Food and Eating in Museums

Let’s eat!

Have you ever eaten in a museum cafe or restaurant? What was your experience like? Do you think your experience eating in a museum today would be the same as it was 5 or 10 years ago?

The museum food game is changing, with museums opting to partner with high profile chefs and researchers to make the dining in their institutions an experience of its own. As museumgoers, we are seeing a shift in priorities. Museums are focusing on healthy foods, food connected to museum content, and food service with a distinct mission of its own.

Museum restaurants as attractions.

Restaurants like Mitsitam Café of the National Museum of the American Indian, Untitled Studio and Café at the Whitney, and In Situ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are examples of restaurants that are gaining traction as destinations themselves, outside of their museum affiliation.

Rated in the Washington Post’s 2013 spring dining guide by the locally trusted and veteran food critic, Tom Sietsma, Mitsitam Café has gained much attention on the National Mall since opening in 2004 with the museum. Sietsma refers to the Mitsitam Café as an oasis in the food desert that is the National Mall. He is not the only fan of this dining space. Due to the amount of interest in the café by museum visitors, the Mitsitam Café published a cookbook in 2010, entitled The Mitsitam Café Cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The cookbook is still in print today, and features recipes by the author and chef Richard Hetzler. Recipes come from different groups of indigenous people form various regions of the Americas, highlighting the educational aspect of the museum café’s food.



Untitled Studio and Café at the Whitney Museum of American Art plays with the role of identity. This space reflects the architecture of the High Line, playing with indoor and outdoor spaces and the idea of transparency. Working with the intent of providing a cultural experience, Untitled Studio and Café wants to intertwine the diner’s time in their space with that of the art experience found in the rest of the museum space.


In Situ also seeks to play on the intersection of art, food, and culture through its menu. Chef Corey Lee could also be considered Food Curator Corey Lee, as he highlights the dishes of more than 80 chefs from around the world in this dining space. In Situ replicates those dishes at In Situ for the diners to experience. In essence, In Situ holds a collection of the greatest works by modern chefs. Through dedication and commitment to authenticity, Lee is strives to make this experience one that is inspiring and unforgettable for all.

Museum restaurants as exhibitions.

Sweet Home Café of the National Museum of African American History and Culture represents four regions of the United States through food. Focusing on the agricultural South, the Creole Coast, the Northern states, and the Western range, this dining experience is designed to change and evolve. Dedicated research and a strong team back the thoughtful design of the menu, food stations, and dining space. Sweet Home Café boasts connections to culinary ambassador Carla Hall, of ABC’s The Chew, and lives out the of the writing and research of Dr. Jessica Harris, a culinary leader for the café.

Executive chef Jerome Grant, formerly of the Mitsitam Café at NMAH, says that one goal of Sweet Home Café is to offer an opportunity for visitors to get to know people through food. There are many lessons to be learned in this dining space, as well as, throughout the museum’s collections. Current featured foods include a duck, andouille & crawfish gumbo with Carolina Rice and green onions, buttermilk fried chicken, original Brunswick stew, and BBQ with Alabama white sauce. The museums will continue to grow and as will the café alongside it. One of the biggest considerations for this space in the future is the challenge to maintain a consistent level of food that is palatable and authentic moving forward.


Museum restaurants as source of participation. 

Dining spaces in museums have the ability to be a source of participation for visitors. Diners can pass through this space and satisfy one of their most basic needs, eating! But in addition, museum restaurants and cafés have the ability to impact the lives of their visitors in many more ways that could also have longer lasting effects on the museumgoers visit. Through the Let’s Move! campaign, we have seen many interesting takes on ways to do just that!

Let’s Move! is a national initiative to get kids moving and eating healthy food. It aims to support healthy children and families. Through Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens, museums, zoos, gardens, science and technology centers can join the call to action. One example comes from the Kidspace Children’s Museum of Pasadena, California. This museum hosts a “Mini-Iron Chef” program that incorporates the products of its outdoor garden space. Children compete to create the tastiest burrito with the garden vegetables.

Moving forward.

Museum dining spaces that work in conjunction with the museum’s mission and values have the power to impact the overall visitor experience. As museum educators, do we see that restaurants and cafes are doing enough? Is there room for more dedicated educational programming? Should there be more focus on healthy lifestyles, reducing food waste, or emphasized practice of ethical food practices? What direction would you take the future of dining in museums?


Resources and further reading:




8 thoughts on “Food and Eating in Museums

  1. Michelle

    Thank you Erin, for a very different conversation of potential museum audiences. As I know it, having cafes in museum has been a touchy topic. Either museums want them and believe it can attract visitors or museums think it takes away from the beauty of the museum. For example, in a art gallery framed museum I wouldn’t picture a cafe or anything related to food in fear it could create a mess within the galleries. However, for a more family friendly museum setting, having a cafe could be a time saver and create a one stop shop experience for a fun family day out. On the topic of museum restaurants as a source of participation, I believe could be a creative way to combine the two experiences. My only concern is, other than the show and tell cooking programs and the cook with me classes, how else could museum restaurants create educational programs? Maybe a restaurant management program? Kids cooking class? This is a great idea that could expand further with the right professionals.


  2. tenebristic

    Great topic! I hadn’t really considered food as another way to experience museum content even though it seems quite obvious. This can be such a great entrance point for many audiences to the understanding of the museum’s content, from children to adults to individuals who may have a sensory impairment. I am interested to see how food can be further incorporated into programming with the dietary restrictions and food-service guidelines. There is a lot of room to grow in this area that can reach many individuals with a variety of needs. Additionally, I hope that museums with restaurants honour families who have low-reduced income vouchers for food stamps and local schools. I even hesitate to purchase a museum meal because of the cost.


    1. caitlinefblake

      Very true about food/cafes in museums being an entrance to or extension of understanding a museum’s content. I would like to see museums go a step further with their cafes/restaurants though and offer recipes or maybe even a cookbook of food that they serve and have write ups within about why they are serving the particular food they are serving. I think it would be a great way to let learning continue outside of the museum and offer another opportunity to understand the museum’s content!


  3. Danielle

    I always love when the food in the cafe relates to the exhibition, just like with Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian and Sweet Home Cafe at National Museum of African American History and Culture. Now, I’m a fan of contemporary and innovate dining, but it really is not accessible for a large majority of museum visitors and families. A burger at Untitled at the Whitney costs $22 (one of the cheaper options on the menu, the other dishes cost in the $30’s per plate) and In Situ isn’t much better with main dishes costing in the upper $20’s. I think it would be nice for museums to offer street food of the cultures that are portrayed in the exhibitions at affordable prices to help add a more holistic experience.


  4. mep17ruthann

    This is a great idea to consider for all museums with eating facilities! Experiencing art, history or science shouldn’t stop in the cafeteria. Since museums are catching on to the possibilities of what they can offer as further engagement, where else can engagement be expanded. For museums this also means staffing essentially and curator and connecting the food services teams with the education teams. Will the cost of these additional staff members make the food more expensive, therefore only limiting the multisensory access to those who can afford it.
    I am also curious about the kind or ways they plan on getting feedback about the cafes being viewed as museum extension by the visiting public. It’s a great idea, but do the public view these cafes as another medium of art or simply a place to refill the tank?


  5. museumpeople

    Now you are making me hungry! What a terrific idea to think about the role of eating as part of the museum education experience. Very interesting! I did not realize what a trend this has become, but it makes total sense. Two thoughts, there are some interesting ties to living history experiences which would be interesting to explore, and what about economic barriers–these restaurants are not cheap. Thanks for posting!


  6. alw888

    Your presentation and blog post caused me to think about how museums seek to connect aesthetics and dinning. Specialized food options and “arty” spaces in which to eat do seem to attract some visitors. However, your point about costs is very important to consider. Offering reasonably priced and healthy snacks would help families not have upset children, who are grumpy because they needs some food or a drink.

    A few friends have told me over the years that they only eat at the cafes of certain museums, because the exhibits are usually do not appeal to them. It would be interesting to research; who typically eats at different museums’ dinning venues? Possibly “arty” food in a museum environment is highly beneficial for museum income or attracting donors. Nevertheless, museums would be more accessible to families as well as those who cannot afford the prices, if “bring your own food” spaces or basic snacks and drinks for purchase were available. Unless of course there are nearby food options.

    Attracting various audiences through “arty” food may help museums, so the practice should not necessarily be eliminated. Yet the menus and prices should be on the museum’s website, along with suggestions for other dinning options in the museum or nearby.



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