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For years, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s members’ Dining Room was the hardest thing to find in a vast building full of hallways and quiet chambers. That was both the point and the problem. “We had this beautiful space that offers delicious food,” said Clyde Jones, the museum’s senior vice president for institutional advancement. “And we weren’t packed.”
For some, this was one of the dining room’s main draws. Another was that for price of a museum membership, anyone (and his or her guests) could have access to a pin-drop quiet restaurant on the Upper East Side whose wall of glass—overlooking Central Park and Cleopatra’s Needle—offered one of the best views in all of culinary New York.
But, as Jones noted, the restaurant—which is accessible only by first navigating the meandering Greek and Roman Art galleries, then the expansive Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas galleries, and riding up an elevator in the rear corner of the building to its fourth floor—was not exactly bustling.
The space was additionally burdened by a second component: Given that it can be reached only by way of museum galleries, the restaurant is exclusively open during museum hours. That’s fine for members who have time for a lengthy weekday lunch, but less fine for everyone else. (The restaurant is also open for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, when the Met is open late.)
For years, the dining room remained a well-kept secret, even from many of the Met’s members. But this June, the institution announced that for the first time ever, nonpaying members would also be allowed to make reservations, and changed the restaurant’s name from the Members Dining Room to the more democratic, if vague, the Dining Room at the Met.
The announcement coincided with the museum’s highly publicized budget crisis, but Jones insisted that the move wasn’t a direct effort to boost the institution’s bottom line. The timing of the name change with the museum’s financial difficulties was “certainly not causal,” he said. “But it is all part and parcel of our looking at how we offer food options to our visitors and our members.”
New York’s Upper Crust
On the face of it, the difference between members and nonmembers—and thus prior access to the restaurant or lack thereof—isn’t much of a distinction: One hundred dollars, the base price of an annual museum membership, is well within the means of most art lovers.
But the Members Dining Room, in contrast with the museum’s other, more egalitarian options, also remained a bastion of New York’s upper crust by dint of its prices: Dinner appetizers start at $16, and entrees $37—apart from a $28 hearts of palm dish that really might feel more comfortable in the starter section.
“It’s meant to be fine dining,” Jones said. “A lot of research was done into the other options that diners have in the neighborhood, and in fact it’s often less expensive to have a meal in the dining room than it is at some other comparable dining options in the neighborhood.”
For anyone weighing the dining room against other local options (and those prices put it on par with the likes of the Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges, Cafe Boulud, and the Arlington Club), a visit to the restaurant on a recent Saturday evening yielded mixed results. Step off the elevator, turn a corner, and the view is stunning: The Met’s angled glass facade runs the length of the dining room, such that visitors at virtually any table have views of the park and the skyline along Central Park West.
What It’s Like
The decor is slightly less breathtaking: Its wood-paneled walls and seating haven’t been updated since the room was built in 1993, and it shows. The lighting is hotel-conference-center-yellow, with dull wall-to-wall carpeting to match, and the plates and flatware are institutional. Despite being in a museum, the restaurant itself is devoid of art on its walls. (“It’s a dining room, not a gallery,” Jones said but added that “we have had conversations with curators about the possibility of art in the dining room, and it’s not outside the realm.”)
The service is warm, helpful, and swift. But although the menu features items that read like a Mad Libs of foodie buzzwords—such as an oxtail beignet with coffee hollandaise, and a plate of the soft Italian cheese stracciatella with heirloom tomatoes—it’s not on a par with the other fine restaurants in the neighborhood.
At a recent meal, a hamachi crudo was sliced a little too thickly and a little too far ahead of time and served timidly with mint and Japanese citrus. A tiny grilled pizzetta, which may or may not have been cooked according to its description, was slathered satisfyingly in buffalo mozzarella and guanciale. But at $20, diners might find themselves pricing out every bite in dollars.
Several main courses were well cooked on a plancha, including hefty Nantucket sea scallops for $40 and a round swordfish steak for $37, each accompanied by a charred lemon half and a variety of sauces that are best avoided. The aforementioned crisp (read: fried) hearts of palm, with lemongrass, corn, bok choy, and chili, looked and tasted a lot like very good mozzarella sticks.
A Museum Restaurant Renaissance
The menu would perhaps be more beside the point if New York wasn’t in the midst of such a boom time for museum dining rooms. Not far away, the dining room’s sister restaurant Flora Bar at the Met Breuer earned two stars from the New York Times for such creative combinations as a tuna tartare with sunflower and hijiki seaweed, while Untitled at the Whitney Museum from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group offers a grown-up experience in the middle of the Meatpacking District.
Both restaurants have lower price points than the Met Museum dining room, though neither aim for such formality.
Jones said that the restaurant menu is “constantly tweaked,” changing both seasonally and in response to the museum’s programming. “If there’s a Dutch painting show, then maybe there will be a menu that has a Dutch influence,” he said.
The food, of course, is only partially the point. During the Saturday evening visit, grandparents ate with grandchildren who pressed their faces against the window, while older couples enjoyed excellent cocktails and watched the sun set over the skyline. By midevening, at least half the restaurant’s 254 seats were filled, and the patrons were in a jovial—if hushed—mood. They were in a museum, after all.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.