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.
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?
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