Museum cafés have long transcended their status as small stations serving coffee and refrigerated sandwiches, there simply for peckish tourists who get cranky from too much sightseeing. They have to walk a fine line between being very good and not stealing the show from the museums they occupy. The following 10 museum cafés perfectly match the ethos and quality of their respective museums; they neither steal the spotlight nor hide in the shadows. They add the sensory experience that paintings, sculptures, and other media cannot provide — taste.
The Restaurant at the Tassenmuseum Hendrikje, or Museum of Bags and Purses, in Amsterdam consists of two period rooms with original painted ceilings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The restaurant is open for lunch and high tea — most notably their “fashion high tea,” which features a cinnamon cake that looks like Bette Midler’s red shoes, a vanilla and marzipan cake that resembles a Chanel 2.55 bag, and a passion fruit-stuffed “Moschino bon bon.” The food celebrates the museum, and for that, it is an essential part of your visit.
Cafe Asia makes the usual cold tuna sandwiches at museum cafés look rather sheepish, with items like yakiniku pork banh mi, chicken salad with crispy lotus root, market fish with a red miso glaze, and other mouth-watering options. Ever-changing daily specials showcase the creativity of chef Melinda Quirino.
Is there a better way to end (or start) a visit to a contemporary art museum than by eating banana bread with passion fruit curd, drinking mimosas, and enjoying a perfect view of the Sydney Opera House? Hungrier patrons can opt for battered barramundi and chips with finger lime aïoli or a roast beetroot and elk salad. Either way, a little time at Sydney’s MCA Cafe and Sculpture Terrace is a must-do in the Australian metropolis.
If the Neue Gallery’s paintings by Austrian greats like Gustav Klimt or Egon Schiele aren’t enough to transport you to Vienna, then Cafe Sabarsky — with its lighting fixtures by Josef Hoffmann, furniture by Adolf Loos, 1912 Otto Wagner fabric upholstery, and Bösendorfer grand piano that is actually used for cabaret, chamber, and classical music performances at the museum — will surely make you feel like you are in a Viennese coffee house. The drinks, like the wiener melange latte and holunderblütensaft (sparkling water with elderflower syrup), and desserts, like topfentorte (quark (cottage) cheesecake) and kandinskytorte (chestnut mousse torte with pears & chocolate glaze), are perfect accompaniments to intellectual, engaging conversation about the art in the rest of the museum.
After a gander around Tokyo’s Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, you’ll want to try one of Café D’Art’s famous “image cakes”: carefully crafted cakes that reflect the current exhibit. We’re talking black sesame mouse made to look like a chatty man, a gelatin cake that sits on a piece of silver foil that “expresses the tension present in the work of artist Toko Shinoda,” and a coconut mousse that mimics the face of self-portrait artist Morimura. Morimura creates portraits of himself dressed like famous figures, and this dessert depicts Morimura dressed as Frida Kahlo, with a unibrow made of dark sesame sauce. The image cake is another must-see piece of postmodern art in the museum.
London has no shortage of excellent museum cafés, notably the ones at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Modern, but Blueprint Café at the Design Museum takes the cake. Located right on the Thames and boasting excellent views of Tower Bridge, farm-to-table Blueprint Café has both prix fixe and à la carte menus that include items like tea-cured salmon, blood orange, and fennel salad; three-cornered garlic risotto with almond puree and pickled radish; and compressed pineapple with coconut sorbet and passion fruit foam.
With high-concept (and high-fat) items like foie and oats, bone marrow tart, veal cheek Stroganoff, oysters Bolognese, “bi bim Wells” (with tuna sashimi, oyster, foie gras, avocado, and a poached egg), blood pudding, and more items that change frequently, M. Wells Dinette is the perfect restaurant for the ever-cool MoMa PS1 in Long Island City. Designed to look like a classroom, it is furnished with desk-like communal tables (which have notebooks and pencils in their drawers) that all face in one direction, and the menu is written on the chalkboard. Quebecoise chef Hugh Dufour runs M. Wells with his wife Sarah Obraitis, and their restaurant has received wide critical and popular acclaim.
Located in the dining room of the former mansion of famous art collectors, Café Jacquemart-André is one of Paris’s most beautiful tea rooms. Enjoy pastries from the famous Pâtisserie Stohrer and Michel Fenet’s Petite Marquise on weekdays, or come for a bustling weekend brunch — in that case, you could use your waiting time to see the museum, because you will be waiting for a while. On the occasion of each new exhibit, the café designs its menu to reflect the exhibit’s themes; at present, the few Italian items on the menu reflect their “From Giotto to Caravaggio” exhibit.
AMMO, in the courtyard of the Hammer Museum, is an ideal place to enjoy beautiful Los Angeles weather, especially because their menu of locally sourced fare includes orecchiette with caramelized cauliflower and spicy rapini, arugula with persimmons and ricotta salata, and their famous turkey meatloaf with sautéed kale. The Hammer Museum, which is free to the public, is full of forward-thinking art that does not snub its nose at corporate industrialism, and it’s known for championing overlooked artists and movements of art history. That unpretentiousness and creativity is also found in the food at AMMO.
At the stunning Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian is the equally stunning Mitsitam Native Foods Café, with a seasonally changing menu specializing in the cuisine of various indigenous tribes in the Western Hemisphere. It is an anthropological lesson by way of your taste buds. In the Northern Woodlands tribes section, you can taste items like parsnip and saffron soup with sumac oil, and in the Great Plains section, you’ll enjoy entrees like cherry-braised buffalo short rib with celery root mash. Mitsitam, which has many vegetarian options and its own cookbook to boot, is sure to make your visit a truly out-of-the-box, unforgettable museum experience.