Here's what they don't teach you in Art Appreciation 101: It makes you hungry. Whether contemplating Degas or Dalí or even dinosaurs, after an hour or two of mental and physical exertion, a museumgoer needs time to rest and refuel before setting off to another exhibition.
In the past, restaurants in Boston museums - if they had them at all - were modest cafeterias where you could expect to find a bagel or maybe an egg salad sandwich and a cup of coffee served with prepackaged cookies.
Today, as attendance has grown and museums have become more marketing-savvy, dining possibilities have expanded. Cafeteria-style venues still exist but now offer salad bars, healthy wraps, and stations with easy hot meals like pizza or pasta at affordable prices. At the higher end, one can dine on gazpacho, Caprese salad, or even soy-glazed scallops with vanilla pickled mango, washed down with a glass of Alsatian pinot gris or a decaf latte.
So take your pick. From fine dining to a quick and healthy snack one thing is certain: You can leave your brown bag lunch at home now; museums are feeding body and soul.
The Museum of Fine Arts offers three options that cater to varied schedules and budgets.
For unhurried fine dining head to Bravo. Located on the upper level of the West Wing this restaurant is a soothing and stylish retreat from the masses. The decor is both contemporary and welcoming, with bright orange accents scattered amidst subdued grays, browns, and warm wood tones.
"We want to be a restaurant in a museum, not a museum restaurant. People are pleasantly surprised when they come to see a show and find us," said Jacqueline Kelly, executive chef.
The small but eclectic menu focuses on seasonal ingredients from local purveyors, including sustainable seafood and meats and greens from nearby farms. A summer selection featured grilled asparagus salad with quail egg and black truffle vinaigrette, Hawaiian amberjack with Pernod fennel confit, and roasted Berkshire pork with heirloom beans.
"The Modern raised the bar," Kelly said, referring to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "Everyone wants to be at that level."
The Galleria Café, adjacent to the bookstore on the first floor, offers lighter fare, such as soup, creative salads, panini, and decadent desserts, in a casual setting.
"We try our best to theme menus according to the current show," said Tony Cassesse, the restaurant manager. The current Napoleon exhibit has a French bistro theme.
At the newly-added bar, Maureen McQuillen and Lina Baldassarre were enjoying lunch with a glass of wine.
"The nice thing about museums these days is that they've brought up the quality of the food. It's more bistro-style. Though I would add champagne to the menu," said McQuillen.
On the lower level, the Courtyard Café is a less expensive, cafeteria-style eatery. Choices include a salad bar, pre-made sandwiches, fresh fruit cups, or hot dishes like roast beef with mushroom sauce, and garlic mashed potatoes. The cafe's enormous windows face the courtyard where, in warmer weather, you can eat in the shade of large oak and weeping willow trees.
The cafe is scheduled to close Nov. 26 for renovations, which will include, amid a new look and new products, a noodle and rice bowl stir-fry station, and reopen Dec. 10.
"The challenge is to quickly serve something fresh and nutritional. If you prepare food in front of people, they don't mind waiting. We want to get away from French fry and hamburger stuff," said Cassesse.
At the Gardner Café, Boston residents Barbara Welensky and Norma Andreucci had been at the MFA but walked to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to visit the bookstore and dine.
"What's nice here is the presentation of the food. And we like that it's so small," said Welensky.
Indeed, the Gardner Café is an intimate space with only 32 seats. (An outside patio doubles capacity in warmer months.) The tables are close; voices are low. Patterned fabrics on the ceiling make reference to the tapestries in the museum. A summer menu featured an apricot and pistachio chicken salad, seared yellowfin tuna, and a thyme and sweet onion quiche.
"It's challenging to serve food that's accessible to many different tastes and expectations. Some people want to dine and have a two-hour lunch with wine while others want to get in and out quickly," said Peter Crowley, the cafe's chef and owner.
Over on Fan Pier, in the brand-spanking-new Institute of Contemporary Art, the Water Café is part of the Wolfgang Puck empire. Located on Boston Harbor with floor-to-ceiling windows, the cafe is a pleasant spot to stop.
The service is a cross between cafeteria style and waiter; you order at the counter, pay, and carry a numbered, colorful flyswatter to your table. Food, napkins, and cutlery are delivered with your meal which is served on white china.
Menus are culled from the approved Puck repertoire and include a seasonal selection of salads, soups, grilled panini, and sandwiches. A recent Chinois chicken salad with crispy wonton strips contained a perfect balance of salty-sweet cashews, shredded carrots, napa cabbage, and pickled ginger.
"People have been delighted with the food, the concept, and the area. It's beautiful here," said Aziza Daigle, the cafe's manager, gesturing at the view.
It's a brief walk from the ICA to the Boston Children's Museum on Congress Street. A new Au Bon Pain is connected through the Museum Shop (and accessible from the street) and features a healthy selection of fruit cups, wraps, rice bowls, salads, sandwiches, and smoothies. The interior is colorful and bright, as you'd expect in a place that caters to children, with brick walls and lively paintings with kid themes. You can eat indoors or, in season, under umbrellas at outside tables overlooking the water. The only drawback is the restaurant is closed on weekends.
There are oodles of selections for kids and adults at the Museum of Science. The Museum Café is vast, akin to an airport food court, located on one side of the long hallway across from the museum shop, en route to the Mugar Omni Theater and the planetarium. Designed to feed the masses quickly, it's cafeteria dining with a view of Boston, Cambridge, and the Charles River.
The food, again, is by Puck and the quality is a surprising step up from airport fare. The salad and antipasti bar were more impressive than most, with fresh greens, fruit, and sliced veggies as well as things like grilled Portobello mushrooms, farfalle pasta with chicken and vegetables, tofu, and tuna, all displayed in white ceramic platters and bowls.
There's also a Mexican food station (burritos, tacos, quesadillas), a hot lunch buffet (pizza and pasta), a fish market and grill (fish and chips, lobster roll, grilled salmon, burgers, and fries) and Dippin' Dots ("ice cream of the future"). The differences between here and the ICA are no table delivery service, no fancy plated entrees, and the cutlery, cups, and plates are all disposable.
Nancy and Bob Nagle from Farmington Hills, Mich., who arrived for the Duck Tours that depart outside, enjoyed lunch with daughters Kristin, 15, and Emily, 12.
"We came in here because the prices are cheaper than what we've seen out on the street. I've been on a lot of field trips with the kids, and this is the best I've had. There's fresh fruit and healthy food," said Nancy. Her husband agreed.
"You don't expect great prices in a place where they have a captive audience. And it's pretty healthy, too," said Bob.
On a 35-acre property out in Lincoln, The Café @ DeCordova also serves a captive audience. Though the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park's cafe does not have its own chef or kitchen, it offers an interesting selection of wraps, sandwiches, salads, and baked goods prepared by local vendors, including fare from KnowFat! of Waltham, Debra's Natural Gourmet of Concord, and Simmering Soup of Cumberland, R.I. Choices on a recent visit included a Dijon chicken rollup, organic beet and walnut salad with feta cheese, and Madeira mushroom soup.
Situated on the top floor of the museum, the cafe is a two-room aerie with a panoramic vista of Flint Pond visible through the treetops. The art is from the museum's collection, including, appropriately, a series of take-out coffee cup paintings by Susan Belton. For al fresco dining, there are tables on the Sculpture Terrace.
On a recent sunny weekday, Carolyn Wirth and Karen Meninno were enjoying lunch after looking at the exhibition. Both are sculptors from Boston.
"You need sustenance in a museum. It's nice to sit and not look at art for awhile," said Meninno.
"We planned to have lunch and spend the day here. The cafe is on the top floor, at the end of a journey. And it has a great view," said Wirth.
Perhaps the best view of all and the best deal in town (with free parking) can be found at the Museum Café at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester. As part of the spectacular I.M. Pei building, the cafe is a triangular wedge with square windows that offer a sweeping view of Boston Harbor including Castle Island, the L Street Beach, and Thompson Island.
Gourmet Caterers of Roslindale provides the food. A recent selection included a grilled asparagus and crab plate, a baby shrimp salad, and a roast beef sandwich on a baguette (all priced below $5.25).
Manager Frank Bonfiglio has worked there for 10 years.
"All our sandwiches and salads are made fresh daily. We bake muffins on the premises and also make our own Sicilian pizza. And we're known for our chowder," said Bonfiglio.
Linda Gissen, who was visiting from Virginia Beach, Va., was more than pleased with her choices. "Of the [Boston] museums we've been to, this is the best value and freshest food we've had. And we've been to some pretty good places."
Necee Regis, a freelance writer in Boston and Miami Beach, can be reached at email@example.com.