Art nourishes the soul, but what's to be done about the stomach? Seasoned museum-goers know there is no point trying to fully appreciate a solid black canvas or an ancient Mesopotamian urn when you're hungry. The folks who design modern museums also know this. Here in the Northwest, the major art centers (Seattle Art Museum, Henry Art Gallery, Frye Art Museum, and Bellevue Arts Museum) all have comfortable cafeterias where you place your order at a counter and then wait for table delivery. They're pleasant spots for a relaxed lunch, a rainy-day play date, or even a first date. And at least one of them—Seattle Art Museum's Taste SAM—offers an artful experience all its own.
Frye Art Museum
Setting: The Gallery Cafe—like the Frye itself—is contemporary, understated, and elegant. Natural light from huge windows pools on the stone-tile floor, and an inviting patio draws diners outside on warm days. Menu: My companion characterized the bill of fare as "fancy deli food"—fresh, attractive sandwiches, salads, and soups. A lot of what we ordered was remarkably bland, however. The daily special— a poached salmon salad ($9.25)—was almost incomprehensibly tasteless. (How do you leach all flavor out of fresh salmon, spinach, yogurt, and dill?) Black-eyed pea and rice soup ($5.75 bowl with bread) was also underseasoned. The turkey and Havarti sandwich on rye ($7.25 with a cup of soup or a salad) and the curried chicken salad ($7 small) were more enticing. Artful touches: The big draw here is the building that houses both the cafe and the museum—a stunning piece of perfectly scaled, beautifully detailed contemporary architecture. Entry: The Frye and its cafe are free every day except Monday, when both are closed. Cafe Hours: 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., noon–4 p.m. Sun. Details: 704 Terry Ave., FIRST HILL, 206-622-9250, www.fryeart.org.
Henry Art Gallery
Setting: Baci Cafe is brightened by vivid purple, red, and ochre walls. Stay indoors. The outdoor "sculpture court" is a concrete enclosure reminiscent of a dead end in a New York subway station. Menu: Again, soups, salads, and sandwiches, but in this case, they're packed with flavor. Baci Bean Soup ($2 cup, $4.25 bowl), with white beans in a tomato base, was rich and chunky. Chicken Terrine ($7.95) looked alarmingly like cat food but veered delightfully from sweet (dried cherries) to savory (tarragon). Everything was generously seasoned, right down to the herb butter spiked with garlic. Artful touches: Heavy, colorful dishes recall long-ago visits to Grandma's house. Entry: General museum admission is $8, but ask at the desk and you can enter the cafe free. Cafe Hours: 9:30 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues., Wed., and Fri., 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Thurs. Closed Sat.–Mon. Details: 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street, UNIVERSITY DISTRICT, 206-221-6267, www.henryart.org.
Bellevue Arts Museum
Setting: Espresso Americano has the not-unpleasant feel of a Starbucks, with pale, earthy colors, big windows, and track lighting. Menu: This is basically a coffee shop with prepackaged sandwiches and desserts and daily soups. Refrigerated bread makes for a cold, gummy sandwich, and the fillings are skimpy, though tasty. If you must, try the chicken salad with cranberries on croissant ($5.75). The vegetable soup ($3.25 cup, $3.75 bowl) had unevenly cooked veggies. Desserts were super, though— especially the chocolate ganache tart ($4.25), with its complex chocolate filling in a buttery crust. Artful touches: Big comfy chairs in the rear make this a comfortable meeting spot. Entry: Espresso Americano is located on the first floor of BAM, which is free. General admission to the upstairs exhibits is $7. Cafe Hours: 6:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun. Details: 510 Bellevue Way N.E., BELLEVUE, 425-519-0772, www.bellevueart.org.
Seattle Art Museum
Setting: Taste SAM is located on the mezzanine next to the "stairway to nowhere," between the first and second floors. Big windows on University Street make for good people watching. Menu: Taste SAM is run by Bon Appetit, a national food service that champions locally grown ingredients and sustainable farming. That might make you feel good about eating there, but the food will make you feel even better. The eggplant and chèvre ravioli ($10) we sampled was sensational, topped with sweet, caramelized onion and swimming in clarified butter. The pureed zucchini and rosemary soup ($4) was mild and filling; the Lummi Island Salmon Frittata ($8) offered bursts of sweet onions and goat cheese, and was served alongside a salad adorned with edible flowers. Pizza, mini-burgers, and special kid meals round out the menu. Artful touches: Main dishes are served on huge, square, white plates—perfectly framing the artwork. Entry: Suggested general admission to the museum is $7, but ask at the front desk and you can proceed to the cafe for free. SAM members receive a 10 percent discount in the cafe. CafE Hours: 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sun. Open till 8 p.m. Thurs. Closed Mon. Note: SAM closes for remodeling Jan. 4, 2006. Details: 100 University St., DOWNTOWN, 206-254-1273, www.seattleartmuseum.org. email@example.com