After hours of Manhattan museum - going, spotting a gallery's empty bench might inspire a higher state of exaltation than any piece of art on the walls. When fatigued visitors start to wonder if they are looking at a stuffed rabbit tethered to long rods or a hanging snow shovel, it's time to refuel. Fortunately, most museums in the city have radically revamped their dining. From fresh food in their cafeterias to exquisite restaurants run by some of the city's finest restaurateurs, dining options abound.
When the Museum of Modern Art moved back into its space on 53d Street in 2004, the renovated building included three new dining spaces. Restaurateur Danny Meyer , most notably of Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern , was chosen to create and run MoMA's Cafe 2 , Terrace 5 , and The Modern . The restaurants have contributed to changing attitudes toward museum dining.
"Most people come in, look around, and they're kind of in shock -- pleasantly surprised," says Anton Nocito, executive sous chef at Cafe 2, the Italian eatery that functions as the museum's cafeteria. Cafe 2 is a sleek, modern room of stainless steel, glass, matte black, and wood. Behind the lengthy glass case of offerings such as artisanal cheeses, stuffed artichokes, panini , salads, tiramisu, and ricotta cheesecake , the staff quickly prepares orders, which are brought to customers seated at long, narrow communal tables. The popular salumi board , a choice of three, six, or nine kinds of locally cured meats -- from wild boar cacciatorini to hot sopressata -- is served with olives, parmigiano, and olive oil drizzled flatbread and runs $15-$26.
The delightful Terrace 5 is an airy, open space, part of which is a dining balcony. It overlooks MoMA's courtyard from five flights up, dwarfing the usually imposing sculptures of Richard Serra and pleasantly reducing the city's noise to a distant hum. Terrace 5 is a full-service restaurant, offering salads and light fare such as house-marinated tuna, mixed radish salad, and soy-marinated duck breast served over soba noodle salad and pickled lotus root. The rather innocuous sounding MoMA sundae is a decadent yet refreshing mix of raspberry and sorbets fromage blanc , pieces of cheese cake, crumble, and fresh berries. Artisanal chocolates made in house range from coffee to jasmine. Desserts are $6 to $12, wines $7 to $13 by the glass, and are also served by the half bottle, bottle, and a trio of three-ounce tastes.
The Modern is the most extravagant and independent of MoMA's eateries. The minimalist street entrance tube doesn't prepare first-time visitors for the dazzling Bar Room, the intimate and lively area crowded with diners in leather chairs, unruly flower constructions, and reflective surfaces of chrome, glass, and enamel. The hints of jungle in the giant photo by German artist Thomas Demand that spans the back wall are the perfect backdrop for what unfolds in the Bar Room, which has become a popular "power lunch" spot. Plates range from $10 to $28. Beyond a frosted glass wall is the bright, white, formal Dining Room , reservations required. Dinner is a three-course prix fixe for $85, as well as tasting menus, with or without wine pairings, from $125 to $243.
Executive chef Gabriel Kreuther, a native of the Alsace region of France, has created a wildly innovative, yet earthy menu for the Bar and Dining rooms: succulent Alsatian country sausage served with whole grain mustard and turnip choucroute , liverwurst with pickled vegetables, 28-day dry-aged ribeye, roasted duck breast, and Arctic char tartare with basil and trout caviar.
For diners who are left cold by state-of-the-art, 21st-century eateries, a visit to the Neue Galerie 's phenomenal Café Sabarsky is a must. The gallery specializing in German and Austrian art opened in 2001, and is housed in a renovated mansion on the corner of 86th Street and 5th Avenue.
Walking into Café Sabarsky is a disorienting delight. A piano player discreetly plays Strauss among other composers, and German and Austrian dailies hang on a wooden rack. The walls are rich, dark, carved wood, with old mirrors and a row of windows looking out onto Central Park. The Adolf Loos -designed chairs and tables are always full, and waiters in white shirts, black vests, and ties gallantly carry trays of Viennese coffees and ornate chocolate cakes, strudels, and fruit tarts.
"This is a classic Viennese cafe," says Kurt Gutenbrunner, its chef and owner . Sporting a white chef's shirt, he plows through two pieces of Van Gogh Torte (rhubarb mousse, elderflower Bavarian cream) in rapid succession and takes great delight in pointing out that his cafe is full of people casually sipping coffee, eating, talking, and reading. "Nobody is in a rush. Where do you see this in New York? It's very unusual."
Besides afternoon sweets and coffees, Café Sabarsky offers savory Austrian fare for breakfast, lunch, and an occasional dinner such as Hungarian beef goulash with herbed quark spätzle , crepes with smoked trout and horseradish crème fraîche, various sausages, salads, and sandwiches. Entrees run $11 to $27. The menu lists more than 25 wines sold by the glass or half bottle, primarily from Gutenbrunner's homeland, Austria. There is usually a line to get into Café Sabarsky, which does not take reservations, but museum admission is not required for entry.
"It's creatively challenging," Shade-Walker says, sitting in the tranquil, glassed-in dining room among the ladies who lunch set. "The dishes from the old family menus were heavy, creamy, and that's not what people want to eat today." Skipping turtle and other undesirables, Shade-Walker and her staff have successfully made the two menus a whimsical mix of old and new, such as peekytoe crab salad, fricassee of organic chicken, beef Wellington served with seared foie gras and mushroom duxelles .
One of Shade-Walker's favorite creations is the dainty, scrumptious pineapple upside-down cake with coconut ice cream. The casual cafe is open only to ticketed visitors, while the dining room has its own entrance. The museum is known primarily for its lunches, with entrees running $11 to $24, although brunch and occasionally dinner are also served.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is so colossal that even native New Yorkers who grew up with the Met find new rooms, wings even, with each visit. Hungry visitors make their way to the Petrie Court Café , a full-service restaurant with three rows of 15 tables in the middle of a relaxing, spacious hall. Central Park is visible through the wall of windows. The cafe offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch, and a splendid afternoon tea from 2:30-4:30 p.m. for $24 per person.
The Met's newly renovated subterranean cafeteria has grill, pasta, and salad stations, trays, and cashiers. The food is surprisingly high quality and reasonably priced . The many antipasti salads, including cedar-grilled salmon, couscous, and pickled beets, are $.65 an ounce. Hot main courses run from $7.50-$10.50. Entry to the museum is required for all dining, but the Met's suggested fee of $20 is just that. Museumgoers can pay what they like.
Asia Society and the Rubin Museum of Art , dedicated to the art of the Himalayas and the surrounding region, serve Asian fusion cuisine. The Garden Court Café at Asia Society is a full-service restaurant housed in a sunny atrium with weeping podocarpus trees . Chef Nima Khansari changes the menu frequently, and recently added the phenomenal pizzetta appetizer of yellow fin tuna, avocado mousse, sriracha aoli, topped with wasabi tobiko and scallions for $12. The most expensive item for lunch is the bento box for $21, which has a selection of four items, including curry chicken salad and two sauces. The Cafe at RMA has more of a stark cafe feel, but offers dishes such as roasted red chile salmon with soba noodles and miso grilled vegetables on naan , priced around $12.
Some of the glatt kosher offerings are fresh soups, salads, a delicious vegetable/pesto panino , and items never exceed $10.50. Lang has used previous exhibits to complement the menu, "but that doesn't work with Louise Nevelson ," he says about the current exhibit of the sculptor's work. "It would taste like wood." Café Weissman, located in the museum's basement with the feel of a nicely designed submarine, is popular with neighbors seeking kosher food, since no entry fee is required.
The Met 's Roof Garden Café is a delightful refuge with a breathtaking treetop view of Central Park. During extended hours on Friday and Saturday nights, patrons can sip $11 lychee martinis among other cocktails from the martini bar as the sun sets.
If museumgoers find themselves at Fort Tyron Park in upper Manhattan, the Trie Café at The Cloisters offers one of the most serene lunch settings on the island. Gourmet turkey, ham, or portobello mushroom sandwiches are $8 to $9, and diners can eat at one of the many tables surrounding the gurgling fountain, garden, and wildly chirping birds.
Nina Roberts, a freelance writer in New York, can be reached at ninaroberts.net.