The National Mall is a great place to spend a day to Washington, as long as you don't get hungry. Most of the museums have food options; they're just expensive and, often, not very good. And nearby? Ha! We have the neoclassical Federal Triangle area to the north and the brutalist Southwest DC to the south. Notice how I fail to call them "neighborhoods". Neighborhoods imply the presence of "neighbors" or at least humanity. These are barren wastelands of government office buildings with nary a Starbucks in sight. I've seen folks get lost for days in the wilds of Federal Triangle, only to emerge clutching half gnawed bits of Spanish tile and asking "Why? Why, dear Lord, do they make it so hard to find something to eat?" I'm not kidding, it's not pretty.
What to do? If you don't want to have to barter your youngest for food, here are some options. Or, at the very least, some help on getting a good return on that child.
1. Department of Agriculture - You know, that big white building on the Mall that's NOT a museum? Back when the Agriculture was a major part of our economy, they got a prime spot on Independence Avenue and 14th. Ag may be the appendix of Cabinet Departments, but they have a good cafeteria. It's not anything special, except the food is reasonably priced, there's plenty of seating, and it's only a two minute walk from the Mall. Oh wait, that makes it pretty darned special around here.
To get in, you need to walk south of 12th St and then west on C ST SW (a right). It will be the second door on your right. You have to go through security; just tell them you're going to the cafeteria.
Hours: Breakfast 6:30 - 10:00 (Hot 7-9) Lunch 11:00 AM - 2:00 PM Coffee shop 2:00-3:30
Closed Weekends/Federal Holidays
2. National Museum of the American Indian - It's not cheap, but at least you get something for the experience. Far and away, the best museum food court in DC and, while I haven't visited all of them yet, I daresay the world. Each section represents a different region of Indians (Plains, Northwest, Mezo-American, etc.) and has food from that area. The buffalo chili on fry bread is a safe bet but this is a great place to get adventurous. It's going to cost you, but so would that Big Mac at Air and Space.
Hours: 10:00 AM - 5:15 PM
3. On the Fly Carts - Great local addition to the food cart scene. I've got nothing against the half-smoke vendors (except that their half-smokes are crap) but these guys prove that street vendor does not have to equal suck.
Hours: 11:00 AM -6:00 PM, weekends and holidays only
4. Natural History Museum - Fossil Cafe - Ok, it's no bargain and the food, while fine, is nothing special. I just like it as a quiet place to get a cup of coffee, until all of you tourists show up. It's back in the corner behind the dinosaurs, hence the name.
Hours 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM
5. Bring your own - Bring a picnic lunch. Technically, no food or drink is allowed in the museum and I certainly wouldn't recommend eating inside them, but most museums have bag checks. Just bring it and check it when you go in. Personally, I like the Haupt Garden behind the Castle.
Places that are fun because of where they are, not what they serve:
Do Not Recommend:
1. National Air and Space Museum - It's just McDonalds for twice the price. And hot, damn hot in the summer.
2. National Museum of American History - I hear it's finally open, but they're selling off-the-shelf pb&j for five bucks. When I take a look at it, I'll tell you how it is. Until then, I stand by my assessment.
By all means, if you know any more, add them in the comments. Or, if you want to quibble with me, please do so, but not about the Air and Space food court. That place sucks. If I were the Wright family I'd put up signs saying it's not named for us, it's those other Wrights from, um, New Mexico. So, if you like the Air and Space one, keep it to yourself.