2200 N. Cannon Drive; 312-742-2000 or lpzoo.org; Cafe Brauer, 2021 N. Stockton Drive; 312-742-2400
Museum of Contemporary Art
The Museum of Contemporary Art has a fine eatery, too. Called Puck's Cafe not because of the Shakespeare character but because it's run by the Wolfgang Puck folk, the restaurant has a menu that is a nice compromise between creativity and accessibility. The tuna sandwich, for instance, is dressed with lettuce, but also fried onion strings and pickled peppers.
I like a higher sauce-to-cheese ratio than was on my green pepper, Italian sausage and olive pizza, but in the Puck tradition, it's an excellent crust, crisp on the bottom, chewy in the middle, and the ingredients were first rate. One, $11 pie — they also do more exotic ones, including a fig and prosciutto blend — is plenty big for two people.
Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.; 312-397-4010 and mcachicago.org
At the Adler Planetarium, the recently revamped menu at the Cafe Galileo, run by Food for Thought, will take you by pleasant surprise. It's a sandwiches-and-pizza place, but it's been adjusted to suit more modern, adventurous palates (which means, yes, they are now called tortas, panini and flatbreads).
Offerings include an Indian sandwich on naan, a tandoori salad, and a chorizo flatbread. I tried the flank steak banh mi sandwich, and it was a winner. There's something to be said for restaurants not trying too hard, not stepping out of a comfort (comfort-food?) zone, but this one seems to be trying and succeeding.
1300 S. Lake Shore Drive; 312-922-7827 or adlerplanetarium.org
A misstep in the ethnic food realm came at the Museum of Science and Industry, where the primary restaurant, a giant food court, is run by Sodexo. The Thai beef salad and sesame peanut noodles both looked promising but tasted bland.
Better at MSI was a more basic item: The turkey BLT from Jazzman's cafe, more of a takeout and coffee place.
57th St. and Lake Shore Drive; 773-684-1414 or msichicago.org
Shedd Aquarium's food vendor is also Sodexo and, again, I'd stick to more basic items there, like the pizza or the burritos they'll assemble in front of you in the main food court.
The tilapia I had at Soundings, a Shedd cafe that's meant to be a notch above the food court, was nicely prepared, with (too much of) a cilantro citrus sauce, lightly steamed asparagus and, oddly, some mandarin orange sections. But the dish wasn't as refined as that sounds, and they had an advantage: They were the only museum restaurant that knew I was there to write about the food.
1200 S. Lake Shore Drive; 312-939-2438 or sheddaquarium.org
The Field Museum
These institutions do need to feed their visitors: The Shedd says that 70 percent of its guests buy food or drink there. One approach is to contract with a big, food-service company (the Morton Arboretum uses Sodexo rival Aramark, and they make a pretty tasty fish taco). But it's hard to argue with the approach the Field Museum takes to its food: Let in the chains.
The natural history museum has a McDonald's in the basement, if you must (and sometimes you must). But there's also a Corner Bakery Cafe, the fine, quick-service chain, on the first floor, with seating right in Stanley Field Hall. There's not even a museum premium; prices are the same as at other Corner Bakery locations.
That said, one of the most satisfying things I ate on my slow motion, oft-interrupted museum-cafe crawl came from outside the actual museums.
Between the Field and the Shedd, there's a stand called Museum Campus Cafe. And maybe it was the fact that I hadn't eaten breakfast or maybe it was the gorgeous day. But the entirely predictable buffalo chicken sandwich I had from them — thin, spiced deep-fried cutlets, lettuce, tomato and a modest blue cheese ranch sauce on a standard hamburger bun — really hit the spot. All it lacked was some eggplant fries as a side dish.
1400 S. Lake Shore Drive; 312-922-9410 or fieldmuseum.org