Art Bites

Autumn is nearly upon us, and as the tourist hordes ebb the indigenous population (that's you and me) begins to crawl out of its shell, and one of our first impulses should be to renew our love affair with the city by visiting a cultural institution or two. Curators perk up, too, responding to the challenge and scheduling shows they know actual New Yorkers will enjoy.

So join us at the city's museums and their ilk to rediscover art, science, and nature anew. There's nothing finer than an afternoon's exhibition crawl, followed by a light supper, or perhaps preceded by a heavy lunch. Accordingly, we've made it easy by laying out some itineraries—some already familiar, some admittedly on the weird-ass side. Where these institutions offer on-site cafés, we've reviewed them. Where none exist, we've gone into the neighborhood to discover good places to eat.

Return with us now to the days of Teddy Roosevelt, when humans needed to be protected from nature, rather than the other way around. When a fella would be congratulated for shooting a giant endangered animal, stuffing it, and putting it in a museum. Founded by Roosevelt, the American Museum of Natural History is just that sort of museum. Forget about the traveling shows like "Gold!"— intended to dazzle, divert, and fleece the touristic masses—and concentrate instead on the wonderful dioramas. These worlds-within-windows will transport you to other realms more certainly than an IMAX movie. Thrill to walrus calves lolling on the rocks in the Arctic, or Andean condors circling Argentina's MountAconcagua. And no airport delays!

Illustrations by Sarajo Frieden

The museum offers its captive audience three cafés. The Museum Food Court in the basement will remind you of a school lunchroom. The baked pastas are your best bet; the charbroiled hamburgers would be good, too, if the grill master didn't press his spatula down on the patties, evacuating all the tasty juices, making them as dry as desert dioramas. Behind the dinosaur exhibits on the fourth floor, Café on Four offers a meager diet of power bars, fruit salads, and cold sandwiches. Café on One, right next to the Giant Canoe, is superior, including panini, Reubens, and other toasted entities. You can even have a glass of wine with your sandwich, but be forewarned: The espresso is awful!

I like the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Park much more than the whiz-bang Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. A pair of booster rockets stand sentry in front, and you can also climb inside a Mercury space capsule. My favorite exhibit is the flock of microscopes that let you examine live amoebas, paramecia, and dileptuses, slithering and sliding under the lens like exotic dancers. An art gallery offers colorful photos of undersea creatures, while a supersaturated alcohol vapor chamber permits you to trace the paths of cosmic rays, as a disembodied voice warns: "There are even cosmic rays passing through your body right now!" The science playground in the rear of the museum is an exhilarating experience for kids.

Despite the excellence of the exhibits, the lunchroom is wretched. Aside from desiccated hot dogs, miserable nachos dripping yellow fluid, and chicken fingers that might be mistaken for pieces of chalk, the bill of fare is dominated by candy, chips, and ice cream, with virtually no salads or fruit in sight. If you leave the museum by the 111th Street entrance, turn right, and walk a few blocks to Roosevelt Avenue, you'll find Tres Potrillos, a sit-down Mexican restaurant in a glitzy diner. Offered all day, tacos, cemitas (Pueblan sandwiches), and egg dishes like huevos rancheros are a bargain, while the menu of southern Mexico standards like chicken mole poblano and pork ribs in green sauce are a bit pricier.

Who can keep up with the Metropolitan Museum of Art? The maze only grows more complicated, as the mother of all museums feverishly adds halls, galleries, balconies, and annexes, gobbling up more of Central Park, so that you need a GPS to navigate the museum successfully. The random wander is still your best strategy, looking for rooms less thronged.

The number of eateries has swollen, too, so that you can now gorge yourself in six separate lunchrooms—though the Trustee's Dining Room may be closed to you if you're not rolling in dough. In contrast to the many teetotaler museums, alcohol abounds, and you're never far from a tipple at the Met. The lunchroom (heralded by signs that say, rather discouragingly, Public Cafeteria) is actually quite good of its type, offering Black Angus burgers, well-browned fries, sauced tilapia, designer potato chips, and exotic juices and sodas. While the regular salad bar is wholesome but prosaic, the antipasti station offers such composed salads as beet with gorgonzola and couscous dotted with dried fruits. Not bad!

Even better is the more-upscale Petrie Court Café, offering more elbow room and a panoramic view of Central Park. Most recommended is a late lunch after 2:30, when the line is less long, and when you can order an English tea as your repast. It includes a selection of teas, finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and preserves, and a constellation of petits fours, all for $24. Meanwhile, you will be surrounded by solid Upper East Side burghers, who look like they just stepped off the portraits of nobility in the European galleries.

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