The Art of Cooking – Best-Selling Menu Items at Museum Restaurants and Cafes

By Natalie Hope McDonald

At the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, Executive Chef Dena Peterson pays close attention to food trends and special dietary requests at Café Modern, the popular in-house eatery. “We are very observant of diners’ dietary requests,” the chef explained. “Our menu already has an abundance of vegetarian, vegan, whole grain and gluten-free options. Individual requests are honored on a case-by-case basis, but generally we are able to accommodate even the pickiest eaters.”

The museum generally attracts a fairly astute guest interested in a wide array of modern art dating after the mid-20th century. Not only does the museum house an incredible collection of modern masterpieces (3,000 pieces dating between 1945 and the present) but it also regularly screens films and hosts special events, tours, lectures and workshops which tend to attract hungry guests.

The chef, who has even gone so far as to raise chickens in her own backyard, takes a creative approach to the menu, starting with fresh, all-natural ingredients.

“Our daily fish special is our bestseller,” said Peterson. “We adhere strictly to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, only serving fresh, sustainable seafood options. We pair them with local produce and artisan ingredients to provide the freshest, tastiest flavor combinations.”

This is no short order for Café Modern, which has a large dining room, capable of seating more than 160 people at any one time. “When wait times to be seated exceed a few minutes, guests have the option to carry a pager and view the art or peruse items in the gift shop while they wait,” said Peterson, who works with Bon Appetit Management Company, the food service management company for the restaurant.

Also in the heart of the American Southwest, Café a la C’Art at the Tucson Museum of Art in Arizona is owned and operated by Mark Jorbin, a man who is also interested in delivering a creative menu that will appeal to a wide array of tastes and dietary choices.

“The best-selling item on the menu is currently our Rothschild Sandwich,” he said, “a slow beer-and-chili-braised beef brisket topped with roasted sweet peppers, melted pepper jack cheese and chipotle aioli on toasted challah roll.”

Even though some of the more popular dishes may be inspired by the region’s Southwestern cuisine, Jorbin makes every effort to accommodate special requests ranging from vegan to gluten-free dishes. “If a customer has a special request due to allergies,” he said, “we will make suggestions for menu items avoiding that allergen.” The pastry chef, who bakes all of the desserts from scratch, also regularly makes gluten-free items. It’s all about balance, Jorbin said.

“We have a fast, casual setup for breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch, which tends to move things along,” he explained, “especially now that we have two POS terminals at the counter. Dinner service, which we now offer Wednesday through Sunday, offers full-table service along with a full bar menu, so it is a more leisurely experience.”

TASTE at the Seattle Art Museum caters to a wide range of guest food preferences, including vegan and vegetarian, in addition to serving classics such as signature burgers.

TASTE at the Seattle Art Museum caters to a wide range of guest food preferences, including vegan and vegetarian, in addition to serving classics such as signature burgers.

A Timeless Experience 

The Victory Burger tops the list of favorite dishes at the American Sector Restaurant and Bar at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, La. Here, the menu takes a fresh approach to old-school food with a Louisiana twist.

From fish and chips to a slew of sandwiches, short ribs, shrimp and grits and homemade pie, the menu is rich on flavor. “Since there is always a chef on duty, we can and do create any number of dishes not on the menu to support our guests with a [great] many food restrictions,” explained Jerry Reed, the bar and restaurant’s general manager. “We have also streamlined the menu to support faster grab-and-go-style items.”

In the restaurant, the chefs also work hard to target 15-minute ticket times, and 45-minute dining experiences for guests in a hurry to get back to the museum or to see a movie. Reed said the venue also opened a soda shop with additional seating in the theatre, which helps cut back on congestion at peak eating times.

Also in New Orleans, the ultra-modern Café NOMA inside the New Orleans Museum of Art, is as fresh as the decor. Chris Montero, the executive chef, offers a very popular daily bruschetta and flatbread that gets meals started in style.

“The daily bruschetta allows us to spotlight seasonal products like fresh tomatoes and other produce with various herb pestos,” he explains. “And our house-cured salmon bruschetta is a hit with cucumber, cream cheese, onion and capers.” He said that he tries to switch up ingredients and flavors each day. Each daily bread plate, for example, is paired with a glass of wine for just $10 on Friday evenings when the museum is open late.

Another mainstay menu item here is the turkey club. “We use only top-tier ingredients, like herbed turkey breast, high-quality bacon and artisan bread,” said Montero, who has also built several vegan items into the menu, including custom vegan salads and gluten-free dishes.

He estimated that 50 percent of the restaurant’s sales come from entrée salads at lunch alone, making it well worth the effort to please a range of tastes. “It’s important to us that there is a full range of options available to be gluten-free or vegan by swapping out dressing or other ingredients,” he explained.

But like most museum eateries, one of his biggest challenges is serving large groups and tours. “We are a counter-service restaurant, so when the large groups arrive and the line is out the door, we flip into a different mode where we have a server that works the line and explains the specials and takes orders,” said Montero. “This expedites the time of the food being made.”

Plus, he said that since the restaurant has such a diverse clientele comprised of business people, neighborhood residents, retired folks and museum guests, he needs to be able to accommodate all types of diners at any one time. “We have a huge amount of repeat guests,” he said, “which is rare for a museum restaurant, but we have developed a very organic following of locals.”

The Victory Burger tops the list of favorite dishes at the American Sector Restaurant and Bar at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, La.

The Victory Burger tops the list of favorite dishes at the American Sector Restaurant and Bar at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, La.

A Fresh Approach 

Kristin White, general manager of TASTE at the Seattle Art Museum, swears by the famous burger served there. That might explain why it tends to top the list as the most popular menu item of all time.

But the Pacific Northwest being what it is, the sleek, modern restaurant also caters to a range of other tastes – including vegan and vegetarian cuisine. “We indicate gluten-free items on the menu,” said White. “Our culinary team is sensitive to dairy and other allergies. We custom-make adjustments when able.”

Teamwork, whether related to how something’s cooked or served, seems to be the hallmark of the experience behind the scenes at TASTE, as well. White admitted that teamwork is something required both in the front of the house and in the kitchen for the restaurant to truly live up to its reputation. “We communicate effectively, multitask and support each other,” she said.

Michael Raine, the general manager of the Café Serai at the Rubin Museum in New York City takes a similar approach to keeping customers happy.

“We like to stay ahead of the rush by keeping daily records of our attendance to gain a good understanding of our peak hours,” said Raine. “We also keep abreast of the offerings of the museum to ensure that we are well prepared for our patrons. The key to keeping things moving in the café during busy times is to ensure that all elements of the café operation are running smoothly: the counter staff members are efficient in receiving the orders in a timely manner, the kitchen is on top of the orders received, and the café floor is continually monitored to ensure empty tables are cleaned and available for the next guest.”

Stephen Starr Events, a restaurant and catering outfit based in Philadelphia, runs the food service for the café, with items that range from salads to Indian wraps and small plates with an Eastern flair.

“We strive to accommodate the dietary needs and restrictions of our visitors by offering substitutions for items,” said Raine. “The staff behind the café counter is able to offer suggestions for substitutions and communicate these changes with our kitchen staff. If a group plans a pre-order, our café manager is able to provide the same level of service, and with advance notice, can prepare the dishes to accommodate the needs of the visitors.”

The restaurant also offers large platters that can be shared between groups of people, which can create a unique dining experience over conversation and during meetings by day and evening.

Philly Flavor

At the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia where Aramark Business Dining Services Manager Betsy Johnson keeps a close eye on what’s trending on the menu, the chefs are always thinking about how dishes can be upgraded each season.

“Our menu changes seasonally to make sure we are taking advantage of the wonderful ingredients that each season has to offer,” explained Johnson. “This spring, one dish that has been very popular is our grilled salmon with smoked couscous with tomato confit, cucumber caviar and citrus yogurt with olive dust.”

Johnson said the dining teams likes to experiment with flavors each season to keep things interesting, especially for return guests. “A new dish that we will be featuring,” she said, “is orecchiette pasta with fiddle heads, fava beans and English peas in ramp butter finished with charred ramps and tarragon.”

The eatery is willing to take chances knowing that the guests tend to have a more sophisticated palate, and often have specific requests. “We certainly do our best to accommodate different dietary needs, as well as food allergies,” she said. “Our servers and culinary staff are very in tune with each other and in constant communication about the ingredients of each dish. Many of our menu items are naturally vegetarian or gluten free.”

During the museum’s busiest times – like weekends and during special events – Johnson said the servers have been trained to ask guests if they are on a schedule or intend to enjoy a leisurely lunch. “We want to make sure that lunch is kept at the right pace,” she said, “but also that tour times are met without the feeling of being rushed.”

A few blocks away at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Starr Restaurant Group is in charge of the food. Manager Emily Stockton-Brown said, “Our best-selling menu item is always our soup, regardless of season. We make all of the soups in-house with seasonal ingredients selected by our executive chef. By selecting seasonal, local produce, we create a large variety of rotating daily soups making it a favorite choice for first-time visitors as well as members and employees alike. For those looking for a more substantial option, our herb de Provence roasted chicken is also a favorite.”

Given the wide demographics of people who visit the museum – and the different tastes, allergies and special dietary restrictions that come with that – the museum’s eatery and café both ensure that each guest has the best experience possible based on their wants and needs.

“Our cafeteria serves a large variety of offerings so guests with dietary restrictions are not limited to the same meal at each visit,” said Stockton-Brown. “This includes a salad bar with specialty toppings, in addition to multiple vegetarian and vegan protein sources. Our sandwiches and composed salads are always made in-house and affixed with easy-to-read food sensitivity information.”

One of the hallmarks of Starr Restaurants Catering Group, which is managing more and more museum eateries in the Northeast, is the entrepreneurial, hands-on approach of the entire staff. No one is above jumping into the fray to make things go smoothly and to ensure that customers have a great experience without having to wait long for their food.

“So during busy season or an especially big lunch rush, our management team will roll up their sleeves and jump on a register to ring out customers or refill the beverage and prepared food displays,” she said. “I believe this kind of teamwork is indicative of how important the customer experience is to us; we sincerely want each and every guest to feel welcome and comfortable.”

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