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by Daniel Grant
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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. Freeman has made the museum’s relatively new café, the Blue Bottle Coffee Co., one of San Francisco’s go-to eateries.

The SF MOMA isn’t alone in seeking to add more excitement to its food service. The UCLA Hammer Museum’s Café Hammer -- catered by Wolfgang Puck -- has three large-scale video screens showing video art, in an esthetic update of the classically American "TV tray table" experience. The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently picked the STARR Restaurants Catering Group to operate the museum’s restaurant and café, now dubbed Granite Hill, 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. The Guggenheim Museum opened the Wright, whose haute-design promptly won a Beard Foundation prize -- dinner there can set you back $100-plus -- and the Whitney Museum awaits a new café managed by the famed New York chef Danny Meyer. 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," said Restaurant Associates CEO Dick Cattani. 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 restaurant consultant Manask & Associates in Burbank, Ca., noted that you might say that "a food arms race" is taking place, as museums strive to entice visitors on the strength of their cuisine and drinks. Higher-level food is increasingly viewed as a significant aspect of their business model, rather than just something to help exhausted visitors stay awake for the next gallery.

"Better food makes a better impression on visitors, and that better impression leads to more memberships, which is a launching pad to philanthropy," Manask said. "The people in charge of museums these days increasingly come out of the private sector. They understand the value of a successful restaurant to the visitor experience."

Needless to say, nothing improves a long museum visit like a break for a snack. And museums know this. According to the American Association of Museums, almost a third of its 3,000-plus members had some sort of food service in 2009, a jump from 22 percent in 2006. Some museums even allow dining without paying museum admission. "You can have dinner at night at the Guggenheim, when the museum is otherwise closed," Cattani said, "and many people do."

This generally happy story has only one caution: area restaurants complain that the nonprofit status of museums gives their food services an unfair advantage.

DANIEL GRANT is a contributing editor of American Artist magazine and the author of The Business of Being an Artist and several other books.