Restaurants and cafeterias on and around the National Mall

Indian Museum restaurant

1. National Museum of the American Indian Mitsitam Cafe

The Mitsitam Cafe has a reputation as one of the better restaurants on the National Mall, but it's expensive and can make for a frustrating dining experience. The menu is presented on no less that eight different flat-screen TVs mounted high above the cafeteria-style serving stations, each with a different selection. It can be difficult to tell the appetizers from the entrees, and it's full of terms like "bannock" and "wajapia." When I visited in December 2015, I overhead one woman say "this is overwhelming" and another say that it was a confusing, but fun, challenge. It can be tough when you are hungry and tired.

I decided on the Buffalo skirt steak with oyster and mushroom stuffing and "goose fat brussels," which would have cost $25.30, including sales tax. But, at 1:15 p.m., they were out of both the buffalo and the brussels sprouts, so I ordered a buffalo BBQ sandwich and a side of a potato salad, which set me back $16.56. The potato salad represented the cuisine of South America, so it had two names: "ensalada de papas y judias verdeso" and "yellow potato & green bean salad with aji amarillo dressing." I drank a large glass of tap water, which I appreciate--there are no hassles here with tiny "courtesy cups" or having to pay for a cup of ice. The food was wholesome, but not outstanding, and disappointing for the price. The BBQ was served without sauce--buffalo is very lean and it's easy to dry it out when cooking, and the cafe did not have BBQ sauce.

The cafe's website says that it offers "the indigenous cuisines of the Americas and [an opportunity] to explore the history of Native foods." It also has "contemporary items with a Native American twist." I thought that American Indians traditionally ate dishes like venison dipped in bear fat, so I was a bit disappointed on my first visit here. Most of the menu items are simply traditional American cuisine with a native angle, such as buffalo burgers with French fries. There are actually two buffalo burgers: a larger one with "New Mexico chili aioli" and pork belly for $19.52 and smaller version for about $8. I had the latter, but the meat was nearly tasteless and overwhelmed by the thick, heavy bun. A side of leeks and fennel sauteed in canola oil ($4) was tasty however.

There is a "bannock wrapped buffalo hot dog" for $12.50 plus tax and "blue berry wajapia." Evidently, bannock is another word for bread. I never did figure out what wajapia is, although the folks who work at the cafe are friendly, and I'm sure that they would tell you if you asked.

Location: National Museum of the American Indian, 4th Street & Independence Avenue, S.W., ground floor.

Air and Space Museum McDonalds restaurant

2. National Air and Space Museum McDonald's Restaurant

This restaurant has been closed for two years (as of 2019) and there is nowhere to eat in the National Air and Space Museum. However, there is another McDonald's restaurant only a block away at the southwest corner of 4th and C streets, S.W. The meals are $5.29 to $8.24 plus tax. There is also a "Dollar Menu" with low-priced items, including a cheeseburger for $1. There's a Quizno's sandwich shop on the same block. Both are on the south side of C Street behind the Department of Education building, which is itself across Independence Avenue from the Air and Space museum.

restaurants in the L'Enfant Plaza food court

3. L'Enfant Plaza food court

This newly renovated shopping mall, which caters to federal office workers, is only two blocks south of the National Mall. It has an obscure location underneath a plaza and two office buildings, and above 9th Street, S.W. It's worth seeking it out because it has about 20 restaurants, and the prices are geared towards locals--a meal here is likely to be better and a few dollars cheaper than the overpriced concessions in the museums. Some of the better-known options are Au Bon Pain, Five Guys, Potbelly sandwiches, Panda Express, Subway, and Starbucks. Five Guys has excellent burgers and fries at little more than the price of McDonald's. There are also several pizza places, with pizza by the slice, and Naan and Beyond (Indian cuisine) and Roti Mediterranean Grill. There is plenty of good indoor seating.

Since the mall caters to office workers, most of the restaurants are closed on Saturday, and everything is closed on Sunday. To get there from the National Mall, cross Independence Avenue and walk south on 10th Street for about two blocks. A boxy glass entrance pavilion will be on your left. Or, head south on 7th Street, then turn right on D Street. You will see red banners hanging on a bunker-like concrete building that show you how to access the mall.

Location: 429 L'Enfant Plaza, S.W.

food trucks near the Washington National Mall

4. Food trucks

On weekdays, a dozen or more food trucks are parked on the 600 block of Maryland Avenue, S.W., only a block from the National Mall. The food is generally better, and the prices cheaper, than the concessions in the museums. To get there, cross Independence Avenue from the National Air and Space Museum and walk a block south on 6th or 7th streets. Some of the many options include a Punjab Curry House truck with Chicken Tikka Masala, two sides, and naan for $8.99; a Korean BBQ truck with spicy pork and white rice for $9.99; a falafel sandwich for $7; and a Chick-fil-A truck with a chicken sandwich for $4.65. At most, or all, of the trucks, a can of soda is $1. On weekends, some of the food trucks can be found parked on the north-south streets on the National Mall.

The downside here is that there is no real seating area, and you will probably have to sit down outside somewhere with your lunch balanced on your lap. There are a few picnic tables outside one of the federal office buildings on the north side of the block. On the south side of Maryland Avenue, there is an office building, Capital Gallery, with a Vie de France restaurant and a Starbucks. Both have plenty of indoor seating. Vie de France has table service and offers sandwiches, salads, and French cafe food.

Location: 600 block of Maryland Avenue, S.W.

Smithsonia Castle restaurant

5. Smithsonian Castle Cafe

The Smithsonian Castle is one of the most interesting and important buildings in Washington from an architectural perspective. The interior of the ground floor, full of medieval-inspired columns and vaulting, is now an information center with exhibits on the Smithsonian and the Castle itself. Unfortunately, the Castle Cafe, located in the main hall, doesn't live up to its surroundings. A ham sandwich came on pumpernickel bread that was thick, heavy, and dry, for $10.41. A bottle of Coke is $3.57 and a cup of coffee is about $4. Tap water is served in tiny "courtesy cups." In spite of the fact that the place was nearly empty, the tables were dirty and there was trash on the floor.

Location: Smithsonian Castle, 1000 Jefferson Drive, S.W., ground floor.

Department of Agriculture cafeteria

6. USDA cafeteria

I wanted to like this place, because it is relatively inexpensive and directly across Independence Avenue from the National Mall. There is a wide variety of prepared food for $7.20 per pound, plus tax, served from steam trays. There are also several food-court-style vendors with a la carte meals, including Mexican and Korean options. The vast seating area was nearly empty at 2 p.m.

I filled my plate with a variety of Asian food, which ran me $6.58. So far, so good. The Singapore-style noodles were firm and not overcooked, as they should be. However, the pork, shrimp, and fried egg that is traditionally mixed into this dish was totally absent, although it's possible that it was picked out by earlier diners. The spring rolls and vegetable dumplings were soggy. The Szechuan fish was covered with a thick brown sauce that looked tasty. The fish itself was fine, but the sauce was "off," as if it had been made by someone with little knowledge of Chinese food, and I was unable to finish it.

One of the vendors offers Korean BBQ. A woman made my dish to order, a small spicy chicken, so I had high hopes for it. Would this be just like mama used to make? She topped white rice in a bowl with sprouts, kimchi, and shredded pickled carrots; and then added the chicken. The juxtaposition of the hot meat on the cold side dishes, which are normally served separately in my experience, was odd. It was like ordering a burger, fries, and salad, and finding it all mixed together in one bowl.

To reach the cafeteria, go to the north side of the USDA's South Building, on Independence Avenue. Enter the door marked "Wing 3" and go through security. You will have to take your belt off and go through security. Head straight down the corridor--the cafeteria is on your left.

Location: U.S. Department of Agriculture South Building, 1200 block Independence Avenue, S.W., ground floor.

Reagan Building Food Court

7. Reagan Building food court

The Ronald Reagan Building has a food court on its lower level with about 17 vendors. Among the better known are Subway sandwiches and Sbarro pizza. The building is a half block north of the American History museum and could be an alternative to the cafeteria in the museum. There is a Flamers for hamburgers, a Chinese place, and Quick Pita, with mediterranean food including gyros, lamb kebobs, hummus, falafel, and fries. A favorite among tour guides is Bassett's Original Turkey, which offers a decent meal of roast turkey and gravy with a choice of sides that includes stuffing, greens, and sweet potatoes, for $9.12 including tax. Sometimes it can be a relief to eat real food after several days of hamburgers and pizza.

From the Mall, cross Constitution Avenue. The Reagan Building is on the other side of the EPA building--either walk up 14th Street or follow the arched pathway through the EPA building. To enter the Reagan Building, you will need to go through security. In the spring, school groups line up to enter on the 14th Street side of the building, so you might be better off trying one of the other entrances.

Location: Ronald Reagan Building, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., lower level

Smithsonian Natural History Museum restaurant

8. National Museum of Natural History Atrium Cafe

This cafeteria is closed for renovation (as of 2019) but there is a temporary cafeteria on the second floor and a small cafe on the ground floor.

Location: National Museum of Natural History, on the National Mall near Constitution Avenue and 10th Street

National Gallery of Art cafeteria, Washington, D.C.

9. National Gallery of Art Cascade Cafe (cafeteria)

Most visitors to the Mall don't realize that the National Gallery of Art is not a part of the Smithsonian, but the concessions are clearly quite different. In any case, my meal here was the best to date on the National Mall. On offer are a variety of entrees, side dishes, and a nice salad bar for $0.77 per pound. A Spanish-style chicken and chorizo stew, mac and cheese, stewed carrots, and a salad came out to $16.44. The chicken was flavorful and moderately spicy, and the mac and cheese had a nice crispy crust. The salad bar had a choice of fresh-looking spinach or mixed greens, plus all the usual toppings.

There is a bar with antipasto-like salad items, also by the pound, and a burger with fries for $6.50 plus tax. That's cheap compared to the other museums, but the burgers were sitting under a heat lamp and looked a bit dry and forlorn. There are sandwiches, with chips and a drink for $11.75 plus tax. Small pizzas are $6.95 and $7.95 plus tax, another relative bargain. A fountain soda is 2.50 plus tax.

The Cascade Cafe is located in the lower level, near the tunnel that connects the two buildings of the National Gallery under Fourth Street, N.W. Beside the cafeteria is the Espresso & Gelato bar with its own checkout line. Two scoops of ice cream is $5.15 and a cup of coffee is 2.60.

Location: National Gallery of Art, near Fourth Street, N.W., lower level

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Cafe

10. National Gallery of Art Pavilion Cafe (Sculpture Garden)

A combination of a beautiful setting and appetizing food make this one of the best places to eat on the National Mall. The cafe is housed in a glass pavilion in the sculpture garden, with a view of the greenery and the nearby fountain and sculpture. Comfortable cafe chairs and a staff that actually cleans the tables makes this more like eating in a real restaurant than a museum cafeteria. You get in line and place your order, the cashier gives you a buzzer, and then you find a seat while you wait for your food. The fare is cafe food, including sandwiches from 9.75 to 10.75, a hot dog for the kids at 6.50, a small Greek salad, and pasta gratin for $8. There are snacks and deserts such as muffins for $2.60 and an eclair for $4.95. (These prices do not include 10% sales tax.)

Location: In the sculpture garden on the north side of the Mall between 7th and 9th streets, between the Natural History Museum and the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. It is directly across Constitution Avenue from the National Archives.

Smithsonian American History Museum restaurant

11. National Museum of American History Stars and Stripes Cafe

Sorry folks, but the BBQ is better at the Natural History Museum next door. It comes in two varieties here: pulled North Carolina pork, and chicken. North Carolina BBQ is traditionally made from both white and dark meat and is topped with vinegar and salt. I ordered a BBQ sandwich with two sides for $14.85. Unfortunately, the pork itself wasn't very tasty, and it's served on a cheap bun that disintegrated as soon as I picked it up. The chicken BBQ comes with a tomato-based sauce, but the fact is that BBQ is not traditionally made with poultry, and it just doesn't work very well. The baked beans are Kansas City style, prepared with BBQ sauce, chili powder, and lots of sugar. To me, it was over-spiced and hard to eat.

There are other options of course: sandwiches are 9.55, and there is a soup that changes daily. Burgers are priced at $6 to 9.95, and fries are 3.95, so a burger, fries, and drink would run you about $15 with tax. A kids' meal is also on offer with options that include a hot dog and chicken tenders, plus fries, a whole fruit, and a juice or small milk for 7.25 plus tax. The cafe is really a large cafeteria, able to accommodate crowds. It's located on the lowest level of the building, with a big sunny dining area facing the new African-American History Museum.

Location: National Museum of American History, Madison Drive between 12th and 14th streets, N.W., lower level

Copyright © Peter R. Penczer 2019