Get ready for a taste of something new at the National Gallery of Art's cafes. As of Oct. 1, the museum's restaurants will be led by the Starr Catering Group, a company that runs restaurants in other East Coast museums and cultural institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, as well as Carnegie Hall in New York. They will replace the previous operator of 15 years, Restaurant Associates, which runs many of the museum cafes on the Mall.
"The gallery is looking to elevate the level of visitor dining and really create an experience," said Simon Powles, CEO of Starr Catering Group. "We felt really good about what their vision was."
The company will do an overnight overhaul of the menus in the four main dining areas in the West and East buildings -- the latter reopening after a three-year renovation on Sept. 30. When guests come to the museum on that Saturday, they'll see brand new menus, signage and uniforms. In the next six months, the company will finalize plans to fully renovate the cafes, as well.
"We want them to each have their own identity, their own feel," Powles said.
In the East Building, the museum is reopening its Terrace Cafe on the upper level, with views of the museum's atrium and famous Calder mobile. That cafe will serve Starr Catering's in-house Parliament brand of coffee, which Powles says they source directly from a farmer in Nicaragua. The casual cafe will serve such baked goods as bostock (a pastry made with brioche, almonds and orange frangipane) and eccles cakes, as well as prepackaged grab-and-go sandwiches and salad, priced around $8 to $10.
In the West Building, the more formal Garden Cafe will offer table service, a revamped menu and a refreshed wine list. The goal of the eventual renovations is for that space to be "designed to feel like a real restaurant," with proper banquettes. Powles expects the average check will be $25 here. The menu has not yet been finalized.
Downstairs, in the main dining area between the two buildings, the company will overhaul the Cascade Cafe -- though it will still offer a food court-style set-up where guests can get soups, salads, and sandwiches. The cafe will introduce a poultry-themed station called The Coop, with herb-roasted rotisserie chicken, buttermilk fried chicken and whipped potatoes, chicken noodle soup, chicken salad and other dishes that utilize the bird. A station called Artist's Table will feature selections inspired by the art on view: classic French fare for an exhibit on Impressionism, perhaps, or something deconstructed for conceptual or abstract art (One dish on the opening menu is inspired by Monet: boeuf Bourguignon with Vichy carrots and rice pilaf).
There will also be classic grill fare, such as a burger with cheddar, grilled onions, and dijonnaise. Entrees will cost $9 to $15. The espresso and gelato bar will remain, and Starr will make their gelato in-house. The museum's sculpture garden Pavilion Cafe is not a part of the deal; it will continue to be operated by Guest Services, Inc.
Starr was founded as the catering wing of Stephen Starr's restaurants, which includes Le Diplomate in D.C. But Starr sold off the catering portion of the company to Elior, a Paris-based catering company for an undisclosed sum last August. At that time, Starr Catering had a $40-million-a-year portfolio. Still, the company has kept many of his recipes, and they may make an appearance here and there -- though most of the menu was developed by executive culinary director Ashley James.
"I think, from day one, we will elevate the menus and the food and beverage program," Powles said. "It will feel like a fresh new place."