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Published: Friday, 4/9/2004

Restaurant review: Museum Cafe ***

Tucked just inside the Grove Place entrance of the Toledo Museum of Art is a restaurant that many people may not know about. It's The Museum Cafe,a small, unobtrusive space on the museum's ground floor.

A lunch place primarily, with cafeteria service instead of waitstaff, the cafe serves soups, salads, and generous sandwiches named after some of the artists whose works hang in the museum galleries upstairs - Van Gogh, Matisse, Goya, Botticelli, Renoir, Dali, Warhol, and a misspelled O'Keeffe (the menu omits the second "f") among them. And the single dessert, ice cream, is called - prepare yourself - Pablo Pistachio.

Never having stepped foot in the cafe prior to a couple of recent visits, I wondered beforehand what a restaurant in one of the world's great museums would look like. Could there be priceless paintings decorating the walls, on the order of, say, Rubens' rhapsodic The Crowning of St. Catherine, or equally breathtaking works in gilded frames by El Greco, Rembrandt, and Monet? Could there be rich tapestries and ancient sculptures?

The answer is, none of the above. The Museum Cafe is a rather ascetic place - bare black tabletops, red and gray linoleum underfoot, bright lighting, fake flowers, and a few framed abstract prints on the gray walls. Fortunately, adjacent to this monotonous dining area is a lovely, glass-enclosed patio with 11 tables, offering patrons an attractive view of Grove Place and the surrounding museum grounds.

Our visits coincided with a significant change in the menu. The first time around, we ordered a hot meal on the daily lunch menu, a tangy but somewhat chewy beef burrito for $6. On our second visit, the hot meals were history - the victim, it appears, of a financial cutback. An employee said hot meals now are served only during the weekly It's Friday! nighttime parties and on evenings when the Toledo Symphony plays in the museum Peristyle.

Whether things change yet again remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the weekday hot entrees have been replaced by small, pre-prepared pizzas, which we didn't try. The soups, however, are tasty, the salads a good buy in the $5 to $5.50 range, and the sandwiches big and creatively assembled.

The Van Gogh ($6), for instance, marries turkey with avocado on flat, round focaccia bread flavored with honey mustard. The homage to Georgia O'Keeffe ($5.50) is a blockbuster-sized tuna sandwich on crunchy, whole-grain batarde bread with tomato and rather too much lettuce. The tuna itself, speckled with bits of hard-boiled egg, is delicious. All sandwiches come with a bag of potato chips or snacks, and there's also a three-item children's menu.

Among the warm, hearty soups ($2 a cup, $2.50 a bowl) are turkey with wild mushrooms and pasta e fagioli with beans. But the winner is a wonderful cream of asparagus, with pieces of tips floating on top.

All in all, hot meals or not, the Cafe at lunchtime gives good value for the money.

Admission to the art museum is free, but parking, across from the Grove Place entrance, costs $3.

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com

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