Diners at Sweet Home Cafe in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Maura Judkis/The Washington Post)

How did you spend your lunch break yesterday? Catching up on your Instagram feed? Browsing shopping emails to find a fall wardrobe?

If you work downtown, you could have spent it in a more edifying fashion: touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture and having lunch at the Sweet Home Cafe.

The museum's new September Walk-up Weekdays have been a boon for visitors to one of the city's most popular museums. The one-month trial program allows free admission on any weekday without reserving advance tickets months in advance, or logging on to the museum website at 6:30 a.m. to reserve same-day passes. While some people still show up hours before the 10 a.m. opening to stake a space in line, others arrive at 9:45 and are through the doors within half an hour. (Passes are still required on weekends.)

[‘I wanted to come back and take my time’: Visitors to African American Museum cheer no need for passes]

Those of us who cannot take the day off work, though, can spend our lunch breaks exploring the museum's multiple floors of galleries and noshing at the Sweet Home Cafe, which is probably the best place to eat on the Mall. I showed up at 12:17 p.m. Wednesday to find the maze of stanchions and barriers outside the museum completely empty. Within five minutes, I made my way down to the cafe, where there were only a few people in line at each of the regional stands: Fried chicken and Gullah-style Hoppin' John star at “The Agricultural South,” while gulf shrimp and stone-ground grits are served at the Creole Coast. There were open seats at cafeteria-style tables throughout the dining room, which is decorated with shelves of green plants and large historical photos of chefs, restaurants and food programs.

[Sweet Home Cafe review: A lesson in how to make history taste good]

Be warned this is not a cheap food truck lunch: Crispy buttermilk fried chicken and two sides, such as collard greens and mac and cheese, sell for $15.85, “Bay spiced” crab cakes and two sides cost $18.95, and a bottle of sparkling water is $3.85.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has drawn big crowds since opening in 2016. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Based on the amount of time you can spend out of the office, you can explore multiple parts of the vast museum: Browse the hip-hop portraits and artifacts in the “Represent: Hip-Hop Photography” exhibition on the second floor, the head-turning pop culture exhibition on the fourth floor, or the parade of jerseys, equipment and video highlights in the “Sports: Leveling the Playing Field” on the third floor.

[The 36 must-see items at the African American Museum]

Given the scale of the museum's three floors of History Galleries, which include such searing artifacts as Emmett Till's casket, slave shackles and a segregated railway car, you probably will not be able to see all of the main exhibition before heading back to work. But because there were no lines to get into the galleries, I was able to dip in and experience at least some the highlights. There is always a reason to come back.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Free.


In September, no weekday passes needed for the African American Museum 

Eat well — and cheap — at this overlooked cafeteria near the Mall