Dine: Museum food can be a work of art

It's strange that any museum would ever consider its restaurant an afterthought, since wandering through crowded rooms on multiple floors to contemplate art can work up an appetite. And yet it has been only within the past several years that museum visitors have been able to find food beyond cafeteria scenarios.

The rise of museum dining came about in correlation with the Age of the Foodie, when chefs rose to fame, farming became cool and consumers paid more attention to what and where they ate. It was in the early aughts that museums in cities around the world took note that a good restaurant would mean more frequent visits and more buzz for the exhibitions.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York welcomed The Modern in 2005, Danny Meyer's sleek restaurant that earned a Michelin star. Mr. Meyer followed it with the more-casual Untitled at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2011.

In Washington, D.C., visitors to the Newseum can dine at The Source by Wolfgang Puck, an excellent Asian-inspired restaurant. It's run by executive chef Scott Drewno, who, incidentally, will be cooking at Cure in Lawrenceville in September as part of the restaurant's "Cure-ated Dinner Series."

Pittsburgh museums have only recently been more attentive to dining, with a few stylish cafes and several that need an update. Here's the lowdown on museum dining in Pittsburgh:

The Warhol Cafe (The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side; 412-237-8300) is the newest museum restaurant to get a facelift. After a move from the basement to the first floor, the revamped cafe opened May 18, in time for the museum's 20th anniversary celebration.

The restaurant is managed by Parkhurst, a division of Eat'n Park, and features a new menu of salads, flatbreads, sandwiches and snacks, including a variation on the company's Smiley cookie, an edible rendition of a Warhol self-portrait.

Seating overflows into the lobby that's been redesigned in the spirit of his New York studio, The Factory. The restaurant/lobby also has iPads for public use.

"It's great to see people hanging out for lunch or coffee," said Rachel Baron-Horn, the museum's director of finance and operations who oversaw the update. "It's such an engaging place now."

The cafe at the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (4400 Forbes Ave. Oakland; 412-622-3131) is positioned with similar intentions, but it doesn't translate in such a vast space.

Also run by Parkhurst, the ground-level restaurant is sequestered in a dark corner of the museum, an experience not unlike the made-to-order scenario at Chipotle, with food that's often disappointing. (A cafeteria mostly visited by families and school groups resides in the basement, next to the library.)

Though administrators are talking about how to update the restaurants, for now the cafe is uninspiring. If only there were fresh, seasonal dishes served in the dramatic courtyard or outside among the sculptures.

A weekly draw for happy hour is Thursday night when the cafe serves wine, beer and a light repast and the museum stays open until 8 p.m. What a pleasure it is to stroll through the ground level with a glass of wine.

Speaking of booze-focused events: The predominantly kid-focused Carnegie Science Center (One Allegheny Ave., North Shore; 412-237-3400) holds occasional gatherings such as "The Science of Beer," a $17 night that includes a talk and samples from 10 local breweries on June 13.

If only the food matched the scenery at the Science Center's Riverview Cafe, where every visitor can enjoy a panorama of the three rivers converging. Unfortunately, the menu is only a notch above school lunchroom choices, with deli sandwiches, mozzarella sticks, onion rings and salads.

Atria's Kookaburra Kitchen (The National Aviary, 700 Arch St., North Side; 412-323-7235) opened in 2012, replacing Bistro To Go. Although the menu also has kids in mind, the options are more pleasing, in line with the eight locations of Atria's Restaurant and Tavern, including one at PNC Park.

Soups, burritos, nachos and daily specials round out the menu with dishes marked by bird-themed names. Limited outdoor seating is an option in nice weather, with a view of greenery and the penguin tank. The third Thursday of the month, the aviary is open until 9 p.m. and the cafe features a special menu.

A greater distance from Downtown, museum dining can be a pleasure. My favorite remains The Cafe at the Frick (The Frick Art & Historical Center, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze; 412-371-0600). A gem of museum dining, the independently run restaurant is known for afternoon tea available after 2:30. With 40 seats outside and 30 in the dining room, now is the time for a visit.

"The Cafe at the Frick is both a destination and an amenity," said Greg Langel, the Frick's media and marketing manager who has worked there since 1996. It draws not only visitors after a tour through the collections but local residents seeking light dining and charming atmosphere.

Grow Pittsburgh works with the museum to help tend to its garden and greenhouse. The remainder of produce, meat and other products come from local sources to the degree it's possible.

Seth Bailey has been the executive chef for five years, while Greg Smith is the pastry chef -- a rare position in restaurants these days as many places have cut back on dessert staff.

In Oakland, a lot of feel-goodery is associated with Cafe Phipps (Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, One Schenley Park; 412-622-7363) from the LEED-certified building and a "3-star green restaurant certification," as well as local cred: It's working with the Environmental Charter School in Regent Square to help provide school lunches for special occasions. The museum overhauled the concept about two years ago.

A few months ago Food & Wine rated it as among its "Best Museum Restaurants in the U.S."

Vegan- and vegetarian-friendly dishes such as arugula and wild mushroom salad are offered along with smoked salmon or grilled haloumi with pickles. Like the Frick, Cafe Phipps also has a museum garden. The restaurant serves beer and sustainable wine and also features a coffee bar.

Farther away, The Fallingwater Cafe (1491 Mill Run Road, Mill Run, Fayette County; 724-329-8501) offers a satiating lunch with terrific scenery and architectural detail. Nestled in the visitors' center on the grounds of the home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the cafe offers a short menu of simple options, such as grilled cheddar with apple chutney with a kale salad on the side, or a braised beef sandwich with horseradish cream on brioche. Sandwiches and snacks are also available to go.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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