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Museums Special

At Boston-area museums, restaurants offer quick bites and fine dining

In artful settings, patrons have an array of options

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The Water Cafe at the Institute of Contemporary Art features excellent views.

No matter how beautiful the artwork, no matter how well displayed the exhibit, at some point in a museum visit, the attention begins to wander. It is easier to appreciate Cezanne’s “Fruit and a Jug on a Table’’ when you’re not thinking about eating the fruit. Fortunately, area museums offer plenty of in-house dining options, from no-frills cafes to full-service restaurants.

Closed since November, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum reopens Jan. 19, debuting a new wing designed by Renzo Piano. It also debuts the new Cafe G. Chef Peter Crowley, who has headed the Gardner’s cafe since 2002, will be operating in a space three times larger than the old. The full-service restaurant will be open during museum hours, featuring French-influenced, bistro-style food prepared with local, seasonal ingredients. The new menu will feature small plates and entrees. There will also be themed menus that change each month, reflecting what’s happening at the museum - say, an Italian-themed menu tied to the Italian collection. Cafe G is surrounded by glass on three sides, immersing guests in the gardens outside. In warmer months, there is outdoor seating.

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At the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, the main dining attraction is the Garden Restaurant, open seasonally. Run by the nearby Hawthorne Hotel, the restaurant features al fresco dining in the adjacent Asian garden, a serene and lovely setting. Past menus have included dishes such as chilled shrimp with basil-ponzu sauce, crab cakes with mixed greens, and flank steak in hoisin barbecue sauce with ginger basmati rice and vegetables. The restaurant recently closed for the winter, however, so visitors must content themselves with the museum’s Atrium Cafe.

It’s located in a soaring space, open and light, but it’s really just a snack bar, with mediocre muffins and salads and sandwiches you grab yourself from a refrigerator. A salad of butternut squash, Granny Smith apples, and mixed greens has potential. But a recent sandwich of the day, billed as roast turkey, turns out to contain ham instead. (Fortunately, its recipient eats pork.) The rollup is cold and unappealing. That $7.50 might be better spent on food outside the museum.

The Institute of Contemporary Art recently renovated its Water Cafe, which reopened at the end of September. Previously more of a cafeteria, it now features new menus and table service.

The rectangular room offers plenty of white space, with windows that look onto the water and modern white chairs pulled up to dark wood tables. It still looks a bit like a cafeteria or a meeting room, but it’s appealingly clean in design. There is also a large outdoor dining space with an excellent view.

Lunch is the main meal here, and the menu features soup, sandwiches, flatbreads, entrees, and desserts. There is also a “drink & nosh’’ menu, with a selection of wine and snacks such as salt and vinegar chips and white anchovies with olive tapenade. At dinner, the two menus are merged; soups and sandwiches are not offered, and there are fewer entrees.

Wolfgang Puck Catering, which formerly oversaw the cafe, remains involved with the fare served at special events. Hospitality company Restaurant Associates is now in charge of the cafe menu. Corn chowder is delicious, packed with sweet kernels and bites of Maine lobster. Fish tacos feature two nicely fried pieces of cod wrapped in flour tortillas, with cabbage slaw, avocado, and a salad of sliced grape tomatoes. The dish needs salt, and more acid and spice in the slaw would be welcome. Pancetta and caramelized onion quiche has an odd, runny texture, while the crust is overcooked. For dessert, a cupcake with a warm, creamy center satisfies the urge for chocolate.

If the food isn’t something you’d go out of your way for, it’s more interesting than your average museum fare. There are lime slices in the water glasses. Little green succulents adorn each table. It’s all very civilized. And the servers are sweethearts. Order the soup and one might smile, widen her eyes, and say, “Oh, that’s yummy.’’ She’s right. It is.

The Museum of Fine Arts has the most complete roster of options. Taste, a new cafe, offers savory snacks, baked goods, coffee, and wine. For a not-so-quick break, there’s the New American Cafe, another recent addition. It debuted in November, in a glass-enclosed courtyard with a fine view of Dale Chihuly’s “Lime Green Icicle Tower.’’

The current menu offers New England-y fare such as local butternut squash bisque, Maine lobster gnocchi, and salmon with Parmesan-leek risotto. (A former three-course tasting menu designed by chef Ken Oringer is no longer available.) But on a recent Saturday afternoon, just about everyone seems to be ordering the burger. Maybe that’s the way to go. A baby spinach salad comes with fennel, blue cheese, brown slices of raw apple, and cooked segments of apple flavored with what tastes like curry powder and pizza spices mixed together, an interesting idea that doesn’t quite work. A fluffy little quiche is studded with chunks of roast squash, parsnip, and carrot. The crust is unfortunately burned. The food takes forever to arrive; a hostess seats two solo diners directly next to each other in a row that is otherwise empty.

For the most nonmuseum-like dining available at a local museum, head to the MFA’s Bravo. Executive chef Tim Partridge, who joined the team in March, has real restaurant cred. His long-closed Perdix, in Jamaica Plain and the South End, was beloved, and his resume includes stints at the likes of East Coast Grill, Bouchee, and Darryl’s Corner Bar. He’s been peripatetic of late, but perhaps he’ll settle down here for a while. (He also oversees the New American Cafe and catering operations.)

At Bravo, the service and space are more polished. Wood lamps cast a glow over comfortable booths. You’d be happy to eat an appetizer of seared New Bedford scallops with buttered leek puree and orange-endive salad at any restaurant. The same goes for bouillabaisse packed with scallops, fish, and mussels. And braised lamb shank with pumpkin-spinach risotto and Meyer lemon gremolata is the kind of dish that makes diners into regulars. Arrive after 5 p.m. for dinner and you can park for free in the garage; on a Wednesday, when admission to the museum is by voluntary contribution after 4, an evening of high culture and fine dining can be yours for a reasonable price.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.
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