All photos by Laura Hayes

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Chances are if you’re touring museums on the National Mall, you’re going to need to fuel up between seeing Dorothy’s ruby red slippers and simulating space walks. Some cafes are worth a trip on their own while others should be ignored in favor of food carts. We’ve ranked five from first to worst so you know where to splurge and what to avoid.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

1400 Constitution Ave. NW

If Sweet Home Café were a restaurant that didn’t require a museum ticket, critics and everyday diners would be elbowing each other to get in. Never before has D.C. seen soul food this satisfying and sincere, and that’s despite it being scaled to feed the masses.The buttermilk fried chicken with two sides ($14.95) is the ultimate comfort food, but diners can also find pan-roasted rainbow trout with cornbread and mustard green stuffing ($15.95) or duck, andouille, and crawfish gumbo with Carolina rice and green onion ($13.95). A dessert bar and mini bellinis in a bottle make for sweet additions.

National Museum of the American Indian

4th St. & Independence Ave. SW

Believe the reputation Mitsitam Café has earned itself as the best food on the Mall, especially now that the museum has hired its first Native American chef. Cuisine ranges from food inspired by the Northern Woodlands and Mesoamerica to the Great Plains. The best plate just may be the “five-region sampler” ($32) from the Northwest Coast with both salmon and grilled bison loin served with three sides like hominy salad, golden beets, and mushrooms. Other highlights include Northern Atlantic clam soup ($7.55), bacon-wrapped halibut with wild rice and sour cherry aioli ($16.95), and buffalo chili and cheese ($8.25). 

National Gallery of Art

6th & Constitution Ave. NW

Despite landing Starr Catering Group this year, Cascade Café doesn’t wow as much as the glittery walkway that deposits diners there. The “World Grill” advertises weekly rotating specials like shawarma and tacos, but on my visit the cook says they don’t have any. I settle for a ricotta, mushroom, and arugula pizza ($8.50) that’s cold and brittle even after being reheated and is covered in a white substance that looks like dried spit-up. Only the antipasto bar earns points for flavor, freshness, and appealing to the health conscious. I build a plate for $10.37. 

National Air and Space Museum

600 Independence Ave. SW

There’s nothing special at the cafeteria inside this museum. Unless of course you grew up a fan of Boston Market, because they have one of those, plus a McDonald’s and a Donatos Pizza. What saves the National Air and Space Museum is the gift shop where visitors can purchase freeze-dried space food sure to serve as a shot of nostalgia for a couple of bucks.

National Museum of American History

14th St. and Constitution Ave. NW

Stars and Stripes Cafe will leave you longing for better days at an airport Johnny Rockets. I skip a feeble, less-than-fresh salad bar and a grill station proffering pricey hot dogs and head to the barbecue window where a pulled pork sandwich is allegedly “smoked and cured in house over hardwood.” I grab it ($10.95) and a side of alarmingly yellow potato salad ($3.25). The sandwich is greasy and tastes like liquid smoke, and I can’t bring myself to crack the hardening mayo shell of the potato salad. The only bright spot is a selection of retro candy for sale, including Lemonheads and Cow Tales.