Sunday, April 26, 2009

Eating at the (National) Mall

Yesterday, the weather in the DC area was beautiful, my husband was home from his week-long work trip to California and Arizona, and we decided that we'd take the kiddo to the Air & Space Museum. For a moment, we vacillated between the one in DC and the one closer to us in Virginia, but we decided that the one in DC is free (you pay $15 to park at the VA one) and, with the weather as gorgeous as it was, it would be nice to just walk around the Mall for a bit.

We managed to avoid the IMF/World Bank protests on our way in, and found a parking spot in front of the Museum of Natural History, which is a bit of a walk from Air & Space but not too bad. We discussed for a moment where we should eat (it was 2:00 and we hadn't had lunch yet) and decided that Air & Space would be fine. We had heard that the cafeteria had converted to a McDonald's but we also remembered there being a sit-down restaurant which we both had fond memories of, and we thought we'd eat there.

We were sorely disappointed. McDonald's actually has taken over the entire cafeteria and restaurant space at the Air & Space museum, so there is no longer a sit-down restaurant. the only saving grace is that they had a couple of options from a pizza chain (that I assume they own) and a few options from Boston Market. The only kid's options were from McDonald's. We ordered a cheeseburger happy meal for the kid (with apples, though they did not appear to offer juice or milk; I might have been wrong about that and I was too flustered, hot, and pregnant to remember to ask). I ordered the 1/4 chicken white meat from Boston Market, and my husband had a carver sandwich. It cost us a total of $24 for the three meals. I'm really not kidding. $24!!! And with NO options. The sandwich was just a sandwich, with no sides. The chicken came with corn and potatoes with no options for anything else. We ate our food as if out of obligation and swore to research food options before our next foray into the city.

This is what I know so far, from my own more recent experiences, some research to make sure some of my older experiences weren't now out of date, and a few other things that I have come across. 

I also can't believe how long this is getting, but I will press on for the sake of my (albeit small) readership. :-D

First of all, just because it is a cafeteria does not make it bad. Some places actually have great options and great kid's options as well. 

The Natural History Museum, which as I mentioned we were parked in front of, actually has a fantastic cafeteria that we have been to since the renovation of the museum a few years ago. In fact, we might have actually gone there if we weren't looking to have a sit-down meal. The museum actually has three places to eat--a small sandwich place, an ice cream stand, and the Atrium Cafe, which is the big cafeteria. There, you can get pizza, sandwiches, soups, salads, and rotisserie chicken. There are different stands for each type of food, so if your family wants different items, you'll have to split up and meet back up. It's a minor annoyance but worth it for the food. The sandwiches are delicious and unusual (and BIG! Two can share), and they have dessert options that include sweets and fruit, and drink options that include juices and bottled water, so you don't feel like you're stuck in HFCS hell. Most of the stands have a kid's meal option, so for instance, you can get a small piece of pizza, a piece of fruit and a drink and have a fairly happy kid as long as he doesn't see the cake on the way out.

The American History museum has a very similar cafeteria plan, with again, a smaller place to eat on the first floor and massive cafeteria on the ground floor. As I recall, the food is pretty much almost exactly the same as at the Natural History museum.

I have not been there yet, but I have heard great things about the cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian. Supposedly, the food helps to expand the museum experience by offering native (or native-ish) fare. If you have been, please let me know more. (the plus for this one is that if you happen to be at Air & Space and get hungry, it is the closest museum to the A&S).

If you want a sit-down place, go to the National Gallery of Art. It's been a while since I'd been there so I had to make sure it was still there (the restaurant, not the gallery). While there is a cafeteria on the ground floor between the east and west wings, by far the best food is at the Garden Cafe in the West building on the Ground Floor. They often have a buffet with menu options as well. It's pricey, but truthfully, if you're going to pay for lunch you may as well pay for a good lunch. I have extremely fond memories of this place. They actually have their menu on the web

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the various vendors. I'm pregnant so a hot dog is not the best option for me on a 90 degree day, but sometimes the best lunch can be found from a hot dog vendor. Grab a few, pull up a spot of grass (if you can find one) and have a picnic. That said, if you're driving in from Virginia, stop at the Spout Run exit on the GW parkway and go grab some sandwiches from the Italian Store on your way in. You'll just have to eat them before you hit a museum.

If you happen to be on the Capitol Building side of the Mall, and don't mind a bit of a walk, head over to Union Station. It's probably got the most options for both sit-down and fast food. And if you're the type who wants something familiar, they even have an Uno's that overlooks the great hall; great for the view, standard for the fare. 

I do hope this helps you plan your own trip. I certainly will be planning more carefully next time!


  1. I have been to the cafe at NMAI several times, and it is excellent. I don't know about specific kids' options, but most stations have various sides you could put together into a pretty fun kid plate.

    It's a little expensive (though at least it's not McDonalds for the price), and a little confusing the first time: it's cafeteria style, but there are different stations based on different regions' cuisine.

  2. Susan, thank you! It seems to be a trend that they have different stations at the cafeterias--I suppose you'd either wing it or take a tour before ordering :)

  3. Do they still have the gelato place at the National Gallery? One can never have too much gelato.

  4. Yep, as far as I know, the gelato place is still there :)