Alice Waters Helps a Museum Cater to the Tastes of Art Lovers

LOS ANGELES — As the Hammer Museum emerges from last year’s pandemic shutdown, it has assembled a lineup of big names that it hopes will draw crowds back to its campus down the street from the University of California, Los Angeles: Cézanne, Manet, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec. And Waters.

That would be Alice Waters, the restaurateur who founded Chez Panisse in Berkeley 50 years ago and went on to help define modern California cuisine. She is lending her name and reputation to Lulu, a new restaurant she has helped open in the courtyard of the Hammer, the first time she has associated herself so closely with a restaurant since opening Chez Panisse.

“It will bring people who wouldn’t be museumgoers to the museum,” said Ann Philbin, the executive director of the Hammer, who recruited Ms. Waters for this project. “It is about cross-pollination of audiences.”

The Hammer, which is affiliated with U.C.L.A., is the latest in a long line of arts institutions collaborating with big-name chefs in the hopes of expanding their audiences. And Ms. Waters is the latest in a long line of celebrity restaurateurs (for the record, she hates the phrase, preferring the French “restauratrice”) to lend her name to a cultural institution.

Gary Tinterow, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, said that its ambitious new restaurant, Le Jardinier, was bringing new visitors to the museum.Credit…Claudia Casbarian, via Julie Soefer Photography

But as institutions like the Hammer confront the challenges of trying to emerge from the pandemic, these kinds of partnerships, which were once a fun fillip for patrons spending an afternoon at a museum or an evening at a concert hall, are taking on new urgency.

These past 20 months have shown that an opera, play or art exhibition can be enjoyed from a living room. Fine dining, on the other hand, cannot be streamed, and museums are seeing the proof of that in the lines of people clamoring for a table at their high-end restaurants.

“People have said to me they came because they heard about the restaurant, and when they went through the lobby of the museum, they were excited by what they saw and came back,” said Gary Tinterow, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which opened Le Jardinier, an ambitious, and acclaimed, French restaurant this year with a menu overseen by Alain Verzeroli, a Michelin-starred chef.

It has been more than 15 years since Danny Meyer opened The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which showed that a museum restaurant could be a draw in its own right.Credit…Nathan Rawlinson

Gone are the days when museums outsourced restaurants to anodyne food corporations that would serve up bland cafeteria fare — think tuna sandwiches on white, wrapped in plastic.

In New York, the restaurateur Danny Meyer opened The Modern in the Museum of Modern Art more than 15 years ago, convinced that high culture and high dining shared some of the same clientele and could operate under the same roof.

“At best we are playing a supporting actor role,” Mr. Meyer said in an interview. “But we hope to be a great version of a supporting actor.”

Restaurants and entertainment have always been in unspoken competition for discretionary consumer spending. And if statistics are any guide, Americans like to eat well more than they like a trip to the museum, opera, theater or a concert. The average household spent $3,526 at restaurants in 2019, the year before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about $500 more than they spent on the broad category of entertainment.

So it is that these days, one of the first calls for any new museum or concert hall is to a big name restaurateur. Rembrandt is fine; Michelin may be better.

At the recently-opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, one of the major draws has been Fanny’s, the ground-floor restaurant run by Bill Chait, one of the biggest food names in Los Angeles, who helped create such popular dining spots as République and Bestia. “It has been packed from the beginning,” said Bill Kramer, the museum’s director.

Museum restaurants, once an afterthought tucked into basements or corners, now often have their own separate entrances, so they can operate even when the museum is closed. The Modern, in New York, was a pioneer in that respect, Mr. Meyer recalled. “Before that,’’ he said, “the restaurant was always viewed as an amenity for museum goers only.”

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco hired Deuki Hong, who teamed up with the Boba Guys, a popular San Francisco bubble milk tea purveyor, to run a new restaurant, Sunday at the Museum.Credit…Jennifer Yin

Before the pandemic, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco hired Deuki Hong, a chef with experience at Momofuku Noodle Bar and Jean-Georges in New York, to work with the Boba Guys, a popular San Francisco bubble milk tea purveyor, at the new restaurant Sunday at the Museum.

“The Asian Art Museum could have chosen a cafeteria account,” said Andrew Chau, one of the founders of Boba Guys. “They wanted to try something different. Food is culture.”

The lunch crowd doubled before the pandemic shutdown, and is now slowly coming back.

“We began looking for a new chef for our café as part of our multiyear transformation project in 2017,” said Jay Xu, the executive director of the Asian Art Museum. “Part of that, of course, was to grow our audiences.”

Similar collaborations are underway at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Music Center in Los Angeles, home of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But few stirred as much interest as Alice Waters at the Hammer.

For Ms. Waters, who is 77, the decision to venture out of Berkeley is a bit of a reinvention, and a bit of a risk. For all its acclaim, Chez Panisse came under withering criticism in 2019 from Soleil Ho, the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, who argued that its approach had become stale. “Chez Panisse has pushed the culinary conversation in this country forward, but then seems to have stood still since then,” she wrote.

Ms. Waters seems aware that her reputation cuts both ways.

“I don’t want people to have these great expectations,” she said recently over a glass pot of mint tea at Lulu, which is named after the late Lulu Peyraud, a Provençal wine matriarch and cook who had been her mentor. “I want them to know they can always eat something that’s simple and seasonal and delightful.”

Ms. Waters conceived the restaurant and recruited David Tanis, a longtime collaborator at Chez Panisse, who writes a monthly column for the Food section of The New York Times, as its chef. She has personally overseen many details, right down to deciding what kind of wood (from a buna tree) should be used for the tables scattered around Lulu’s spacious terrace.

Mr. Tanis said they expected most of their initial diners to be museumgoers. But he said that he and Waters were confident that the restaurant, given its aspirations and provenance, would appeal to people across Los Angeles, a city known for its vibrant and adventurous dining scene, as well as to faculty, staff and students from the university, a 10-minute walk away.

Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum, clinks glasses with David Tanis, the chef of Lulu, and Ms. Waters, who conceived the restaurant.Credit…Bethany Mollenkof for The New York Times

“People who are coming here as a destination — and people visiting the museum and wanting to have lunch,” he said. “We are not aiming for fine dining. It’s not going to be fancy.”

His menu features a $45, three-course fixed price lunch menu that began, in one recent example, with a fennel, radish and arugula salad, followed by a stew of rock cod, Dungeness crab and manila clams, and ended with olive oil walnut cake with pomegranate. Dinner service will begin next year.

The restaurant is part of an ambitious renovation project underway at the Hammer, which announced a $180 million capital campaign in 2018 to expand gallery space and build its endowment. Ms. Philbin, who regularly ate at Chez Panisse, turned to Ms. Waters for advice.

“I know you know chefs all over the country,” Ms. Philbin recalled telling her. “She came up with two names and said, ‘I’m going to reach out to them and talk to them.’ A couple of weeks later, I got an email from her saying, ‘I didn’t reach out to them yet because I have another idea: I’m thinking maybe me.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was like, are you kidding me?”

Ms. Waters had always said no when other museums asked if she might open a restaurant. “It’s a question of my wanting to live a civilized life,” she said. “And that’s not on a plane flying to my restaurant in New York.”

This seemed different. Los Angeles is not that far from Berkeley, and she has a daughter who lives here.

These collaborations have not always succeeded. An attempt to open a high end restaurant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was abandoned. A Meyer restaurant at the Whitney in New York, Untitled, did not survive the pandemic, and was turned into a café.

But they have also become a source of hope for institutions.

The Los Angeles Music Center turned to Ray Garcia, the chef at the now-closed Broken Spanish, to open a restaurant at Walt Disney Concert Hall. “A well-known chef will bring more people to the campus,” said Rachel Moore, the Music Center president.

Mr. Garcia said the collaboration would be a boon for the center — and the restaurant.

“A high tide raises all boats,” he said. “Everyone can win from the exposure.”

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