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Museum Going – Where To Eat

Jordan Wright
Published: Georgetowner/Downtowner – Wright on Food
September 2009

With a wealth of museums housing the greatest concentration of art and artifacts in America, Washington, DC stands alone as a destination for those seeking culture and edification. Thousands of tourists, school children and families delighted to see their “taxpayers dollars at work”, take advantage of the (mostly free) museums every year and try to pack in as much as possible. But to what end? “Cultural overload” can be a serious side effect. It occurs when the overtired and over-edified visitor struggles to recall the provenance of something they have viewed that day. Was it a Matisse, Degas or Morissot? A highly intricate Native American beaded object, was it Navaho or Zuni? Perhaps an ancient Chinese scroll…was it Han Dynasty or Tang? Even one more magnificent painting, artifact or sculpture can prove one too many.

Without a stop along the way to decompress and review the wonders of the day over a meal in a pleasant spot, we can’t really process our experiences. After all it’s not just about ticking off a laundry list of must-sees if we can’t remember what we saw.

Always when touring, our family motto is as follows: ”Retreat!”…the part where you find a nice calm place to relax; “Regroup!”…the participants convene to review the day’s adventures, and partake in restorative food and drink; and “Attack!”…the point at which you head back out with renewed vigor or at least enough strength to go home. It’s a no-variation prescription for sightseeing I highly recommend.

Many of our largest museums are massed on the Mall. Some museums have in-house dining options, some are lovely, some very crowded and others merely satisfy fast food choices…to wit there’s a McDonald’s and Boston Market in the National Air and Space Museum. Avoid at all costs. For our purposes we seek a charming respite, a pleasant destination that is too small or too high-end to service bus tours. I like to think that having a proper meal is both reward and celebration for the day’s adventure and, gastronomically speaking, part of your day’s artistic experience.

What follows is my short list of places to enjoy in and around the most visited museums and attractions. And unlike Boston, New York or Philadelphia whose museums charge up to $20.00 in entry fees, here in DC we have none or very minimal admission and we can put those savings into finer dining options.

Cedar-planked Juniper Salmon over the fire pit at Mitsitam Café – (credit to the Café at National Museum of the American Indian)

Cedar-planked Juniper Salmon over the fire pit at Mitsitam Café – (credit to the Café at National Museum of the American Indian)

Nearby to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the International Spy Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Newseum, the National Archives, the National Museum of Crime and Punishment and the National Museum for Women in the Arts are Acadiana, Café Mozart, Zola, Siroc, The Source, Teaism and Poste Moderne…each beckoning with a vastly different epicurean siren song.

Acadiana is helmed by Chef Jeff Tunks and shows off the spirit of Louisiana with dishes like a Trio of Pies featuring Natchitoches Meat Pie, Louisiana Crawfish Pie and Southern Vegetable Pie with Black Pepper Buttermilk Dipping Sauce, Seafood Gumbo or their signature Barbeque Shrimp and finish with French Market Beignets with Chicory Coffee Creme Anglaise.
901 New York Avenue, NW

Little Café Mozart revels in its Bavarian fare. Veal Schnitzels, German Potato Pancakes, Rouladen and Viennese Beef Goulash. Enjoy your “foodcation” with Black Forest Cake with Kirshwasser, Whipped Cream and Morello Cherries, Linzer Torts and Apple Strudel. All made in house.
1331 H Street, NW

Zola, under the culinary magic of Chef Bryan Moscatello, who also oversees neighboring Potenza, is a sleek yet intimate and sultry spot with sexy red velvet banquettes. Its menu ranges from local Green Hill Farms Lamb with Hazelnut and Sheep Ricotta Ravioli with Red Romaine and Sweet Shallot Puree to An American “Hot Pot” of Shrimp, Scallops, Clams, Mussels and Salmon poached in a Sweet Corn Tomato broth served with Quinoa and Grilled Chorizo. Pastry Chef Christopher Kujala makes a Mud Pie with espresso Kahlua freddo, Oreo Brownie and Bourbon Pecan Butterscotch. Yes, that’s all just one dessert! For fun he even makes throwback Whoopie Pies. This coming February they will co-host a special Spy event for kids with their next-door neighbors.

The Spy Museum.Zola Restaurant - Photo by Jordan Wright

The Spy Museum.Zola Restaurant - Photo by Jordan Wright

800 F Street, NW

Siroc ‘s intriguing Mediterranean allure and creative Italian influence reveal dishes like Baby Octopus Salami with oven-dried Cherry Tomatoes and Red Pepper and Arugula Pesto, a whole host of paninis, handmade pastas like gnocchi and pappardelle and Squid Ink Capellini with Baby Clams or Cappelacci filled with Lobster and Roasted Corn with a Sweet Pepper Beurre Blanc. Round off your meal with Bosc Pear poached in Red Wine and Ginger with Mascarpone Ice Cream and Ginger Cream. You can dine inside or outside on the patio.
915 15th Street, NW

Poste Moderne Brasserie in the Hotel Monaco has become a destination spot for diners. Its relaxed modern American cuisine by Chef Robert Weland focuses on ingredient-driven preparations. A pre-theatre menu, or as I like to call it après museum-going dinner, served from 5 to 6:30 pm, features such choices as Arugula Salad with Basil, Fresh Figs, Parmesan and Aged Sherry Vinaigrette, Pastured Chicken with Toasted Farro, Sweet Corn and Chanterelles and a lovely Peach Papillote with fresh Ricotta and Lavender Ice Cream. Or you could start off your weekend with a Saturday or Sunday Brunch here, indoor or outdoor. How lovely for the fall!
555 8th Street, NW

In the Newseum Wolfgang Puck’s The Source has taken this town by storm with its stunning décor, spectacular views of the city and a highly acclaimed menu. Opening to rave reviews this very pricey restaurant offers an eclectic upscale Asian menu as inspiring and beautiful as the art in our museums. Lacquered Chinese Duckling with Lo Mein Noodles and Bing Cherry Compote or Grilled Lamb Chops, Hunan Eggplant, Pea Tendrils and Chili-Mint Vinaigrette titillate the palate. Kobe Short Ribs with Indian Spices and Raita prove irresistible. The restaurant offers sake pairings to enlighten the seeker.
575 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Among the marble columns in the National Museum for Women in the Arts is a small café that serves sweet crepes, think Nutella and Strawberries, and savory crepes, quiches, sandwiches and salads. They have a special brunch on the first Sunday of each month.
1250 New York Avenue, NW

Just off the Mall, charming Teaism serves exotic teas, Asian–inspired cuisine and plenty of vegan options in a setting replete with koi pond. I love this very affordable restaurant with their delicious Bento Boxes, Seaweed Salad and Udon Noodle bowls. Don’t miss their Salty Oat Cookies. To die for!
400 8th Street, NW, 800 Connecticut Avenue, NW and 2009 R Street, NW

In and around the Renwick Gallery, the Corcoran and The White House on the West End of the Mall you can find the Willard Hotel, the Old Ebbitt Grill and the Occidental Grill.

The beautiful Old Ebbitt Grill is a Washington favorite whose famous raw bar continues to draw aficionados to their freshly shucked oysters and clams. In addition to their divine Saturday and Sunday Brunch offerings they feature “From the Farm” with a variety of locally-sourced farm vegetables tossed with Roasted Garlic, Feta Cheese and Fettucine or small plates for sharing such as Jonah Crab Cocktail, Columbian Empanadas and Beef Carnitas.
675 15th Street, NW

Café du Parc in the Willard hotel has a very tiny restaurant but beautiful outdoor dining. I especially like it after dark. So chic, so French! Their Charcuterie Bar showcases house-made pates…Pate de Campagne with Armagnac and Prunes, Pate en Croute and Alsatian Presskopf, five kinds of pickles and cornichons and a large variety of cheeses. Four different platter choices also offer Iberican Prosciutto and Serrano Ham. Top it off with their macaroons, éclairs and seasonal fruit tarts.

Charcuterie platter from Cafe du Parc at the Willard Hotel - credit to Jordan Wright

Charcuterie platter from Cafe du Parc at the Willard Hotel - credit to Jordan Wright

1401 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

The Occidental Grill and Seafood Restaurant is a classic Washington institution with its history of hosting most US Presidents, famous movie stars and diplomats. Beginning September 16th each Wednesday they will be grilling on their new posh outdoor lounge. With live music and cocktails handcrafted by Lawrence von Weigel and Lamont Proffit this promises to be a lively scene. Great for people-watching.
1475 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

If you’re pressed for time On the Fly, the cute as a bug’s ear around-the-town food carts provide the food at the cafes in the Corcoran and Phillips with sandwiches, salads and desserts. At the Corcoran Museum they do late-day tapas.

Near The Phillips and the Anderson House is the recently renovated Jockey Club, their red checked tablecloths intact and beloved Maitre d’ Martin Garbisu back at his post. Chef Richard McCreadie, who cooked for a time at the Georgetown Club, is preparing Yellow Tomato Gazpacho with Tempura Shiso Leaf and Red Sorrel Pesto, and their classic Pan-fried Rainbow Trout with English Peas and Parsleyed Potatoes has been restored to the menu. How I love to see this wonderful, memory-laden place back on its uppers again!
In the Fairfax at Embassy Row Hotel at 2100 Massachusetts Avenue, NW

Two of my favorite spots on the Mall are the pretty indoor/outdoor Pavilion Café beside the Sculpture Garden which serves sandwiches, soups, gourmet pizzas and desserts and where, in the summer, you can watch the dancing fountains and Friday evening Jazz concerts or the ice skaters in winter; and Native American cuisine at Mitsitam Native Foods Café inside the National Museum of the American Indian. Although the Mitsitam is cafeteria-style and bustling the food is so authentic and so much a part of the museum’s experience I do recommend it. Based on the varied Native culinary traditions of the Americas it offers dishes like Maple-brined Turkey with Cranberry Relish, Chicken Tamale in a Corn Husk with Peanut Sauce, Cedar-planked fire-roasted Juniper Salmon and smaller dishes such as Bison Chili on top of Fry Bread. The fun is watching your meal prepared in a large fire pit in the Café’s kitchen.

If you chose to remain on the Mall, The Cascades Café, on the lower level in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, is a convenient place to stop and meet up with your crew to choose from a wide array of choices in this quick-serve cafeteria. You’ll find roast chicken and other homey dishes, make-your-own salads, pizzas and, most importantly, a terrific assortment of gelati, Italian sodas and espressos.

A memorable luncheon can be had in the Garden Café in the West Wing, Situated around a large stone fountain the cafe changes its menus to coordinate with the museum’s special exhibitions. Until November 1st it highlights Spain with an exquisite, authentic menu created by top chef Jose Andres. After that it will change to a French-themed menu.

Alors! Bon appétit to all and while you’re enjoying your art adventures let me know what fabulous restaurants you’ve discovered by writing me at [email protected].

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