Published Dec 28, 2018, 07:50am

Article by Tara Nurin

Thanks to the new Frank Gehry-designed Stir restaurant and separate café at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), you can continue to feast your eyes while stopping for a bite to eat. As part of a three-year, $196 million renovation, the city’s most famous museum has opened what appears to be the only fine-dining Gehry restaurant on the east coast.

PMA President and COO Gail Harrity said in a statement, “As we envision the future visitor experience, we are delighted to be developing these exciting new dining options—for people who want a wonderful fine dining experience (or) for families with children looking for casual dining with lots of options.”

Though Gehry has designed dining spaces in foreign museums, the PMA has hired the world-renowned architect to reimagine the entire main building as the second, “Core Project,” phase of its ongoing effort to modernize and improve its facilities. The complete Core Project is set to be unveiled in 2020 with the two new restaurants and an espresso bar, a re-opened street-level entrance sealed since the 1970s and 90,000 recaptured square feet of space for the public and for the display of American and contemporary art. Until early next year, when the new entrance and coffee shop open, guests can admire Gehry’s work at the 76-seat Stir and the 160-seat cafeteria, which boasts garden and water views alongside sprawling stations for fresh brick-oven pizza, salads, sandwiches, soups, gourmet coffees, and local beers and wines.

Inside the more intimate Stir, Gehry’s touches abound. According to the museum’s marketing team before the restaurant’s launch, “In addition to its dramatic, undulating ceiling, it will contain comfortable seating and tables designed by Gehry Partners. Its walls and ceiling will be clad in Douglas fir and its floors in red oak. The ebullient Gehry touch will be seen in a palette of materials that includes frosted glass, felt, steel, leather, bronze, and onyx. Stir has also been designed to provide views into the kitchen, providing an opportunity to see the staff at work.”

Gehry, who says he “personally and directly” designs every one of his firm’s projects, tells museum executives that he remembers first walking through the circa-1928 neo-classical main building best known for its “Rocky Steps” and thinking, “I saw that all you had to do was follow the yellow brick road, so to speak. It was all there, and it showed you what you could do.”

The restaurant is led by Constellation Culinary Group (formerly Starr Catering), which runs dining facilities at Carnegie Hall, among others, and features seasonal items like roasted Jersey peaches, seared Barnegat scallops, handmade torn pasta, a Kennett Square wild mushroom frittata and a dry-aged burger topped with Lancaster cheddar. The geographical descriptions all reference municipalities or regions within two hours’ drive of the city.

Executive Chef Mark Tropea says, “Here is the Stir menu in two words—local and inspired.”

The somewhat artisanal nature of the new restaurant concepts is in keeping with the times. Tourist Attractions and Parks (TAP) magazine reports that today’s visitors to arts and leisure venues are looking for lighter, healthier, sometimes more elevated meals, and notes that even the Stubborn Brothers Beach Bar & Grille -- part of the Morey’s Piers family of water and amusement parks on the Jersey Shore’s Wildwood Boardwalk -- now strays far from boardwalk fare of yore with Thai calamari, a quinoa bowl with shaved Brussels sprouts, and pork belly and pineapple skewers.

In the western suburbs of Philly, TAP reports the Brandywine River Museum of Art has streamlined the quantity of options on its menu at its Millstone Café simply by improving the quality of ingredients for dishes like chilled rice noodle salad with roasted beets, green beans, sprouts, corn, and pickled beech mushroom with lemon miso dressing; a BLT with local tomatoes; and hot potato salad with local new potatoes.

“People want to know what ingredients are in their food, and how far those ingredients traveled to get to their plate. Our patrons are sophisticated and educated regarding their diets and we strive to be respectful of that. We use local produce from the farm stand up the road, pickle and ferment our own ingredients, and make everything from scratch,” catering and café manager Maureen Sharaf tells TAP.

The New York Times covered the trend in 2010, with the opening of “sleek new restaurants with sophisticated menus” at New York City’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Arts and Design, as well as the announcement of a Danny Meyer café at The Whitney Museum of American Art.

According to the article, the trend really started to show itself around 2005, as food increasingly factored into a traveler’s entertainment plans, leading them to demand more than the fried finger food that museum cafes had previously exhibited. That coincided with the beginning of the economic recession in 2007, when donor money dried up and creative revenue sources became critically important.

“Many want, or even expect, a memorable meal to round off their day. And they don’t want to have to leave the building to find it,” wrote reporter Larry Rohter.

Added James Gara, chief operating officer of the Museum of Modern Art, which debuted three restaurants after a 2004 renovation, “To have just a concessionaire wasn’t up to the standards of what we were aiming for. We wanted to offer our membership and visitors something on a level with the rest of the museum.”

The PMA broke $1 billion in total assets for the first time this past fiscal year. It boasts blockbuster attractions like the world’s largest and “most important” collection by Marcel Duchamp, the “finest” public collection of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture in the United States and an array of masterpieces by iconic artists such as Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas.

Harrity told media gathered for a preview lunch at the museum in October, “Our audience and visitors like not only fine art but also fine food.”