Food  |  Parenting

5 DC Cafeteria Meals That Will Make You Feel Sad About Your Lunch

Cafeteria meals have such a bad rap that a brown-bag PB&J once sat higher on the food chain. No longer. Between federal food czars and DC’s new foodie-ism, US agencies, nonprofits, and schools have upgraded what’s on the average Washingtonian’s tray. We sought out the best lunches in town.

Kramer Middle School

DC cafeteria meals: Turkey tacos with corn salsa and green salad, apple, and milk. Photograph by Andrew Propp.
Turkey tacos with corn salsa and green salad, apple, and milk. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

No culinary concept has been scrutinized in the Michelle Obama age more than the school lunch. At Kramer in Southeast DC, a pilot program replicates the fresh ingredients and custom ordering of fast-casual joints such as Chipotle while hewing to the District’s 2010 Healthy Schools Act. So nanny-state calorie counting pays off? Public-schools food director Rob Jaber credits kids’ taste for new flavors to the popularity of shows like Top Chef.

American Enterprise Institute

DC cafeteria meals: Charbroiled Maine lobster with marjoram butter sauce in a tomato concassé. Photograph by Andrew Propp.
Charbroiled Maine lobster with marjoram butter sauce in a tomato concassé. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

Salt-crusted beef tenderloin, whiskey-smoked rack of lamb, Kobe beef, and duck are staples for the red-tie crowd at the conservative think tank in downtown DC—and that’s just the buffet. “We try not to get too repetitive,” deadpans chef Richard McCreadie, formerly of the Ritz-Carlton, in a Scottish brogue. The high-end grub comes in handy when VIP panelists stay for lunch and McCreadie has minutes to whip the day’s chow-line offering into an elegant sit-down.

Wilmerhale

DC cafeteria meals: Short rib in bacon brunoise with confit potato rings, beech mushrooms, and Brussels-sprout leaves. Photograph by Andrew Propp.
Short rib in bacon brunoise with confit potato rings, beech mushrooms, and Brussels-sprout leaves. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

The acres of Italian marble at the law firm’s Pennsylvania Avenue digs are enough to make a Medici blush. In the penthouse cafe (no “-teria,” thanks), the beautifully plated fare is similarly fit for a princeling. If the sumptuous meal doesn’t suit you, order an impromptu Ethiopian or Thai dish. Lunching at your computer? Executive chef Zubin Joseph will have a crabcake, locally-raised-turkey sandwich, or a hot entrée delivered to your desk. Says Joseph: “It’s all about hospitality.”

Holton-Arms School

DC cafeteria meals: Middle Eastern feast with lamb and beef kofta kebabs, fattoush salad, and Persian rice pudding. Photograph by Andrew Propp.
Middle Eastern feast with lamb and beef kofta kebabs, fattoush salad, and Persian rice pudding. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

The private all-girls elementary and high school in Bethesda has its picky eaters—that’s what pizza day is for. But Jay Keller of Meriwether Godsey (which also caters Sidwell Friends) hears raves on student surveys about the Brazilian-style slow-roasted pork, kimchee, and bibim bap. Even if kids can’t pronounce a dish, Keller says that “the more times we serve it, the numbers get really good.” What passes for junk food for these precocious palates? Oven-roasted kale, says Keller: “They’ll go through 40 pounds a day.”

National Geographic Society

DC cafeteria meals: Filet mignon pho in star anise-scented broth, with bean-sprout, pepper, and mushroom toppings. Photograph by Andrew Propp.
Filet mignon pho in star anise-scented broth, with bean-sprout, pepper, and mushroom toppings. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

When you’ve just hauled in from photographing a fossil find in Zambia, a burger and fries won’t cut it. Luckily, the National Geographic canteen’s vendor, Sodexo, serves authentic ethnic specialties, often tapping staffers’ home cooking. Sustainable touches, such as basil picked on the roof garden and locally grown produce, ensure that the food aligns with the Geographic’s mission. Global cuisine also fits an adventure journalist’s budget: The meal shown here costs $7.

This article appears in our March 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

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Paul O'Donnell

Freelance writer Paul O’Donnell is @paulwodonnell on Twitter.