager of Klint.
Mixing Flavors to Create
Museum visitors across the world are realizing they can have more than one creative experience in a single venue, stimulate their mind, and satisfy their palate.
Patrons return time and again to the Rex Whistler Restaurant in Tate Britain art museum, located in Millbank, London, United Kingdom, because of the inventive and excellently executed menu reflecting the overall gallery ethos. Head chef Alfio Laudani creates forward-thinking, seasonal British dishes, adding an occasional splash of Sicilian cuisine from his heritage.
Although the menu changes seasonally, Laudani does have a couple of standout dishes he may repeat. One of those featured is grouse and “Tate Affogato,” a coffee dessert inspired by his grandma’s biscotti recipe.
Gone are the days of grabbing premade sandwiches while enjoying art at a museum. Say “hello” to fine dining in a restaurant that carries out the galleries’ themes.
Ways to Make Positive Changes to Museum Restaurants
Bring all Departments Together
When initiating enhancement discussions, a restaurant management team needs to work closely with the museum director. At Klint Café, museum executives defined a set of overall guidelines on how the café would support the museum experience and enhance the guest’s journey through the museum. The museum’s communications and marketing team will also coordinate activities with the café staff.
Get to Know Your Guests
Nikolina Olsen-Rule, head of communications at Designmuseum Danmark, suggests collecting data about how long visitors spend in the museum, if they share their experiences and recommend it to others, and what they are looking for in the food scene. Is it a quick bite, a cup of tea, a wine bar, or a quality meal that won’t blow their budget? Use that information to develop the kind of restaurant patrons want.
Cater to Locals
Olsen-Rule’s research found tourists often want to dine where the locals do. In addition, local residents will visit a good museum restaurant more frequently than tourists.
Provide a World-Class Experience
Matthew Randall of Rex Whistler Restaurant says eateries should give people a reason to make the journey. Having a dining establishment stand out as a destination in its own right can create an attraction.
Offer Something Unique
Rex Whistler Restaurant’s unique history, as well as its impressive wine cellar, draws in guests. The chefs are creative in their approach and food presentation, mirroring the values of the gallery.