In Praise of Museum Cafes And Little Restaurants In Botanical Gardens

Man, I don’t know exactly what it is about the kind of cafe/restaurant that one encounters attached to museums and botanical gardens that brings out the most refined, Edwardian-style lady-of-leisure-who-lunches in me, but I can’t walk past one without being completely overwhelmed by the urge to order an $18 egg sandwich from a cold case, then pick at it for the next two hours at a small, circular table. The kind of place where there isn’t an American Girl Doll-themed birthday party, because it’s a little too upscale for that, but a lot of the customers wish they could have had an American Girl Doll-themed birthday party there, so it’s also radiating a lot of frustrated-social-climber/complicated relation to middle-class-ness energy, if that makes sense. Maybe there’s a bookstore attached to it that sells the kind of book that seems like it’s for the average lay reader called, I don’t know, An Incomplete History of Evening Through Danish Portraiture and then you shell out $32 for it because you think this is what smart, rich people do and then you get it home and you open it to find a sentence like:

The advent of nocturnalization displaced a certain hierarchy of perception that had previously, though selectively, moderated the tension found in early modern writings on divisions between light/dark, Heaven/Hell, inside/outside, mouth/book, custom/exigency, that were necessarily complicated as the approach to dusk fragmented from a court-mediated, locally-centralized sunset experience, to an externally-mandated structure out of sync with the countryside entirely.

At which point you close the book rather hastily, stow it next to all of the other garden-museum-cafe books you’ve ever purchased without reading first, and move on with your life, rather demoralized.

But I adore this type of restaurant experience almost more than any other, although the food usually isn’t especially remarkable. There’s something about that combination of expense and mild inconvenience, the hushed tones everyone adopts as soon as they walk through the trellis, the fussiness of the staff uniforms, the reliableness of the menu (locally sourced if it’s been upgraded in the last ten years, Aramark if it hasn’t) that soothes me, makes me feel like I’ve got a solid financial future ahead of me and plenty of afternoon appointments to make me feel busy but not so much that I have to do any work. Also available to me is, almost as a guarantee, chicken salad sandwiches, little desserts (not always petit fours, but close enough in size to petit fours that I’ll definitely order two), big slices of carrot cake where each individual slice has its own piped-on carrot frosting, slowly-rotating stands of diagonally-cut sandwiches, rose-petal tea, too-small plates and cups, an Afternoon Classical Music playlist going on in the background, lots of little lamps rather than overhead lighting. Service will be too rushed at first, then completely disappear when it’s time to ask for the check, or else a cafeteria-style line where I will almost definitely try to shoplift a banana just for the thrill of it. There will be at least one of each of the following, no matter what time of day you eat there (they’re only open very weird hours, like 10-1 and then again from 3-5:30):

  • An extremely strained mother-daughter pair trying to enjoy themselves

  • Three immaculately-turned out older women drinking Diet Cokes and splitting a single salad

  • A table of less-immaculately-dressed older women who are enjoying themselves more loudly than the Diet Coke table

  • An extremely strained mother-daughter pair who have completely given up on trying to enjoy themselves

  • A smug mother with her still-young-enough-to-be-friendly daughter, maybe she’s five, who are really rubbing in how much they’re enjoying one another’s company

  • Someone’s grandmother on an “outing” with her thirteen-year-old granddaughter asking her job-interview-style questions about school and wavering on the subject of whether they should get dessert

  • Lesbian teenagers on the most charming date in the world

  • A table of little girls in an absolute frenzy of delight over the roses on the table and general atmosphere of grown-up-ladiness trying to outdo one another in politeness when they place their order: “Yes, um, please, I might like the steak sandwich very much, I think. And also please a cup of tea, thank you.”

Museum cafes are the greatest place in the world; I never walk out of one without a new grandmother and a renewed sense of gender-tranquility. It’s worth every penny, even the lousy nine-dollar almond tea cake (how do you ruin almond tea cake?? I don’t know, but the point of almond tea cake isn’t to taste good but to remind the eater of marzipan and just how fussy life can be, if you’ve got enough money and time to complicate it.)