Imagine you've been roaming the National Mall for hours, when America's front yard can feel like America's front line, and your kids suddenly hit the wall. Not the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, but the invisible wall of hunger, the one that leaves young ones crankier than a one-eyed purple Minion hankering for a banana.
Now imagine you don’t have bottled water or Goldfish snacks to calm your savage preteen. Where near the vast Mall would you turn, when even a short walk with a famished child can feel like a Lewis and Clark expedition over the Great Divide? The Mall, after all, is a contradictory landscape: It's packed with food options, most of which reveal nothing about the D.C. scene.
Sure, you could duck into the National Air and Space Museum and quiet those rumbling tummies with a Happy Meal from McDonald's in the Wright Place Food Court. Or you could follow our advice.
Quick bites and sips
Dolcezza Cafe at the Hirshhorn is the local coffee and gelato chain's most stylish location, designed by Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Sip espresso drinks in the museum lobby on seats made from a 700 year-old chestnut tree, or enjoy gelato push-pops in the courtyard. Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW.
L’Enfant Plaza Metro station, where many fine food trucks gather on weekdays, is the site of some serious street fare. 600 Maryland Ave. SW.
Mitsitam Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian is hands-down the best of the museum cafeterias, dishing up interesting indigenous foods in a pleasant setting. Fourth Street and Independence Ave. SW.
National Place food court has lots of seating, with fare from local burger and fries favorite Five Guys and Korean taco joint TaKorean. 1331 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.
Pitango sells excellent gelato far better than the packaged treats hawked from carts around the museums. 413 Seventh St. NW, 202-885-9607.
Red Apron has some first-rate sandwiches that will keep you satiated for hours. 709 D St. NW, 202 524 5244.
Sweet Home Cafe is the perfect destination after touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The four regional menus include fried chicken from the Agricultural South and shrimp and grits representing the Creole Coast. 1400 Constitution Ave. NW.
Teaism is great for a quick, healthful meal or pot of tea, plus kids love the koi pond in the eatery's lower level. 400 Eighth St. NW, 202-638-6010.
The USDA Farmers Market, held weekly from May through October, offers prepared foods from local producers as well as fresh meats and vegetables. Snack on crabcakes, pizza, grilled cheese or ice cream while picnicking on provided blankets. Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. 12th Street and Independence Avenue SW.
The USDA South Building Cafeteria features stations offering affordable pizza, burritos and sushi, but don't mistake the Department of Agriculture's in-house eatery for your standard food court. The large cafeteria is notable for its focus on healthy eating: Menus and labels list important nutritional information, such as calories and sodium content, while steering diners to tasty dishes with no cholesterol or low saturated fat. 1400 Independence Ave. SW. 202-488-7279.
With more time and money
China Chilcano is chef-and-restaurateur José Andrés's ambitious take on Peruvian, Chinese and Japanese fusion fare. 418 Seventh St. NW, 202-783-0941.
Oyamel, a Mexican Andrés property that prepares tight, ingredient-focused small plates, can be ideal for curious palates with more fixed budgets. 401 Seventh St. NW, 202-628-1005.
The Partisan, Red Apron's sister restaurant, serves meats of various ages and heat treatments, from the raw to the dry-cured and everything in between. 709 D St. NW, 202-524-5322.
Old Ebbitt Grill, speaking of history, is a saloon and oyster slurptopia that can trace its origins to 1856. 675 15th St. NW, 202-347-4800.
[This story was originally published Sept. 16, 2015, and has been updated. Becky Krystal and Fritz Hahn contributed to this report.]