News & Politics

Artful Meals: Where to Dine in Museums

You can find first-rate cafes in museums—or a short walk away

The Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian offers some of the city’s best museum food. Photograph by Tyler Wilson.

Washington’s museums and tourist attractions might have lots of masterpieces, but a masterful meal? That’s harder to find. Many on-the-premises cafes offer mostly rewarmed (or cold) cafeteria fare.

But there’s hope—the three-year-old National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe is a destination in itself with the best museum eats in the city.

And the Newseum, which opens in its new location (555 Pennsylvania Ave., NW) on October 15, has hired chef Wolfgang Puck to oversee its new restaurant, the Source, which will open in September. And no, it won’t look like one of his airport cafes or feature his line of frozen pizzas. The dining room and an open-till-midnight lounge will pull together the Cali-fusion dishes from Puck’s spiffier restaurants—Spago and Chinois in Los Angeles and Postrio in San Francisco. Expect prices more in line with fine-dining spots than grab-and-go museum restaurants.

There’s no shortage of cafes and restaurants around most of the major museums, and it’s often worth the short walk. So where should you eat if you’re heading out for a day of sightseeing? Here’s our guide to finding great meals, if not at the museums themselves then close by.

National Gallery of Art, Museum of Natural History

If gazing at Manet’s culinary still lifes is making you hungry, you’re in luck. Inside the gallery’s West Building, there’s the pretty, fountainside Garden Cafe, with both a buffet ($17.95 a person) and an à la carte menu of French nibbles: salade niçoise drizzled with Champagne vinaigrette; pork rilletes with grilled baguette; and a grilled ham-and-Emmantaler croque monsieur (entrées $10.95 to $16.95). For dessert, head over to the Espresso Bar in the walkway between the East and West wings for a swirling scoop of rich gelato.

If you’re in the mood for something fancier, walk a few blocks to Le Paradou (678 Indiana Ave., NW), run by celebrated French chef Yannick Cam. Lunch there is a deal: $32 for three courses—and you get full run of the menu. Lobster with carrot-ginger sauce and porcini-stuffed quail are standouts. Also within walking distance and less formal is Rasika (633 D St., NW), a colorful spot for artfully modern takes on Indian specialties such as frizzled spinach with tamarind chutney and lamb rogan josh (lunch entrées $14 to $28).

Hirshhorn Museum, National Air and Space Museum, Museum of the American Indian

The Hirshhorn’s outdoor stand sells standard-issue salads and prewrapped sandwiches, and the Air and Space Museum’s food court is overpriced fast food (McDonald’s, Boston Market). But the nearby Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe (Fourth St. and Independence Ave., SW) has a glassy cafeteria with five food stations serving Native American cuisines. The South American station offers green-chili-spiked chicken tamales, tender pork pibil, and an array of aguas frescas. At the Northwest stand, there’s cedar-scented salmon and brightly flavored salads and vegetable dishes. And kids and adults both love tearing into the puffy, honey-drizzled fry bread from the Great Plains (entrées $7 to $13.95).

Dumbarton Oaks, Tudor Place

These historic mansions, set back amid the picturesque residential streets of Georgetown, both have beautifully manicured gardens that make a serene setting for a picnic. You’ll find provisions at Patisserie Poupon (1645 Wisconsin Ave., NW), a French boulangerie with plump croissants, baguette sandwiches ($5.95), and bottles of Orangina, and at the Bean Counter (1665 Wisconsin Ave., NW), which does a terrific pressed Cuban sandwich ($7.50). For something sweet, wander over to Dolcezza (1560 Wisconsin Ave., NW) for Argentinean-style gelato and seasonal sorbets. Looking for a sit-down meal? The Istanbul-inspired Cafe Divan (1834 Wisconsin Ave., NW) serves marvelous sigara borek and doner kebab (lunch entrées $9.95 to $16).

Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, International Spy Museum

There’s no shortage of good eats in Penn Quarter. Groups big and small can relax over the shareable parade of small plates at Zaytinya (701 Ninth St., NW) and Jaleo (480 Seventh St., NW), both run by the avant garde Spanish chef José Andrés. Zaytinya, across the street from the American Art Museum and the Portrait Gallery, is an all-white dining room that specializes in Mediterranean mezze. Don’t miss the hunkar begendi, the spinach and feta in house-made phyllo, or the apricots with Greek yogurt (mezze $4.95 to $11.95). At nearby Jaleo, you’ll find carafes of sangria and traditional Spanish tapas—bacon-wrapped dates, tomato bread with manchego, and shavings of lomo and jamon Iberico (tapas $4.25 to $9.95).

Poste, a mod-American hotel dining room on the same block as the Spy Museum, showcases seasonal ingredients (the chef has an herb garden out back) and one of the most delicious roast chickens we’ve tasted (lunch entrées $12 to $19).

If you’ve got kids in tow, a good bet is Matchbox (713 H St., NW), which serves up addictive mini burgers and crisp woodfired pizzas ($10 to $18).

Phillips Collection

It’s home to Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” and Stuart Davis’s “Corner Cafe,” and now the Phillips has a new place to eat. The airy cafe, which is hung with photos of founder Duncan Phillips and overlooks the sculpture courtyard, offers turnovers, muffins, salads, sandwiches, and panini from the local Firehook Bakery. If the weather’s nice, try Sette Osteria’s outdoor patio (1666 Connecticut Ave., NW), a short walk away, to linger over bottles of Sangiovese, antipasti, and thin-crust pizzas ($9 to $13) topped with gaeta olives or arugula. Also nearby is Teaism (2009 R St., NW), a low-key teahouse with pan-Asian small plates ($2 to $6.50), lunchtime bento boxes ($8.75), and a selection of tisanes and loose-leaf teas. The ginger-chai milkshake is a great refresher.

National Zoo

Some of the city’s best pizza is within walking distance of the pandas and prairie dogs. For delicious takeout slices ($1.55 each) and cans of Italian orange soda, head north to Vace (3315 Connecticut Ave., NW), a tiny deli with a loyal following. Four long blocks west at 2 Amys (3715 Macomb St., NW), crowds pile in for artisan pies served with adornments like house-cured sausages and in-shell cockles (pizzas $8.95 to $12.95). The crostini and small-plate specials are just as good. To drink, try the fizzy red Gragnano wine or the Vesuvio, a brisk cocktail of grapefruit juice and prosecco.

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.