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Insider’s Guide to Museums: Museum Dining

The best in museum dining, from salmon to gelato

Most museums offer a feast for the eyes. But the food at museum cafes isn't always artful. Here's what to eat–and what to avoid.

Between the National Gallery of Art's neoclassical West Building and the angular East Building, you have options. We found the best food at the West Building's quietly elegant indoor Garden Café, where you sit at wrought-iron tables amid potted ivy and palms. The à la carte menu offers a prosciutto-and-Brie sandwich ($12.95) slathered with fig jam and a roasted portobello mushroom and chèvre salad ($12.95). Or nibble from the buffet spread ($16.95) of salad greens, cheese, and fruit. A surprisingly nice selection of wines is available.

The sprawling Cascade Café, in the underground concourse between the two wings, is set off with colorful reproductions of culinary paintings such as Wayne Thiebaud's "Cakes." But we found less appealing fare: tired-looking wraps, congealed pizza, and greasy burgers and fries. A better choice altogether is the adjacent Espresso Bar, which serves espresso drinks and Harney & Sons tea, baguette sandwiches, and more than 20 flavors of creamy gelato, from a deep chocolate to mango and coconut.

In the East Building, the Terrace Café serves a pleasant Sunday brunch for $19.95. The buffet includes pain perdu, spinach quiche, and roasted pork with verjuice.

Garden Café and Cascade Café are open Monday through Saturday 10 to 3 and Sunday 11 to 4. Espresso Bar is open Monday through Saturday 10 to 4:30 and Sunday 11 to 5:30. Terrace Café is open Sunday 11 to 3.

For a quick bite, head to the International Spy Museum's cool Spy City Café, which serves deli sandwiches and wraps, grilled panini, and a variety of green salads. Our favorites are the Spy City dogs–Hebrew National franks dressed up with creative toppings ($2.25 to $3.50). Try the spicy Red Square dog, a half-smoke laden with Dijon mustard, chili sauce, red peppers, and red-cabbage slaw; the Eastern Bloc dog, with sauerkraut and fried pickles; or the Langley dog, dripping with chili, cheddar, and onions. Wash them down with a Boylan's black-cherry soda or Route 22 root beer.

If you feel like lounging, the bar at Modern American restaurant Zola is a nice place for drinks and appetizers. There are inventive alcoholic and nonalcoholic cocktails, a good wine list, and a short menu of small plates and sandwiches. The chorizo and cheddar fondue ($9) is a perfect share, and the roasted-pork sandwich ($16)–piled so high it looks like it'll topple–is delicious.

Spy City Café is open Monday through Friday 8 to 6 and Saturday and Sunday 10 to 5. Zola is open Monday through Friday 11:30 AM to midnight, Saturday 5 to midnight, and Sunday 5 to 10.

Its name means "let's eat" in Piscataway, and at the Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian, there's a nice selection of regional Native American foods (with some American fast-food items mixed in). At the Meso America station, there are excellent braised-pork pibil tacos with smoky salsa and cotija cheese ($6.95). Stop by the Great Plains station for chili-corn fries, the ash-roasted chicken sandwich ($7.95), and the greasy-but-good fry bread with honey. The Northern Woodlands area brings Quahog clam chowder, lobster rolls, and wild-rice salad. Bags of pepitas (spiced pumpkin seeds) make for nice munchies. On the dessert end, we found the maple popcorn balls to be stale. Get a cup of Mexican hot chocolate instead.

Mitsitam Café is open daily 10 to 5.

While the cafeteria-like subterranean Main Street Café at the National Museum of American History isn't much to look at, we found a hefty roast-beef sandwich with Havarti and horseradish ($6.75), thin-crust pepperoni pizza ($4.95), and crumbly wedges of Black Forest and carrot cake. Upstairs in the Palm Court Gelato Bar, done up like a Victorian ice-cream parlor with ferns and ornate mirrors, there are prepackaged salads and sandwiches, espresso drinks, and a nice selection of gelato flavors. It's a pretty place, but the loud Subway sandwich shop nearby can kill the mood.

Main Street Café, Palm Court Gelato Bar, and Subway are open daily 10 to 5:30.

Tucked beyond the National Museum of Natural History's skeletons of T-rex and friends is the new Fossil Cafe, which serves good baguette sandwiches ($6.75 to $7.50), fresh turkey cobb salads, and Rice Krispies Treats, fruit tarts, and brownies fit for Jurassic appetites. It has Foggy Bottom ale, Pellegrino sodas, and wine and is smaller and more pleasant than the cavernous downstairs Atrium Cafe. Amid the shrink-wrapped sandwiches there, you'll find trays of macaroni and cheese, barbecue beef, and rotisserie chicken.

Fossil Cafe is open daily 10 to 5, Atrium Cafe daily 11 to 4.

You won't find anything in the glass-enclosed Wright Place Food Court that matches the National Air and Space Museum's innovation. You might as well be in a suburban mall. It holds a McDonald's, Boston Market, and Donato's pizzeria. Just above it lies the Mezza Café, where there are coffee drinks, gyros, and dry soft pretzels. It promises pastries, but all we found were plastic-wrapped bran muffins and cheese danishes. A retro alternative: Take a leap back to childhood and grab an icy snowball or Jumbo Jet pop from one of the street vendors.

Food Court and Mezza Café are open daily 10 to 5.

At Mount Vernon, George and Martha would approve of the Mount Vernon Inn's charming, fire-lit dining room with a pretty view of the Potomac. Diners can choose Continental fare such as mesquite-grilled salmon ($16.75), roast duck with apricot ($17.50), and spinich salad with warm bacon dressing ($4.95). Or there are Colonial-style set menus ($36 to $39), which might include hoe cakes with Smithfield ham and crab, grilled rabbit, and peanut-and-chestnut soup, all served by waitstaff in period costume. At lunch, look for leafy salads and hearty entrées such as meatloaf ($7.95) and Colonial turkey pie ($6.75).

The more casual Food Court serves Pizza Hut pies and Mrs. Field's cookies.

Mount Vernon Inn is open daily 11 to 3:30 and Monday through Saturday 5 to 9. The Food Court is open daily 8:30 to 6 through August.

The quiet cafe at Hillwood Museum, Marjorie Merriweather Post's former estate, nods to her collection of French and Russian art. Borscht–the staple Russian beet soup ($4)–is popular year-round, while a croque monsieur and boursin chicken debut this summer ($12 to $15). Tea ($12 per person), which includes fruit, cookies, and scones, is served in the afternoon.

Hillwood Cafe is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 to 4:30. Tea begins at 2:30.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.