Few among us think of a museum cafe as a destination — especially those of us who haven't eaten at Phoenix Art Museum's Palette, one of the city's nicest downtown lunch spots. A museum restaurant, like a department store cafe, is typically good for a salad or a sandwich after what you really came for — in this case, ogling an exhibit or two. The Courtyard Cafe at the Heard, for example, is a perfectly fine place for a bowl of lukewarm soup and a serviceable salad after looking at a lot of Native American sandals and Hopi pottery. But then, who goes to a museum to eat?
I do — at PAM, anyway. And that's in spite of the fact that the menu items there all have groan-inducing names, which change though the menu items themselves do not. The current names appear to be linked to the museum's "Hollywood Costume" exhibit, on display through July 6.
I like to order the fig salad, currently called the No Salad for Old Men (see what I mean?), a tasty toss of mixed lettuces, the tang of Maytag blue cheese and a tart drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette nicely setting off candied pecans and mission figs. It's topped with a chicken breast, juicy and neatly carved, but this meal-sized salad isn't so filling that I don't have room for dessert. (Don't miss the Lemony Snicket lemon tart — bittersweet lemon curd in a buttery pastry shell.)
Speaking of tarts, the satisfying and also less-than-too-filling "I Don't Want to Quit You" Tart is an eggy mélange of spinach and mushrooms bound with a trio of cheeses — Parmesan, Fontina, and goat — in a rustic flaky crust. Among the best-kept secrets at Palette is another three-cheese dish, the grilled cheese on white sandwich, listed under "For the Kids" and a delicious guilty pleasure — crispy, buttered-and-browned homemade white bread loaded with tart cheddar and mellower Fontina and Mozarella.
Whatever you order (or if you're just there for a cocktail from Palette's impressive full-service bar), indulge in a plateful of the hot, crispy Flash Gordon Fries, dusted with Parmesan and herbs and served with a side of piquant paprika aioli that you'll want to spread on everything else you eat. I recently took a snobby British friend to Palette who, when I requested an order of fries as a starter, rolled her eyes. "You Americans and your French fries," she moaned, then proceeded to Hoover up every last crumb of these world-class frites. (She ordered them as a side for her sandwich, as well.)
A more recent companion didn't like that our waiter rarely stopped by to check on us, but I was elated. I'm old enough to remember when one called for a waiter's attention, rather than being confronted with it every four minutes; when waiters didn't begin their service by introducing themselves by their Christian names, leaving the introductions to their name tags.
Palette's entrées and appetizers, all slightly on the pricey side, arrive at your table having been photo-styled like mad; this is, after all, food served in an art museum. And if some of the consistently fresh American cuisine seems familiar, it's likely because the food is prepared by Santa Barbara Catering Company, the same folks responsible for the food at The Farm at South Mountain, where similar salads and sandwiches are offered without the cringe-inducing names.
Would that the Heard Museum's Courtyard Cafe were using an outside caterer of note. Alas, Courtyard's fare is only fair. I ate and ate and ate and found nothing on the menu much better than what I might have prepared myself, at home, while in a hurry to get done cooking.
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The cup of posole I ordered arrived just barely warm, with the cheddar cheese (typically served on the side) already mixed in. There was too much salty broth for this to be a classic posole, making it instead a rather soupy bowl of pulled pork, onions, pinto beans, tomatoes, and hominy. My chopped kale Caesar was pleasant, the Tuscan kale and romaine tossed with bacon and tomatoes, although the croutons tasted like they came from a box and the dressing was clearly canned.
Because many of Courtyard Cafe's mostly uninspired salads and sandwiches are Southwestern-inspired, I focused on Native-influenced dishes on a subsequent visit. The tepary bean hummus ("Tepary beans are indigenous to Arizona and have been a sustainable ingredient in the American Indian diet for centuries," the menu helpfully explained) was oily and bland, and the rustic flatbread pizza was skimpy on arugula pesto and not in fact "crisp," as described in the menu. Crispy corn tacos with carnitas were better, although the lumpy avocado crema was flavorless and the cabbage blend added nothing to the filling other than an agreeable crunch.
Egged on by me, my companion ordered the grilled cheese, because I was eager to compare it to the one at PAM's cafe. More complex than a classic grilled cheese, this one slides caramel-y roasted balsamic onions and sautéed mushrooms between gooey slabs of Tallegio and Fontina cheeses crammed into wedges of sourdough bread. Neither particularly Southwestern nor especially adventurous, it's the best item I tasted at Courtyard Cafe. (Fortunately, next door's Coffee Cantina does cater its comestibles — an ever-changing list of baked goods and breakfast treats made by Pistol Whipped Pastry's Rachel Miller. Full disclosure: Miller is a regular contributor to Chow Bella, New Times' food blog.)
Membership in their host museums gets you discounts at both of these places, although I can imagine myself stopping by the Heard to check out an exhibit of Navajo ceremonial baskets, and then heading down the street to Phoenix Art Museum for an order or two of French fries.