Skip to content

The Best Museum Cafés and Restaurants, According to Museum People

Category: Alliance Blog
A plate with fry bread next to legumes and greens.
Museum restaurants can face a high bar, needing to both satiate visitors' appetites and reflect the educational missions of their host institutions. Here are the ones that meet the challenge the best, according to museum professionals themselves. Photo credit: Jenni Konrad on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Any seasoned museumgoer knows that feeling a few hours into a visit. You came in energized, eager, and attentive, ready to conquer some exhibitions, but now you’re losing steam. The wall texts are running together; you’re breezing past masterpieces of world heritage, jaded by the dozens of others you’ve already marveled at. And suddenly you’re parched—and could go for a bite too.

That’s where one of the signature amenities of the museum experiences comes in: the café or restaurant. For these weary and peckish guests suffering from the long-studied ailment of “museum fatigue,” many museums offer on-site dining options to sit and replenish. And, existing in the creative and committed world of cultural institutions, these eateries often aim high, with offerings inspired by what’s on view on the galleries, or even aligned with institutional values like sustainability.

After polling our Field Notes readership of museum insiders about some of their favorite bathrooms and stores, we thought it was high time to ask about these stalwarts of sustenance. (Subscribe now to join the next poll!) Here were the cafés and restaurants they mentioned most often, across hundreds of responses:

Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC)

Recommended by Christine Jankowski, Jackie Pozza Reisner, Ellen Seagraves, Jenny Powers, Meredith Peruzzi, Pamela Feltus, Sarah Epps, Val Starkgraf, Jen Rokoski, Ellen Owens, Gloria Mast, Deena Booth Sasser, Jill Ferris, James Colgan, Lorie Mertes, Jen Kretser, Cynthia Conides, Heidi Hagemeier, Melanie Fraticelli-Twardzicki, Robin Simonton, Hollis Jill Gillespie, Lisa Coleman, Kimberley Jensen Davis, Mary Miller, Gaelle Crenn, Danielle Spalenka, Kathryn S. Rogge Zelaska, Emily Pope Hermans, Angela Watts, Christina Ramsey Cid, Claudia Nicholson, Susan Feller, Emily Schuster, Bob Camara, Kat Griffith, Rebecca West, Alison Kootstra Nowak, Bethany Hrachovec, Amy Nelson, Chris G. Carron, Mary Esther Lee, Julie Steiner, Jennifer Tafe, Dawn Mason, Sara Eagin, Elizabeth Cumbo, Gilda Petruzzelli Valentino, Aric Dietrich, Amanda Otto, Rosemari Ochoa, Emma Meverden, and Julie Carpenter

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

“Delicious and educational.” – Ellen Seagraves

“The food enhanced our learning/enjoyment of the rest of the museum. Or did the museum enhance our understanding of the food?” – Gilda Petruzzelli Valentino

“🔥” – Jennifer Tafe

Named after the Delaware and Piscataway word for “let’s eat,” Mitsitam takes to heart its museum’s mission to educate about the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Diners can visit five separate stations representing different regions of the Americas—the Northern Woodlands, Mesoamerica, South America, Northwest Coast, and Great Plains—to learn about and taste the traditional and contemporary Native dishes of each. The menu from Executive Chefs Richard Hetzler and Freddie Bitsoie evolves seasonally, but currently features dishes like watermelon and tomato salad, buffalo burgers, lobster rolls, and fry bread.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Mitsitam (@mitsitam)

Café Sabarsky at Neue Galerie New York (New York, NY)

Recommended by Christine Downing, Vivian Gornik, Fairfield University Art Museum, Ellen Owens, Dana Settles, Gloria Mast, Heather Ashe, Sophia Fole DelFavero, Allison Wong, Kevin D. Dumouchelle, Natalia Vega, Rebecca Metzger, Maria Buhr Vann, Leah Ammon, Kate Stober, Ewa Goodman, MacKenzie Mallon, Kacey M. Hill, Mireida Velázquez, Shalan Webb, Suzanne Fortier, Maria Buhr Vann, Ann Millin, Cecilia Gunzburger, Liza Raiser, The Venezuelan American Endowment for the Arts, Consuelo Gutierrez, Laura Rivera-Ayala, Andrea Lynn Kutsenkow, Leslie Anne Anderson, and Daniel Ronan

“The food and environment are the best.” – Christine Downing

In keeping with the Neue Galerie’s focus on early-twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design, the on-site restaurant named after co-founder Serge Sabarsky attempts to recreate the heady atmosphere of a turn-of-the-century Viennese café. To take diners back to these bastions of artistic and intellectual discourse, the restaurant features period objects by legendary designers like Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, and Otto Wagner, as well as a Bösendorfer grand piano used for revolving era-appropriate performances. The menu from Michelin-starred Executive Chef Christopher Engel also beckons to the past, with Viennese coffee specialties like espresso with whipped cream and traditional dishes like chilled smoked trout crepes with horseradish crème fraiche.

Sweet Home Café at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington, DC)

Recommended by Museums Through the Backdoor, Gina Whiteman, Ara Carbonneau, Danyelle Rickard, Jamie Credle, Kelly States, Gaelle Crenn, Emily Pope Hermans, Carlene Gagnon, Lauren Scharf, Sarah Sosa-Acevedo, Emily Schuster, Shivkumar Desai, Jen Rokoski, Sarah Poole, and Cody Reynolds

“Love the regional varieties!” – Museums Through the Backdoor

“I will admit I have gone [to the museum] just to get some of the fabulous food there! Yeah, it’s that good!” – Ara Carbonneau

With a format inspired by Mitsitam Native Foods Café, Sweet Home offers four stations based on regions significant to African American history: the North States, Agricultural South, Creole Coast, and Western Range. The menu from Executive Chef Ramin Coles and Supervising Chef Albert Lukas emphasizes from-scratch cooking and locally sourced ingredients to make “the very best version” of classics from each region, including current offerings like whole fried seasonal local fish, red beans and Carolina gold rice, and pickled okra. The restaurant and its cookbook have won and been nominated for awards from the James Beard Foundation and Food & Wine magazine.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by NMAAHC (@nmaahc)

Café G at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, MA)

Recommended by Christine Downing, Sarah Landreth, Suzanne Fortier, Herbert S Jones, Jen Rokoski, Fairfield University Art Museum, Ellen Owens, Hailey Conneely, Stuart Chase, Kate Sylvester, Mary Miller, and Stuart Chase

This long-operating café gained a striking new setting when the visionary collector’s museum opened a new wing designed by architect Renzo Piano opened in 2012. The eatery now looks out at the museum’s gardens from behind a glass façade, with patio seating also available. The menu from chef Peter Crowley strives to be equally verdant, with a focus on seasonal, local, and organic ingredients. Recent offerings include a roasted cauliflower quiche, cold poached Atlantic salmon, and warm banana bread pudding.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Café G (@isgmcafeg)

FIKA at the American Swedish Institute (Minneapolis, MN)

Recommended by Marcia Anderson, Amanda Luke, Lisa Iversen, Julie Delliquanti, Liza Raiser, Alison White, Museums Through the Backdoor, Dan Spockster, and David Grabitske

“I’ve been to many across the US but by far FIKA is the best.” – David Grabitske

Named after the Swedish custom of an afternoon “coffee and cake” break with friends and colleagues, this restaurant introduces visitors to the Nordic way of life. A seasonal menu offers dishes like shrimp toast, desserts like strawberry Midsommar cake, and cocktails like a lingonberry whiskey sour. As a bonus, diners can enjoy views of the museum’s historic Turnblad Mansion.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by FIKA (@fikaasi)

Dining at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY)

Recommended by Billye Chabot, MaryMargaret Houlihan, Gorki García Pérez, Museums Through the Backdoor, Jamie Credle, Gaelle Crenn, Susan Feller, and Rebecca Alston Studio

The famously palatial Manhattan museum dedicates a significant portion of its enviable square footage to food and drink, with a total of seven spots across its Fifth Avenue campus. In addition to bars and stops for light bites, The Met hosts an upscale restaurant on its fourth floor called The Met Dining Room, with a storied history as an exclusive venue for staff and members. Today, the Dining Room is open to all visitors (if they can obtain a coveted reservation), with a seasonal menu from chef Bill Telepan.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Dining at The Met (@metdining)

Lamy’s Diner at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation (Dearborn, MI)

Recommended by Cynthia Cooky Jones, Museums Through the Backdoor, Jennifer Ley Thomas, Dana Nemeth, Carlene Gagnon, Dan Spockster, Timothy Chester, and Chris G Carron

“It’s a very cool immersive experience and tasty soups, sandwiches, and frappes.” – Cynthia Cooky Jones

The Henry Ford’s restaurant is not just inspired by the museum’s collection—it’s inside of it. In 1984, the museum purchased a historic diner from Massachusetts, opened in 1946 by World War II veteran Clovis Lamy, and transported it to its Michigan campus for display. Since 2012, the diner has been open not only for viewing, but for an authentic slice of 1940s casual dining. The current menu offers throwback dishes like ham salad as well as fountain specials like frappes and Faygo floats.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by @adkaadken

Dining at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens (San Marino, CA)

Recommended by Billye Chabot, DA Senior, MaryMargaret Houlihan, Shireen R., and Beth McCune

“Excellent sandwiches and tea.” – DA Senior

This Los Angeles County institution has as much as much to offer in the culinary realm as it does culturally. In addition to the famous Rose Garden Tea Room, which offers a fine tea service in a historic garden, the museum also operates a coffee shop inspired by the Pacific Electric Railway, a lunch café with salads and sandwiches, a milk tea and pastry stand in its Chinese Garden, and a newly opened Jade Court Café serving an Asian-inspired menu.

Kresge Court at Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, MI)

Recommended by Cynthia Cooky Jones, Julia McKee, Jackie Lillis-Warwick, Veronica Kalas, and Timothy Chester

Dine in the scenic Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts and you might just end up the subject of a photograph in the museum’s collection, like this 1964 one by Bill Rauhauser. (Aloof, mysterious expressions encouraged, though cigarettes no longer.) The courtyard’s elegant architecture and natural light create the perfect ambiance for a stop-off for coffee and sandwiches—or wine and charcuterie.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Saghar Adler (@leahssaz)

Garden Restaurant at The Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia, PA)

Recommended by Vanessa S. Grossl, Jacqui Read, Julie Steiner, Mary Miller, and Gaelle Crenn

Garden views set the scene for the Barnes Foundation’s airy restaurant, which serves lunch and brunch based on local, seasonal ingredients. Executive Chef Michael O’Meara’s current menu includes watermelon and tuna crudo, duck confit, and gelato.

Thirty Nine Restaurant at First Americans Museum (Oklahoma City, OK)

Recommended by Penelope Ray, Timothy Chester, Dixie Ramm, Jen Simons, and Katie Watts

Named after the thirty-nine First American Nations in Oklahoma, this restaurant offers a daytime menu of modern Indigenous cuisine. While honoring the traditional ingredients of the state’s Native peoples—such as corn, sumac, and turkey—the menu revels in finding “unexpected” concoctions from them, including a sage-piñon pesto and popcorn crème brûlée. Thirty Nine has also hosted a popular spring “Wild Onion Brunch,” inspired by a local Indigenous tradition.

Honorable Mentions

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.