Right Wingding: Another bang-up buffet at the American Enterprise Institute. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The journalists, international dignitaries, unpaid interns, and other people roaming the Farragut North region at lunchtime have one thing in common (no, not their laminated ID cards): They all want to eat. For free, if possible.

D.C.’s many think tanks and nonprofits put out hundreds of free spreads every year, and, often enough, you just need to know when to show up. Admission is free, even when RSVPs are necessary. The trick is identifying where to go: No one wants to sit through a discussion of healthcare policy for what Reason Editor Matt Welch calls “the universal Washington sandwich”: greasy turkey, one limp piece of lettuce, and a tomato slice thrown between slices of bread. “That’s just kind of ­shudder-inducing,” he says.

“It’s as if Terri Schiavo was the party planner,” adds Welch’s colleague Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason.com and Reason.tv, about typical think tank events. “Generally speaking, policy wonks’ idea of a good time is to listen to themselves talk.”

Still, for the discerning, think-tank lunches offer more than future cocktail-party talking points. At one place, you might have to endure stale conversation, but the freshly baked cookies are worth it. At another, the panel discussions are dry, but the chicken breasts are juicy.

According to Voice of America correspondent Barry Wood, the buffets at the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Dupont Circle are “nutritious” and “very elegantly prepared.” He adds: “They do very creative things with desserts. Good chocolates and lots of fruit.”

Another tip: The sandwiches at the conservative Cato Institute are “generous in proportion,” he says, and are served in a lovely lobby that looks out over Massachusetts Avenue NW.

“There’s no question that the American Enterprise Institute’s cafeteria serves very close to the best food anywhere,” Gillespie says, adding, “They also have a huge stock of grape soda.”

So how well can you really dine at places where food for thinkers is served? I boldly go where many a D.C. nerd has gone before:

American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research

Ideological Bent: Conservative.

Annual Events: 200 (Roughly 50 come with lunch.)

Sample Event: “Back from Baghdad: Views from the Veterans of the Iraq Mission,” a panel with two recently returned military officers

Cafeteria: Oh yes. The top floor dining room has a daily three-course menu, which recently included an appetizer with three varieties of sushi: tuna, barbecue salmon with avocado and cucumber, and mackerel with jicama. That day’s entrée was a “Hong Kong XO Green Curry Chicken,” or, for the less adventurous palate, a salad topped with shrimp. For the past 18 years, Chef TJ Akpeneye has worked at AEI. The dining room is free for AEI’s 40-odd interns. “We don’t pay ’em, but we do feed ’em,” says one scholar.

Event Offerings: An average lunchtime buffet tends to be “a bit blander” than the dining room’s dishes, says Veronique Rodman, AEI’s director of public affairs. That means chicken, salmon, salad, with mabye a side of orzo.

Signature Dish: Not so much one dish as inspirations from various cuisines. During his summer vacations, the Nigerian-born Akpeneye jets off to exotic locales for dining inspiration. Trips to Thailand and Vietnam have been particularly stimulating. “Lots of lemongrass,” explains one staffer.

Food Philosophy: “It is pleasant to continue a substantive discussion over a meal,” writes Rodman by e-mail. Still, one staffer notes that, after a while, even AEI employees tire of meals that bloat well beyond an hour. For a quick lunch, they head to one of two nearby Potbelly locations.

The Brookings Institution

Ideological Bent: Liberal

Annual Events: 150; roughly 5,000 small staff and guest gatherings with pre-ordered food over the course of the year.

Sample Event: “Poverty and Income in 2007: A Look at the New Census Data and What the Numbers Mean.” The event, held on Aug. 26, drew roughly 200 people and some C-SPAN cameras.

Cafeteria: Yes. Open to the public, this dining area is located on the ground floor of Brookings’ main building at 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Most of the year, the menu is a la carte, but in the summer, it’s pay-per-pound—and pricier. Compared to the serene environment of AEI’s dining room, the Brookings cafeteria is bustling and chaotic. On a recent visit, some 60 people are swarming. “Come on, my babies!” a checkout clerk shouts after opening up a new register during a lunchtime rush.

Event Offerings: Often coffee, with danishes in the morning and cookies in the afternoon. Executive Chef Peter White switches up the internal menu, which is available for staff holding meetings in one of the center’s eleven dining rooms, or in personal offices. They can choose from roughly 15 entrees total, including the ever-popular corn-encrusted grouper over a white bean vegetable ragu, says food-services director Eppie Valencia.

Signature Dish: The cookies, served frequently at public events, are large and come in many flavors: chocolate chip, white chocolate macadamia, Oreo, Heath Bar Crunch, sugar, Reese’s Pieces, and M&M. People in the know call them “Brookies,” though apparently the terminology slipped by chef White. “What are Brookies?” he asks.

Food Philosophy: Open and egalitarian. “A lot of people on the street go right through and go right out,” says White about the cafeteria.

Reason

Ideological Bent: Libertarian.

Annual Events: 20 to 24 office gatherings, usually with speakers, plus about 10 get-togethers at bars.

Sample Events: Since moving to D.C. in spring 2007, Reason has hosted events featuring famed poker player Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, who discussed gambling bans, and Representative Jeff Blake (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of the Cuban embargo.

Cafeteria: No. But the magazine staff does occasionally imbibe together in the afternoon, according to Mike Riggs, City Paper’s City Lights editor and a former Reason intern.

Event Offerings: Alcohol, plus food tailored to speakers’ messages. Roughly a year ago, Reason hosted an evening gathering for David Harsanyi, magazine contributor and author of Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children. Refreshments included chicken wings, Twinkies, and other coronary fuck-yous. Gillespie has high hopes for this fall. He wants to hold a taste-testing of absinthe, which has been banned frequently throughout history. “Absinthe is an incredibly mythologized liquor and intoxicant, and in fact, like most intoxicants, most of that stuff is bullshit,” he says. “It’s a way of scaring people and creating a myth that makes the high more interesting.” Reason is also know for its raucous happy hours, often held at Dupont jungle/safari-themed bar The Big Hunt.

Signature Dish: “The ‘Cosmatini’ is a fine drink,” says Welch, of a cosmopolitan/martini inspired concoction served at an earlier event. It’s inside jokes such as these that the Reason editor says cause “some people in the grand libertarian continuum” to accuse Reason, as well as some other ironic cocktail-sippers at the Cato Institute, “of being too cosmopolitan and not as authentically red-state.”

Food Philosophy: “Politics get in the way of having fun and enjoying yourself,” says Gillespie.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.