When Cathal Armstrong was 19, he opened a restaurant in his native Ireland. His ambition was stronger than his work ethic. “My review from the food critic was ‘And the Baytree was mysteriously closed,’ ” he laughs, “because I’d decided we should go to the pub that night and not bother cooking.”
Armstrong has matured since then, rising through such Washington kitchens as Vidalia and Bistro Bis, but he hasn’t lost a sense of fun. If fine dining often means stuffy, it doesn’t at Restaurant Eve, the Old Town Alexandra destination he opened with his wife, Meshelle—a food-industry vet herself—in 2004. “I’d worked in some hoity-toity places,” she says. “We didn’t want that.” At Eve, servers are as quick with a joke as they are with a proper fish knife. Customers can choose whether to eat in the low-key bistro or the more formal tasting room.
Cathal Armstrong’s cooking, rooted in artisanal techniques and rustic flavors, has grown, too. If in the early days the tasting-room menus felt like works in progress, they now feel like creative tours de force.
The Armstrongs have done more to jump-start the dining scene in their tradition-bound neighborhood. In 2006 they opened Eamonn’s, an open-late, Dublin-style fish-and-chips shop. Just upstairs is PX, a reservations-recommended speakeasy where Restaurant Eve sommelier Todd Thrasher presides with his terrific cocktails, both retro and innovative. And in 2007 the Armstrongs took over the Majestic, an Old Town institution on the brink of closing. They’ve installed a menu of freshly conceived American classics—succotash, icebox cakes—and spiffed up the space without sacrificing nostalgia.
Lest you think they’re taking over Old Town entirely, the couple’s next venture is in Alexandria’s Del Ray. A European-style butcher, bread bakery, gourmet shop, and wine-centric lounge—all in one spot—is slated to open in 2009.
“It’s a completely new idea,” says Meshelle. “We’re always thinking, ‘What else can we do to make this fun?’ ”