Encore Cafeteria

The Kennedy Center, above the Concert Hall

833-8870

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. (Time subject to change with theater schedules; call ahead for confirmation.)

Prices: Full dinner with wine averages about $8.50 per person.

Cards: None accepted.

Readers of this paper's dining columns want to know a lot of things: Where can they find an inexpensive seafood restaurant? Who serves authentic Mexican dishes? They want suggestions for places where they might entertain the boss, announce an engagement or take the kids for a meal out.

A lot of people also want to know where they can eat before a performance at the Kennedy Center -- preferably, they generally add, within walking distance and not too expensive.

In search of an answer to that question, I headed straight to the performance center itself, to take a look (and more than a few bites) of the Encore Cafeteria, one of three eateries housed in the Kennedy Center complex.

Obviously, the Encore gives top billing to convenience and location; as its name might suggest, this spacious eatery is also the least expensive of the center's dining facilities, which include the neighboring Curtain Call Cafe and the more formal Roof Terrace restaurant.

Granted, a cafeteria doesn't complement evening wear as well as a softly lit bistro might. And it's probably not anyone's first choice for relaxing with a preshow cocktail (anyway the wine, served in plastic stemware, is pretty raw tasting stuff). But if what you seek is to get in and out in time for the curtain -- without breaking the bank -- the Encore can't be beat.

From the outsize red and orange banners hanging from the ceiling to the soaring glass walls overlooking the monuments, the staging here is theatrical, if not to everyone's taste. Outfitted with comfortable, if functional, red chairs and closely spaced tables, the Encore looks and feels like a convention hall.

And you'll feel every bit the conventioneer if you arrive close to showtime, when the clatter of the trays and the chatter of the diners approximate that of a school lunchroom. During popular runs, you might find yourself elbow to elbow with a table of strangers, surrounded by a pile of dirty dishes. (One night, we observed a single cashier and a lone busboy confronted with the awesome task of manning the dining room.) Those desiring less clamor should plan on visiting early at lunch, or better yet, late afternoon, when the crowds tend to be sparser, the pace more relaxed.

The menu is small and subject to periodic changes, but is likely to include something to suit a variety of tastes. That translates into several kinds of prepackaged sandwiches and salads (opt for the moist and flavorful chicken salad), as well as three or four entrees each day.

Head for the plainer fare, which might include main dishes of pot roast -- moistened with savory pan juices and accompanied by thick wedges of browned potatoes -- or a well-seasoned, deliciously meaty London broil, both apportioned in a manner a lumberjack might appreciate.

When I sampled it, the plump fried chicken had lost its crispness, and its side dishes of green beans and new potatoes were drowned in butter. And forget the underseasoned baked fish, which for all its flavor reminded us of airplane trips past.

If you're looking for a lighter meal, there are usually a few soups (one night a full-flavored, pale pink seafood chowder bolstered with big chunks of stewed tomato) in addition to a small salad bar, made up of sundry fresh vegetables, creamy potato salad, fresh coleslaw, and a mix of diced, multicolored bell peppers. Unfortunately, the spread looks a bit dried out by early evening; someone should keep better watch over its restocking.

For dessert, I'd sidestep the commercial-looking cakes and pies in favor of a fresh fruit cup, abundant with chunks of oranges, several kinds of melon, grapes and perhaps even slices of carambola, that sweet-sour, star-shaped tropical fruit.

One wouldn't consider giving the Encore a standing ovation. But it deserves applause for consistent, reasonably priced food, served up in a dining room that, depending on where you sit, can offer a grand view of the city. Just as important, the Encore is one of the few eateries where being late for a performance can't be blamed on the traffic.

Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.