The Café Carnegie Now Open in Oakland
Chefs Sonja Finn and Becca Hegarty helm the refurbished restaurant at the Carnegie Museums.
photos by tom little
Museum restaurants for too long have been a recipe for doldrums, with captive audiences suffering through rubbery chicken-breast sandwiches garnished with out-of-season tomatoes or sadly munching on bagged salad coated with gloppy dressing. Over the last few years, some of the country’s better museums have worked to change that perception by offering better dishes that please both visitors to the institutions and also are a draw for locals in search of a good meal.
With opening of The Café Carnegie — located in the shared atrium of the Carnegie Museum Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland — Pittsburgh is set to join that roster of cities.
I’ve been looking forward to this opening since the refurbishment of the space was announced earlier in the year. Sonja Finn, the restaurant’s consulting executive chef, was a local trailblazer in seasonal menu design when she opened Dinette — which continues to be one of my favorite restaurants in Pittsburgh — in 2008. Chef de Cuisine Becca Hegarty, 26, now is synthesizing her various influences (Bread & Salt Bakery, Woodberry Kitchen, Dinette and others) and is a chef with as much potential for greatness as any of the rising cohort in the city.
“It’s the kind of place our visitors deserve. It’s a place for them to refresh and revitalize their brains as they are enjoying this space,” says Brad Stephenson, director of marketing for the Carnegie Museum of Art.
The restaurant’s initial menu is a nicely edited mix of soups, salads, sandwiches and larger plates. I’m thrilled that the offerings tilt light and vegetable-forward. Pittsburgh needs more well-sourced lunchtime restaurants that allow diners leave feeling energetic yet full, and it looks as if The Café Carnegie is going to deliver that. Of course, if you want something a bit heartier, options such as pumpkin pasta bake (orecchiette, Muscat de Provence pumpkin, ricotta and gruyere, served with must-get grilled chicories) and a roasted lamb sandwich with fries also are offered.
“Everything is set to make you feel better after you eat it, and then you can go back to enjoying the museum or back to work,” says Finn.
There also is a section of the menu dedicated to younger museum visitors that includes selections such as tea sandwiches and a kid’s shrimp cocktail. “We're trying to make it fun for kids. Museums are special places for them, too, so they should be able to have a nice lunch,” says Finn.
Hegarty, who will run the day-to-day operations of the kitchen, is making all of the restaurant’s bread in-house. She’s meticulously tested preparations for the past few months.
“You should always make more challenges for yourself. If it's easy, you're doing something wrong,” she says.
The counterplay between the two chefs is evident in the pulled chicken salad, one of several dishes that I previewed at a soft-launch this week. There are echoes of Zuni Cafe’s celebrated roast chicken and bread salad (Finn worked at the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant early in her career), with croutons made from Hegarty’s excellent housemade bread. It’s a very satisfying dish, and one that I plan on eating again soon.
The café has an espresso bar and offers wine on-tap, and also will serve Fisher Island oysters. Finn and Hegarty are working with Jamison Farm, Who Cooks For You? Farm, Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, Daisy Flour and other local purveyors.
The Café Carnegie has significant potential to bolster the experience at one of Pittsburgh’s preeminent cultural institutions. I hope Finn and Hegarty will run with this and see where it takes them.