Thirteen years ago, any tourist at the British Museum wanting lunch in between viewing the Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles might have thought twice before eating at the institution's basement cafeteria. It was run by the Civil Service Catering Organization, serving food that was hardly fit for the barracks: mushy peas, boiled potatoes and a particularly unappetizing version of bangers and mash. Dessert was no better usually just a clumpy custard.
No longer. These days, you can sit down at Britain's most-visited cultural
attraction and dine on a three-course lunch of smoked salmon, free-range chicken
with prosciutto and field mushrooms and lemon tart, while savoring a bottle of
Australian chardonnay at a table overlooking the recently renovated Reading Room.
And the crowd around you might be evenly divided between tourists studying their
museum maps and corporate types wooing clients over an elegant business lunch.
"The museum food business is no longer just about feeding and watering visitors,"
says Digby Trout, whose London-based catering company digby trout Restaurants
runs the Court restaurant at the British Museum as well as 10 other museum eateries,
including the upmarket Orangerie at Kensington Palace and the new, trendy Deep
Blue Café at the Science Museum. "Directors of museums now realize
that customer service is important and that visitors appreciate high quality food,"
he says. "They also know it makes good business sense. It gives them another
source of revenue and a way to further the museum's brand name."
Many of Europe's hottest restaurants are now located within the hallowed
walls of museums, where visitors are not just eating up the culture but also the
cuisine. Time Out magazine in London recently awarded Best New Restaurant of the
Year to the Admiralty, a swank establishment in the recently restored Somerset
House that has attracted such notables as Tom Hanks and Henry Kissinger. And in
Paris, the place to be seen is on the sixth floor of the Pompidou Center at Georges,
a Costes Brothers restaurant complete with a panoramic view of the fourth arrondissement.
And don't expect to just wander into the dining room at the Bilbao Guggenheim
Museum in Spain looking for a quick bite to eat. If you want to enjoy a meal of
sautéed squab or roasted foie gras it is essential to book several days
For a museum, a good restaurant can be as powerful a drawing card as one of its
priceless artifacts. Most catering companies give museums a percentage of their
turnover that can range anywhere from 8% for a full-service restaurant to 25%
for a café; with high volume that just serves coffee and light snacks. A
museum insider estimates that the British Museum gets between 15% and 20% of the
restaurant's annual revenue, which is expected to be around $4.2 million
And that money doesn't just come from serving people who wander into the
restaurant after a tour of the artwork. "We have two completely different
markets," says John Nugent, retail development director of Searcy's,
the catering company that runs the rooftop restaurant and bar at London's
National Portrait Gallery. "Of the 200 people who visit the restaurant each
day, half are gallery visitors and half are people who are looking for consistency
and quality. They are finding it here."
Having a good restaurant on the premises also pumps up a museum's bottom
line in unexpected ways by increasing the "dwell time" of museum patrons.
Carole Carr, operations director for Eliance, the French catering company that
runs Le Grande Louvre restaurant and the Eiffel Tower's Jules Verne restaurant
in Paris, as well as Café Bagatelle located in the glass-roofed structure
of London's Wallace Collection, says she is finding that visitors to a museum
who eat at the restaurant tend to cap off their day by visiting the gift shop.
And after a couple of glasses of wine, that set of egg cosies featuring Henry
VIII's wives might indeed look pretty tempting.
When a museum decides to upgrade its restaurant facilities, it has two main options:
hire a catering company, or bring in an outside restaurateur to do the job. London's
Somerset House decided to go the latter route, hiring Oliver Peyton, who is behind
such hip London eateries as the Atlantic Bar and Grill, Coast and Isola.
"We really wanted to bring people into the building, and make Somerset House
a place to come to in the evenings as well," explains Duncan Wilson, director
of Somerset House Trust. That decision seems to be paying off. According to Peyton,
the Admiralty is expecting revenues this year of more than $4.2 million and projects
that within two years that figure will be up to $8.5 million. Although neither
Peyton nor Wilson would disclose exactly how much of that money will make its
way into the museum's coffers, Somerset House's take probably falls
on the low end of the 8%-25% range since the restaurant pays rent to the museum
and also shared in the cost of the restaurant's construction.
The museum-restaurant business is different from running a stand-alone establishment,
says Trout. He contends with, among other things, the fact that the kitchen for
his restaurant in the British Museum is six floors below the dining area, creating
the need for sturdy, state-of-the-art traveling ovens. The restaurant management
must be keenly aware that its clientele might come to it with very different dining
goals in mind. "Many people are here to see the collection, not the food,
and don't want to linger in the restaurant too long," explains Carr.
"We have to be all things to all men. So we offer a two-course meal for those
in a hurry and a three-course meal for the ladies who lunch and the business crowd."
A chef's ego often must be put on the back burner. "Museum directors
are serious people. I follow their rules. If they tell me that they want me to
change something on the menu, I change it," says Trout.
Martyn Ladds, brand marketing communications director at the British Museum, prefers
that flexible attitude. "Catering [must be] an integrated part of the museum
brand. We offer certain menu options that are inspired by the exhibitions on display.
For example recently for the Japan 2001 festival and the current 'Cleopatra
of Egypt' exhibition we helped them put together special menus." For
Japan, the menu featured a "Mt. Fuji-inspired" creation of chicken-salted
jellyfish and white radish salad; for Cleopatra, Lamb Tanjine with couscous.
It's certainly a far cry from the days of bangers and mash.