The Hot Plate: Smorgasbord of Choices

Posted January 7, 2009 at 3:34pm

From the Cannon Carryout, where staffers can grab a burger on the run, to the newly green Longworth Cafe, lunch in the Capitol complex yields many options. For someone who is new to the Hill, the choices can be overwhelming.

Luckily, Hot Plate is here to help. I’ve spent the past few weeks eating my way from the Dirksen Senate Office Building to the Longworth House Office Building and back. Here’s a list of the tastiest treats on this side of the Mall.

[IMGCAP(1)]The best food is found at the just-opened Capitol Visitor Center Restaurant. The prices have raised a few hairs among staffers because they aren’t cost-controlled like the other cafeterias, but that doesn’t mean the food isn’t delicious. While most cafeterias in the Congressional buildings are fairly easy on the wallet, the CVC is not because it’s geared more toward — you guessed it — visitors rather than staff. For example, a side of macaroni and cheese goes for $3.25 at the CVC, compared with $1.25 at Longworth.

With dark wood paneling, the CVC feels upscale and a bit more like a restaurant than a cafeteria. It offers personal pizzas and kids’ meals, along with such tasty pasta specials as mushroom ragout ravioli ($8.50). The ravioli is served in a creamy sauce and tastes much like the food at the Olive Garden, though sadly without the endless salad and breadsticks. The major downside — aside from the higher costs — is the many tourists who swarm the cafeteria each day. This can crowd the dining area and it’s easy to get stuck behind a dawdling family, but it’s still worth a try if you’re looking for a break from the hum-drum.

If you’re looking to save a few bucks on lunch, swing by Baby Gourmet. At the kiosk located in the basement of the Capitol, $6 will get you a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon ($3.65) and a cup of soup ($1.95). The grilled cheese is served on bread that is perfectly toasted and not at all stale — or worse, soggy — and the shop doesn’t dare skimp on the cheese or bacon.

On the day I visited, a delicious chunky potato soup with bits of sausage floating in it was served. A cup was enough to act as lunch, making it a bargain meal at less than $2. The shop is also ideal for those with a sweet tooth. In the past few months, Baby Gourmet has begun serving milk shakes for $3.25. The shakes are lump-free and so thick that they’re hard to get through a straw.

The Capitol complex also offers several cafeteria options on either side of the Hill. Recently, they’ve all received makeovers thanks to Restaurant Associates, the private company that took over the House and Senate cafeterias in December 2007. For instance, for a long time the Dirksen North Servery was reminiscent of a dingy college dining hall. The food was plain, and the digs were dated. Now the space is sleek and offers more exotic fare such as sushi and a rotating selection of global cuisine that includes French and Jamaican dishes. Longworth Cafe and Ford Cafe on the House side offer similar options, and all three locations provide tasty basics like a sandwich station, salad bar and a fun selection of desserts.

The global cuisine — also offered in the CVC cafeteria — is a menu highlight and presents a respite from the everyday lunch. On a recent December day, Dirksen was offering a delicious French dish, boeuf Bourgogne, which features beef, onions and mushrooms in a flavorful sauce. It certainly beat old standards like PB&J.

This month Senate Chef, located between Hart and Dirksen, was replaced by American Grill, taking the dark cave of a restaurant from stadium food to a brightly lit, relaxed cafe featuring, well, stadium food and then some. Gone are the days of buying food at the Senate Chef and being forced to eat at your desk or a table in the Dirksen cafeteria. As a part of the renovation, the refrigerator cases of prepared food have been traded in for several tables, some that seat small groups and others that are large and communal.

Even with the changes, American Grill is still your best bet on a hungover Friday. It offers greasy treats such as chicken quesadillas, massive baskets of chicken tenders, and burgers — though if you’re looking for a burger, hit up Cannon Carryout for the best one in the Capitol. But in addition to these items, the grill now offers a better selection of healthier options such as premade salads featuring things like arugula, chicken, pear, walnuts and a large helping of goat cheese — all for $6.50.

Cups, the cafe located in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, has long been a staffer favorite. It offers coffee, pastries and fantastic sandwiches. At press time, the restaurant was undergoing some renovations with plans to reopen Jan. 12.

There’s one last option if you happen to have time to linger at lunch: the Member dining rooms. While the food is pretty standard — turkey clubs and the famed Senate or House bean soup, depending on which dining room you’re in — there are tablecloths, china and a wait staff, giving the meal a sense of occasion. The food is moderately priced compared to an outside restaurant, with cups of soup going for $2.95 and a Cobb salad for $9.95 in the House. The downside to the dining rooms: Even if you make a reservation, Members get priority.