Theater dinner

Pre-theater eating in Washington can be tricky, with many venues located far from the best dining spots. For arts patrons headed to the theaters downtown, Café du Parc and the Round Robin Bar inside the Willard Intercontinental Hotel are within walking distance to the National and Warner theaters, and both make for great dining options before a show. Less expensive alternatives probably exist, but they certainly wouldn’t match the ambience of either place, which can be a great opening act. Both places offer a sophisticated and elegant atmosphere that is a more elegant alternative to just grabbing a quick sandwich at a downtown deli in order to make the show’s curtain call.

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At Café du Parc, Chef Antoine Westermann offers a $41-per-person fixed-price pre-theater menu full of flavor that makes guests feel like they’re not missing out by not ordering from the regular menu. Diners order all of their courses at one time, and the courteous servers successfully toe the line between feeding their guests quickly and rushing them.

The bistro is bright and simply decorated, with blue booths lining the walls. Visitors not getting a pastry or cocktail at the downstairs bar are led upstairs to the main dining room. The seasonal menu changes, so diners would be well-advised to check with the restaurant if they’d like to know their options before showing up.

For starters, the butternut squash soup is a velvety-rich and earthy-tasting soup cut with a touch of cream. The orange-hued broth is enhanced by a dollop of crème fraîche and large, crunchy croutons. Be sure to use the warm crusty bread offered on the table to soak up the last few spoonfuls. 

Another appetizer option is the Café du Parc salad, though it’s merely a simple, vinaigrette-dressed bowl of mixed greens with diced tomatoes, Gruyére cheese, eggs and bacon. Diners choosing this option might want to pack some breath mints, but any lingering smells are worth it.

For entrees, the mussels dish comes with at least two dozen black shellfish swimming in a deliciously potent garlic, shallot and parsley broth. It is best to shell them all first and let them soak in the briny, herbed liquid. Mopping up the remaining broth with bread is an action best repeated here.

In another main course, the hanger steak gives meat lovers a pan-seared cut of meat sliced and topped with a buttery Béarnaise sauce. On one night, the steak arrived slightly pinker than the medium as ordered, but it had a nice sear on the outside. The light salt-and-pepper seasoning on the tender flesh allows the sauce’s shallots, peppercorns and other herbs to play the main role in flavoring the dish.

Both entrees come with their own miniature cast-iron skillets of crispy french fries. This is for the best, because sharing them would be difficult. Diners should hope to get a few of the practically translucent sticks that are perfectly crispy. It is almost sinful to put ketchup on these fries, but a little extra broth from the mussels or some béarnaise is perfectly acceptable.

For dessert, a simple sorbet trio is a nice palate-cleanser before heading out for the show. There’s also the Saint Honoré, a small pile of cream puffs with a dense whipped cream and caramel topping. But this is a heavier dessert than expected, and on one night, it tasted old. Better off just sticking to sorbet and getting a treat at the theater.

Diners not looking for a three-course meal can go just across the Willard lobby to the Round Robin bar (where the bar actually is round). There, cocktails and snacks await.

A “Winter Therapy,” a warm combo of Baileys Irish Cream, Godiva White Chocolate liqueur and mint liqueur, is hot chocolate’s sexier, tastier counterpart, while a “Sugar Plum,” also served warm, is a sweet pink concoction of Framboise, mint liqueur and cranberry juice in a sugar-rimmed glass. Either can

put you in the holiday spirit pretty quickly.

A handful of food options might fit the bill before grabbing your playbill. An order of fried mac and cheese served with a Gruyere dipping sauce is just as indulgent as it sounds. Four pieces of breaded, deep-fried noodles and cheese compacted into a candy-bar-size rectangle with truffle oil are crunchy on the outside and warm and oozy in the middle. Be sure to get a few pieces of the crumbled prosciutto topping and the dipping sauce into each bite.

The bar has three shareable pizzas as well. The sausage and shrimp pizza features large slices of each protein topping melted cheese, a light tomato sauce and roasted red, yellow and green peppers. The sausage has a delicious oregano and fennel flavor enhanced by fresh basil.

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The bar also offers an Angus sirloin burger, turkey club sandwich, Croque Monsieur or beef tenderloin entree. It stays open until 1 a.m., meaning that a post-show dinner is just as doable. Or dessert — in which case, carrot cake, apple pie, crème brulee and other treats will do the trick. 

Dimmed lights and small tables give the bar an intimate feel, although it can be hard to snag one of those tiny tables during peak hours.

This time of year, either option inside the Willard gives you the fantastic excuse for checking out the jumbo gingerbread house and beautifully decorated lobby before heading out to see whatever holiday performance awaits.