The last decade has been extraordinary kind to hungry museum-goers, who long had the choice between hamburgers and hot dogs if they didn't want to eat off-campus. Museums are now curating their cafes with the same seriousness they'd apply to a blockbuster exhibition, well-aware that the right restaurant has similar cash-generating potential. This week, Voracious is visiting the city's newest museum eateries.
Restaurant: POP Kitchen + Bar
Museum: EMP Museum
Dining format: Counter-service
Interpretation of the classic museum burger: Topped with applewood smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, balsamic onion jam, lettuce, tomato and aioli, $15
What screams museum: Overabundance of patrons in obscure punk band t-shirts.
Housed in a sun-washed alcove along Fifth Avenue, POP gets credit for not getting bogged down by Hard Rock Cafe-style kitsch: The sandwich selection doesn't include Jimi Hendrix's favorite hoagie, and the menu's completely free of musical puns. But POP may be playing it slightly too cool. The best museum restaurants conceptually engage with their host institutions: At John Besh's American Sector at The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, for example, the menu includes upmarket versions of malted milk shakes and sloppy Joes. At POP, there's no acknowledgment of the cafe's surroundings. The restaurant would work equally well in a museum devoted to 19th-century furniture or computer science.
POP wants its guests to place their orders at a counter, but the room's layout suggests otherwise: I watched plenty of museum visitors settle into ridged yellow plastic seats before realizing there weren't any servers on the floor. The focused lunch menu features sandwiches and salads, although the kid's menu pizza and mac-and-cheese are also made available to adults. And speaking of adults, POP has a full bar, although I didn't see anyone bellied up to it at lunchtime.
The housemade potato chips are apparently a point of pride for POP, which heaps them onto sandwich plates and sells them as a standalone appetizer. The chips have a greasy sheen, but are crisp and taste freshly-fried.
I also tried a white bean and quinoa burger, a darkly-fried puck of starch with a bologna-sized slice of radish beneath it. The burger's flavor was underwhelming, making me wish it had a smear of something sweet, such as a mango chutney, or something more aggressively savory, such as a grainy mustard. As it turned out, the sandwich was sauced with both pesto and onion jam, but I didn't know it until I removed its buns for dissection.
Still, the sandwich was totally decent by museum standards. But it will be interesting to see whether museum patrons stick around for lunch as Seattle Center continues to enhance its Armory food court.