Illustrations by Jandos Rothstein

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Call it the value menu phenomenon. When McDonald’s figured out that there was good money to be made getting customers to spend an extra buck or two on bigger fries or a drink, they were just doing what almost every restaurant already does—specialize in oversized meals for excessive prices.

It’s a lot easier in D.C. to pay $15 (or more) for 1,500 calories than it is to find just enough palatable fuel to get you through an afternoon at work. But there is still such a thing as a cheap lunch downtown, and while none of the suggestions will do wonders for your health, seeking out smaller tabs also tends to mean more reasonable portions. If you’re determined to lay out less than a five spot for lunch, soda or a coffee is often out of the question, but most places will include a cup of water.

Fuel

Multiple Locations

There are a lot of places that will sell you a slice, but Fuel has the one worth eating for its crispy, caramelized crust and generous toppings.

Price: $3.69 + tax

Hazards: Beer on tap.

Alfa Pie House

1750 H Street NW

Probably the most gourmet option on the list, Alfa offers Greek-style handpies in both sweet and savory flavors. Two minis will fill you up for about $4.98. 

Price: $4.98 + tax

Hazards: The generous staff will sometimes slip an extra to first-time or frequent customers.

Brown Bag

Multiple Locations

The depressingly named Brown Bag has several grab-and-go (or stay and eat) salads, some for well under 5.00. The top-of the line tuna (4.95) is flavorful and not over-dressed. 

Price: $4.95 + tax

Hazards: None that I’ve noticed.

Far East Taco Grille

Food Truck

Several taco trucks, including Far East, will sell you a single taco, though they don’t always make it obvious. Far East has the most interesting options. 

Price: $3.00 + tax

Hazards: Depends on the day, depends on the park. 

Naan &  Beyond

Multiple Locations

A couple of veggie samosas is more than enough to keep you going until cocktail hour, though you may feel a little left out, given the enormous portions being consumed around you. 

Price: $3.80 + tax

Hazards:  A range of self-serve chutneys are available by the half gallon. 

The closest corner hotdog cart 

Multiple Locations

At $3.50 (most locations, tax included), a high-quality Kosher dog, chips, and a soda is likely the best and most Washingtonian lunch deal in the city.  

Price: $3.50

Hazards: the disdain of Michael Schaffer, Washingtonian editor and avowed dog cart hater. 

Saturated Market

If you can’t avoid the ubiquitous chains that have taken over D.C., it’s still possible to eat cheap, though you’d be SOL at several, including Corner Bakery, Chipotle, and Five Guys. But it’s sometimes possible to make a meal out of an upsell (have the soup, don’t add it).  

Pret A Manger and Au Bon Pain both feature small-portion, reduced-calorie options. Skip Pret’s grab-and-go lukewarm soups and chill-chest sandwiches and Au Bon Pain’s dubious diet options (two hard boiled eggs, anyone?) and pick up an Au Bon Pain soup that comes in three sizes ($3.59-$5.29). 

Starbucks, like McDonald’s, sells cheap breakfast sandwiches all day long. There’s nothing wrong with making a lunch out of their Gouda, bacon, and egg on ciabatta for $3.75 (pictured). 

Potbelly has a decent cup of chili for $3.65, especially if you get it without the unappealing processed cheese on top, but nothing says “grown up” like ice cream for lunch. Their $3.79 strawberry shake is filling and tastier than you’d find at many dedicated ice cream places. 

Cosi ekes onto the list with a soup-and-flatbread combo for $4.99, and Subway offers a “sub of the day” for $3.50.