It’s hard to enjoy art on an empty stomach, and these days the best museums and galleries are dumping standard cafeteria fare in favor of dining experiences that are as unique as the art on their walls.
In New York City, top restauranteur Danny Meyer has brought the fine dining of his Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern to the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. (His restaurant at MOMA, The Modern, earned two Michelin stars last year.)
The Franklin Street Works gallery in Stamford has reflected this trend since Brooklyn, N.Y., chef Erin Emmitt arrived two years ago to revamp the cafe.
“Since Erin came on board with her farm-to-table menu, the rigor and quality of our food matches the rigor and quality of the art. … It was really important for us to bring the cafe up to the next level,” says Bonnie Wattles, executive director of the nonprofit gallery.
The chef was happy with the cafe space she inherited at Franklin Street Works, but wanted to serve food that would be “more inviting, a little more like a Brooklyn coffee shop.” Emmett’s position in Stamford is an offshoot of her Sweet Pistachio dessert company in Brooklyn, so the menu features freshly baked scones, muffins, hand pies and cookies, among other sweet treats.
The seasonal breakfast and lunch menus reflect the six years the chef spent in the San Francisco area, where she felt the influence of the farm-to-table movement spearheaded by the legendary Alice Waters.
“Before we moved back, I noticed that the Northeast hadn’t gotten into hyper-local (food) as much. It was just on the cusp. So I wanted to source more local vegetables instead of looking for the cheapest ones. In our area, we are lucky to have a lot of great farms,” Emmett says.
The gallery has its own garden, which, from spring through fall, supplies the cafe with lettuce, peppers, tomatoes and beets. “And we grow tons of herbs that we use in everything. The garden is a great community builder, too,” she says of the fun of sitting at one of the picnic tables on the back terrace in warm weather.
Emmett sees the demand for good food at arts institutions as a reflection of the rise of foodie culture everywhere. “People know more now, and it ups the ante at casual eateries; they want better ingredients, better food. When it comes to museums, they don’t want to settle for a subpar sandwich or a packaged Caesar salad,” she says. “When you serve something interesting, I think it brings you closer to what you are looking at in a gallery.” Because you can see most of the gallery from the cafe, the art experience continues while you’re enjoying a scone or breakfast frittata.
Arugula and kale salads are on the menu all year, but the herbs and other ingredients in them change with the seasons. “The baked goods change in the spring and summer when we have better fruit,” Emmett says.
I pushed the chef to name some of her favorite items, and she starts with her almond croissant, filled with almond frangipane (paste). “It’s toasty and creamy and everything I want on Sunday morning. … I also love the kale salad with shaved Parmesan and fresh walnuts,” she says.
The cafe serves its own variation on the classic Cobb Salad — what the chef calls “a twisted Southwestern version” with black beans and avocado.
The delicious hand pies, which resemble empanadas, can be polished off in three or four bites. The banana/Nutella pie is one of the most popular items on the menu.
After Emmett took over the cafe, Franklin Street Works saw an immediate impact on gallery attendance figures. “We’ve had people tell us ,‘Oh, I feel like I’m in Brooklyn,’” Wattles says, adding the gallery saw a 61 percent increase in visitors during 2016.
“The cafe is part of being new and current and different,” Wattles says of the marriage of food and art at 41 Franklin St.