- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

Like the mythical Brigadoon, KC Cafe on the Terrace level of Kennedy Center is open sporadically on what appears to be a somewhat whimsical basis.
The upscale cafeteria, named Encore before a recent major makeover, does have a logical schedule of sorts: its hours are based on events taking place inside Washington's premier cultural temple. The idea is to have a restaurant available for lunch on matinee days and always on a Saturday and Sunday.
Matinee days float but the dinner hours are consistently 4:30 to 8 p.m. daily. It is best to check ahead by telephone if you are planning a luncheon visit.
Favored matinees are any performance in either the Concert Hall or the Opera House. Ideally, the information desk will be able to inform hungry visitors about such matters, but a sign posted somewhere in the Hall of Nations would be useful as well. (Take the elevators just off that corridor to the atrium level.)
The restaurant name change and remodeling job is so recent it happened only last month that the only reference to "KC Cafe" is outside the entrance. ("Encore" still is favored elsewhere.) This is not to be confused, either, with the decidedly more formal Roof Terrace restaurant with its Hors d'Oeurverie at the opposite end of the atrium hall. All concessions are operated by Manhattan-based Restaurant Associates.
KC Cafe has become popular enough that on Saturday evewnings would-be diners wait in line to get into the cafe. The crush hour seems to be around 7 p.m., depending on events of the day. The closing hour of 8 does not mean you get tossed out on the chime of the clock. If you wish to linger over coffee and dessert before an 8:30 p.m. curtain, no one is going to object.
Apart from a stunning view of the surrounding skyline, one of the pleasures of the place is its casual comfort and lack of pretensions. Personnel are uniformly courteous. The people removing plates from tables do not appear to rush customers, and they do an efficient job of clearing even at peak hours.
On the other hand, appurtenances are quite basic: ordinary brown plastic trays; plastic water glasses; butter, salt and pepper and eating equipment buffet-style like the food. Napkin sizes seem better fit for chidren. Another plus: there is no need or occasion for tipping. The interior has been brightened considerably by new soft pastel checkered carpeting, warm blond wood walls, and clumps of modern hanging lamps that give off a golden glow reaching all the way to the high ceiling.
The spacious room can accommodate up to 150 diners, or 300 for a reception, publicity materials say. A pity that designers didn't take more advantage of the panoramic view through the wall of windows. Perhaps it isn't beyond the realm of possibility and legal constraints to imagine eating at tables on the outdoor terrace when fair weather returns.
Another part of KC's charm is the way people of all ages and clothing styles can sit close together chatting away without any difficulty hearing one another despite the mix of voices and sounds from the food-service area that occupies one side of the room.
The dining room is divided into two sections, with small booths along the sides. Some tables have been placed next to the windows facing Virginia, but most of the room is filled with bare wood tables and chairs that can be arranged according to need.
Culinary choices are ample and well thought out. Hot- and cold-food tables as well as a serve-yourself salad bar; a selection of sodas and white wine in small bottles ($4.50 each for Sutter Home chardonnay or merlot); separate pasta and grill stations. Red wine is available from the dessert and coffee service area where more expensive single glasses a whopping $8.50 a glass for red, $7.50 for white are offered along with champagne and sparkling wine for $11.
A pasta chef prepares dishes to order, and cooks working the grill keep orders moving along briskly. One of our party was especially impressed by the prime rib of beef, a $17.50 portion that he declared "some of the best I've ever tasted." It was a large, thick slice, red in the middle and well done on the sides, just the way he likes it and enough left over to take the bone and remainders home to the dog. Of course, it probably helped that he was fasting for Ramadan.
We sat down to eat soon after sunset on a Saturday night prior to attending the National Symphony Orchestra's concert of the evening. At $14.50, the salmon and crab cakes were dry and had a bit too much bread included, but the portions are generous. Diners get a choice of two side dishes: mashed potatoes, roasted potato slices, saffron rice or broccoli rape. Rolls are 55 cents extra. By all means, have the broccoli, whose tender greens were perfectly done and not overcooked. If they grow cold by the time a table becomes available, treat the greens as a salad.
The roast potatoes, browned nicely, were far better than the mashed version that could have used some butter added for taste. Likewise, the rice smacked of commercial flavoring, but then few can afford the real saffron these days.
Other entree options were a round ball of chopped steak covered with grilled onions that did not appear too appetizing, plus pieces of lemon rosemary roasted chicken. The salad table included a tempting piece of cold salmon cooked with fennel.
For just over $5, it was possible to dine quite well with a plate of salmon and a side order of the broccoli. Charge for the salad plate is determined by weight. Because the concert was the last event on the performance schedule that night, we had time for dessert. The pumpkin cheese cake looked tempting but proved to be a bit too dry. The cappuccino and espresso were up to standard.
Ahead of us at evening's end, the Strauss melodies still playing in our heads, we had a proper nightcap in the Hors d'Oeuvrerie. The mirrored bar stays open until 11 p.m. for the last Kennedy Center customers, many of whom may wait for the building's parking garage to clear before going home.

RESTAURANT: KC Cafe at Kennedy Center; 202/416-8560; no reservations taken
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and on matinee days from Monday to Friday; dinner on non-matinee days 4:30 to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday
COST: Lunch items from $4.95 to $11.50 and dinner items from $5.95 to $19.95
CREDIT CARDS: American Express, Visa, Mastercard
PARKING: garage with a charge

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