San Francisco has its share of world-class museums. But that’s just the half of it, for those museums have delicious restaurants and cafes too. Adding good food to your cultural experience is the latest “thing.” And it makes sound economic sense for the restaurateurs — you can’t beat the foot traffic. You’ll find chefs who create cuisine based on exhibits and décor that complements the space. The restaurant is an extension of the museum. Recently, my husband and I explored some of what the City has to offer.
We started at the California Academy of Sciences, a world-renowned natural history museum and research institute. It’s a stimulating, hands-on green adventure for the whole family. Architect Renzo Piano’s undulating living roof is covered with native plants, wildflowers and solar voltaic cells. Inside, the Steinhart Aquarium, Kimball Natural History Museum, Morrison Planetarium, and the African Hall dioramas bring nature alive. Don’t miss the four-story living rainforest. How about the albino alligator and the massive T. rex skeleton? You’ll be space-bound in the planetarium as you’re taken on the largest digital trip into the solar system ever. As you roam about, take delight in meeting scientists and interacting with exhibits to gain a deeper understanding of the world and how to preserve it.
Stimulated and hungry after our visit, we opted for the Moss Room. Chef Loretta Keller runs the restaurant and co-owns it with Charles Phan (who runs the Academy Cafe). These two culinary gurus have completely embraced a sustainable philosophy — not just with fresh ingredients, but also as a way to look at packaging, water and energy efficiency, nontoxic cleaning products and waste reduction.
A large two-story wall of living moss (hence, the name) dominates the modern space. The California-Mediterranean-inspired menu includes appetizers like dark and delicious Monterey squid spaghetti and a slow-roasted, decadent pork belly. The golden trout is soft, moist and served with house-made andouille sausage. Try the bean cassoulet with duck confit, Toulouse sausage and beef short ribs. Choose interesting wines by the glass from one of three categories: sustainable, organic and biodynamic. And save room for the coffee gelato vacherin — the perfect creamy, rich finish.
On a clear day, there’s no more beautiful place to visit than the Legion of Honor. Perched on a hill overlooking the Golden Gate, the Beaux-Arts building houses an expansive collection. Pass Rodin’s The Thinker on the way in. Wander the marble-columned halls through the European paintings and decorative arts and the ancient art from the Near East and Mediterranean regions. Don’t miss my favorite — 18th-century English and French porcelain. There’s still time to view Cartier in America — an amazing group of traditional and exotic jewelry and clocks. The “Very Postmortem: Mummies and Medicine” is fascinating and on display until mid-August.
Lunch at the Legion Cafe is a treat — the open, airy space provides exceptional views of Lincoln Park and the Marin Headlands. And in nice weather, sit out on the patio and enjoy the scenery and the singing birds. The seasonal menu offers such taste treats as a summer white peach salad, a salmon Vidalia onion tart, and a blackened tilapia fish sandwich. The chickpea cake sandwich with oven-roasted tomatoes and tzatziki is served with delta asparagus and a tropical papaya mango relish. The house-made blackberry kiwi tart with crème fraîche is a sweet finish.
Next up on the tour was the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM). Architect Daniel Libeskind literally incorporated the exciting stainless steel blue museum with the historic PG&E power substation. CJM’s exhibitions and programs give visitors a sense of Jewish art, history and culture from a modern point of view. This institution is unique in that there are no permanent exhibitions, but rather it partners with others to bring works that strengthen intercultural and interfaith understanding in the community. The light-filled interior, with its interesting angles and spaces, invigorates the current exhibitions: “Jews on Vinyl,” “Being Jewish: A Bay Area Portrait,” and “Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf.”
When it’s time for lunch, eat inside at the Cafe on the Square or (if you’re lucky) on the sun-drenched patio. The cuisine is vegetarian with seafood specials — Jewish favorites with a contemporary spin. You won’t go wrong with the ever-present potato and carrot latkes served with sour cream, and red-onion-apple confit. Or try the wild lox and bagel with all of the trimmings. There’s even a special salad with pickled herring (artist Marc Chagall’s father made him work in a herring plant) and a pita wrap with a variety of roasted mushrooms and other vegetables. The cuisine is fun and inspired by current and past exhibits.
Last stop is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the Rooftop Garden Blue Bottle Coffee Bar. SFMOMA, designed by Mario Botta, is an international star and always an exciting place to visit, but especially now as it celebrates its 75th anniversary. The museum showcases its history throughout five floors. The “Focus on Artists” exhibition celebrates the works of 18 artists from Abstract to Expressionism to Post-minimalism. Included are Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Stella, Diane Arbus, and Andy Warhol. Don’t miss “San Francisco Views: 1935 to Now.” The anniversary show is a tribute to Albert Bender, SFMOMA’s founding patron and Grace McCann Morley, an early director.
The art continues on the rooftop — there you’ll find a bold sculpture garden and the Rooftop Garden Coffee Bar. You’ll also get great views whether you sit inside or out. Caitlin Freeman is the creative and talented pastry chef (her husband, James, owns Blue Bottle Coffee). In addition to the distinctive and delicious coffee with its thick crema and artistic frothed milk, indulge in Caitlin’s mouth-watering desserts like the Thiebaud butter cake with lemon curd and raspberry butter cream or the Mondrian with vanilla and red velvet cake and chocolate ganache. It’s a delightful way to complement the art.
There’s nonstop sensory stimulation waiting in San Francisco’s many museums and restaurants and cafes. Indulge and take pleasure.
California Academy of Sciences: 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, 415-379-8000, www.calacademy.org. The Moss Room: Starters from $10, soups/salads/pastas from $8, entrees from $16, desserts from $9, wines by the glass from $8. 415-876-6121, www.themossroom.com
Legion of Honor: Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue & Clement Street, 415-750-3600, www.famsf.org/legion. Legion Cafe: Salads and sandwiches from $11.25, wines by the glass from $5.50, 415-750-3547.
Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco: 736 Mission Street, 415-655-7800, www.thecjm.org. Café on the Square: Salads/entrees from $8.50, wine/beer from $4, 415-655-7887.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: 151 Third Street, 415-357-4000, www.sfmoma.org. Rooftop Garden Blue Bottle Coffee Bar: Coffee from $2.50, desserts from $5, 415-243-0455.
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Patty Burness is the travel writer for Northside San Francisco. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.