Curtain up. A middle-aged man and his significantly younger date are seated at a table, center stage. An impeccably starched waiter enters from stage left.
Man [Frantically]: Yes! Hurry! We’re in a rush! We have a play to make in an hour!
Waiter: Just your luck, sir, as we happen to offer a pre-theater special.
Man [Snatching menu]: Gimme! Gimme, gimme!
Waiter: Would sir like a moist towelette for that encroaching flopsweat?
Twink: Oooh, I’ll have the mollusks! [Beat] What are mollusks?
Man: Just bring whatever fast food you have on hand back there! Spaghetti! Meatballs! A pile of bread!
Waiter [Snidely]: Shall I also bring a bib for your son?
Man [Flustered]: He’s not my… Look, pal, I didn’t spend $600 on tickets to a sold-out show to stand in the back during the opening! Just bring us food! Now!
Twink [Giddy]: Rafael said the actors all dress up like animals and parade in the aisles!
Waiter: I see. Lion King?
Man [Groans]: No, something by Chekhov.
Okay, it’s likely not that bad, but the rush to get to the theater and enjoy a fine meal beforehand can sometimes feel like one is trying out for a leading automotive role in the next Fast and Furious. It’s always a mad race to eat, drink and get to the theater before the orchestra tunes and the curtain rises.
Many restaurants, especially those in the proximity of theaters, take that rush into account and offer special pre-theater items, kitchen-engineered for speedy delivery (and even speedier eating), with no decline in quality. And those that don’t offer that latest of trends, “small plates,” which is pretty much a restaurant’s answer to “Weight Watchers” — half the portion, all the price.
Of course, if you’re sensible, you’ll have made your reservations a good two hours before curtain, in order to sit back, relax, have a nice glass of wine or two, maybe a decadently rich, chocolaty dessert for you and your Grindr date.
To assist, we’ve drummed up some informal suggestions on where to dine prior to being overcome by drama.
Perfect for Studio, Theater J, Source
If you enjoy a bit of culinary theatrics before the actual play, pull up a chair at the chef’s counter at Estadio, Haidar Karoum’s acclaimed contemporary Spanish restaurant across the street from Studio. There’s no set pre-theater menu here, since the focus is on small plates to share. But you can’t go wrong with the Spanish cheeses, and can easily fill up on slices of high-quality Spanish ham. Be certain to order something sautéed from the extensive menu, such as the succulent sautéed shrimp with garlic, parsley, red chili and lemon, and then gaze and drool as a cook prepares it just for you. Call 202-319-1404 or visit estadio-dc.com.
Perfect for Woolly Mammoth, Shakespeare Theatre Company
One of the most popular options for pre-theater dining in town is the upscale 701 Restaurant, off the Navy Memorial Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s not hard to see why: You get a three-course meal for only $35 in a sumptuous setting. The current pre-theater menu from executive chef Benjamin Lambert includes three choices per course, a standout option being a potato-coconut soup with shrimp and cilantro to start, salmon with spaetzle, pecans, pomegranate and broccoli for an entree, and chocolate pots de crème with salted caramel and mint ice cream or Sticky Bun Parfait for dessert. It’s all offered starting at 5:30 p.m., with last seating at 6:45 p.m. For drivers, add $8 and the valet will park your car until the play — not just dinner — is finished. Call 202-393-0701 or visit 701restaurant.com.
Perfect for Ford’s, Warner, National
Directly across the street from Ford’s on 10th Street is Bistro D’Oc, with cuisine inspired by the south of French — and a $25 prix fixe menu that includes a glass of table wine. This one’s even available post-show, after 9:30 p.m. (the restaurant warns it might not be able to accommodate patrons if a show runs late). Choose a mesclun salad, vegetable soup of the day, or duck liver pate, followed by a main course of chicken fricassee in tomato-basil-wine sauce, grilled pork tournedos or poached salmon with herb butter and lemon sauce, and finish with a raspberry mousse bavaroise. Call 202-393-5444 or visit bistrodoc.com.
Perfect for the Kennedy Center
Dinner at Rasika West End is worth the few blocks walk it will take to get to the city’s performing arts palace. This New Hampshire Avenue location is every bit as good as the Penn Quarter original from 2014 James Beard Award-winner Vikram Sunderam, and both locations offer the same $35 pre-theater menu of modern Indian cuisine from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., and 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Palak Chaat — crispy baby spinach with sweet yogurt, tamarind and date chutney — is one of four appetizer options, and chicken tikka masala and tandoori salmon are two of the five entrées. Dessert options include Gulab Jamun, a milky Indian version of donuts served with ice cream, or rice pudding. Rule of thumb: Go for the donuts. Always. Call 202-466-2500 or visit rasikarestaurant.com.
Perfect for The Folger
Like Estadio, at Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar the focus is on small plates. This bustling bistro, situated on Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks from D.C.’s original Shakespeare-focused theatre, is certainly worth a visit. Executive Chef Joshua Hutter’s menu focuses on local, sustainable, artisanal ingredients, with a variety of cheese and charcuterie options, and sharable plates drawing from both the Mid-Atlantic and Italy — Virginia fried oysters, English pea risotto with shrimp, ricotta gnocchi. Call 202-544-8088 or visit sonomadc.com.
Perfect for Arena Stage
Mere steps from the Waterfront Metro en route to Arena lies Station 4, Orlando Amaro’s classy Mediterranean-influenced American eatery. Standouts of the $35 prix fixe menu, offered every day but Monday from 5 to 7 p.m., include crab fritters or an arugula salad with apple, stilton cheese and pecans to start, followed by a main course of lamb neck rigatoni or pan-roasted salmon with a ragout of chorizo, kale and mushrooms. Dessert of either pecan pie with gelato or wild strawberry tart with crème anglaise can be enjoyed following the main course, but the restaurant allows diners to return for their dessert after the show. What a nice way to top off the night. Call 202-488-0987 or visit station4dc.com.
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