04/29/2011 03:44 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2011

An Upgrade in Museum Eateries

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has the same type of staff found at other major museums -- a director, curators, registrars, conservators, security staff and art handlers -- but it also now has a pastry chef. Caitlin Williams Freeman, a former co-owner of the prized San Francisco café Miette, is now working at SF MoMA, "creating desserts that pay homage to works in the museum without copying them." In fact, many of the cakes she bakes for customers look quite like the pastries in paintings by Wayne Thiebaud, an artist well-known for his depictions of desserts. Adding Freeman has made the museum's relatively new café, the Blue Bottle Coffee Co., one of San Francisco's go-to eateries.

That museum isn't alone in seeking to add more excitement and cache to its food service. The UCLA Hammer Museum's Café Hammer has three large-scale video screens showing video art, extending the scope of both food and art. The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently picked the STARR Restaurants Catering Group to operate the museum's restaurant and café, as well as to cater all the institution's events, a considerable upgrading of its cuisine. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City selected Restaurant Associates for the same thing. Both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim Museum have opened higher-end café and dining facilities within the past year. Dinner at the Guggenheim can now set you back more than $100, matching the prices of many of Manhattan's priciest restaurants. The travel guide Frommer's now rates museum restaurants, as do food critics for newspapers and magazines. What's up?

A number of European museums have been leading the way in offering haute cuisine options for visitors, "and we're just catching up with the rest of the world," Dick Cattani, chief executive officer of Restaurant Associates, said. Museum-goers tend to be sophisticated, knowledgeable and international; they "want a memorable experience when they eat, and they want dining rather than eating."

Arthur Manask, president of the Burbank, California-based Manask & Associates, which provides operational and financial consulting to museums, zoos, aquariums and other nonprofit institutions, noted that, "historically, museums with eateries were considered pretty much just places to grab a bite, not places to dine or memorable, unique destinations."

To a degree, Manask said, "a food arms race" is taking place, as museums are battling to entice visitors on the strength of their cuisine and drinks. More profoundly, museums have found that higher-level food is a significant aspect of their business model, rather than just something to help exhausted visitors stay awake for the next gallery.

"Since the mid-1990s, museum officials have seen that better food makes a better impression on visitors, and that better impression leads to more memberships, which is a launching pad to philanthropy," he said. "The people in charge of museums these days increasingly come out of the private sector. They understand the value of a successful restaurant and the visitor experience."

"There is something about museums that makes people hungry," said Manask. Maybe, it's doing little more than looking at things and reading labels that gets people tired and hungry, needing some type of refreshment. Museums have long understood that phenomenon, setting up cafes and restaurants to give visitors the strength to carry on. According to the American Association of Museums, 32.2 percent of its 3,000-plus members had some sort of food service in 2009. Based on a financial information survey, that's a jump from 22 percent from only 2006. There are some museums in which one may get to the restaurant without paying general admission -- among them the Guggenheim, Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and Minneapolis' Walker Art Center -- which may give them a bit of a leg up in the arms race. "You can have dinner at night at the Guggenheim, when the museum is otherwise closed," Cattani said, "and many people do. It's clear that the museum's exhibits are not the only attraction for people."

The haute cuisine restaurants at museums have not supplanted the less expensive option but, rather, are in addition to the snack shops. "No one is forced to eat at a high-priced restaurant," Cattani said. "Customers can choose."

Manask noted that the only looming area of concern is complaints by area restaurants that the nonprofit status of museums gives their food services an unfair advantage.