At the little eateries we find nestled in museum courtyards and lobbies — be they bistros, cafés or cafeterias — we embrace the small culinary and personal pleasures that typically fall by the wayside at other restaurants. Perhaps it’s being enveloped by such an abundance of great art — and sometimes not-so-great art — that triggers the “quality-of-life button” in us, prompting us to linger longer, to breathe deeper and appreciate the little things: a sweeping view or the subtle trace of an unusual blend of spices. Or maybe it’s the breezy, open public spaces — sunlit courtyards and twisting gardens — that pay special, in some cases almost oppressive, attention to architectural and aesthetic detail; and that carries over to the food presentation as well. At museums, our attention is directed outward; we’ve come to explore, to take in someone else’s vision. We’re hungry to be fed.
And so we request more from the eating experience: Make it last longer, engage all our senses, steal us away from the routines. It’s these otherwise discarded pleasures taken together that, in the end, can elevate a quick snack or midday lunch to art itself. Plus, at some of these museum kitchens, the food’s not half bad, either.
Barbara’s at the Brewery Arts Complex
My mother taught me few practical things, but she did hammer home the value of one-stop shopping. So I can’t help appreciating the Brewery, quite possibly the quickest and most comprehensive initiation into the emerging L.A. art scene, housing, as it does, 300-some commercial, industrial and residential artists’ studios, and the office of Coagula Art Journal (a gritty local rag offering “The Lowdown on High Art”). Situated east of downtown, flush up against the 5 freeway, this complex of renovated warehouses was once the site of the Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery (and may still smell like one on certain weekend evenings). Visitors can wander into either of the two main galleries in the central courtyard, or simply meander, as I did, along the outdoor walkways or cavernous indoor hallways, where, more often than not, residents will invite you in to tour their studios.
This day, my husband and I met three recent Art Center grads who created SuperHappyBunny Co., a cheeky alternative to IKEA. All three live and work in their communal rectangular space, where they manufacture self-assemblable kits for neo-Amish furniture and fuzzy vibrator cozies that resemble proud sock puppets. Shortly after, we bumped into Coagula publisher Mat Gleason, who opened up his gallery for us, which was showing the textured paintings of Michael Salerno. Two hours and several architects, graphic designers, painters, sculptors and designers of props, sets and costumes later, we were hungry. And we were directed to Barbara’s.
“Barbara’s is the social hub of the Brewery,” Gleason explained (which isn’t surprising, since it’s the only restaurant on the premises; many residents eat all three meals here). All elements of the community come together at Barbara’s: Young residents mix with established artists, striking up mentoring relationships; a cross section of residents’ work is displayed on the walls. And while you’re here, it’s the only place certain Brewery denizens intersect with the rest of L.A. (the bartender, an amiable fellow with lime-green hair and nails to match, confessed he goes for up to a month without leaving the compound).
The colorful clientele may be a draw, but Barbara’s is worth a trip to the Brewery on its own merits — if only because it boasts one of the largest wine lists in L.A., with more than 3,000 offerings. The atmosphere is modern-industrial, with much stainless steel and concrete, and tall stretches of glass that look out onto patios. As we settled in, nodding to familiar faces around the room, we perused the menu, which appeared a tad unadventurous considering it is located at the epicenter of a community that calls itself “the world’s largest art colony” (standard caesar, cobb and Chinese chicken salads, along with publike apps such as onion rings and nachos). But everything we ordered, if a bit ordinary, was very good.
We began with an especially fresh baby-spinach salad, souped up with slices of sour green apples, glossy caramelized walnuts and bits of rich crumbled blue cheese ($7.95). Famished from our earlier walk, we ordered BIG; I opted for the barbecue pork sandwich, smothered in a sticky mango BBQ sauce and served on a toasted French roll ($7.95). The thin strips of meat were lean and flavorful, accompanied by a side of housemade â coleslaw. My husband went a more basic, though no less heavy, route with a classic cheeseburger oozing blue cheese all the way around ($7). While “It wasn’t Fatburger,” he remarked, it was tasty, served on a simple sesame-seed bun. A single glass each of the Monterra Merlot ($6), full-bodied and smoky, was the perfect complement to our sandwiches.