What’s for lunch? Assessing the options at national museums and galleries
Eating & Drinking

What’s for lunch? Assessing the options at national museums and galleries

A fulfilling couple of days can easily be spent wandering among masterpieces from across the centuries at the National Gallery of Canada or strolling beside the massive antique crafts at the Aviation Museum. The Canadian War Museum offers a quiet sanctum for contemplating the horrors and sorrows of conflict, while heritage and culture (not to mention a busy children’s museum) await at the Canadian Museum of History. But in only one of these august institutions will you find a decent meal — food for the body, having nourished the soul.

Let’s start with the best. Food at the national gallery is being provided by My Catering Group, a local privately-owned company that has previously handled large events for thousands of people such as the U.S. Embassy Fourth of July party in 2022 and the Centre Block closing party in 2018. Last year, they won the contract for catering at the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian War Museum, and the Canadian Museum of History.

At the national gallery, a small kitchen and self-serve area offers a changing seasonal menu of lively salad bowls such as Thai noodle, cobb, Caesar and quinoa, alongside sandwiches, fruit salad, yoghurt, and granola cups. There’s also a short menu of hot items, including a tasty spinach and feta pie, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with chives — crispy phyllo pastry, creamy filling. A side of smashed baby potatoes, swimming in a pool of chimichurri and topped with fresh parmesan cheese, and a perfectly acidic mixed salad with fennel and radishes, made this lunch fit for any of the kings and queens hanging on the walls nearby.

A burger, the largest and therefore most expensive item on the menu at $20, was also excellent. With a generous patty,  oozing melted smoked cheddar, red onions, tomato and lettuce, all sandwiched into a toasted, soft brioche bun, it was worth every cent. But there’s a caveat; it’s a pity that the gallery is serving such fine food on polystyrene plates with plastic cutlery. This is not an airplane, but Ottawa’s premier museum, one that should aspire to offer a visitor experience on a par with other national capitals and cultural hot spots. However, given the quality of the food and the lovely atrium with views out over the river in which to enjoy it, it’s worth a visit.

The menu at the National Gallery of Canada focuses on fresh local ingredients and changes with the seasons. Photography by Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio

Next is the restaurant at the Canadian Museum of History, equally blessed with stunning views out over the river and a large, sun-filled terrace, as well as a dining room reminiscent of a school canteen. Salads and sandwiches on offer are the same as those at the national gallery, but the hot menu caters to a younger palette, to accommodate visitors to the Canadian Children’s Museum. Poutine and chicken tenders aside, the made-to-order Reuben sandwich on multigrain bread is excellent, even if the fries are a little greasy.

Then we get to the rest. Offerings at the war museum, the third establishment under the My Catering Group umbrella are similar to those at the history museum, but for some reason appear as moribund as the dark space itself, although a pair of chicken tacos is palatable.

At the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum, you’d be better off bringing a packed lunch. A selection of prepared sandwiches, snack boxes, and cookies from The Urban Element are uninspiring. A beef sandwich, at nearly $15, gets the thumbs down from my husband and children, condemned as dry and uninspiring.

As I write this, salivating at the thought of a morning spent immersed in art followed by lunch to sing about, I can’t help but remember the sunny café at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Buzzing with life, that little museum dining space offers upscale salads and sandwiches: winter sorghum salad with delicata squash, cranberry, almond, feta and red cress. Pair this with a side of Rubens’ chalk drawings, a Gutenberg bible from 1454 and the original score of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, and you’ve a museum experience that satisfies both the body and the mind.