In July, museum staff members began managing the café themselves. Lisa Pavlopoulos, the Currier’s manager of special events and food services, said bringing the café under the guise of museum management has led to better control.
“We can tie the menu in to special exhibitions, be it through colors, flavors and appearance styles,” she said. “Some lend themselves to that better than others, but having the flexibility and creativity with the space is good.”
Winter Garden’s six kitchen staffers are led by Executive Chef Joe Sylvester, who has created a menu lending itself to museum-goers. Among Sylvester’s former food jobs, which include posts at Z in Manchester and Villa Banca in Nashua, was a position at the Passaconaway Country Club, a public golf course where he prepped food for people who were, usually, there for the sport.
“It’s a lot like that, driven by people who are not looking for a huge meal to weigh them down,” Sylvester said.
Smaller, appetizer-like portions and prices are the norm on the menu. Sylvester said he designed with a muted intent — the people are here to view art, primarily. The menu is varied. It includes items small enough to snack on, but also features larger lunch dishes like sandwiches.
There is no oven in the café — it’s too close to the artwork to risk that. Instead, Sylvester gets to the kitchen in the museum’s basement early in the morning so he can stock the cafe with whatever he’ll need for the day.
“It’s a challenge sometimes, but it’s a way of keeping it basic. It has to be simple foods,” he said.
For the fall, Sylvester said he will be changing the menu, adding a roasted beet salad with goat cheese, fresh baked pies and, perhaps, a turkey Reuben. As the café stays open, Pavlopoulos said, she will be working with Sylvester to marry the menu with the exhibitions, such as a Rembrandt-era printmaking exhibit coming this fall. A perk to the café is that it is free to get to — patrons are allowed to pass through the museum to the café if they want to. Pavlopoulos said she wants it to become a destination that can stand on its own, and Sylvester has already been seeing results.
“There’s a woman who comes in here often for lunch, she enjoys the portions and the look of the café,” he said.
Some traffic from local businesses is exclusively to the café, but the majority of its business is from tour groups who can select bulk, catering-style soup and sandwich plates to complement a tour.
“The staff like it also, they have been eating together in here,” Pavlopoulos said, adding that ever-changing daily specials are a favorite among them.
Each month the cafe holds two special event nights. On the first Thursday of each month, the museum stays open till 8 p.m. The menu features late-night bites, which Sylvester described as after-work tapas. Along with live entertainment beginning at 6 p.m., the Winter Garden serves dishes like summer lobster salad with citrus vinaigrette ($14), stuffed portabella mushrooms with blue cheese and sauteed spinach and onions ($6) and beef and veggie skewers with house-made steak aioli sauce ($8). Music performers range from world music to rock, jazz and folk. Beer and wine are available.
A Jazz Brunch menu is served on the second Sunday of each month from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The cafe makes fresh pastries as well as made-to-order omelets and pancakes. Sylvester said he is looking to add more lunch offerings. Mimosas and bloody Marys are served, and there is a stocked coffee-juice bar featuring fresh brewed iced tea.
Expansions to the original building, which was built in 1927, were done as part of a four-year, $13.4 million capital campaign that concluded in 2008. The café was built directly off the original structure, it’s entrance a clear demarcation from old into new. High ceilings edged with windows naturally light the room, which sits where the museum’s back lawn and reflecting pond used to be. Encircled by the ever-changing south wing, which sees new exhibitions about five or six times per year, Pavlopoulos said the cafe is positioned to draw people in.
According to Currier CEO Susan Strickler in an email, the Henry Melville Fuller Winter Garden was named in recognition of a longtime Currier trustee and benefactor who died in 2001. Fuller served on the board for 37 years and bequeathed a collection of 19th-century American paintings, a world-class collection of glass paperweights and a large amount of funding for endowment and acquiring other works of art.
The Currier is holding Free Week through Aug. 26. Until then visitors are free to view the entire museum without an admission fee. Special events and first Thursday and second Sunday schedules can be found at www.currier.org