Before the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum expanded in 2012, its restaurant, Café G, was tucked away in the building’s east wing, adjacent to the Spanish cloister. The space was cramped and ill-equipped — the kitchen, which provided enough space for three bodies and three bodies only, possessed just four electric burners and a single hotel pan-sized electric oven — and to access the storage space and walk-ins, one would have to exit the restaurant altogether, walk through the Spanish cloister, and then walk through the gift shop. It’s not surprising then that chef Peter Crowley has spent an awful lot of time staring at the Spanish cloister’s centerpiece: John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo.
“It’s my favorite painting in the museum,” explains Crowley. “I’ve looked at it countless times, and every time I do I notice something different. My eye was always drawn to the woman dancing — the focal point — and to the men playing guitar to the left. But we got to come in here one night for a flashlight tour, and suddenly I realized the brilliant white at the bottom of the dancer’s dress. I also thought, ‘Who’s that woman in the orange dress to the right? She’s having such a great time!’”
Crowley spends less time with his favorite painting these days, but he can can be forgiven — cooking for 250 covers on a Saturday leaves little time for loitering among the art.
“We’re just bombed on the weekend,” says Crowley. “And we’re cooking for a wide clientele. We’re serving some people who are probably hoping to have a hamburger and a Coke and get on with their day, and we’re serving other people who are maybe celebrating something and want to have a three-course meal and a bottle of wine.”
The expectation for lunch at a museum might be a soggy sandwich wrapped in cellophane or a salad of wilted greens with an egg that was hard-boiled the previous day. The reality at Café G is a little different: Think vegetable crudités with chickpea purée to start, followed by roasted Atlantic cod with local squash, pumpkin arancini, and pepitas.
And for those diners looking for a quick, simple bite after gawking at Raphael’s Count Tommaso Inghirami or Diego Velásquez’s King Philip IV of Spain, Crowley’s menus include sandwiches, flatbreads, and salads. Crowley is accustomed to catering to different tastes — he and his wife Patricia, who Crowley says manages the business and “keeps my sometimes over-the-top ideas in check,” literally worked at a catering company before they endeavored to run the show at Café G. Crowley has certainly found his groove at the Gardner, but running a restaurant wasn’t part of the original plan.
“We worked in catering for three years, and finally Trish and I said, ‘Let’s do something on our own; let’s open something,’” explains Crowley. “We wanted to create restaurant-quality meals that could be transported and reheated at home. We looked for a space for about nine months and couldn’t find anything. We were getting frustrated, and then the broker we were working with told us the chef at the Gardner Museum’s cafe was leaving, and they needed someone to operate it.”
It wouldn’t be the Crowleys first adventure together — after they were married, they honeymooned in Paris and the French Alps, where they ended up staying to cook at a ski resort run by an English tourist company. They cooked through the winter; traveled through France, Germany, and Italy; and returned for the summer season. They did this for two years, returning to the States for quick catering gigs before heading back to the French Alps. They learned to ski; they learned some French; perhaps most crucially, they learned how to run a restaurant.
Still, Crowley’s initial response was, “Absolutely not.”
“There were 22 seats, the tables were tiny, the kitchen was a closet,” says Crowley. “But then we went to visit and we were taken by the beauty of the space. We thought, ‘This could actually be pretty great. It’s this little cafe that nobody really knows about. If we screw it up, we can probably just slink away and no one will even know we were ever here.’”
It’s been 15 years since Crowley began cooking at the Gardner Museum, and people definitely know he’s there. When the Renzo Piano Building Workshop architectural firm — whose projects include the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City — completed its expansion and preservation of the Gardner in 2012, it included a bright new space for the cafe. Twenty-two seats turned into 60; a staff of five or six turned into a staff of about 40 (a staff Crowley describes as “indispensable” and “terrific”); a closet of a kitchen turned into a kitchen with two levels. A cafe that visitors passed as they shuffled toward El Jaleo has turned into a cafe visitors notice before setting foot in the Spanish cloister. This isn’t lost on Crowley.
“There is so much greatness over there,” says Crowley, looking over his left shoulder. “The building itself, the courtyard, what’s hanging on the walls, the music. Our contribution to this whole thing is to do a good job over here. That's our responsibility. It may sound a little hokey, but that's it.”
Crowley’s commitment to being a part of the museum’s overall beauty is reflected on his menus and sometimes even dictates them: He’s looked back at menus from parties Gardner threw around the turn of the century — parties that might have been attended by artists like Sargent and the Swedish Belle Époque painter Anders Zorn — and interpreted them for modern palates.
“Last year in the Tapestry Room, the museum had an installation called the ‘Holiday Table,’ which was a recreation of what a formal dining table would have looked like for a Gardner dinner,” explains Crowley. “We interpreted a menu in conjunction with the exhibition — oyster stew, roasted quail, gateau St. Honoré. We riffed on these — lighter, more modern versions. The idea was that you could go and see the holiday table, get there in your head, and then come here and connect with it and eat it.”
This sort of looking back and reinterpreting the past is rare, though — mostly, Crowley is just trying to feed people lunch. But not just any lunch.
“We’re trying to do dinner quality food and service — something different from what people usually perceive as ‘let’s grab some lunch.’”