A more cultured taste

From Terzo Piano at the Art Institute to new menu at the Adler, a guide to dining at Chicago museums and zoos

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It used to be that going to a museum for the food was like going to Wrigley Field for the baseball. They offered a version of the thing in question, sure, but you were pretty likely to be disappointed.

But these days, most Chicago cultural institutions have upped their culinary games. Now, while your kids dine on the inevitable mac-and-cheese and chicken nuggets, you can often get something you actually want to eat, rather than some sad compromise between hunger and availability.

In the past few months, I've been sampling menu items at many Chicago destinations. My tasting has been by no means comprehensive: Budget and waistband don't allow for that.

But I've been, by and large, satisfied. I've had tilapia at the Shedd Aquarium (not locally sourced), a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich at the Adler Planetarium, and good craft beer on tap at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

The worst dishes were still OK, something you'd eat rather than push around your plate for a bit. And the best were ones you'd be happy to order even if the cultural institution were not in the picture.

Many of the places take advantage of their setting to provide great views, too. The Morton Arboretum's Gingko Cafe looks out, through giant windows, on the central pond. The Patio at Cafe Brauer, at Lincoln Park Zoo, has an outdoor area right on the Nature Boardwalk and an impeccably landscaped area of South Pond. At Terzo Piano, atop the Art Institute's Modern Wing, a patio seat shows you sculpture in the foreground and beyond that, Millennium Park and the skyscrapers around it.

Even the more modest cafes at Adler and the Shedd have outdoor tables that take full advantage of their spectacular lakefront locations.

Art Institute

The king of local museum dining remains the very upscale, very accomplished Terzo Piano. Go here to take a break from puzzling over whether the artists below were being ironic or post-ironic, or just go here for lunch, museum be darned.

Chef Tony Mantuano calls his menu "modern European," although it definitely tilts toward the Mediterranean side of the continent. It bursts with bright ideas and the kitchen, mostly, executes them expertly.

On my most recent visit, I tried the eggplant fries, served with a creamy tzatziki, and they were amazing, the single best thing I ate in my museum-food tour. These delicately breaded vegetable rectangles stake out a very happy middle ground between junk food and health food, between the fryer and the farm.

And the signature salad, at $17, is expensive by the pound but well worth trying if you make a habit of eating greens (this is true even if the version you are served doesn't include the promised English peas, as mine didn't). The base ingredient, sweet pea tendrils, is something extraordinary in the salad realm, and the shallot vinaigrette, whorl of pancetta and slices of a slightly soft cheese give the greens just enough decadence.

You can go to the starkly decorated room without even visiting the museum. Just enter on Monroe Street and take the elevator up. But the restaurant is open for dinner only on Thursdays, when the Art Institute also is open late.

111 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-443-3600 or artinstituteofchicago.org; Terzo Piano, 159 E. Monroe St.; 312-443-8650 or terzopianochicago.com

Lincoln Park Zoo

The Patio at Cafe Brauer, run by Levy Restaurants for Lincoln Park Zoo, is another place worth visiting for its own merits — especially that pond-front setting.

The nighttime menu reads like one from a decent, mid-range restaurant. China and tablecloths come out beginning at 3:30 p.m., and the hamburger patties switch from pre-shaped, food-service standard to hand formed half-pounders. (We won't mention the irony of the weekend breakfast menu at a zoo restaurant trumpeting its "Cage-Free Eggs.")

But even the more limited, daytime menu — the one most likely to be seen by regular zoo-goers — has charms. There's a good, marinated flank steak sandwich, with onions, peppers and a little Boursin cheese, and the Green City Market salad includes lots of ripe berries.

Bonus: You can watch the people and the nature going by, or just recover from the stress of shepherding little ones through a zoo, with a cold tap beer in your hand.

Goose Island brews Boardwalk Blue, a blueberry beer with just enough fruit to be summery but not cloying, especially for the venue, and it also has Lagunitas IPA on tap. The restaurant has been featuring live music every Wednesday evening and doing special craft beer events; the next one features Goose Island on Aug. 20.

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