|What to See||Where to Stay||Dining and Nightlife||Getting Around|
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2003
Instead of loading the backpack or the baby stroller -- and remember, the museums have airport-style security and bag-check procedures these days -- consider the Mall's many other exhibits: the in-museum restaurants. There is a surprising range of sit-down restaurants, coffee bars, buffets and food courts catering to visitors of all ages and tastes, and most are open the same hours as the museums themselves. A few even have longer hours. You can plan your route to grab a gelato here and a grilled turkey wrap there, get an energy boost from an espresso or end the day with antipasto, a glass of wine and an Old Worldly view. You can even use your credit cards. The Mall offers more than a menu for the mind.
Best for Groups of Kids:
Best for Adults:
Best for Teens and Young Adults:
Best for All-Ages Groups:
Note: The following includes summer restaurant hours, and they may change after Labor Day. Prices may vary.
National Museum of American History
This museum is so wonderfully stocked, and so deserving of a daylong visit, that it's not surprising it has some of the best dining options. The large Main Street Cafes is intentionally plural -- it subtly points up several different ethnic influences on American history, notably Southern, German (i.e., deli) and Italian -- and somewhat resembles a shopping mall food court. The seating is unimaginative but comfortable, and the volume level isn't bad. Wander around a bit: Among the selections at its various stations are seafood salad, antipasto, fresh mozzarella, shredded duck salad, roast beef with caramelized onions on Russian rye, pizzas, barbecued half-chicken, biscuits and bacon cheeseburgers. Prices $2.50-$6.95. The Palm Court Coffee Bar has a simpler menu of sandwiches, salads and brownies; even better, it serves as the ordering station for the adjoining Ice Cream Parlor, a vintage soda fountain with hand-dipped ice cream, sundaes, even banana splits. And the parlor itself, with old-fashioned tables for two and a gleaming long bar, is a lovely hideaway. Prices $2.50-$6.25.
The Atrium Cafe is a bright and cheery spot, with glass ceilings (visual, not professional) and window walls, pedestrian crosswalks and elevators. The menu is fairly straightforward, leaning to the luncheonette classics -- pizza, specialty sandwiches and wraps, burgers and hot dogs, salads, Boardwalk fries, morning pastries and rotisserie chicken. It's just under the entrance to the museum's IMAX theater, and on Friday nights it stays open until 10, with some of the tables moved aside for light cocktailing, slightly more upscale noshing and a jazz band in the dining room. Open Saturday- Thursday 11-7, Fridays 11-4 and 6-10. Prices $3.50-$12. The museum's other dining nook is the small (50-seat) but sweet Fossil Cafe, which is actually tucked into the back of Dinosaur Hall -- ideal for the Rex-checkers in the bunch. Even better, the tables are horizontal exhibits, or rather glass-topped specimen cases, with real fossilized artifacts and illustrations explaining their origins. There are four different mini-exhibits, so expect some table-hopping. The wall boasts a 30-foot mural of extinct flowering plants from the Cretaceous through the Pleistocene eras. The fare is mostly salads, specialty sandwiches and dessert bars, and is prepared at the Atrium Cafe.
The Pavilion Cafe is easily the most picturesque of the museum eateries, and offers one of the more interesting menus as well. Its conservatory-like retro-nouveau pavilion looks out onto a lawnful of flowering bushes, nontraditional installations and a fountain and reflecting pool. The Mall-side terrace, which features one of the great (authentic) art nouveau subway entrances from the Paris Metro, is even finer. Menu choices include wraps and baguette club sandwiches, pizza, make-your-own Caesar salads with grilled chicken, tuna or salmon, antipasto and vegetable salads, tuna croissants, desserts, beer and wine. Like Natural History's Atrium, the Pavilion Cafe stays open late on Friday evenings for live jazz, and offers a special light menu that includes baked salmon salad, squash and zucchini patties, barbecue wings, fruit and brie, a veggie wrapper and spinach- artichoke dip in a French bread boule diplomatically partnered with New York flat bread.
The Garden Court, a 100-seat stone court tucked between the museum shop and (this summer) the Houdon exhibit, is the most adult and graceful of the Mall restaurants. It's the quietest, the priciest and the only one to have any sit-down service (or take reservations, which are recommended). Its main attraction, however, is the rather genteel buffet. The buffet generally offers a carved turkey or roast, smoked or poached fish, a cheese board, seasonal vegetables, fruit and pastries. The ý la carte menu is brief: soups, salads, grilled chicken and avocado Caesar, open-faced salmon salad in tarragon remoulade or roast turkey-artichoke spread sandwiches, and desserts.
The Cascade Cafe, so-called because of the waterfall window wall, is almost like a Kramerbooks & Afterwords for the masses, with a small version of the museum shop and bookstore, a coffee and gelato counter and a wide-ranging cafeteria that somehow manages to not look crowded. The cafe is made up of little islands, which quickly become surrounded by the stream of visitors, and it takes a minute to sort it out, but there's something for almost every taste. It has three or four kinds of pan pizza, a carving station for chicken, roast beef or jerk pork (meats change daily), blue plates of meatloaf, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and ratatouille, burgers and fries, chili in a sourdough bread bowl, soups, chicken Caesar, tuna nicoise and chef's salads, roast beef with onion confit and blue cheese or ham and brie with honey Dijon on walnut bread, antipasto ($2.35 apiece or three for $6.50), even a taqueria, plus beer and wine. All it lacks is a sushi bar.
This food court is called the Wright Place, and it's ideal for kids, particularly en masse, of the fast-food age. It offers franchised meals from Boston Market, McDonald's and Donato's Pizza (small personal pizzas, not slices). Like the museum itself, it's a hangar-like space, with glass and scaffolding that suggest both a launching pad and a jungle gym and as many order and pickup lines as a bowling alley. In fact, sometimes it's so busy it takes some of the "fast" out of the food. There is also a small mezzanine area, the Mezza Cafe, where parents or guides might catch a breath. It has panini, Lavazza coffees and tuna salad, plus beer and wine. But the grown-ups may not feel all that relaxed; the older kids tend to ascend (to get away from the littler kids) and the volume level is pretty high. Open daily 10-5. Prices $2.99-$8.99. Weather permitting, there are food carts of the typical vendor varieties on the terrace. There is also an outdoor kiosk at the west side of the museum, the Flight Fare Cafe, serving grilled chicken panini, pastries, tuna and chicken salad and kosher hot dogs, that opens earlier than the food court. Prices $3-$6.95.
This is one of the prettiest spots, though the menu is very limited. This is the original Smithsonian museum, and its airy, almost gazebo-like foyer has mosaic- bright touches and glimpses into the exhibit halls on either side. The vendor is Seattle's Best Coffee, and it opens at 8:30, one of the earliest indoor venues (along with the Holocaust Museum cafe) on the block. And since the visitor information center next door at the Castle opens at 9, you can pick up some brochures and maps and then sit down to plot over your latte. The cafe also stocks sandwiches, salads, muffins, pastries and the like.
In keeping with the museum's intensely emotional impact and almost forbidding solemnity, the cafe is in a separate building off the west entrance plaza on Raoul Wallenberg Place SE. Also in keeping with the design, it is a simple, glass-fronted room, pleasant but not chatty-cozy, no doubt intentionally. Even students tend to be a bit subdued here. You need not pass through the museum's main security lines, but you will be screened upon entering the cafe building, which also houses an administrative office. The museum cafe is a vegetarian facility: It is not under rabbinic supervision, but its kosher meals are prepared under supervision off-site and sealed for delivery. It's a little bit deli, a little bit indulgent, offering comfort-food knishes (potato, spinach or broccoli-cheddar), bagels and muffins, PB&J, roasted veggie salads, personal pan pizzas, kosher Asian noodle salads and, of course, matzoh-ball soup.
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