Your feet are killing you. You’ve been to – what? – three, four museums? You’ve lost count. You’re hungry, tired, and in need of a little peace and quiet. As you plod down the Mall, your stomach growling in time to the scrunch, scrunch, scrunch of your footsteps on the gravel path, a fantasy takes shape in your mind. If only there were a quiet café nearby. You’d have a salad or some coffee and something for that sweet tooth. Ah, just imagine…it would be heaven.
Hah! Snap out of it! This is the Mall, for heaven’s sake. Your options are to brown-bag it, chance it at one of the hot dog purveyors on Constitution or Independence Avenues, or dine at one of the museum eateries.
Alas, all Mall restaurants are not created equal. Avoid, if you possibly can, the monster cafeterias in the Air & Space Museum, Museum of American History, and Natural History Museum. That is, unless you really enjoy deafening shoals of schoolchildren and cluttered lunchroom-style dining. (Oh, and did I mention that it’ll cost you a small fortune? How remiss of me.) The sad fact is that the Smithsonian, stellar though its museums may be, has a "head ‘em up, and move ‘em out!" cattle-drive approach to dining.
Luckily, the National Gallery of Art is not part of the Smithsonian. So, should you find yourself on the Mall and in dire need of sustenance, it’s best to head to one of the four cafes run by the National Gallery: the Cascade Café (located in the underground concourse between the West and East Buildings), the Garden Café (on the ground floor of the West Building), the Terrace Café (in the upper level of the East Building), or the Pavilion Café (in a small freestanding building in the Sculpture Garden).
While I’ve eaten in all four National Gallery cafés, my pick of the lot is the Pavilion Café. It’s nestled in the green oasis of the Sculpture Garden, right alongside a fountain plaza that doubles as an ice rink in the winter. The café itself is an architectural gem – a low curvilinear building, all glass, metal tracery, and natural lighting. You can sit inside and have a marvelous view of the oversized Calders, Oldenburgs, and Lichtensteins set amongst the trees and shrubbery. Better yet, weather permitting take your tray outside and sit at an umbrella-shaded table to listen to the splash of the fountain and breathe the hydrangea-scented air.
The food’s not shabby either. The salads, sandwiches, and entrees are all freshly prepared and reasonably priced. A bed of romaine lettuce topped with chilled poached salmon, thin slices of red onion, croutons, and tangy dressing was my choice for a delicious light lunch recently. Folks at a nearby table were commenting on how well they liked their selections – oversized, crusty panini sandwiches.
A lunch like that, and you’re ready to take on the world again. Or at least the Smithsonian.