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Downtown DC - cheap eats, no car, toddler in tow...a recipe for disaster?

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Desperate for ideas...

I'm headed for DC for a long weekend in May, trying to scope out restaurants that are budget-friendly (<$10 or big shareable meals for <$20) and feasible with a 1-year-old. I just don't want to resort to 4 days of McDonalds -- ugh. Any ideas? We'll be in the Smithsonian area with no car but not far from the Metro.

Thanks so much for your thoughts! All I've seen in my research so far are a bunch of references to grease. Help!

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  1. I'm sure we can provide options. Looking for a bit more info. So you'll def be in the Smithsonian area (the Mall) for much of the time. Is that for overnight AND daytime?

    You may want to scope out the wharf at one point (there's a current thread going about it)

    You may also want to consider Eastern Market for one meal.

    Scouting for Union Station and the Reagan building will also get you more.

    But let us know more, and we can guide more.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Dennis S

      Yes, we'll be in the Mall area most of the time, except for a detour to Arlington one day. Thanks for the research tips! I'll check those out. They already sound more promising than what I'd seen before.

      Thanks!

      1. re: justangela

        Just got back from a week in DC with kids and had a delightful, casual meal in the cafeteria underneath the National Gallery of Art (right near the tunnel in the east wing), which is on the mall near the Nat'l Archives and lots of other sites.

        We had a very nice flatbread and salad for (I think) $6 each - served with either a Caesar or insalata mista and the flatbread choices were fresh, tasty - mine was something like spinach, olive and feta and it was perfect for a midday meal. Hubby and kids also had delicious flatbreads that probably had meat in them, but I can't recall their choices, but we were all very happy. We also had another nice lunch in the courtyard at the Nat'l Portrait Gallery...again, it was cafeteria style, but the food was delicious (I had a ciabatta with mozzarella, arugala, red peppers and kids had good ham/cheese). The setting is perfect for parents traveling w/a toddler...the toddler gets to roam a bit in the courtyard since there's lots of open space, and the food is really nicely done.

        My husband and daughter had a hot dog from a cart one day and reported that it was good, but I skipped lunch that day. There are lots of hot dog and ice cream carts on both sides of the mall so that's always an option.

        I was impressed with the good, reasonably priced food choices around the mall (mostly in the cafeterias) for lunch.

        1. re: justangela

          Okay, then on top of carli and Steve's recs, I'd approach it this way: The mall is a big place (about a mile btwn the Capitol and Wash Monument - another mile from there to Lincoln.

          It's a LOT of walking. Plan on half-day excursions, and use South Capitol, Smithsonian, or Federal Triangle metro stops; and also scout out the bus routes. Plan on making the excursions between two of these, using one of these methods to get elsewhere for a mid-day break if not eating on the mall.

          In addition to carli's museum notes, the American Indian museum has at least an interesting offering. I haven't been and reviews are mixed, but it's something on my list to at least check out at some point. I think the "tacos" are decent enough by most reports.

        2. re: Dennis S

          The line last weekend at Eastern Market was insane. Hard to imagine how long a wait there was. Can't imagine doing that with a one year old.

          It's a great place to visit, and I bought the hot version of the half-smokes at Canale's Meats. Blackened them in the pan at home - completely blows away Ben's Chili Bowl or any hot dog cart.

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          Ben's Chili Bowl
          1213 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009

          1. re: Steve

            I go to the market pretty much every weekend with my 11 month old. Sometimes she sleeps right through it, other times she looks around at all the people. She loves it!

            That being said, waiting in line for Market Lunch on a Saturday is a little crazy in my opinion with or without kids. Try the market on Friday if you're around. It's closed on Mondays though. It's not too bad getting a hot dog/half smoke/etc from Union Meat on the weekend though.

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            Market Lunch
            225 7th St SE Ste 12, Washington, DC 20003

        3. Steamed buns (aka xiao long bao) at Chinatown Express. Nando's Peri Peri for Mozambiquan spicy chicken (also Chinatown area). El Rinconcito
          1300 block of Park Rd. (near Columbia Heights Metro) for Salvadoran tamales and carne deshilada. The Atomica pizza at Pizza Paradiso.

          Midweek lunch near the White House: Breadline. Get the Italian Sausage Sandwich or the BBQ (Fridays only). Flavored water to drink for 50 cents, very delicious!

          But all of these are away from the Smithsonian.

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          Chinatown Express
          126 Carroll Island Rd, Baltimore, MD 21220

          Rinconcito Cafe
          1129 11th St NW Ste Lowr, Washington, DC 20001

          1 Reply
          1. re: Steve

            El Rinconcito still has both locations, so the 11th St address above is probably more convenient for you. Papusas de loroco and tamales are very, very, cheap. The carne deshilada to share, since that might be a bit more.

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            Rinconcito Cafe
            1129 11th St NW Ste Lowr, Washington, DC 20001

          2. The Chinatown area, which is quite close to the National Gallery of Art, has a lot of cheap lunch options that are chains but not McDonald's. I recommend Chopt for salads (under $10), and Potbelly for perfectly good and very cheap sandwiches ($5).
            For dessert, check out Tangysweet for frozen yogurt.
            Also consider Teaism, which has lunch bento boxes which are under $10.
            All of these places are casual and fine for a 1-year-old.

            Nando's Peri Peri is also good in that neighborhood, and very casual. Good grilled chicken.

            Mitsitam Cafe in the Native American Museum has great food, but it does get pricey. I think you could do a shared meal for under $20 though.

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            Teaism
            2009 R St NW, Washington, DC 20009

            1. Thank you all for your ideas! This is awesome -- sounds like some great options. And I love all of the ethnic choices you all are mentioning. Food with flair!

              Thanks!!!

              2 Replies
              1. re: justangela

                You may feel differently when you're there, but for us, the thought of walking even another few blocks during the heat of the day, when we'd already been walking for hours was too much to bear, especially for the kids.

                We're a very active, fit family (marathon runners) and yet we just wanted to stay put, hence the relief in finding good lunch options in the cafeterias. Also, for us, maybe it was a bit of jet lag since we're west coasters, but we found we wanted to preserve our energy by sitting and eating right where we were, and truly, we're usually the types who like to seek out more interesting food options. We were also there during a pretty hot week (temps in high 80s/90ish).

                You're sure to have fun whatever you do, but if you're planning on trying to see a lot of the sights, I don't think I'd count on straying far from the mall for lunch with your toddler in tow.

                1. re: carli

                  Carli, that's a good point. I like walking but am definitely no marathon runner, so it'll be a challenge lugging a stroller, a squirmy child and a day's worth of her necessities with us all over. I'm envisioning simple lunches close to the Mall and maybe a little extra adventure for dinner...following a pre-dinner nap! :)

              2. Where will you be in Arlington?

                4 Replies
                1. re: ktmoomau

                  Just doing the tourist thing at the cemetary. Best to pack a lunch?

                  1. re: justangela

                    Eating is prohibited on the grounds of Arlington Cemetery, as is drinking anything but water.

                    You are one Metro stop from Rosslyn, where there is Ray's Hell Burger, Pho 75, and Cafe Assorti. All are a short, but uphill, walk from the Rosslyn metro.

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                    Ray's Hell Burger
                    1713 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA 22209

                    Cafe Assorti
                    1800 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA 22201

                    1. re: Lori D

                      And there is also Guajillo right there in that shopping strip. All are very affordable and reasonably family friendly.

                      1. re: Lori D

                        Just to add to your store of info, if it's a nice day and you'd prefer a picnic lunch, although you can't eat at Arlington Cemetery itself, you can walk from there to the Iwo Jima/Marine Corps Memorial and picnic on the grounds of the Netherlands Carillon which is beautiful with a fantastic view. It is a walk, which you might not feel like, as already discussed with Carli, but it's an option and is adjacent to the Cemetery.

                        It's also walkable (and pretty) from the Cemetery back over Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial. At either end of the Lincoln Memorial are cafes (cafe isn't actually the right word...), with pleasant outdoor seating (if they're not too crowded), the food is hotdogs etc, which doesn't fit your no grease criterion, but there you go. (You're also not supposed to eat at the memorials themselves.)

                        Another outdoor option on the Mall is the cafe at the Natl Gallery's sculpture garden, which is better than hotdogs. (I'm just thinking with a toddler, outdoor options where there's room for the little one to run around might be helpful; the sculpture garden is child-friendly.)

                        And, one more very child-friendly (and beautiful) spot, where you can have an *indoor* picnic, is the Building Museum. It has a small okay cafe (Firehook Bakery), but you can bring your own food and lots of locals go there with their children -- they've got activities set up for kids, even. Wonderful space for lots of reasons. The indoor courtyard of the Portrait Gallery is similarly a good spot to know about for taking a break, but not as child-friendly as Building Museum.

                        There's also a Teaism at 9th and D NW which is pretty convenient to Natural History, American History and Portrait Gallery. I have issues with a lot of the food, but it's a great afternoon refueling stop for tea and cookies. (sorry if somebody mentioned that already.)

                        Finally -- if nobody's mentioned it yet, be sure to look up the Circulator bus before you get here, it can be a lot of help, especially when you get exhausted from all the walking (the line that runs around the Mall is a bit limited, which is a long and non-food related story... but still has made a big difference for tourists since it started running.)

                        ETA: This is getting longer than I meant, but wanted to add, the cafeteria at Air and Space IS a McDonald's, yuck. If you're over there you're a million times better off going next door to American Indian.

                  2. Teaism, Ella's and Matchbox are all at the Capitol end of the Mall and are good and toddler-friendly. Towards the Lincoln Monument end, Tonic has a nice lunch and is ok for kids.

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                    Teaism
                    2009 R St NW, Washington, DC 20009

                    1. All of the following places are family friendly and metro accessible (not necessarily in the Smithsonian area, although some are. Hopefully you'll move around a bit): Vapiano, Matchbox, Ella's Pizza, Nando's Peri Peri Chicken, California Tortilla, Good Stuff Eatery, Spices, and Nooshi.

                      Also make sure not to miss the delicious cafeteria at the American Indian Museum.

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                      Vapiano
                      1800 M St NW, Washington, DC

                      Nooshi Restaurant
                      1120 19th St NW, Washington, DC

                      Good Stuff Eatery
                      303 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC

                      1. Think about street food cart. http://fojol.com/menu is a very good one and I've seen them around la fant plaza. 1 block from the mall. Go on their twitter account to see where they will be when you are in town. Good indian food and better than most food carts in DC. Not sure how much the toddler like indian though.

                        Couple of other options are take the metro to china town and I would recomment, 5 guys, full kee and chinatown express. all meals you can have for about $20.

                        If you go to the next stop on that yellow line beyond chinatown, you get to the DC convention center. A block from the convention center you can to a soul foodish cafeteria run in the basement of a church call paradise cafe. (not sure if it is open on weekends but worth a check). The food is solid and reasonably prices.

                        If you go to the stop after that, your at U st. Go go Ben's (cannot believe I'm recommending ben's - I am not a fan but a lot of people seem to like it) Chili Bowl. Like it or not a DC institution. You can get a DC favorite called a halfsmoke. Itis a cross between a hotdog and a polish sausage. Pretty reasonable.

                        Breadline was already mentioned and it is good.

                        To be honest, when we go into DC we just pack drinks and sandwiches, dirnks and other stuff. You can set outside and it makes it easy. You don't have to trek and you can find great places to eat where the views are incomprable.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Soup

                          I think you mean L'enfant Plaza.

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                          L'enfant Cafe-Bar
                          2000 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009