My eyes were two flaming holes when I finally reached the end of the galleries of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I began the visit by strolling from floor to floor with a friend who liked to look at every single piece of art — carefully, contemplatively and for about five minutes per work. I ditched her about halfway through the first gallery and sped on by myself.
Nonetheless, it was a lot to take in, and when I rode the escalator to the top of the museum to Restaurant Georges, the repetition and sameness of the serene steel tables, each with a single, perfect rose in the middle, instantly refreshed my sizzled visual acuity.
I was also extremely happy I could sit down — not to mention drink an excellent glass of wine and peruse an impressive menu that my black-clad, English-speaking server pressed upon me.
I've spent a lot of time in museums. When your father is an art-history professor, the very first thing you do when you arrive in a new town is visit the local museum — and you can count yourself lucky if the museum isn't the reason for your trip in the first place. That also means I've been hustled into a lot of museum cafeterias, and generally, the dry chicken-salad sandwiches and dubious desserts rarely made up for all of that walking along endless stretches of hard stone floors.
Danny Meyers obliterated that concept when he opened The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2004. Entrées such as Squab and Foie Gras Croustillant, Butter-Poached Maine Lobster and Monkfish Confit with wood sorrel, sprouts and nasturtium flowers impressed the critics and made the restaurant an enormous success. The fact that it's attached to a museum is almost incidental; people come for the food, not just because after a long day with the de Koonings and Dalís, they're too tired and too hungry to walk anywhere else.
The Modern demonstrated that a restaurant that can function independently as a dining destination helps to increase revenue, foot traffic and media attention to the institution to which it's attached. In Washington, The Source has done that for the Newseum — the restaurant is consistently ranked as one of the top two or three restaurants in D.C. Describing how The Source came about, Newseum CEO Charles Overby says, "I went to L.A. and sat down with Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and we negotiated a deal."
The result has been "a good synergy between the two of us," Overby says of the restaurant and the Newseum, which blends news history with modern technology. "Fine dining is not for every museum, but increasingly across the country, you see more and more restaurants that do [choose to open one]."
At Wolfgang Puck's other museum restaurant, 20.21, located in Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, "The intent was to have food that matched the quality of the art presented at the Walker — a merger of contemporary art and contemporary cuisine," says Karen Gysin, a museum spokeswoman.
The newly renovated Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is no different. We've heard about Amuse and its American fusion menu created by head chef Greg Haley — previously Michelle Williams' right-hand man at restaurants such as The Hard Shell and Michelle's at Hanover Tavern — as well as the less expensive Best Café downstairs. Buzzwords such as fresh, locally sourced and seasonal have been tossed around, though in mid-April, the menu was still under construction. Alexis Vaughn, the VMFA's deputy director for sales and marketing, says, "The menu will also change to reflect connections with what's going on in the museum — maybe a French influence for the Tiffany exhibition? We want people to see that art [can] be found everywhere."
Amuse is a gorgeous space with spectacular terrace views; architect Rick Mather's big-city design with its sleek furniture and gleaming surfaces is transporting. The only downside is that, unlike The Source or The Modern, both Amuse and Best Café will be open only during museum hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with evening hours on Thursdays and, starting in July, on Fridays. Hopefully, that will change, although in the meantime, as chef Haley says, "I can't imagine anything better than sitting outside and looking out over everything and eating a plate of bacon-date fritters." Add a little wine and a spring afternoon, and that sounds pretty perfect to me, too.