Can a museum restaurant ever live up to its surroundings? We decided to find out. In our ongoing series, Fine Food, Fine Art, we go in search of the best restaurants at museums in glittering cosmopolitan cities all around the world. In this edition, we explore Untitled at the Whitney. It’s one of the best restaurants we’ve visited at a museum in New York City.
fine food and fine art
Are fine art and fine dining the new power couple? Like luxury retailers, the important art museums of Manhattan seem to realize that having an exclusive, buzzed-about restaurant is mission-critical to their success. How else to explain that some of the most exciting restaurants in New York City right now happen to be housed in museums?
Art and food can separately serve as comfort and inspiration. Especially when you’re traveling or on vacation. So we figured that the two together should be a little slice of heaven. A meal at one of these establishments might even be the perfect gift for the foodie in your life. Or for you!
As part of our field research, we visited Untitled at the Whitney for lunch, and it was further validation of our hypothesis: fine art + fine dining = fine time.
Untitled at the Whitney Museum of American Art
In a bright and airy space on the ground floor of the Whitney, Chef Michael Anthony presides over a friendly, noisy, casual cafe that just happens to serve outstanding food.
On a rare day when we had a couple of free hours around lunchtime, we sneaked out to see the latest exhibits at the Whitney, followed by a solo lunch at Untitled.
It turns out that this is a very fine way to make yourself incredibly happy.
The cheerful restaurant is a glass box, with floor-to-ceiling windows two-stories high on three sides. The gracious host seated me right next to a window, at a table with a great view of the High Line and the surrounding neighborhood.
The ambiance is playful and fresh: upholstered red chairs, no tablecloths, and simple cutlery paired with gingham napkins. The floor is rough stone, and the light and window fixtures are a quietly brushed stainless steel. The wait staff is outfitted in red, black, white and grey.
The kitchen is open and reasonably loud, so I can hear my order being placed: roasted sunchokes with goat cheese, chestnut and Romanesco, followed by roasted and fried chicken with yellow-eyed beans, kale and delicata squash.
If you’re alone and fascinated by the inner workings of a professional kitchen, this is the perfect listening post. You can get a snapshot of which dishes are popular just by eavesdropping on the orders flowing in. The choreography of a well-run kitchen is actually energizing and engaging — lots of moving parts, high heat, tight deadlines, and it all works.
BTW, Untitled is a no-tipping establishment – the gratuities for service are included in the tab.
The lunch/dinner menu changes frequently, and it’s fairly extensive: there are 9 starters and 7 entrees on offer, plus a salad-and-soup lunch combo that changes daily.
Warning to cold caffeine seekers: the restaurant doesn’t serve Diet Coke! Only regular Coke. Instead, you can try one of their homemade soft drinks: lemon-mint (the most popular), spiced pear and homemade root beer. Or have a cold-brewed iced coffee or a glass of iced tea.
On to the food! The only bread offered was a cheddar cheese and chive biscuit with red pepper jam. We think it was tasty, but we ate it so quickly that we’re really not sure.
Our sunchoke appetizer was relatively new, so the waiter was quite interested in what we thought of it. Thumbs up. It was a lovely mix of textures and flavors — crispy, creamy, rough and smooth. And we’re sure it was low-calorie. It was all vegetables, right?
But the main event was our entrée, which at that time was the most popular item on the menu. Billed as roasted and fried chicken, we quickly deduced that the menu description was an elaborate ruse. The roasted chicken is only there as a foil – a fig leaf so that the constantly-dieting urbanites can eat fried chicken guilt-free, under the guise of ordering both.
As a granddaughter of a Southern black woman who cooked brilliantly, we know from fried chicken – and readers, this is good fried chicken. The delicata squash lights up the entire dish – it tastes like candy. Further proof point: the woman next to me, also dining alone, also ordered the chicken. She ate all of the fried and none of the roasted. Case closed.
Room for dessert? But of course! The restaurant offers a cheese plate and 5 dessert options, as well as an extensive list of after-dinner drinks. We ordered the triple-chocolate cookie with milk. (The apple pie was tempting, but the waiter warned us “it’s really big.”) Next time! ‘Cause fried chicken and apple pie? Seriously? We’re in.
But we must say, this cookie was delicious – warm from the oven, sprinkled with salt, with a darling little glass of milk on the side. Three kinds of chocolate, sugar, salt and butter? Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. BTW, the coffee is good, too.
The people-watching is first-rate and instructive. The crowd is a mix of young and old, and nearly everyone is dressed in a comfortable but interesting way. Which is what you’d expect at a contemporary art museum cafe: a grande dame in leopard print boots; an ingénue in metallic sneakers; a squadron of sleek young men with great haircuts, all in black from head to toe.
The dress code seems to be extremely refined and simple clothes accompanied by statement accessories – scarves, boots, and/or earrings. For future reference, we can consider that the official uniform of the urban aesthete.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant is also the house cafeteria for the museum’s leadership. We spotted the Director and a few of the senior staff. Wonder if they ever get tired of eating there? That would be a truly high-class problem to have.
As a solo diner, you can eat at the bar, or do as we did and grab a table. Either way, it’ll be a fine way to reflect on the thought-provoking art you’ve just seen.
And to plot your next move.
We’ll be continuing our series on the best restaurants in museums in New York City and in the world. It’s a tough job, visiting the great museums of the world and sampling their dining options. But someone has to do it, dear reader. We’ll report back. In the meantime, bon appetit!
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