The south side of the National Mall has never been known for dynamic dining. And at lunchtime, C Street SW is especially forlorn. Other than the occasional snack cart, the strip’s monolithic office buildings generate all the midday foot traffic of abandoned warehouses.
Have faith, hungry pedestrian! Step through a barely visible door near the corner of 12th Street, pass a minimal security check, and continue down a hallway to a cavernous, skylit room full of food: Customers load up plastic take-out boxes of grub, then linger among the sea of tables to chat with others or to simply stare into the distance.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s in-house cafeteria feels a little like stepping back to the 1980s, before downtown Washington became the sort of place where federal office workers were actually tempted to head out onto the streets at lunch. Yes, a local produce section now augments the pizza and fry stations. And there are calorie counts and recyclable utensils. But at its heart, the vast USDA eatery is a reminder that the office cafeteria—that venerable fixture of Washington—isn’t dead yet, no matter how many lobster trucks and gourmet burger joints have opened up. Similar cafeterias take up half a floor in nearly every large federal office building.
The private sector, though, has moved on. North of the Mall, where the feds control significantly less real estate, lunch has improved dramatically: On the east side of downtown, there’s Union Station; to the west, a new Whole Foods. In between, sandwich concepts like Roti, Breadline, and Freshii have proliferated.
This new status quo has workers in federal ghettos feeling dining envy. “It’s basically food trucks or this,” says Nathaniel Dau-Schmidt, a research assistant at the Federal Reserve, picking at the remnants of his meal in his building’s light-filled cafeteria. It’s the Friday before the Super Bowl, but Dau-Schmidt isn’t interested in the room’s “tailgate” themed hot-dog stations—and he's all too aware that the Fed’s location at 20th and C Streets NW puts better options just out of lunchtime strolling distance. “If I was working at a new office building at 18th and K or something...”
“I would never go to the cafeteria,” if there were other options, interrupts John Weber. “The only way is if it were blizzarding, if there were six feet of snow outside.”
And that’s one of the more pleasant cafeterias. At the Department of Homeland Security at 7th and D streets SW, where the dining area has low ceilings and no windows, the clientele has lately been lured way by the food trucks on nearby Maryland Avenue SW and the upscale fast food places at a redone L’Enfant Plaza. “If you’re really in the mood for a hamburger, why would you come here, instead of Five Guys?” says DHS staffer Miriam Callahan.
Could this be the end of Washington’s cafeteria society?
If so, it would mark a major cultural change. Back when D.C.’s federal office ghettoes were built, cafeterias—along with barbershops, credit unions, and convenience stores—were included as a way of maximizing worker productivity. “At a time, having a lot of internal amenities exclusive to their employees was seen as a great idea,” says David Zaidain, senior urban planner with the National Capital Planning Commission.
But as the feds have started caring more about urban design, and as D.C. streets have offered more goods and services, that thinking has changed. The General Services Administration, which serves as the government’s landlord, says it’s no longer building full-scale cafeterias into new buildings. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in NoMa opted for 8,000 square feet of outdoor retail; GSA’s own headquarters at 18th and E streets NW is slated for renovations that will include fast food restaurants on the ground floor.
Progress has been uneven. GSA’s newest D.C. building, the Department of Transportation headquarters on M Street SE, has a cafeteria—even though its 5,500 employees seem to want the outdoor restaurants that could have been built in. “We constantly hear from DOT employees asking when new restaurants will open in the Capitol Riverfront as they tire of the cafeteria and brown-bagging it,” says Michael Stevens, who directs the neighborhood’s Business Improvement District.
Eventually, Zaidain says, even the existing cafeterias might disappear. As cost-cutting legislators force GSA to sell off property, those massive dining rooms might start to look like great spots for cubicles.
The federal government isn’t the only landlord that maintains cafeterias. Most law firms above 300,000 square feet have them, as do giant membership organizations like the American Association of Retired People, which built one for its 1,385 employees at 6th and E streets NW. Perhaps as a result, that intersection is one of the area’s most barren.
Some private-sector operators are cutting back on internal dining options. Others encourage eating out—the Open Society Institute, for example, gives employees $9 vouchers for lunch spots near its Pennsylvania Avenue office, which wouldn’t have been as appealing only a decade ago. “As more restaurants and higher quality fast food becomes available, it is more difficult,” says Mary Kate Spainhour of Seasons Culinary, which manages 13 regional cafeterias. “We like [employees] to stay inside, but they have to want to.”
And some tenants think cafeterias are still worth the cost. The Association of American Medical Colleges’ new building at 7th Street and New York Avenue NW will have one, as will the new National Public Radio building. Even CityCenterDC, touted as the most urbanist development in local history, anticipates building cafeterias to woo law firms.
In fact, if D.C.’s cafeteria tradition is saved, it might be by the private sector’s new shibboleths rather than the federal bureaucracy’s old habits. Evangelists of the modern workplace praise the prospect of chance encounters and collaborations that begin in open spaces like cafeterias. But the most valuable thing about a cafeteria, says broker Tom Fulcher, is secrecy: They allow attorneys to have private conversations about client matters that they wouldn’t want to have in a crowded restaurant.
“When you talk about the benefits, there are enough that the firms would prefer to keep people using the cafeterias,” Fulcher says. (The White House, too, asked employees to stop having sensitive conversations at the Caribou Coffee across from the Executive Office Building.)
Visiting Patton Boggs’ small, gourmet cafeteria at 25th and M streets NW—today’s menu: chicken and waffles, in celebration of Black History Month—the appeal becomes clear. There’s not much casual food around that part of the West End. Older men in white hair and suits are having serious conversations over biodegradable flatware. And the younger people, like the cheerful woman behind me in line who graciously swiped her firm payment card after I realized the cafeteria didn’t take real money, take their lunch and hustle back to their desks.
For their employer, lunchtime can cost $200 an hour.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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