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The Art of Dining

In today’s museums, the fare is just as interesting as the exhibits themselves
Photo Credit: Deanna Sandoval
MCASD The Kitchen

MCASD The Kitchen

Photo Credit: Deanna Sandoval

It’s been a long time coming. Art museums have finally recognized that it’s nigh-impossible to truly immerse yourself in a visual feast when nourished only by a dry turkey sandwich and stale salad from a poorly lit cafeteria. The museums realized they can do better. And they have. Recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) and Mingei International Museum have opened restaurants featuring creative menus and elegant interiors to offer dining options on par with the art exhibits themselves.

The Kitchen at MCASD in La Jolla, introduced in February and open for breakfast and lunch, is San Diego’s most recent case study. Here, Urban Kitchen Group (the team that’s also behind ARTIFACT at Mingei) and architecture firm LUCE et studio (Extraordinary Desserts, George’s) considered the museum’s Irving Gill–designed origins, its natural surroundings, and its foot traffic flow to create a seamless experience that engages all of the senses.

ARTIFACT Restaurant Mingei International Museum

Interior of ARTIFACT in the Mingei International Museum at Balboa Park

Photo Credit: Kimberly Motos

And in an institution committed to visual innovation, every dish has to look good—down to, well, the dishes. “It was really important that the plates spoke to the style of dining and the menu,” Tracy Borkum, owner of Urban Kitchen Group, says. For example, a lobster and mushroom omelet accented with goat cheese and a patatas bravas hash with Spanish chorizo and a shower of kale appear on sleek, raised-edge plates, as if framed. The menu leans coastal—a nod to the museum’s locale.

Overhead, The Kitchen’s sage green umbrellas jut from strips of gardenscape. “The garden is the nexus—a space where the community gathers,” says Jennifer Luce, principal of LUCE et studio. Low-slung lounger in the same sage green invite guests to linger. “Sometimes the simplest gesture, [like] what chair you select, is going to go a long way in communicating the understanding of a space,” Luce adds.

Selldorf Architects, the team that renovated and expanded the museum in 2022, opened up MCASD’s entrance and allowed for a natural flow through to The Kitchen and its accompanying interior to-go café serving local Dark Horse coffee and Paru Tea, an assortment of pastries, and health-conscious snacks.

Mezze MCASD The Kitchen

Mezze from The Kitchen

Photo Credit: Bhadri Kubendran

At ARTIFACT at Mingei, a museum dedicated to folk art and craft in Balboa Park, Borkum and team curated an indoor and outdoor patio dining experience with a rustic menu highlighting global spices—from Asia and the Middle East to Latin America—all served on plateware available from the adjacent retail shop.

“We were surprised at how little ‘We want the chicken Caesar salad’ feedback we received,” says Tim Kolanko, chef-partner of Urban Kitchen Group. Today’s diner is more informed than ever, Borkum and Kolanko note. They actively seek interesting experiences. The hope, then, is that these throughlines, including dining amongst the art itself, encourage museum visitors to “consider the food part of the experience of studying art,” Borkum says.

Before, museum eateries were just meant to sustain someone, Luce says. Eating as survival. Luce continues, “Now it’s part of the culture of the museum, and food expresses this global attitude that both MCASD and Mingei have brought to our city.”

By Ligaya Malones

Ligaya Malones grew up in Kaua’i, Hawai’i and is a San Diego-based writer covering the intersection of food, travel, and culture. Her work has appeared in publications including Food52, Condé Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet, and Salt & Wind Travel.

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