My review this week revisits Cafe Sebastienne, the sophisticated bistro inside the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. It's the only restaurant in a metro museum that offers full-service dining every day that it's open. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's celebrated Rozzelle Court offers full-service dining only on Friday nights, and Cafe Tempo, in Johnson County Community College's Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, doesn't employ a waitstaff.
All three of those museum restaurants are appealing, and each has its own executive chef with a distinctive style. Cafe Sebastienne feels more like a traditional restaurant, Rozzelle Court gives off a theatrical vibe, and Cafe Tempo is sort of an upbeat coffee shop. Each also has its fans.
After years of having its own in-house food-service division, the Nelson-Atkins chose in 2007 to outsource Rozzelle Court's culinary operations and museum catering to American Food & Vending - or, more accurately, to that company's American Dining Concepts division.
"We felt it was a more financially viable choice," says Jessica Reeves, an administrator at the Nelson. "The food is still cooked on-site in our kitchens, and we have our own executive chef, Jonathan Pye."
Pye, an English-born chef who came to the Nelson from the Embassy Suites Hotel, is an employee of American Dining Concepts, as is the museum's general manager, Stephen Blackmon. The company, Blackmon says, completely revamped Rozzelle Court's menu. "We still cook everything from scratch, including all of our desserts. In fact, we have an in-house pastry chef, Jessica Kafka."
Desserts, after all, have always been important at Rozzelle Court, which offers lunch service from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and coffee and desserts from 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. "We always have scones and house-made cookies," Blackmon says. "That's a Nelson-Atkins tradition. And we always have the Nelson-Atkins Key-lime pie."
Friday-night dinners are a full-service affair (from 5 to 10:30 p.m., with the last seating at 9:30) involving printed menus and good servers. Blackmon says the choices always include salads, soups, appetizers and three entrees - "usually one fish, one meat and always one vegetarian option."
Cafe Tempo does not offer dinner service (although evening catered events can be hosted in the space) and stopped offering Saturday and Sunday lunches - though the Museum is open on those days - not long after the Nerman opened. "The business just wasn't there," Des Marteau says.
Now Cafe Tempo offers breakfast and lunch, serving from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Des Marteau says there isn't a huge breakfast business at Cafe Nerman: "It's mostly geared to the faculty at the college and students coming and going. We offer oatmeal, quiche, a French-toast casserole and baked goods."
Those breakfast pastries at Cafe Tempo are frozen and baked in the kitchen, but the restaurant's desserts are made by a local chef and baker, Jamie Washington.
Each day, Cafe Tempo offers a selection of six salads and seven sandwiches as well as one hot meal, a rotating daily special: "Tuesdays are taco Tuesdays at Cafe Tempo," Des Marteau says. "We make our own tortillas, and patrons have a choice of flank steak or chili-lime chicken. We also have a quiche of the day and a sushi of the day."
Cafe Tempo patrons order at a counter and are given a pager; when the pager buzzes, customers pick up their own trays.
Although all three restaurants are an added inducement to visit the museums that operate them, for some patrons the food is as important as the sculptures and paintings. As the Italian-born cookbook author Marcella Hazan writes: "Cooking is an art, but you eat it, too."