It’s common these days to grouse about the difficulty of getting into restaurants: We make reservations weeks in advance, linger on waiting lists as future plans lie suspended, and in some cases, pay exorbitant fees. Really, we are becoming medieval vassals of the expensive end of the restaurant industry. But all these challenges pale in comparison to what I had to go through to get into the Restaurant at Gilder.
Not aware of it? It perches on the second floor of the American Museum of Natural History’s new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation. The cave-like entrance to the center (dubbed the “exploration atrium”) looks like an ancient cliff-dweller’s apartment complex with yawning windows. The restaurant is only open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., so expect to dine at peak museum hours.
You can’t go to the restaurant without having a ticket to the museum, so that’s two reservations you have to make, one on the AMNH’s website, the other on Resy. I’d made the former for 11:30 a.m. and the latter for noon on a Sunday, figuring I’d have time to take a leisurely stroll through the galleries. But as the C train pulled up to the 81st Street stop, I realized as the car emptied out that everyone was going to the museum.
The convenient direct entrance from the subway platform has been blocked off, of course, so I was swept out of the station by the rushing crowd, propelled around corners and up flights of stairs, and then I saw it: an impossibly long line filing back and forth on the stone steps, waiting to enter the museum. Would there be enough time to claim my reservation?
Once inside the maze-like collection of buildings, I could find no signs for the Gilder Center, so I set off on a zigzagging route that seemed like miles, tacking between clumps of tourists and stuffed wooly mammoths, always heading west.
Finally, after buzzing through the Insectarium where larvae hung from the ceiling, my friend and I reached the main lobby of the Gilder Center and dashed up the stairs to the restaurant. It’s a fishbowl with no exterior windows, and museum-goers stood with their noses pressed against the glass looking in, as if the diners were just another diorama.
Once inside, and only 15 minutes late for our reservation, we found the interior relaxing, with walls of brown panels, a ceiling like a giant honeycomb, and well-spaced tables. The staff, seeing us panting from our exertions, were especially accommodating. They brought us a vodka bloody mary ($16) almost immediately, with two straws poking out of it.
The three apps we’d ordered arrived promptly, too: The best was a salad of baby heirloom carrots ($16), snowed with feta and toasted pistachios on a bed of beet hummus. The notes of sweetness were welcome. The tomato soup came drizzled with coconut milk and tasting of basil, but it proved to be a little too much like Campbell’s. This would be at home in the Andy Warhol museum.
The Caesar salad, kissed with anchovies, was the usual article, creamy and rich, making a nice shareable starter. (But how many Caesar salads have you endured so far this year?) We’d passed over the avocado toast and grain bowl, though kids all around us seemed to be eating the former, and dads the latter.
Four full-meal entrees are available, and we went right to the most expensive one, a $34 hanger-steak frites with garlic scape chimichurri. The medium-rare meat was outclassed by some very good french fries. Much more interesting, in fact a candidate for dish of the month, were twists of gemelli pasta in a fresh-pea pesto dotted with mushrooms, asparagus tips, and spinach, a perfect combination of ingredients that kept pace with the farmers markets around town. And it didn’t scream “healthy” in the least.
The most memorable thing we ate at the Restaurant at Gilder that day was dessert. I’d advocated skipping it, but my companion talked me into the vegan raspberry panna cotta ($14). When it arrived, it looked like a terrarium, a coconut-milk pudding in a glass topped with microgreens, edible flowers, crunchy freeze-dried raspberries, and fresh raspberries, with friendly rainbow butterflies flitting around as if in some children’s storybook. Even the butterflies were made of edible white chocolate. And though it seemed like this dessert had been invented by an AI culinary robot, it tasted great anyway.
We left well-fortified to search out the Hall of North American Mammals, of which this restaurant might have been an exhibit called Modern Humans Eating.