There was a time not long ago when museums treated dining as an afterthought, with all the joy of a dine-and-dash airport meal. And most of Tampa Bay's major museums didn't even offer that. But these days, a decent restaurant is considered as important to the museum experience as roomy galleries, good lighting and a compelling collection. Here's a look at some of our area museum cafes, all open to the public with no museum admission necessary.
CAFÉ GALA, DALI MUSEUM, ST. PETERSBURG
The cafe at the new museum is as simple and straightforward as the art upstairs is deep and complex. • That's by design, says owner Steve Westphal. The cafe's mantra, he says, is "keep it simple, give it a lot of flavor and make it fresh.'' It seems to be working. The cafe is buzzing at lunch, thanks to record-breaking crowds since the museum's grand opening Jan. 11. • It's a beautiful space, framed at one end by a winding staircase and at the other by a piece of the iconic glass enigma that wraps the building. It looks out onto a serene patio and the bay beyond.
HOW IT WORKS
The cafe, named for Dalí's wife, is open for breakfast and lunch during museum hours. It's fast-casual: Order at the counter from a chalkboard menu, wait for your food and carry it on a tray to one of several small, round, brushed-aluminum tables inside or outside. With 12 seats at the counter, the cafe can accommodate 76 people — and often every seat is taken.
The menu, designed by chef Tyson Grant in collaboration with museum director Hank Hine, is a short but flavorful tribute to Dalí's Spanish roots, allowing the cafe to keep pace with the bustling crowds. Despite the cramped space (the museum shop seems triple the size), everything is made fresh on-site, according to Westphal. The menu's Spanish tinge is summed up well in the flavorful serranita, a sandwich on focaccia bread (from Tampa's Pane Rustica), stuffed with pork, serrano ham, olive oil, roasted garlic, tomato, Manchego cheese and pimento aioli ($8). It's layered with flavor and filling enough to split, especially when accompanied by gazpacho or caldo gallego soup ($3.50/$5.50) or a cold tortilla, a Spanish take on a frittata made with onions and potatoes or serrano ham ($5). Another solid choice is ensalada jamon, a salad of mixed greens with serrano ham, Spanish almond slivers, roasted peppers, olives and Manchego cheese ($9). There's also a short tapas menu.
Dali Museum, 1 Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg. (727) 623-4705.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-5:30 Sunday.
The museum offers admission for $10 after 5 p.m. on Thursdays, so expect the place to be packed. If all the tables are taken, pretend you're in Europe and politely ask to share with someone.
SONO CAFÉ, TAMPA MUSEUM OF ART
The cafe opened about a year ago with a built-in advantage: a stunning view through 18-foot, floor-to-ceiling windows of the Hillsborough River that only gets better as the sun sets behind the University of Tampa minarets. It makes it easy to embrace Sono's slogan: "A slow food cafe.'' • Sharing space with the tiny museum store, the cafe's minimalist design matches the museum's sleek, modernist architecture. Downtown workers have discovered the cafe as a pleasant weekday diversion, and it's convenient for families wiling weekends away at the adjacent, beautifully refurbished Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
HOW IT WORKS
Take a seat at the long, community tables inside or smaller tables on the outdoor patio and let the well-trained waitstaff take care of the rest.
"Community tables fed our notion of more of a European perspective,'' says Maryann Ferenc, Sono co-owner with chef Marty Blitz, who also own Mise en Place, a Tampa fine-dining institution.
Because the slow-food movement began in Italy, Sono's menu has an Italian sensibility. The limited kitchen space constrains the creativity of Blitz and his chef, Chris Mascia, formerly of the Modern, the Danny Meyer restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that sets a high bar for museum dining. They started with gelato and coffee and built the menu from there. The gelato is from Roberto Mori's Gelateria del Duomo in Tampa. In a word: luscious. From there they added fresh salads ($6.50 to $8.50) and panini ($7.50). Weekends feature a brunch menu, with items ranging from ricotta pancakes with organic seasonal fruit, fritatta with roasted red pepper and portobello mushrooms or fried eggs with smoked prosciutto and fontina cheese on brioche. Because of the small kitchen, the food is prepped fresh daily at Mise en Place and finished at the cafe. Somehow, it still tastes fresh and inventive.
Museum of Art, 120 W Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa. (813) 421-8379.
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Try Friday nights, with happy hour drink prices, dinner specials and free museum entry from 4 to 8 p.m.
TREVISO RESTAURANT, RINGLING MUSEUM OF ART, SARASOTA
Treviso is tucked into a corner of the lobby of the Historic Asolo Theater, on the grounds of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. Since it serves both museumgoers and theater patrons, it's a full-service restaurant with lunch and dinner menus. The Banyan Café is a family-friendly casual alternative, with hot dogs, sandwiches, chicken fingers and salads, a throwback to what museum dining used to be. • Treviso, meanwhile, has cloth napkins and polished servers. It has a high ceiling, a curving white staircase at one end, a mural of ancient Asolo, Italy, on one wall and a bank of windows on the opposite wall overlooking the gardens and patio tables. All that glass gives the interior space a sunny glow. There's a full bar, with eight stools for sipping or supping. It's all very tasteful, adult and perfectly Sarasota.
The lunch menu is mostly Italian-inspired salads and sandwiches. Dinner is more ambitious, with entrees such as a rich bolognese with perciatelli pasta ($14), braised lamb shank in a lush sauce ($18) and veal picatta ($19). Treviso is named for a city near Asolo, which also happens to be where tiramisu is said to have originated. It's so common now it's almost a cliche, but the version here is better than most.
Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 360-7390.
Hours: 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. daily.
Theatergoers should not fret if they linger over dessert: Someone walks through ringing luxury-liner chimes before the curtain rises.
MFA CAFÉ, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, ST. PETERSBURG
The museum on the downtown waterfront included the MFA Café in its expansion three years ago and chose Olympia Catering, a West Tampa institution since 1924, to run it.
HOW IT WORKS
It's a tranquil spot in a 24-foot atrium, with a full lunch menu and table service inside or at umbrella tables overlooking the Vinoy yacht basin. The crowd varies from ladies-who-lunch to more casually dressed tourists.
White tablecloths and cloth napkins suggest fine dining, but the menu is more casual Mediterranean — arugula salad, crab soup, Greek potato salad with crushed olives and feta-infused olive oil, paninis. The menu changes frequently and everything is made from scratch on the premises, says owner Darren Diaz. "We have literally a full kitchen here,'' said Diaz, and that allows Olympia to handle large events at the museum as well as the cafe.
Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 822-1032.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
Sunday brunch has a special menu and draws a well-dressed crowd of regulars.
COLUMBIA CAFÉ, TAMPA BAY HISTORY CENTER, TAMPA
The Tampa Bay History Center never seriously considered having any restaurant other than the Columbia. As Florida's oldest restaurant, it just made sense, and the 3-year-old Columbia Café feels like an extension of the exhibits. A stripped-down version of the historic restaurant in Ybor City, the cafe includes refurbished tables and chairs from the original, dating back to the 1930s, and a glorious remake of the original bar. • "A lot of people in Tampa don't know the history of Tampa food,'' says Columbia president Richard Gonzmart. So the menu gives the history of Cuban bread, devil crabs, Cuban sandwiches and Spanish bean soup.
HOW IT WORKS
It's a two-level, full-service restaurant, with marble-topped tables inside on the upper level and umbrella tables on an outdoor patio below overlooking Garrison Channel.
The museum's kitchen facilities are large enough to allow everything but the soup to be made fresh on-site (though Gonzmart wishes it were even bigger so he could expand the already sizable menu). Most of the Spanish favorites are there, including the 1905 salad ($8.95), chicken and yellow rice ($8.95), shrimp al ajillo ($7.95), the white chocolate bread pudding ($5.95) and sangria ($16.95-$19.95) served in large Columbia pitchers.
The Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Old Water St., Tampa. (813) 229-5511. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
The closest parking lot costs $5.