So much food I wanted to cry

Longworth House Office Building. The objective: to find the diamond in the rough of eateries in the Capitol complex. The method: one day of weaving through tunnels and basements, eating.

My first stop is the coffee shop in the Longworth basement, where signed photos of lawmakers hang haphazardly, covering every inch of the wall. It’s time for one small cappuccino, just to wake up and rouse the taste buds. This is one of the few places you can order espresso drinks.

And watch out for the lemonade — it can have a bluish tint to it.

Across the hall, the Longworth cafeteria is full of staffers and congressmen with legal pads conducting morning meetings.
The pages are all ordering big plates of pancakes and omelets. One girl pokes a cauldron of oatmeal. The menu offers something called “scrapple.”

“It’s a lil’ bit of everything,” explains the serving lady. “It’s an acquired taste.”

She isn’t joking. Scrapple is fried pork bits, seasoning, and cornmeal, with a slight gamey taste. She whips up a fresh Belgian waffle to go with it, slapping three swipes of butter on top and smothering it in syrup.  

It’s 9 a.m., but two young staffers sitting in the cafeteria are already thinking about lunch. They go into raptures over the salad bar. An abandoned blueberry muffin sits with the top gnawed off.

“They used to have a really good apple crumb muffin,” says one of them, disheartened. The blueberry bagels sitting nearby are shockingly purple.

Orange juice at the Cannon House Office Building carryout, a smaller joint tucked away behind a row of vending machines. Bar stools curved to cradle your rump (provided it’s not too big) line the wall outside. The stools provide a nice spot to read the newspaper.

Rayburn House Office Building cafeteria. Raisin scone, a little butter, and Wilkins coffee. The scone is just sweet enough. The coffee was a mistake; it is almost half the price of Starbucks coffee, and the taste is half as good, too.

The cornbread in Rayburn is reportedly delicious. Scrapple is also a big hit, according to one server, who showed a nearly empty tub. “We’re the best,” he whispered.

For the House side, it’s true. The open dining room also has a pleasing feng shui, with its blue carpets, dark wood chairs and sunshine streaming in.

Breakfast everywhere is as heavy as the humidity outside, unless you go for a minimalist Naked fruit juice or bowl of fruit. But it’s really nice to have everyone call you “baby” when you’re ordering.

Rayburn deli. Morning isn’t over, but the deli already has lunch customers lining up. Orzo pasta salads, tabouleh and red pepper hummus sit waiting to be tucked into. The grape leaf wraps are tasty, and the rice inside isn’t over-cooked. The baklava is tempting, but many more cafeterias demand my attention and I must conserve my appetite.

Library of Congress cafeteria on the sixth floor of the Madison building. The full-length windows are worth the trip, showing off a view of the south side of the Capitol, with the Anacostia River curving around.

Outside the Capitol, a cop insists that the Ford building — formerly a House office building — has the best food, and few people know about it. But at 11:50 a.m., the small Ford cafeteria is packed with people, ordering chicken pot pies, gyros, even steak. Prices are higher, but the choices are more diverse than the House cafeterias. The carryout next door offers nachos and enchiladas, which are hard to find in the other cafeterias.

Moving right along.

In the tunnels under the Capitol, people rush in and out of the carryout, snatching sandwiches and sodas. Instead, I try the German chocolate cake. There’s no coconut like there’s supposed to be, but it’s a moist slice.

12:15 strikes. Further down the hall, the greasy spoon Baby Gourmet serves sandwiches, burgers and some cafeteria goodies. They have a “popcorn bar,” where you can sprinkle on all sorts of seasonings.

Russell Senate Office Building basement. Cups & Company is like an oasis, offering a welcome surprise: smoothies. The pomegranate blueberry variety turned out to be scrumptious. Another surprise: veggie sushi on the lunch bar, complete with ginger and wasabi. The taste was similar to the sushi you find in Asian all-you-can-eat buffets; not awful, but not something that would please an aficionado.

Last stop: the Dirksen Senate Office Building. There’s a buffet beside the cafeteria for a whopping $12.50, which probably covers the cost of the white tablecloths, since the food is the same gluey casseroles as in the other cafeterias.

North Servery cafeteria in Dirksen. The salad bar is yummy. A lot of guys load up on boiled chicken and potatoes. A chef guards stacks of fresh-made sushi to go, which many are buying — though several staffers eye the stacks suspiciously.

“Can’t they just put another sticker over the ‘made-on’ date?” says one.

Whatever the case, Dirksen’s chocolate chip cookies are reported to be the best on the Hill.

On the ground floor in the Hart Senate Office Building, the Senate chef offers what the other smaller cafés do, though the room is strangely dark. Since it feels like a movie theater, it’s time to try the popcorn. Not too buttery, and moderately salted. It’s better than at the movies.

What has the wild smorgasbord taught us? In sum, food in the Capitol complex is cheap — I spent $20 for my entire day of gorging. The Rayburn deli is an unexpected gourmet treat. Staffers on the Senate side are spoiled by the delicious chocolate chip cookies. And when it comes down to it, high-end cuisine can be overrated. Sometimes nothing tastes better than a greasy burger and a Coke.