WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian museums house some of the most important artifacts in the world. And when it comes to dining, they can be just as thoughtful with curating their food as they are with their exhibitions, offering a welcome refuge from the often bland food trucks that clutter the Mall.
But keep this in mind the next time you’re craving lunch at a Smithsonian: The cafeterias are not interchangeable. The quality and freshness of food can vary between the museums, and at least two of the cafes could be considered worthy culinary destinations in their own right.
To help you narrow down your options, we’ve ranked the Smithsonian cafes from worst to best. (We didn’t include the National Air and Space Museum in this survey because of ongoing renovations.)
Eat at America’s TableNational Museum of American History
To get to the cafe at the National Museum of American History, you need to go to the lower level and make your way down a hallway. Eat at America’s Table is buried so far back, it’s almost as if they don’t want you to find it.
This wouldn’t be surprising if it were true — the space, which was recently renovated, is about as visually appealing as an outmoded high school cafeteria. The harsh fluorescent lighting accentuates the drab colored walls, and the tables and chairs look as if they haven’t been changed since the founding of America itself.
And then there’s the menu, which is mostly composed of a smattering of dishes that seem to exist solely to satisfy basic cravings, rather than offer an inspiring representation of “America’s Table.” There are three main stations with their own unimaginative menus; the barbecue and grill section, for example, is anchored by a basic pulled pork sandwich, a couple of simple burger options, chicken tenders, hot dogs and fries.
The only interesting highlight of this cafe is a view of the stoic bronze facade of the National Museum of African American History and Culture — a museum you wish you would have picked for lunch instead.
If you go, get this: Look for something off the American Table menu, which features a changing slate of cuisines from various geographic regions and seasons, and also pays tribute to notable holidays. In November, the station offered a special Native American Heritage menu that included a juniper roasted cedar plank salmon combo ($17.45).
1300 Constitution Ave. NW. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Courtyard CafeNational Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum
The smallest of the cafes surveyed here, the offerings at the National Portrait Gallery are fairly serviceable. Lunch consists of basic sandwiches, such as a grilled cheese and tomato bisque; a chopped chicken salad; and meat and cheese plates. But what it lacks in food it makes up for in alcohol, notably its wide variety of wine. Next to the counter is a station where you can pour six types of wines by the glass, including a rosé, a pinot grigio and a Bordeaux blend.
The real selling point of this cafe, however, is its location in the Kogod Courtyard, a cavernous, light-filled atrium that is one of the most serene indoor hangouts Washington, D.C., has to offer. There’s an abundance of tables and chairs near the cafe where you can park for a few minutes, or spend an entire day with your laptop, if you wanted to. With free WiFi, the cafe is a choice spot for students and remote workers who need a quiet place to get things done.
If you go, get this: The grilled cheese and tomato bisque ($10) isn’t anything fancy, but it’s a classic pairing for the colder months when you just want to be holed up somewhere cozy indoors.
Eighth and F streets NW. 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; lunch menu available until 3 p.m. on weekdays and 4 p.m. on weekends.
Ocean Terrace CafeNational Museum of Natural History
The Ocean Terrace Cafe is a godsend for vegetarians and vegans in need of dining options on the Mall. The recently opened first-floor food stop puts a sharper focus on sustainability and locally sourced produce compared with the Natural History Museum’s main cafeteria on the ground level.
The vegetable grain bowls are filling and flavorful, and should appeal even to meat lovers. The Mediterranean Curve Bowl is a hearty medley of mixed greens, carrots, feta cheese, pistachios, fennel, golden raisins and saffron Israeli couscous topped with lemon herb dressing (you can add salmon, grilled chicken or tofu for a few dollars more). There’s also a small sandwich menu that includes a smoked turkey and an Italian option called the MEG, and around the corner is a Peet’s Coffee stand complete with a gelato station for an after-lunch treat.
The Ocean Terrace feels wholly attached to the entire museum experience, too — this is the spot where you’ll see a 52-foot-long model of a mega-toothed shark, which greets you at the entrance.
If you go, get this: The Fall Harvest Bowl ($9.75) is a zesty blend of kale, toasted pumpkin seeds and tri-color quinoa that’s balanced with cranberries and roasted butternut squash to add a touch of sweetness. It’s worth shelling out an extra $3 for the boneless grilled chicken breast if you want protein.
Tenth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; lunch menu available until 3 p.m.
Sweet Home CafeNational Museum of African American History and Culture
Everything at the Smithsonian’s newest museum feels massive, from the building itself down to the food it serves at its basement level cafeteria. Portions are quite generous here, and you’ll wish there were take-home boxes to finish it all. One of the cafe’s most popular offerings, the Southern fried chicken combo, includes two extra-large buttermilk chicken pieces with two sides (on a recent visit, the macaroni and cheese and slow braised collards were served in such big portions that they practically crushed the small paper bowls underneath them).
Sweet Home Cafe is divided into four geographic areas that are significant to African American history: the Agricultural South, the Creole Coast, the North States and the Western Range. At these stations, you’ll find such traditional eats as the Gullah-style Hoppin’ John (Agricultural South), made with Carolina rice, sea island red peas and house smoked bacon. There’s also the pan-fried Louisiana catfish po’ boy (Creole Coast), served with red pepper rémoulade and pickled green bean.
While the cafe’s selection is impressive, the freshness of its food can be a hit or miss depending on how long the dish has been sitting out (on that recent visit, the fried chicken was a bit dry when served). Still, Sweet Home is a worthy destination that follows the museum’s ethos of offering a comprehensive lesson on African American history; prints and images of artifacts from the museum’s sweeping collection adorn the walls.
If you go, get this: Sweet Home reigns supreme among these cafes when it comes to dessert: The banana pudding with Nilla wafer cookies ($6.10) is worth saving room for. As for entrees, the fried chicken combo ($16.35) is a good place to start, if you’re overwhelmed with the options.
1400 Constitution Ave. NW. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Mitsitam Native Foods CafeNational Museum of the American Indian
If the Mitsitam Cafe were its own eatery separate from the American Indian Museum, it could stand toe-to-toe with the city’s busiest lunch spots. The sheer diversity of its culinary cuisines is impressive — there are five food stations serving dishes from the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains regions. The cafe offers traditional Native foods, such as the Indian Taco made with fry bread and topped with beef chili, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and mild green chilies, and contemporary fare such as Pozole con Puerco and Coctel de Mariscos.
But what puts Mitsitam in a different caliber from its museum cafe counterparts is the freshness of the food and the way its prepared. The bison burger, one of the best items at the cafe, is made to order, seared over fire on a grill and topped with cheddar cheese. This is why getting most things to eat here takes a little longer than other cafes, but the wait is worth it — you’re getting the best food the Smithsonian has to offer.
Aside from its menu, the seating areas at Mitsitam are another reason to stay a while — many of the communal tables have unobstructed views of the cascades that freely flow at the entrance of the museum.
If you go, get this: The Indian Taco ($14.50) might be the cafe’s signature dish, but try going outside the status quo and grab a bison burger ($16.75) with the works — lettuce, onion, cheddar cheese and green chili. Make sure to order a side of the crispy homemade chips too, which are light enough that they won’t make you feel weighed down after you’re done.
Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.