The Best Museum Restaurants Stealing The Show

At these museum restaurants, the food is a work of art

On a Saturday morning at the Jewish Museum on Manhattan's Upper East Side, diners are sitting down to brunch at Russ & Daughters, the year-old restaurant from the New York appetizing legend. Cutting boards of Gaspé Nova sliced thin enough to see through, baskets of bagels and platters of pickles are streaming out to busy tables.

A mile south at The Met Breuer, visitors to Flora Bar, the restaurant tucked beneath the museum's modernist lobby, are nibbling on elegantly stacked purple endive leaves dressed with citrus, prepared by Ignacio Mattos, one of Downtown's most celebrated chefs.

Photo: Courtesy of Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum

It's a far cry from what museum dining used to be: namely, reheated pizza and mediocre club sandwiches in cafés that felt more like places to rest one's legs than to refuel (with a few notable exceptions, like The Modern at New York's Museum of Modern Art and Mitsitam Cafe at Washington, D.C.'s National Museum of the American Indian). These days, however, you're more likely to find award-winning restaurants in place of the old cafés—restaurants that at times act as extensions of exhibitions and in other moments function as works of art worth visiting in their own right.

"We identify ourselves as an exhibition piece," Jerome Grant, the executive chef at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., says. He's referring to Sweet Home Café, a cafeteria that feeds close to 2,800 diners a day and was recently named a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant.  

With the help of noted culinary historian Jessica Harris, Grant and his team have divided African American migration and culinary traditions into four regions. The Agricultural South station serves buttermilk fried chicken and black pepper cornmeal waffles, while the nearby Northern States section offers oyster pan roast, a rendition of a dish made by Thomas Downing, the son of freed slaves who became a restaurateur in New York in the early 1800s.  

But the space is about more than telling stories of the African American experience through food. It is also a place for visitors to digest the exhibitions they've walked through. "There are so many heavy issues at the museum," Carla Hall, who is a culinary ambassador for the project, explained when it opened. "In any household, the kitchen is the nucleus. I'm hoping people will go through the museum and want to go to the kitchen as a family."

In New Orleans, the line between kitchen and exhibit blurs at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, where Louisiana chef Isaac Toups opened Toups South, an upscale but casual—"foie gras in your flip-flops," as he describes it—Southern restaurant five months ago. "You can get a really good drink and cracklings, and drink in the museum. Abso-fucking-lutely," the chef says.

Making good use of the museum's collection, Toups slow-cooks whole goats and foie gras in barbecue master Aaron Franklin's first smoker, which is part of the permanent collection. And, echoing an exhibition called La Galerie d'Absinthe, Toups serves Gulf shrimp deglazed with Pernod as a special (see the recipe).  

No chef has borrowed as much from the museum, however, as Benu's Corey Lee has at In Situ, an elegant, light-flooded restaurant that opened in San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art last summer. Here, Lee recreates dishes from some of the world's greatest chefs in painstaking detail. Think Alice Waters's lemon ice cream and sherbet, René Redzepi's wood sorrel with sheep's-milk yogurt and Roy Choi's Korean-style braised short ribs.

Lee discusses the dishes just like a curator would. He won't take any license with the nearly 100 recipes he's collected without consulting the chefs first. And you won't find an original dish from him on the menu either. "I don't think a curator would put their work in [an exhibition]," he says.

The restaurant and its name, the Latin term for a piece of art displayed in its original space, explores what happens when you take a piece of art or a dish out of its intended context. Recontextualizing requires constant vigilance, Lee finds. "Often if we change one thing, it triggers another change," he says. It's a "cohesive menu . . . in a cerebral sense."

The response from diners? A mixed bag. "Many of them are coming with no information about what the restaurant is," he says. "Sometimes that brings potential for impact; other times, it's challenging because it's not what they were looking for."

Flora Bar's co-owner, Thomas Carter, welcomes the challenge. "You have 50 percent from the neighborhood and then 50 percent coming in from the exhibitions. That demographic changes exhibition to exhibition," he says. "That's one of the most exciting aspects of that space."

Photo: Philip Greenberg

It's all part of a broader shift in museums, Janet Alberti, deputy director at SFMOMA, explains. What used to be "temples for contemplation" are now "centers for cultural activity. I think restaurants are adapting to making museums more vibrant places."

At the Jewish Museum, Russ & Daughters sees neighbors shopping for house-made blintzes and loaves of babka, as well as sitting down for a post-exhibition meal. As co-owner Niki Russ Federman puts it, "It's reshaping how people see the museum."

What's more, these restaurants are furthering the debate about whether food should be considered a work of art in its own right. Though both Lee and Alberti stop short of equating the two, they acknowledge the parallels.

"The medium for chefs is food, and there is an artistic practice to their culinary technique," Alberti says. Either way, Lee sums it up well when he says this new breed of restaurant works particularly well in a modern art museum, where "your notions of art are often challenged."

Diners at Flora Bar, the new restaurant at The Met Breuer in Manhattan, are treated to dishes like oysters and red shrimp with uni and nori.

Photo: Johnny Miller

Ignacio Mattos reinvented his famed salad from Estela at Flora Bar, replacing endive with its purple cousin. The leaves are stacked atop a mound of pecans and Bayley Hazen Blue.

Photo: Johnny Miller

Anthony Myint of Mission Street Food created this Apocalypse Burger for the menu at In Situ, the restaurant inside San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. 

Photo: Courtesy of In Situ

The space at In Situ is spare and flooded with natural light. 

Photo: Courtesy of In Situ

Smoked fish arrives on elegant cutting boards at the Russ & Daughters location at the Jewish Museum on New York's Upper East Side.

Photo: Courtesy of Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum

Longtime customers of Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side will catch small nods to the original, like this wallpaper that captures the tickets customers use to hold their spots in line. 

Photo: Courtesy of Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum

At Sweet Home Café in the National Museum of African American History & Culture, a large cafeteria aims to tell the story of African American migration and communities through food. 

Photo: Courtesy of Sweet Home Cafe

While Sweet Home Café is divided into four regional sections, chef Jerome Grant says the Agricultural South station is the most popular, with people lining up for fried chicken.

Photo: Courtesy of Sweet Home Cafe

Isaac Toups ends meals on a sweet note at Toups South in the Southern Food & Beverage Museum with a chocolate pecan pie.

Photo: Denny Culbert

Toups uses barbecue master Aaron Franklin's first smoker, which is part of the museum's permanent collection, to prepare foie gras and whole goat.

Photo: Denny Culbert