Art museums all over are much concerned to broaden their audiences across racial, ethnic, and age cohorts, with innovative programming, better labels and signs, docent tours, more seating in the galleries, and other ways to make visitors, but especially new visitors, feel qualified to attend and welcome. They have a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction.
One interface important to a good visit experience is a café or restaurant. This is a little tricky, because food preferences differ across income and education strata, and between kids and grownups. But it’s not that tricky, and not an excuse for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s highlight-reel own goal, the new In Situ restaurant.
The nice ground-floor cafeteria with ordinary art museum food (interesting salads, carrot cake, pesto chicken sandwiches; that sort of thing) has been displaced by an experiment that truly beggars belief. The museum rented the space to, or hired, a locally famous chef (who has a Michelin three-star place in the city), and together they imagined a sort of international food museum with a dish each from a couple of dozen restaurants around the world. This is not intrinsically ill-conceived, but it may be a hint of what’s to come that the name of the restaurant exactly contradicts its actuality; all the food, displaced from its origins, is exactly not in situ.
The lunch experience begins with a menu written by someone who doesn’t know the difference between like and as, but museum people are more visual types than verbal, and we didn’t come to eat the menu. The décor is extremely spare and the service at the dangerous border of unctuous and pretentious; in case we didn’t realize how good it was (the food took 40 minutes to arrive) a 20% “charge”, which might be a tip for the staff but then again, might just be a charge, is added to the bill. What we tried of the food is good upper-end, far from “wow, you have to try this!” but the real distinction of this establishment is the combination of stupefying prices (think of coming to the museum with two kids and lunching here; you do the math) and portions that demand real creativity to describe. Imagine a restaurant run by someone who thinks food is the most expensive input to putting a plate before a diner, so the less of it you use compared to, say, labor, the better.
The “Slow cooked farm egg” is just that, one egg, in a little cup, on a bed of crumbs of the other ingredients. (How reassuring, though, to know it wasn’t a gymnasium, coal mine, hospital or some otherwise sourced egg!) How much does an egg cost wholesale, even an actual farm egg? A carrot?
Naturally, I had to try my namesake’s “Emancipation”. It is indeed emancipated, for example from any accompanying starch or vegetable, and far from a main “course”, just a smallish hunk of fish, served over a stingy Franz Kline-esque dribble of soot sauce [actually I like seppie in inchiostro and other ink dishes] on an enormous plate, with some fried potato crumbles on top. Definitely not a side of fries; some crumbles:
We left, poorer, wiser, and starving, to hit the café on the fifth floor for enough additional actual food to constitute a meal. Altogether at least an hour and a half not looking at art, which is what we mainly came for. Remember, this establishment is listed as “restaurant” on the museum signs and maps; it isn’t an alien presence that happens to rent a shop on the street.
What population’s can the SFMOMA brass possibly be hoping to embrace on return visits with this arrogant, pretentious, overpriced, disaster? I was pleased to see that on a holiday Saturday, the place was almost empty, this encourages my hope that it will be gone and replaced with a serious enterprise that doesn’t simultaneously insult, starve, and beggar me by my next visit.