On Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., the powerful don’t go out to eat. Neither do the not-so-powerful staff members, tour guides. reporters and others. Which makes the assortment of restaurants, cafes, sandwich bars and formal dining rooms on Capitol Hill something like the nation’s food court.
All American cities have their lunch spots where deals are sealed and careers are upgraded over Cobb salads and tuna rolls. On Capitol Hill, the powerful eat in.
He who can leave for an extensive lunch is not writing a bill, strong-arming a senator, hectoring a committee witness or doing a spot on Fox Business Network.
Let the low-level staff members trek to Seventh Street for pizza. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, has his lunch (usually chicken) brought in from the Senate dining room. (That’s a double power play: The dining room is for senators only, yet a staff member carts food to him.)
And so the sprawling Capitol complex is both our nation’s legislative center and its food court. While House members often repair to their partisan clubs for lunch, coffee and post-vote martinis, and senators can sometimes be found eating and drinking at the Monocle restaurant, which has fed generations of them, lawmakers are largely too busy to eat out.
For them and their staffs — and the tour guides, reporters, art restoration experts, hairdressers and others among the cast of thousands who work on Capitol Hill — lunch is generally a quick in-house affair.
It’s not just the food
There are more than a dozen restaurants, cafes, sandwich bars and formal dining rooms on the Hill — most of them prosaic, some a little weird and almost all good for people watching, when you can get in. (The House and Senate dining rooms are reserved for members and their guests; many others are open to the public, but those in the Capitol building require an escort from someone who works there.)
Where one eats here is driven mostly by convenience, but also a bit by sociology, with food quality a rare consideration.
“The Capitol is sort of like a little town," said Don Ritchie, the Senate historian, noting its collection of hair salons, gift shops and post offices. “Food has always been part of that."
Most of the eating spots are run by Restaurant Associates, the New York-based company, and much of the fare has mild Southern influences like barbecue and stewed greens, perhaps reflecting the District of Columbia’s location south of the Mason-Dixon Line and its large African-American population. It takes time to master the offerings, but for every overcooked hamburger and depressing excuse for pizza, there is the odd sublime slice of coconut cream pie, the perfectly cooked salad-bar brussels sprouts, the daring chicken tikka masala.
Still, the real pleasure, for those who care about such things, is observing, and listening to the confluence of policy and politics that dribbles into the lunch break. It’s a place of salad and sequester. Standing in line to pay for your greens, you will hear people speaking in bill numbers, or gossiping about which member from a Southern state is really mean to her staff.
The history of dining in the Capitol mirrors the culinary and social history of the District. In the 19th century, senators ate at the Hole in the Wall, near the Old Senate chamber, where they lunched on oysters and wine.
“Oysters were abundant in the Chesapeake," Ritchie said. “They were easy to transport and an affordable delicacy." Long before buzzers signaled to lawmakers that it was time to vote, pages were dispatched there to pull senators away from their boozy snacks.
Also on the Senate side was one of the first Capitol Hill restaurants to be integrated; in 1947, when the first black reporter was admitted to the press gallery, he joined the white reporters for lunch in their cafeteria.
Contemporary politics still infuse the restaurants. In 2003, displeased with the French government’s opposition to the Bush administration’s Iraq policies, the chairman of the House Administration Committee ordered that french fries be renamed freedom fries. This did not last.
When Republicans took over the House in 2010, one of their first moves was to end a composting program started by the former speaker Nancy Pelosi, citing its high cost. The return of plastic foam and the jettisoning of noncompostable forks, which Republicans insisted could not stand up to aggressive salad fixings, presaged the next two years of deep divide.
Today, the divisions over lunch are many: between chambers, parties and castes. On the House side of the Capitol, cafeterias are primarily outposts of young staff members and lobbyists waiting for midday meetings. The epicenter of eating is the large cafeteria in the Longworth House Office Building, where House members often dine together on sandwiches or offerings from the various hot stations, and young staff members train their eyes on BlackBerries as they sip from their (plastic foam) cups of soda.
On the Senate side, the equivalent is in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where a cafeteria featuring a giant salad bar and an “international station" of ethnic foods attracts a broad swath of members and their staff. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, has been spotted there, but a reporter who runs into him is not fooled into thinking that he will be inclined to make small talk; he will almost certainly regard her as a raccoon he just discovered in the attic, and glance around for someone to dispose of her.
Just as they compete for dominance elsewhere, the House and Senate have dueling takeout spots in the building. On the Senate side, Miss Shawnee will whip up bacon in the morning and grilled cheese sandwiches during lunch. Yes, you do want a pickle. Miss Rose will ring you up.
Senate bean soup, as elsewhere, is always available at many places around the Capitol, and routinely oversalted.
The House-side Capitol Market attracts Senate staff members because it has a salad bar, as well as Noodle Bowl Tuesday, which ignites undue excitement. Both sides have Taco Salad Thursday, and there is intense debate over which side makes the superior version.
Over at the newly constructed Capitol Visitor Center, the same fare available elsewhere is for sale at higher prices. Visitors should avoid it and head to the National Museum of the American Indian, which has the best food on the Mall.
There are two crown jewels in the Capitol culinary complex. One is Cups & Company, a New York Korean-deli-style joint in the Russell Senate Office Building, which has been operated by Charles and Kathy Chung for more than a dozen years. Their excellent coffee (a rare commodity here) and demonlike efficiency with their hot sandwiches are Washington’s most convincing arguments for private enterprise on government property. Secretary of State John Kerry, on his last day as a senator, stopped at Cups for lunch.
“Everything is made fresh here every day," Kathy Chung said. “Nothing is processed. That is what makes us different."
While its food is less exciting, the cafeteria in the Library of Congress is the best-kept secret. There, vistas of the Potomac River and a good swath of the city can be viewed from a window seat on the sixth floor of the Madison Building.
It’s a trek to get there, but a bowl of chili or a slice of pedestrian pumpkin pie nibbled as you peer out into the foggy city provides a bracing reminder of the rest of the world just outside, which lives by the rules set inside this impenetrable sprawl.