Can a museum café rival a museum's main attractions?

Culinary exhibits.

click to enlarge SWEET SPOT: The food is even lovelier than the surroundings at Tampa Museum of Art's Sono Café. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
SWEET SPOT: The food is even lovelier than the surroundings at Tampa Museum of Art's Sono Café.

Most museum eateries, no matter where you go across the world, are geared more toward convenience than cuisine, designed to give visitors a way to stay on the premises longer and get the most out of the often surprisingly high cost of admission. Of course, they're also a convenient source of income for the arts organizations, thanks to the captive audience.

Some, however, strive for a little more. That might take the form of an especially beautiful dining space engineered by the museum, where you can eat a pre-made panini amidst a splendor that suits the art collected within. Others try to turn the food itself into a worthy partner to the exhibits, with high-end chefs meddling with the menus to make the most out of a typical museum café.

Here in the Bay area, we're blessed with better artistic eats than you might think. When one of our museums or venues decides to do food they're usually thoughtful about the experience, resulting in some highly beautiful — and occasionally tasty — restaurants tucked between the exhibits.

Café Gala

Considering the big build-up to the opening of The Dalí Museum earlier this year, the museum's Café Gala had to be just as impressive as the monumental building itself. In many ways, it is.

The Dalí hired local restaurateur Steve Westphal to provide the food service at Café Gala, and he brought in the talents of Tyson Grant, chef at Westphal's Parkshore Grill, to create the menu. The food at the café is Spanish and utterly simple, just enough variety to cover a lot of potential diners' interests.

The result is gazpacho that's more thick and tomatoey than bright and light, but with enough zing to carry it through, and brothy, hearty caldo gallego. Salads are accented with roasted peppers, beautiful serrano ham and Manchego. Sandwiches are loaded with more of the same, and the ingredient trend continues in the thick, omelet-like tortillas. Just a few ingredients, sure, but great quality and combined right, all at prices that never break the $10 threshold.

Though the food is good, your eyes will likely spend more time wandering past your plate to more architectural sights. Sit at the curving bar facing the kitchen and the soaring helical staircase is almost above your head. Palm trees sway in the Avanti Garden through the geometric crosshatching of the Enigma Glass off to one side. It is so impressive, good food is just a bonus.

Sono Café

Sono Café's setting may not be as impressive as that at the new Dalí, but the floor-to-ceiling wall of windows overlooking the Hillsborough River and the crisp and clean modern design of the dining room is lovely enough. Where Sono truly excels, however, is in the food.

Makes sense, considering the place is run by Marty Blitz, Maryann Ferenc and the Mise En Place crew. Blitz conceived the culinary aspects of Sono to follow Slow Food themes, which means there are plenty of local ingredients — when available — and the menu changes depending on what's available.

No matter the season, however, the menu is much more extensive than at most museum cafés. Choices break down into the same salad, sandwich and antipasto categories you might expect, but the combination of ingredients on each individual dish can be impressive to read, just like at Mise. That means a Cobb salad might have cannellini beans, white balsamic vinegar, pancetta, chicken, artichoke hearts, parmesan and a half dozen other tasty fixin's, combined with an inevitable simplicity that comes easy to a chef like Blitz. With plates of mushrooms dotted by ricotta salada and pickled eggplant, or a panini stuffed with speck, ham and tapenade aioli, it's clear he doesn't see this as mere convenience food.

Sono also has a life outside of the museum, with an expanded Friday night menu that features serious hot entrees, a daily happy hour and a full brunch every Sunday. This is a museum restaurant where the museum is more backdrop than destination.

Columbia Café

Think of the Columbia Café — tucked into the bottom floor of the Tampa Bay History Center — as a Columbia Express, and you've just about nailed it. The menu reads like a greatest hits of Ybor's historic restaurant, chock full of the bean soups, chicken and rice, deviled crab and 1905 salad (TM, of course) that many people associate with the original.

That's not meant to denigrate the place, by any means. More than any other local museum restaurant, the food here matches its setting, acting almost as another exhibit to illustrate the history of our area. An exhibit you can eat, no less.

Add in the light and airy waterfront patio and the historically designed interior dining space — complete with a replica of the flagship Columbia's original bar — and you have an almost ideal complement to the museum that houses it.

MFA Café

The MFA Café — in St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts — is a more traditional arts café than the ones above. The design is reminiscent of a luxurious cafeteria and the food is largely unsurprising, although the inclusion of several hot meals on the menu does add a little depth to the usual high-end café formula.

That means you can add grilled beef, salmon or chicken to your fresh and capable salad, grab a burger instead of a panini, or even order a flatbread pizza loaded with interesting ingredients that change daily. There is a champagne brunch on Sundays, too, but no matter when you go, you'll find good food, presented with an artistic touch well beyond what you'd expect at most cafés.

Spice Routes

Open for less than two weeks, Spice Routes Café in the Morean Arts Center already has a much different vibe than restaurants at other museums around town. Partly, that's due to Judy Staunko, the woman behind Spice Routes in all its guises, from a café in First Unity Church to the stall at the Saturday Morning Market. The spot in the Morean feels likes an extension of her home, down to Staunko's massive personal collection of cookbooks lining the walls. Feel free to browse.

Partly, though, Spice Routes Café is so different from the rest because it's a natural expression of what the Morean's goals are these days. Outreach efforts, adult and youth classes, and community-driven art are all parts of the art center's attempt to make serious art more accessible for the greater community, while simultaneously making art less serious.

Taking that into account, it makes sense that its version of a museum café would come across more as neighborhood dining room than a sterile homage to modern architectural design. Spice Routes' food reflects that, with homey dishes like slow-cooked beef, meatloaf sandwiches, lamb meatballs, curried egg salad and a kids' menu where grilled cheese is cut into the shape of a star and pasta comes in shell form. It hasn't been open long enough for a review, but it certainly sounds tasty.

Scroll to read more Food News articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.