Food for thought: a mealtime guide to D.C. think tanks

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“There’s no free lunch” may hold true in most of the world, but not in Washington, D.C. Here, I’ve discovered, there are plenty of free lunches—and breakfasts and dinners, too.

The unlikely place to find them? Think tanks.

Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation, Aspen Institute … these and other think tanks are home to scholars, policy wonks, and the occasional politician who is out of office and waiting for the next election to return to power. (It’s for this reason that think tanks are sometimes referred to as “governments in exile.”)  

Think tank scholars are expected to do research and give lectures, which are usually free and open to the public. 

It’s these lectures that come with the free meals.

A retired CIA officer tipped me off to this. We happened to be seated next to each other at a charity dinner and when the conversation turned to think tanks he just bubbled over with excitement telling about the free meals he’s had and which think tanks have the best food. 

For Washingtonians with time on their hands, policy-lecture-plus-free-meal apparently is a popular pastime. 

Think tanks can afford to put on a good spread. Though set up as nonprofits, they’re often sizable businesses, many with revenues above $100 million annually. 

I was curious, though, about one thing: Think tanks have distinct ideologies—Brookings, for example, leans left; Heritage leans right. Would a think tank’s approach to feeding guests reflect its politics? Would those that align with Democrats offer an abundance of free food and a progressive menu—all kale and kombucha? Would Republican-leaning think tanks means-test their diners and offer more traditional fare like steak and potatoes?

Armed with a good appetite, I decided to find out. 

It’s been a tough job, but over the past few months I’ve listened to lectures and sampled the food at half a dozen of the country’s most prestigious think tanks. All this, Beacon readers, so on your next visit to D.C., if you tire of museums or protest marches, you’ll know where to score a good, free meal. 

(To attend a think tank lecture, visit the group’s website, search under “events,” and register to attend. For a full list of D.C. think tanks, click here.)

Free Lunch #1: Aspen Institute

Aspen bills itself as nonpartisan, but I don’t buy it: They mostly host left-leaning speakers and partner with liberal institutions like Atlantic Media.

The program I attended, at Aspen’s new headquarters in D.C.’s West End, featured New York Times investigative reporter Ian Urbina speaking about his new book, “The Outlaw Ocean.” The talk was scheduled for after lunch and that was fine with me because the food on the long, cloth-covered buffet table looked delicious and I was glad there’d be plenty of time to enjoy it. 

Guests enjoy Aspen Institute’s lunch buffet.

My theory that a liberal think tank would provide an abundant, free lunch with politically correct ingredients proved true at Aspen. Entrees, all either vegan or vegetarian, included: vegan vegetable flatbread, quinoa tabbouleh salad, cool ranch cauliflower wrap, and caprese flatbread sandwich. For each, a tented card listed ingredients and warned of any possibly offensive substances (“Nut-free,” “dairy-free”). Uniformed servers in black shirts, vests, and slacks continually refreshed the buffet.

Aspen server displays fresh tray of caprese flatbread sandwiches.

Dessert was vegan chocolate cupcakes with chocolate ganache frosting and lemon raspberry bars. Beverages included coffee, tea (“Earl Grey and Bigelow”) and lemonade. 

Aspen’s vegan chocolate cupcakes with chocolate ganache frosting.

Seating was at small tables, each with views of Georgetown and, in the distance, the National Cathedral.

After lunch, we experienced a striking transition as we went from enjoying the wholesome, inoffensive repast to the New York Times reporter’s talk about “human rights and labor abuses … above the waterline and threats to sustainability of the creatures who live below it.” This included large, projected images of enslaved ship crews, trafficked women, and slaughtered sea life.  

At the end, each of the nearly 200 guests left with a free, signed copy of the speaker’s 545-page hardcover book, yet another freebie from a liberal think tank.

If in 2020 Democrats fail to regain control of the government and we don’t all get free college, health care and income, it’s good to know that at least we can return to Aspen for a delicious free lunch—and a free book, too.

Free Lunch #2: The Heritage Foundation

For its annual “Supreme Court Review,” the Heritage Foundation—self-described as “the most influential conservative group in America”—offered back-to-back panel discussions: three lawyers who had argued cases before the court that term and then three national journalists who cover the court. The journalist panel included Jess Bravin of the Wall Street Journal, Adam Liptak of the New York Times, and Richard Wolf of USA Today. Discussion included cases involving gerrymandering and religious freedom, and the first-term voting record of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

From left to right: Elizabeth Slattery, Heritage Foundation; Jess Bravin, the Wall Street Journal; Adam Liptak, the New York Times; Richard Wolf, USA Today.

Following the program, I filed out of the auditorium with about 150 other guests into a high-ceiled, seventh-floor atrium overlooking Union Station and the Washington Monument. There we found a buffet with wrapped sandwiches heaped on black plastic trays: chicken Caesar, Italian hoagie, turkey and cheese. The thesis held: This conservative think tank was willing to feed us, but clearly didn’t want to make us dependent or sap our incentive to later feed ourselves; neither was it inclined to indulge our every food sensitivity. For dessert there were no chocolate cupcakes with chocolate ganache frosting; no Bigelow tea. Instead, we got oversize cookies: chocolate chip, walnut, sugar, and M&M—and cans of Coke, Diet Coke, Fresca and Sprite. 

Not a gourmet spread, but still a decent meal: The sandwiches and cookies were fresh and you could take as many as you liked. And the talks by those lawyers and reporters on the panels had been pretty filling, too.

Encouraged by two free lunches where my theory about “think tanks, ideology, and food” had held up, I then set out in search of breakfast.  

Free Breakfast #1: The Brookings Institution

On a Monday morning it was standing-room-only in a 150-seat conference room at Brookings, one of Washington’s largest think tanks. Three political theorists—two Israeli and one American—were to discuss populist movements in Israel, Britain, and the U.S. William Galston, who served in the Clinton White House and is now a senior fellow at Brookings, said populism represents a threat to liberal democracy. It developed, he said, in response to “important failures” by elites who control government policy. What policy failures? He named three: the stock market crash of 2008, the failure in each of the three countries to deal with immigration, and the U.S.’ long wars in Iran and Afghanistan. 

Brookings panel. Commentator William Galston, is at right.

Left-leaning Brookings came through with a delicious and healthy breakfast. On one tray were chunks of fresh cantaloupe and honeydew, strawberries, blackberries, and grapes. Another held an assortment of tiny muffins: apple with cocoanut topping, whole wheat, and bran. Happily, this was liberal largesse with a sweet tooth: a third tray offered croissants and flaky-crust pastries filled with apple, cherry, or lemon.

Tray of breakfast croissants at Brookings.

Free Breakfast #2: Center for Strategic and International Studies

I’d never been to CSIS, but often had noticed well-dressed diplomats entering and leaving the handsome headquarters of what is widely considered the premier think tank for defense and national security issues. Located just blocks from the White House, the CSIS building features limestone walls, marble floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, and 5-foot metal sculptures in the lobby. 

Center for Strategic and International Studies

Not unreasonably, I anticipated a fine breakfast for this 9 a.m. program on Russian-Iranian relations—perhaps a buffet with enough hot and cold entrees to satisfy the diverse breakfast traditions of an international crowd. A sign in the lobby—“No Beverages or Food Inside Conference Room” —only reinforced my expectation that there would indeed be a sumptuous offering. 

Alas, there was not. Despite the marble, the limestone, and the lobby art, there was not a muffin, croissant, or cookie to be had. The only beverages were orange juice from concentrate, water, coffee, and packaged Lipton tea.

It’s hard to pigeonhole CSIS as conservative—its directors range from Republican Henry Kissinger to Democrat Sam Nunn—so this was not quite an example of a right-leaning think tank wanting me to take personal responsibility for my own breakfast. But CSIS does reflect a traditional view of national defense and the role of the military. Maybe in the spirit of military readiness, CSIS just wanted me to be prepared to fend for myself so that if someday Brookings or another liberal think tank were not able to feed me, I’d at least know how to feed myself. Not a bad strategy, I suppose. If I ever go back there, though, I’ll demonstrate my readiness by having already eaten.

Oh, the program featured Ruslan Pukhov, a Russian defense analyst and director of a think tank based in Moscow. He began by acknowledging his past membership in the Russian Communist Party and then explained how Russia supplies Iran’s oil fields, nuclear plants, and rail cars, and how Iran in turn buys Russian products such as grain and sunflower oils. Given his heavy accent. I couldn’t understand about half of what he said, but I did catch this interesting comment about negotiating with Iran. “If I shop in a bazaar I expect to bargain over price,” said Pukhov, “but if I shop in a supermarket I expect to pay the price as marked. The problem is the Iranians want to bargain at the supermarket, too.”

He said more, but I didn’t stay for the whole thing; I was too hungry.

After two lunches and now two breakfasts, my thesis seemed rock solid, so I was emboldened to try dinner—and that’s when the whole thing fell apart. Here’s how it happened… 

Free Dinner #1: American Enterprise Institute

American Enterprise Institute—a widely respected center-right think tank—occupies a landmark Beaux-Arts building near D.C.’s Dupont Circle. In a weekday program that began at 5:15 pm, author and social critic Mary Eberstadt presented her new book, “Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.”

American Enterprise Institute at Dupont Circle.

Family and community have been the traditional sources of human identity, explained Eberstadt, but sexual liberation in the 1960s triggered a breakdown of the family and of close, stable communities. Young people, bereft of traditional sources of identity, were left to struggle to answer the essential question, “Who am I?” In response, they have become tribal, embracing identity politics and a culture of perpetual outrage. They cling to their grievances and demand space spaces with teddy bears and pacifiers. Their protests are screams of pain.

When the lecture ended at 6:30 p.m.—dinner hour in my book—there was no lavish dinner spread. Instead, as guests filed out of the lecture room we passed a modest but tasteful buffet in the hallway: a selection of cheese and crackers, fresh strawberries, dried apricots, green olives, tiny green peppers, a ramekin of golden honey, and—my favorite—fresh figs. Beverages included red and white wine, coffee, and tea. 

That seemed appropriate for a mildly conservative organization: enough food so we wouldn’t go hungry, but not so much as to distract us from the greater good of dining with our own families, in our own homes.

Free Dinner #2: Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship

Located on Capitol Hill, the Kirby Center is part of private, conservative Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich. Kirby, not as well-known as some of the larger think tanks, offers a unique, academic conservative perspective, and each month hosts a public lecture series on politics, history, and economics. The early evening event I attended featured Lee Habeeb, an Arab-American radio executive and host of “Our American Stories,” a show produced by Salem Radio Network and syndicated nationally. 

Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship on Capitol Hill.

In his talk, “Understanding America Through Stories,” Habeeb urged the audience to counter “the left’s domination of mainstream media, Hollywood, and academia” by telling more and better stories about “the meaning of America.” Stories “change hearts and change minds,” he said. “The left knows this and is good at it. As conservatives, we have to learn to do it, too.”

Radio host Lee Habeeb speaks at the Kirby Center.

After the lecture, and in accord with my thesis about ideology and think tank food, I didn’t expect much of a meal at Kirby. But then I noticed: Even though the lecture room doors had opened, no one was leaving. Instead, they formed a long line leading to an adjoining room. Then uniformed servers started coming by with silver trays of hors d’oeuvres: mini-chicken burrata cups, short-rib empanadas, and vegetable truffle crunch. As the line inched forward, I could see there was an open bar, too: red and white wine, Amstel and Corona beers. Then a buffet table came into sight: antipasto display (prosciutto, Genoa salami, mozzarella, olives, plum tomatoes, olive tapenade, crackers and focaccia flats), crudités platter (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, yellow squash, grape tomatoes, bell peppers, chipotle ranch and sauce verte). 

This was the last thing I’d expected at a hard-right conservative think tank at 7:30 in the evening. 

And you took the food from the trays with silver tongs and ate at high-top tables on real plates with real silverware wrapped in cloth napkins. 

There was more: local artisan cheese display (Firefly Goat Log and Merry Goat Round, Whispering Breeze Farm Gouda, 5 Spoke Creamery Tumbleweed Cheddar, seasonal jams, local honey, homemade crackers and bread). 

As I indulged in a choice of delicious desserts—hand-dipped truffles (black, brown, and white) or mini cupcakes (four different colors of frosting), I had to acknowledge the collapse of my thesis about think tank ideology and food. Maybe it had been hooey all along and the five earlier think tank meals fit the theory only by chance.

Or maybe not.

Perhaps conservative Kirby was just an outlier. 

Maybe the theory just needs more testing; there are, after all, dozens of think tanks in Washington, D.C. 

Beacon readers: Will you take up the challenge? Come on down to D.C. and test the theory for yourselves. At the least, I’m sure you’ll find that, at least in D.C., there is a free lunch.  

Peter Lovenheim is Rochester Beacon Washington correspondent. You can reach him at [email protected].

5 thoughts on “Food for thought: a mealtime guide to D.C. think tanks

  1. Thanks. This was a fun read. You may have to expand your horizons and avail yourself of the many sumptuous local grad school offerings (think literary readings, which always pair well with wine and cheese) and embassy lectures. You can dine out all week.

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