Back in the olden days, art museums did not have restaurants. Why would anyone eat at a museum? That made about as much sense as taking a picture with a telephone. But modern life is all about changing paradigms, and museums now give as much thought to designing their dining rooms as to planning their galleries. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2004 after an extensive makeover, its dining options got almost more press than its redo.
In Texas, the unwritten rule that forbade eating in the vicinity of great art was breached by the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, in 1981. Soon, tourists and townies alike were crowding into its popular buffet. The tide had turned, and when it came time to add a new wing or building, museums began to allot serious space to feeding the hordes. “Refreshments will be served” became the mantra of any museum worth its Alexander Calder mobile.
What awaits the famished Texas art lover today? Happily, you can dine without leaving the air-conditioned comfort of the building at five art institutions in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston. Three other cities—Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio—lag behind, although the Blanton Museum of Art, in Austin, plans to catch up next spring. To size up the offerings, I traveled the state, eating Moroccan chicken salad in Fort Worth, veggie burgers in Houston, and tempura shrimp in Dallas. For those museums without cafes, I did a little off-site foraging, picking a favorite restaurant that was within walking distance or a short drive. Here’s what’s on the menu for your next cultural and gastronomical tour of Texas.
Seventeen Seventeen and Atrium Cafe Dallas Museum of Art
If you have the money, honey, not to mention the time, the place to eat at the Dallas Museum of Art is Seventeen Seventeen. You might even need reservations, because it’s popular with downtown power brokers in suits and ties and curator types in black clothes and arty eyewear. While a friend and I waited for our food, we conversed over blessedly subdued music and enjoyed the setting, a minimalist white room looking out onto a terrace and the city beyond. Chef Mike Dimas’s daily specials run to the likes of mahimahi with red pepper—dill butter sauce, while his regular menu (which changes about four times a year) lists main courses such as a pecan-crusted chicken breast with a maple glaze and a pan-roasted tenderloin in a shallot demi-glace.
Our entrée salads were the perfect antidote to a blistering hot day. Mine was a mound of varied fresh lettuces served in a rice-paper basket, like an Asian tortilla bowl; the greens were adorned with four hefty, crisp-fried tempura shrimp in a sweetish Thai chile vinaigrette. I loved it. My friend ordered the monster Upside Down Cobb Salad. While the mixed greens were a little wet, that deficiency was balanced by a bounty of blue cheese, cooked egg, and mashed avocado, plus applewood-smoked bacon and cured salmon (alternative protein choices being ribeye or smoked chicken).
For dessert, we followed our unwavering rule: When panna cotta is offered, you must accept. Chef Dimas’s light, silky custard was infused with a shot of fresh lemon juice and surrounded by a heap of blueberries. Not a bad reward for a pathetic lack of willpower.
As for the museum’s other venue, the Atrium Café, let me be candid: This is where you eat if you’re either in a hurry or have done your parental duty by force-feeding culture to a bunch of kids. It’s inexpensive and fast, and it occupies a wonderful, soaring space decked out with fantastic glass vessels by artist Dale Chihuly. But as for the food— sandwiches, soups, salads, tacos, desserts—the words “supermarket cafe” spring to mind. Enough said. 1717 N. Harwood. Seventeen Seventeen, 214-515-5179. Lunch Tue–Fri 11–2. Closed Sun, Mon, & Sat. Atrium Café, 214-922-1835. Open Tue & Wed 11–2, Thur 11–8, Fri 11–2, Sat & Sun 11–3. Closed Mon.
Nasher Cafe by Wolfgang Puck Nasher Sculpture Center
I dearly wanted Nasher Cafe’s food to be great, because the little dining room is so sleek and stylish. One entire wall is glass, giving you a view of the garden and its amazing statuary, including Jonathan Borofsky’s vision of fiberglass people walking up a pole and into the sky. The dining room is open and airy, with white freesias on the tables. Even the Scandinavian-designed flatware is slick. So imagine how disappointed my friend and I were when the interesting menu turned out to be decidedly flawed.
Oh, it wasn’t all terrible. But it wasn’t what it should have been for a cafe operated by Wolfgang Puck Catering, a company that runs museum restaurants around the country. And, actually, the first dish we tried was excellent, a tangy, slightly chunky tomato soup that tasted of bountiful summer gardens. It was lovely, but after that, things went downhill.
At the clerk’s suggestion—you order at a small, well-designed counter—I got a ham-and-cheese panini. The alleged Spanish serrano ham turned out to be the pinkest, most ordinary version of that mahogany-hued meat I’ve ever seen, and the sandwich’s touted mustard aioli was undetectable to the eye or palate. As for my friend’s entrée, the crisp, golden-brown chicken breast looked pretty and smelled divine, but the meat was tragically overcooked. We had hopes for the side dish of mashed potatoes, but while they tasted great, they were nearly as liquid as cream gravy. The last item on the plate was a precise arrangement of grilled asparagus spears, and I’m happy to report that they were delightful—all three of them.
By this time, we were fairly demoralized, so we decided to restore our good cheer by splitting a tarte Tatin. Being a foe of overly sweet desserts, I hate to say this, but it needed more sugar. On the plus side, though, we could really taste the apples, and the puff pastry was properly buttery and flaky. I’m not sure Wolfie would be proud, but at least he wouldn’t be totally embarrassed to be associated