At Pérez Art Museum Miami, it's not important to appreciate or know anything about art.
A dozen menacing bronze animal heads startle visitors emerging from the parking garage onto the museum's raised patio. A dragon readies to bellow a vaporizing fireball onto unsuspecting passersby. A bear snarls, lips pulled back, revealing a seemingly endless row of razor-sharp teeth. It's irrelevant to most people that the massive installation was created by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
A short walk takes far longer than expected. Visitors with necks craned gawk at towering cylindrical gardens hanging from the ceiling that collide with one another in slow motion. The patio opens into a large space, framed in green and gray, offering sweeping water views. Puffy clouds slink across the sky above Biscayne Bay, and cars zip along the MacArthur Causeway and disappear into a blue abyss.
Verde, the Stephen Starr restaurant inside the museum, offers the same entrancing view daily through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Starr's restaurant empire launched in 1976 with Grand Mom Minnie's in Philadelphia when he was only 21 years old. With a space somewhere between a restaurant and a performance venue, he hosted Jerry Seinfeld and Pat Benatar. Philadelphia today remains the hub for Starr's 30 restaurants, which include pricey sushi temple Makoto in Bal Harbour and the suit-filled Steak 954 on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
In 2008, Starr launched a catering division and with it a push into cultural institutions. Along with Verde, the company opened Caffè Storico at the New York Historical Society and Granite Hill at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
At PAMM, he bested ten competitors in the months leading up to the museum's opening this past December to run the food and beverage operation.
"We wanted one exclusive partner to do our restaurant and our catering, and Starr was in the best position to do that," said Leann Standish, the museum's vice president for external affairs.
The décor is nothing more than the raw concrete and wood palette that Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron employs throughout the museum. Inside the narrow space, long, slim panels of fabric span a sloped ceiling that rises toward large windows that allow guests to take in that amazing view of the bay. Both sides of the room are lined with modern oak picnic tables surrounded by simple white plastic chairs. A small potted cactus on each table provides a much-needed hint of color.
At the center of it all sits Verde's simple, one-page menu. It reflects what the restaurant must do, and what the museum unabashedly says it will do: be something for everyone.
The offerings are predictably split among salads, raw plates, pizzas, sandwiches, and entrées, but most items are skillfully executed.
During the museum's opening festivities amid the glitz of Art Basel Miami Beach, director Thom Collins said PAMM's main challenge is Miami's sun and sand. Ads atop taxis and on billboards touted the museum as more than art. "Open for sunbathing," one sign still reads near the entrance.
And that's exactly what people were doing on a recent Saturday afternoon, when there was a 20-minute wait for a table during brunch.
Trying to please everyone is an unenviable, potentially dangerous undertaking in a town where finding two people who even grew up in the same place is almost impossible. Verde does it effortlessly and for a moment makes you forget you're eating gussied-up café fare.
A juicy cheeseburger arrives piled high with thick, savory slices of applewood bacon. The perfect medium-rare patty is tucked into a soft toasted bun with crunchy pickles and lettuce accompanied by a heap of salty, addictive French fries. A squash blossom pizza is thin and crisp. The oversize pie is layered with tangy goat cheese, delicate zucchini disks, and pumpkin-orange-hued flowers.
Some items, however, miss the mark. Five thin slices of glistening orange-pink salmon are fishy even through the acidic bite of pineapple slivers and a brunoise of beets and sweet pickled kumquats. Moreover, the crush of a bustling brunch service delays the narrow plate's arrival until after entrées. Chicken under a brick is a delight, though it lacks the crisp skin that should be the dish's centerpiece. The pungent chimichurri sauce should be served on the side to avoid making the skin a chewy mess that many diners will peel away and discard. Nevertheless, a deboned breast and thigh are juicy and perfectly cooked, fragrant with the scent of lemon and thyme. It's accompanied by roasted potatoes, deliciously crisp and simply salted.
Weekend brunch adds a short list of both savory and sweet breakfast choices to the menu, including pancakes, steak and eggs, and a bagel with smoked salmon.
A Gruyère omelet, flecked with a confetti of herbs, is cooked perfectly, without a brown spot and lusciously creamy on the inside thanks to the combination of pungent, melted cheese and just-cooked eggs. Mesclun greens are simply dressed with olive oil, and roasted potatoes are piled generously on the plate with two slices of chewy multigrain bread studded with seeds.
Both the museum and Verde offer an experience greater than the sum of their parts. Verde's menu appears simple, but its setting combined with attentive service make it the perfect beginning or ending of an afternoon at the museum. "It's part of a museum experience now," Standish said. "People stay the afternoon, they have a glass of wine, they shop."
Less than six months after opening, the long-awaited, hotly debated, and mostly publicly funded $130 million museum says it has attracted 150,000 visitors, three-quarters of the total it expected its first year. The restaurant, like the museum, is enjoying its moment in the sun — just as advertised.
But time will tell. It might take years for the museum to build the kind of collection many say it should have despite the newly acquired Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg. Until then, naysayers can enjoy lunch at Verde followed by an afternoon in the sun.