The Art of the Meal

Two chic new restaurants—The Wright and Robert—have redefined museum dining.

12.31.09 4:56 PM ET

Crosstown rivalries are the stuff of New York City legend, but few urban turf battles have recently been tastier—or chicer—than the one brewing between the new museum restaurants Robert and The Wright. Opened over the past two weeks, both restaurants not only boast namesake monikers, they're also housed in prime Central Park addresses with a pair of Manhattan’s most important cultural destinations as landlords. Robert—-named after the legendary New York party planner Robert Isabell, who died this year—is in the 18-month-old Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle, while The Wright makes its home in the landmark Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum some 30 blocks north.

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of The Wright and Robert

Of course, there is nothing new about marquee museums installing brand-name chefs to feed hungry art-lovers. Earlier this year, for instance, the recently expanded Art Institute of Chicago premiered Terzo Piano, the new restaurant from the folks behind Obama-favorite Spiaggia, while last year saw Wolfgang Puck's The Source open in the Newseum in Washington, D.C. And of course there is the Modern—Danny Meyer's minimalist masterpiece over at the expanded MoMA—which helped re-ignite the museum-meets-cuisine trend when it opened back in 2005.

But in foodie-fanatic New York, the timing of the two glamorous museum restaurants’ arrival offers an unusual opportunity for some culinary comparing-and-contrasting. At their core, both restaurants share a similar sense of design DNA. Each, for instance, is giving new life to existing ho-hum spaces—The Wright in the Guggenheim’s tired ground-level cafe, Robert in a disused cocktail lounge on the ninth floor of architect Edward Durrell’s iconic 1964 Two Columbus Circle.

Equally key is each restaurant’s ingenious use of art, architecture, and design as creative complements to both their iconic locations and contemporary cuisines. “We’re not quite sure if we’re like a gallery that serves food,” observes New York architect Andre Kikoski, who designed The Wright as both a much-needed Park-front canteen and to honor the Guggenheim’s 50th anniversary. “Or are we actually a restaurant with gallery-worthy art?”

Perhaps Robert and The Wright are actually a bit of both. On the art front, besides their venues’ own blue-chip collections, each eatery has placed a premium on quality original works. At The Wright, British artist Liam Gillick has created a site-specific sculpture crafted from slim planks of color-coated aluminum that swooshes along the restaurant’s walnut walls and ceilings with Saarinen-like momentum.

Much like the rest of the restaurant, Kikoski says Gillick’s work honors “the fluidity of Wright’s original design, but whereas he went for the heavy and thick outside, we’ve chosen light and thin within.” A white Corian-capped bar and curved blue-leather banquettes complete The Wright’s Wright-inspired futurist aesthetic.

While at Robert—which literally looms over Central Park—art is even more front-and-center. Light is the dominant element at work here, transformed from the ephemeral into the tangible by architect Johanna Grawunder, an Ettore Sottsass protégé based in Milan and San Francisco. She has created an abstract canopy from mobile, hot-pink Lucite panels illuminated from within via LED and suspended above the dining room.

Down below is a suite of modular seating by Vladimir Kagan along with custom-made aluminum and glass furniture pieces—as well as a bijoux ground-floor hostess stand—by Philip Michael Wolfson from London. There's artwork from the personal collection of Robert's owners along with Orbit 2—a video-art piece by Jennifer Steinkamp. And it's all wrapped in a sun-drenched space master-designed by New York architects David Schefer Design, best known for creating Fred’s at Barneys and the mid-'90s celeb-boite Moomba. "We approached this project as if we were building an art collection," says Dr. Brian Saltzman, who co-owns Robert with former Lutece principal Michael Weinstein. "So we worked with artists whose work we admire and already have in our homes."

“We’re not quite sure if we’re like a gallery that serves food,” observes New York architect Andre Kikoski, who designed The Wright. “Or are we actually a restaurant with gallery-worthy art?”

And of course there is the food. Both The Wright and Robert focus on luxed-up versions of classic Euro-Yankee comforts. The Wright’s executive chef, Rodolfo Contreras, comes to the Guggenheim from Bouley and his four-star training is evident in simple-yet-elegant dishes like truffle and egg-topped Wright Salad and the near chocolatey-rich braised beef short ribs. And at Robert, Chef Brady Duhame skews approachable Italian with crowd-pleasers such as pappardelle with wild boar, and brick-cooked chicken with diablo sauce.

Both menus—much like the restaurants themselves—clearly aim for mass appeal and are tasty, filling, and modestly priced. Yet each eatery can certainly claim its own bona fides. With its high-altitude perch, Robert clearly has the better view—particularly its near-hidden rear-corner table nearly shrouded in glass walls. It’s also likely to lure a youngish, social set once it opens for late-night dining and drinking early next year.

As for The Wright, its Guggenheim pedigree and prime Upper East Side location makes for one of the city’s most glamorously global clienteles and easy access to the rest of Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile. Smaller and less “designed” than Robert, the Wright is definitely a less total sensory experience. Cozier and more intimate than Robert, The Wright is also more welcoming and low-key.

With the two restaurants open less than a month, this battle for museum supremacy has just begun. But both have already raised the art of the meal.

Plus: Check out Art Beast for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

David Kaufman is a New York-based journalist who regularly contributes to The New York Times, The Financial Times, Time International, and Wallpaper—and is the charming madness behind the blog TRANSRACIAL.