Crap Food No Longer The Norm At Museums

It all started with a damn good slice of pound cake at the British Museum in London. Then I wondered why the bowl of corn chowder I devoured at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art cafeteria, Lickety Split, was the best thing I’d eaten in weeks. And by the time I had a plate of mouth-watering chipotle chicken quesadillas at the Getty Museum cafeteria in L.A. several weeks later, I wondered what the hell was going on. Museum cafeteria food is supposed to be overpriced crap, right?

Ordinarily, I hate to get stuck eating at tourist attractions. In December, on an excursion to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, for example, I neglected to pack drinks or lunch for my kids and was distressed to find $5.19 fountain drinks (one size only), cups of soup for $7 and a selection of crummy looking sandwiches that cost roughly the same as Burundi’s per capita GDP. This is more or less what I expect from dining establishments at any sort of tourist attraction: a rip off.But there appears to be a real trend toward good, moderately priced food at a host of art museums I’ve visited over the last year. Aside from the otherworldly chowder, Lickety Split at the Mass MOCA in the Berkshires has tasty burritos, great coffee, microbrews and fresh baked goods. The British Museum has cafés featuring good sandwiches, soups, pies and baked goods. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two gourmet restaurants, a café and a cafeteria, all of which looked appetizing to me on a visit last summer. And the Art Institute of Chicago has a pretty decent cafeteria, a café, plus a fine dining option.

But my favorite museum culinary experiences in the last year came courtesy of the Getty Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The Getty has a few dining options, ranging from casual to gourmet, but I was hard pressed to make a selection at their cafeteria, which is loaded with good-looking, healthy food. If the weather is good, as it usually is in L.A., you can sit outside and enjoy a lovely view along with a good, reasonably priced meal (see video below).

Café Calatrava at the Milwaukee Art Museum offers fine dining with a view of Lake Michigan (see photo on the right). The seasonally inspired menu is created to match the museum’s featured exhibits. When we visited in December during the Treasures of Kenwood House exhibit, there was a British theme featuring offerings like ale steamed mussels, ploughman’s lunch, wild boar and sage bangers and mash and Cornish beef and veggie pasties. I had the pasties, which were first rate, and my wife had something called Col. Mustard’s chicken, which came with some tasty dauphinoise potatoes.

I hope the experiences I’ve had at these museums is indeed a trend and the days of having to smuggle food into museums and other tourist attractions are numbered. Let us know if you’ve had good, bad or indifferent dining experiences at museums and other tourist sites around the world.

[Photo credits: Getty Center (sea scallops), Dave Seminara]