Even in NYC, museum restaurants and cafes used to be as pedestrian and overpriced as their gift shops, peddling chicken salad sandwiches on cold croissants about as appetizing as a $6 Jackson Pollock postcard. But in recent years, museums citywide have revamped their menus to make them worthy of the Masters.
Occasionally with the help of bold named chefs, NYC’s cultural institutions have eschewed wilting prefab snacks in favor of seasonal Italian cuisine, New-American menus, destination brunches, veggie-forward feasts, and some of the toniest tasting menus in town. These are the best museum restaurants in NYC.
Tuna Eyeball with Timothy DeLaGhetto and Ben Sinclair
Upper West Side Founded in 1804, the New-York Historical Society is the city’s oldest museum, filled with art and artifacts that tell the story of our iconic city. The landmark building also houses the seasonal Italian restaurant Storico. Chef James Miller -- whose impressive background includes stints at Craft and Gramercy Tavern -- leads the kitchen in doling out pastas, seasonal small plates and hearty mains like tri tip steak on polenta and braised halibut with cranberry bean ragu. In contrast to the storied walls of the museum itself, Storico’s design is light and airy, featuring floor-to-ceiling shelves that showcase vintage dinnerware.
Murray Hill The Morgan is home to a noteworthy collection of rare manuscripts, drawings and -- as of this fall -- menus by one of the restaurant world’s biggest names: Tom Colicchio. The Top Chef judge has taken over both the sunlit Cafe and the Dining Room (which is located in the Morgan family’s one-time actual dining room). Colicchio’s fresh, seasonal new-American menus include the TC wagyu burger with truffled pecorino, PEI mussels steamed in fennel and white wine and a little gem salad topped with a fried soft-boiled egg.
Midtown West Sweeping views of Columbus Circle are probably enough to draw you in for a meal on the MAD’s ninth floor, but the food may make you a return visitor. Led by chef Gonzalo Colin, the kitchen turns out modern American cooking that complements the room’s sleek and sculptural look. Plan a brunch time visit to sample the lobster omelette, challah French toast, and smoked salmon Benedict.
Upper East Side Prior to the summer of 2018, the Dining Room at the Met was a members-only affair. Since then, it has not only opened to the public -- allowing more visitors to sample longtime executive chef Fred Sabo’s creative cuisine -- but it’s also launched its first-ever culinary collaboration with John Fraser (The Loyal, Nix). The vegetable whisperer is doing what he does best: adding a handful of dishes that will showcase a different seasonal ingredient. Last winter, for example, featured several plays on mushroom. There’s an a la carte menu, and Sabo’s seasonal four-course $72 tasting menu is worth a visit on its own.
Long Island City Chef Mina Stone has close ties to the art world. Before opening her namesake restaurant -- a collaboration with artist Alex Eagleton -- Stone was the go-to chef for several local galleries, and she authored the book Cooking for Artists. At the new all-day cafe, Stone pays homage to her Greek roots, bringing Mediterranean flavors to now-ubiquitous daytime staples like sourdough toast (one smeared with tahini, another with muhammara) and kale salad (peppered with dill and shaved goat cheese). There are also sandwiches, a daily special and the Greek mezzethaki: bread served with your choice of four dips and spreads. Eagleton helped design the space and drew from his favorite Athenian restaurants for the mostly white room punctuated by touches of pastel green.
Midtown West It’s not often that a museum restaurant earns two Michelin stars, but then again, not all museum restaurants are helmed by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. The Modern offers two different dining experiences -- a six-course prix-fixe in the room overlooking MoMA’s Sculpture Garden or an à la carte menu available in the cozier bar area. Both offer a taste of Chef Abram Bissell’s playful French-inspired cooking.
Meatpacking District Danny Meyer knows a thing or two about museum restaurants (see above), so it’s no surprise his seasonal American spot inside the Whitney Museum has become another popular destination. Chef Evan Tessler focuses heavily on vegetables -- you’ll find butternut squash shop, jerk carrots and a signature veggie burger with mushrooms and crispy cheddar -- all of which come from an open kitchen inside Renzo Piano’s glass-enclosed dining room.
Upper East Side Estela’s Ignacio Mattos has brought a bit of downtown to the Upper East Side with a full-day operation inside the Met’s contemporary wing. By day, the lofty space serves as a cafe with coffee and creative pastries from chef Natasha Pickowicz (think black cardamom sticky buns and buckwheat chocolate chip cookies). At night, to soaring space transforms into a wine bar with an elevated, seafood-forward menu that spotlights Mattos' ability to craft simple yet creative dishes like oysters with a Szechuan mignonette and lobster-crab dumplings in a yuzu-scented broth.
Upper East Side Before it crossed the river to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Lower East Side lox icon Russ & Daughters first went Uptown in 2016 to the Jewish Museum. It's also fully kosher. The menu offers all the hits -- the signature smoked fish boards, noodle kugel, shakshuka, and babka French toast -- in a space that boasts vaulted clay tile ceilings, masonry walls and a mural by artist and longtime Russ & Daughters’ customer and artist Maira Kalman.
Chelsea In an ode to the Rubin’s Himalayan and Indian art, Café Serai specializes in a mix of traditional dishes from the region, plus others that nod to the museum’s Tibetan focus. Menu items include momos stuffed with chili cheese or duck confit, and a braised biryani-style lamb shank. Whimsically named drinks include the Non-Conformist (vodka, mango, lime, ginger beer) and Scholar's Retreat (whiskey, ras el hanout, orange bitters).
Upper East Side Tucked inside the city’s only standalone museum dedicated to German and Austrian art, this charming, wood-paneled cafe easily transports diners from Fifth Ave to Europe. Michelin-starred chef Kurt Gutenbrunner’s beef goulash and tarragon-flecked spaetzle complete the Viennese experience. Café Sabarsky is also one of the few places to get a slice of classic Sachertorte, a Viennese chocolate cake layered with apricot jam and rum syrup.
Prospect Heights In 2013, the Brooklyn Museum tapped local chef Saul Bolton to oversee its culinary operations. Bolton originally moved his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant into the space, then revamped it into The Norm, serving food that embraced the borough’s diversity. More recently, The Norm has taken on different themes to match key exhibits and it’s currently transformed into designer Pierre Cardin’s French restaurant Maxim’s de Paris with a menu of classic dishes -- think steak frites, gougeres and marquise de chocolate.
Sign up here for our daily NYC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun New York has to offer.
Patty Lee is a reporter and editor who has written for Zagat, Time Out New York, New York Daily News, and Cooking Channel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.