Jazz Brunch at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
July 20, 2008
Brunch at a good restaurant can be a pleasant way to enjoy a Sunday morning and early afternoon. Music brunches are common around Philadelphia, Bucks County, and New York City, some of which have jazz, most often performed by a pianist in the background. But after this "first-time" experience, Jazz Brunch at (of all places) The Philadelphia Museum of Art now tops my A-list for music, food, and atmosphere.
A friend mentioned this venue to me recently and, as a fan of vibraphonist Tony Miceli, I decided to give it a try. After taking in the delightful current exhibition "Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose," I found the museum restaurant on the ground floor of the museum (to be distinguished from several casual cafe facilities there). Upon walking in the door, I was hooked. In a small alcove, Miceli and his bassist, Kevin McConnell, were doing a heartfelt, smoothly executed version of Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy," with a level of sophistication that told me the music deserved as much of my attention as the food.
I asked for a ringside seat, and the friendly hostess, accompanied by the hip restaurant manager Eddie Ledesma, seated me where I could see and hear the group well. I helped myself to a buffet selection of fine cheeses, salad, bagels and lox, and eggs benedict (I hope my cardiologist, who is also a jazz fan, doesn't read this :-), and back at my table was surrounded by waitstaff catering to my every desire for beverages. I've rarely encountered such a warm and friendly staff in any restaurant. I enjoyed my brunch thoroughly, while raptly listening to Miceli and McConnell doing extended improvisations on tunes like "Dee's Song" by Enrico Pieranunzi, "Move" by Denzel Best, "Triste" by Jobim, "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" by Mercer Ellington, "Soultrane" by Tad Dameron, "Steeplechase" by Charlie Parker, and "That's All" by Brandt and Haynes. Tony Miceli is simply the best vibes player on the circuit today, in my opinion, and it was a pleasure to listen to his soft, soulful renderings of these standards in a way that the diners could both engage in conversation and tune into the music as they chose. McConnell backed up Miceli flawlessly.
But it is not only the music which is so special about this "off the beaten path" brunch venue. The atmosphere is wonderfully quiet and reserved, yet supremely relaxed, unlike the loud, impolite, or hung over clientele one is likely to encounter at some brunches in this city. Moreover, to be able to stroll through the "Pictures at an Exhibition" of many cultures and eras, before and after a delicious meal, is very nourishing to the soul and a delight not to be missed. There are in fact three affiliated museums in easy reach: the main Philadelphia Museum of Art which houses the restaurant, the new Perelman Building across the Parkway, and the Rodin Museum a block further down. All these require only a voluntary donation for admission on Sundays ($3 for the Rodin), and it is a pleasure to stroll around surrounded by art lovers. At times, too, one could almost sense the presence of the late, great Director and CEO, Anne d'Harnoncourt, who passed away suddenly in June, and who will doubtless be keeping an eye on things forever from her heavenly perch.
I came away from my jazz brunch experience feeling satiated, satisfied, and fulfilled. The only thing I can compare to the time spent there are some moments I've encountered not too far from the Louvre at a Paris bistro on the Isle Saint Louis. In America, this kind of cultured jazz brunch is rarely to be found.
Philadelphia Museum of Art Restaurant Schedule:
Lunch: T-F, 11:3-2; Sat 11-3:30; Dinner: F, 5-7:30; Champagne Brunch Buffet; Sun, 11-3:30; Afternoon Tea: Thurs: 2:30-4