By Karen Appold
While enjoying a special day out at a museum, many guests want to indulge in a unique, higher end dish to complement their experience. Such is the case for visitors to the Cleveland Museum of Art, in Cleveland, Ohio, said Lisa Gallowitz, auxiliary services manager. She said the deconstructed tamale prepared in a tandoor oven is popular. The item was inspired by its current exhibition, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” which features a section dedicated to the time the artist spent in New Mexico. The dish will only be available while the exhibition is there. “We take advantage of our major exhibitions to inspire new, temporary menu items not only to connect the restaurant to the art, but also to offer new choices each time.”
The fall/winter menu at the Toledo Museum of Art, in Toledo, Ohio, features a range of warm, hearty dishes. Homemade drunken apple and walnut chicken focaccia sandwiches and gluten-free achiote grilled chicken gnocchi are both popular dishes, as are roasted vegetable platters—such as roasted Brussel sprouts. They provide a hearty and nutritious vegetarian option. The new house carrot soup is both vegan and gluten-free. “This menu is popular because it offers new and unique flavor options without sacrificing taste for people with or without dietary restrictions,” said Joe Felix, executive chef.
Located in The San Diego Museum of Art’s sculpture court, Panama 66 features a seasonal chalkboard of ever-changing menu items, depending upon what staff find at the market. “Whenever we have a menu item that calls out the local farm the produce is from, it sells well, whether it’s in a soup, salad, sandwich or side,” said Clea Hantman, co-owner. “More guests are excited by information—they want to know where their food comes from or the inspiration behind it.”
John Gilligan, general manager of Gertrude’s Restaurant at Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore, Md., said the restaurant tried to avoid being trendy and offering Brussels sprouts, but it finally relented a few months ago and now they’re a hit. A newly created item called shepherd’s pie croquettes take the cake as well. “I think folks are looking for familiar comfort foods,” he said.
Consistently Popular Food Choices
Although some guests are drawn to unique cuisine, some gravitate toward foods that have withstood the test of time. “In Northeast Ohio, comfort foods, such as mac and cheese off the stone hearth and burgers remain popular because they’re approachable,” Gallowitz said.
Burgers are also a hit at the Field Museum in Chicago, Ill., said Megan Williams, director of business enterprises. The burgers are made from locally farmed beef that is hormone and antibiotic free. “We have a unique and robust sustainability plan that requires much of the museum’s food to be locally sourced and organic. We want to offer unique food items, but also need to balance foods that are approachable and recognizable such as soups and hand-tossed pizzas. We do a lot of cooking from scratch.”
A Waygu beef burger cooked to order and served with hand cut, twice-fried fries is a consistent best-seller at Panama 66. “They’re a staple American offering,” Hantman said.
Felix said the cabernet braised short rib gnocchi and smoked salmon gnocchi are among the two most popular dishes and are menu staples year-round. “The quality and value offered by both of these meals make them a perennial favorite of guests who want a fine dining experience,” he said.
Because Gertrude’s Restaurant is focused on the Chesapeake region, it offers crab cakes. “They have been our biggest seller by far for the more than 20 years that we’ve been open,” Gilligan said. “When we first opened, I think they were popular because that’s what the local folks wanted to eat. I think they remain popular because folks want to eat local, and have a connection to their home.”
Regarding how much to serve, more guests desire smaller portions. At the Toledo Museum of Art, for example, Felix said there’s a trend for smaller, high-quality portions—which aligns well with its approach of providing quality over quantity. “The café wants its menu options to reflect the same five-star experience visitors have when they walk through the museum’s galleries,” he said.
Williams also said that guests want reasonably-sized portions. “Large portions just go to waste,” she said. “Visitors aren’t traveling with Tupperware and they feel bad throwing away excess food.”
Small portions rule for Gallowitz as well. “Guests tend to want smaller portions; they don’t want to leave food on a plate or walk around the museum with a box of leftovers.”
Likewise, Gilligan said guests desire smaller portions because they don’t want to waste food or overeat. Consequently, the restaurant has down-sized its portions—which helps prevent menu prices from rising. However, some visitors do prefer larger portions, either because they want to eat more or have enough food leftover for a meal to enjoy at home. The restaurant also sells dishes that are easily shareable.
Panama 66 has never focused on large, oversized portions. “Our style is to create well-sourced, hand-crafted food that is delicious,” Hantman said. “I don’t think our guests are looking for one or the other—I think they just want tasty food.”