I’m a big fan of cafes and restaurants in museums. I have been known to go to a museum — ostensibly to stand in a long line to see a blockbuster show — only to become discouraged, give it a miss, and wind up happily in the chow line. Once, in an action-packed, all-day-on-your-feet visit to Rome, my family was chagrinned when I insisted we visit the Vatican Museum twice in one week for the admitted reason of wanting another helping of the remarkable spaghetti Bolognese in the Vatican Museum Courtyard Restaurant. It was not exactly a private audience with the Pope, but the experience was almost as good.
But this column is not about Rome; it’s about museum cafes and restaurants in San Francisco. What can the museumgoer in San Francisco expect to eat on the premises? I chose the following museums, not necessarily for their exhibitions but for the dining experiences.
And, by the way, these impressions are not big deal, official restaurant reviews. I haven’t dined in each of these several times incognito and marshaled my taste buds to award them one, two, or three Marina Times diamonds. These are just comments by a man with an appetite — in this case, an appetite for museum food.
Here, then, in alphabetical order, are my favorite dining experiences in San Francisco museums.
ASIAN ART MUSEUM
At the Asian Art Museum, located in Civic Center, executive chef Melinda Quirino, formerly of the Hotel Nikko, directs operations for Café Asia where museumgoers and just hungry walk-ins will find Asian specialties from a variety of traditions. A seasonal menu — one might call it Pan-Asian — changes frequently and chef Quirino takes her shopping basket to the farmers’ market in nearby United Nations Plaza to pick up fresh vegetables. Regularly she keys menu items to museum exhibitions. For the Maharaja exhibition, she prepared Kashmiri kari korma — leg of lamb braised in red pepper Marsala sauce and a chutney with kumquat, figs, and fresh pineapple. Typical menu entrées: Bulgogi-Korean spicy beef ($13.95), chicken angara (smoked chicken marinated with cashews, yogurt, and Indian spices; $11.95), and the spicy seafood-udon noodle bowl ($14). There’s also an excellent selection of teas.
CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
Not satisfied with an incredibly exciting building (architecturally) and cutting-edge exhibitions, the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park has two restaurants. First, there’s the Academy Café, a workmanlike place to grab something for nourishment. There are salads ($8–$11), sandwiches, wraps, and spring rolls ($9.50–$11). Filipino chicken adobo ($7.50) or mac-n-cheese ($7) might be good choices. Pasta Bolognese ($11). Good, but not like the real thing in the Vatican Museum.
Then there’s the Moss Room operated by the omnipresent Charlie Phan. It presents an elaborate contemporary menu complete with many of the hotshot items I have come to love or not. Pork belly? Of course! And lots of roasted beets and wild arugula, not to mention quinoa. There are also a few good pastas and even a ranch burger, for which I am grateful. Entrées are $11 to $24.
CONTEMPORARY JEWISH MUSEUM
Wise Sons, the Jewish delicatessen headquartered in the Mission, has opened an outpost in the Contemporary Jewish Museum at 736 Mission Street. And that’s a good thing if you frequently crave pastrami as I do. Wise Sons co-founders Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman smoke their own pastrami, bake their own rye bread, and cure all their own deli meats. And even if you are not going to the museum, you can dine in the restaurant or get takeout from the counter facing Yerba Buena Plaza. Consider the iconic pastrami sandwich if you will: The rye bread is crusty and crunchy and piled high with a mountain of succulent thinly sliced pastrami. Add to this the regulation dill spears and a side of potato salad or coleslaw. It just doesn’t get any better than this. But wait, it does: drinks are of the type found in serious Jewish delis in New York City or around Fairfax Avenue in L.A. — Fox’s U-bet Egg Cream from Brooklyn ($3.50) and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda ($3). Sandwiches are $10 to $13.75.
DE YOUNG MUSEUM
At the top of my list of museum dining in San Francisco is the de Young Café in the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Not only is it stylish with indoor-outdoor areas, but also the food is unusually appealing both during the day and evening hours. The Bulgari exhibition a few months ago was a smash. For lunch, I went for the venison sausage cassoulet ($14), a sensible portion of white beans, green garlic, carrots, bacon, tomato, and thyme with duck fat croutons. My daughter, who believes she may be entitled to a Bulgari broche one fine day, raved about the almond and grape gazpacho topped with crème fraîche ($6), followed by cumin-spiced shrimp served with chipotle flatbread ($12). And there’s a good wine list favoring California but including French and Italian wines as well as one or two from Spain and South Africa. These are sold at modest prices by the glass, half bottle, or full bottle.
In my wandering around San Francisco museums, I have noted that just as in the restaurant population at large, museum restaurants are devoted to buying and serving locally produced and sustainable fare. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Exploratorium on the waterfront at Piers 15–17.
In a slick operation overseen by executive chef Loretta Keller, noted for her work at the South of Market Coco500, the food is excellent and highly eclectic. The Seaglass Restaurant, which may be enjoyed without entering the museum proper, is a vast indoor space — really an extension of the Exploratorium’s exhibition areas, with an outdoor area that hugs the bay. There is a wide range of offerings at several stations, which include rotisserie items like roast chicken, a pizza oven for those small pizzas called pizzettas, as well as tacos, quesadillas, salads, and desserts.
There’s also the impressive Ocean Bar with wild shrimp, oysters, ceviche, assorted sushi, and sashimi with special salads of quinoa and various pickled vegetables. This raw bar is under the direction of well-known sushi artisan Sachio Kojima. Here are two examples from recent visits: huge, unshelled wild shrimp ($2.50 each) are briny and succulent. The roasted chicken ($12.50/half; $24/whole) is crisp but juicy. There are seasonal menu changes and a full bar with a cocktail program. Entrées at both restaurants are $9 to $13.50.
For something more casual, there’s another dining spot near the museum’s entrance called the Seismic Joint featuring sandwiches, chowders, and other quickie items.
LEGION OF HONOR
The Legion of Honor is without doubt San Francisco’s most beautiful museum. The magnificent Beaux-Arts structure in Lincoln Park overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific, and most of San Francisco. It’s worth visiting if you only pause in the courtyard for a while to gaze worshipfully at Auguste Rodin’s incredible statue, The Thinker.
But what do you do when your stomach growls? There’s a simple answer: Point yourself in the direction of the Legion of Honor Café, and contemplate some tasty pastries, ample fresh salads, and some fine quiches. There are also several good sandwiches, burgers, and hot dogs. But my favorite menu item is the chicken potpie ($14.50). Lots of chicken, onions, carrots, leeks, and a bit of potato, all swimming happily in a light, well-made béchamel sauce, topped with puff pastry and browned nicely. Prices are $7.50 to $14.50.
And as a final note, here is a suggestion for George Lucas. If you build your Lucas Cultural Arts Museum in San Francisco, please install the best restaurant you can create. You’ll have me as a customer for life.