Neighborhood Guide: Old Town Alexandria

Here’s where Alexandria's locals go—from best spots for a date night to a park where moms gather to favorite boutiques.
Old Town residents love the area's history, family-run businesses, and walkability. Photograph by Coyle/Getty Images.

Go-To Coffee Shops

Misha’s

“It is very much a local hangout,” architect and longtime resident Mehmet Elbirlik says of this neighborhood gathering spot for house-roasted coffee. “Every time you go in, you see all the same people.”

A large community table encourages conversation with fellow Misha’s (102 S. Patrick St.; 703-548-4089) acolytes, who choose from daily blends and varietals. We like the midrange flavor of Caravan, but if you need a boost, try the amped-up Route 66.

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Resident to Know: Braden Holtby

Washington Capitals goalie

My teammate Jason Chimera told us about Old Town—he lives here, too. We liked it because it’s old, historic, fairly quiet for family life, but at the same time close to DC. It’s not the typical commercialized America—there are a lot of family-owned businesses. I have a son who’s two and another one on the way. My wife wanted to be able to walk places and have a lot of things she could do, because we’re on the road so much. We like walking to Firehook Bakery, King Street Blues, and the Torpedo Factory, but there are so many things we haven’t even seen yet.

Where to Dine

Asian Bistro

Eleven years after opening, family-run Asian Bistro (809 King St.; 703-836-1515)remains one of the few Asian restaurants in Old Town. Patrons go for its menu of Chinese, Thai, and Japanese cuisine. A sushi bar opened eight years ago due to demand, and this year ramen dishes were added.

Columbia Firehouse

Southern eggs Benedict with fried green tomatoes. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

The restaurant that occupies the former Columbia Steam Engine Fire Company firehouse has more than an architectural connection to its past: Director of operations Dave Hammond’s grandfather was a volunteer firefighter there. The menu combines French brasserie classics with Americana, such as low-country bouillabaisse and Vermont-cheddar gougères. The raw bar is a perennial favorite, as is the extensive list of American craft beers (109 S. St. Asaph St.; 703-683-1776).

Landini Brothers

This cozy Italian restaurant celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. Owner Franco Landini, who runs the restaurant with his son Noe, says he’s now serving the grandchildren of his original patrons. “It’s like watching your own family grow: You know everyone by name, you know what they do, you’re a part of their lives”—much as Landini’s longtime menu staples (penne Romana and veal Landini) are a part of theirs (115 King St.; 703-836-8404).

Nickell’s & Scheffler

The husband/wife team of Susan Scheffler and Louis Nickell change the menu every week at this casual lunch spot, where cases display the latest “farm-centric” offerings, many of them gluten-free, vegetarian, or vegan. Scheffler looks to farmers markets and her own back-yard garden for inspiration. “I always try to do one thing per week that I’ve never done before,” she says. Menu fixtures include crabcakes, crustless quiche, macaroons, and gluten-free brownies (1028 King St.; 703-549-5545).

Society Fair

Aptly named, Society Fair (277 S. Washington St.; 703-683-3247)is a culinary midway of pastries, charcuterie, cheese, candy, and wine for gourmet-seeking customers. Bistro tables offer a place to enjoy either breakfast or a soup-and-sandwich lunch. A wine bar hosts daily happy hours as well as dinners for small groups, prepared on Fridays in the demo kitchen with ingredients from the store. It’s a favorite for locals to bring out-of-town guests, and the boudoir-like interior draws girlfriend get-togethers.

Taverna Cretekou

Niko Papaloizou’s father, Christos, started at the taverna as a busboy in 1976, then worked his way up until he bought the place in 2005. Now Niko and his sister, Maria, run it. Diners love the rear courtyard garden in the warmer months, where they can enjoy classic Greek dishes. “People feel like they’re in the Mediterranean, only without the water,” Papaloizou says—especially on Thursdays, when there’s live music and dancing and Christos and his family break plates to the music, in the Greek tradition (818 King St.; 703-548-8688).

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Resident to Know: Ray Mabus

Secretary of the Navy, former governor of Mississippi

I have three daughters—they’re 23, 21, and 13. The one piece of wisdom I’ve tried to pass along to them is “You have to eat ice cream.” There are lots of places to buy ice cream within walking distance of my house, and any place where you can do that is a great town. We live three blocks from King Street, two blocks from Washington Street, and three blocks from the river. We rarely use our car—and that’s amazingly nice.

…And Get a Drink

Brabo Tasting Room

Well-dressed patrons of all ages flock to this 45-seat restaurant, which dispenses with formalities: no reservations or dress code. Customers can sit at the zinc bar and choose from a small menu of basics—chef/owner Robert Wiedmaier’s mussels are favorites, along with wood-fired tarts and cheese and charcuterie platters. The wine list focuses on California and Europe, while beers are mostly from Belgian and American craft breweries.“It was designed to be very friendly, very accessible, very small, and very tasty,” Wiedmaier says (1600 King St.; 703-894-3440).

The Hour

Neighborhood parties are much more stylish thanks to the vintage barware sold at the Hour. Photograph by Jessica Kiser.

Mixologists have become local celebrities as cocktail culture enjoys a comeback. No one knows that better than Victoria Vergason, owner of the Hour (1015 King St.; 703-224-4687), which specializes in vintage barware along with new designs to make any home bar the talk of the neighborhood. Vergason is also the author of Capitol Cocktails, a book that includes recipes from Washington’s celebrated bartenders.

Southside 815

It resembles an old Irish pub, and you could be easily fooled with its ample beer selection, dark paneling, and cozy niches. But make no mistake: Southside 815 (815 S. Washington St.; 703-836-6222) breathes the soul of the South with its raved-about fried chicken, mac and cheese, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp and grits. Locals describe it as a gem—especially on Sundays during football season.

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Resident to Know: William Euille

Mayor of Alexandria

I’m a lifelong resident of Alexandria. I just moved to north Old Town, in the Parker-Gray Historic District, a traditionally African-American neighborhood and home to the first public library, the first elementary school, and the first high school for blacks in Alexandria. This area is in transition, with the redevelopment of new mixed-income housing, anchored by the Charles Houston Recreation Center, in addition to apartment buildings, restaurants, improved streetscape, and charm. I am pleased that the area will sustain its economic, racial, and social diversity—I’ve found it to be both welcoming and thriving with vitality.

Where to Shop

Aftertime Comics

Regulars know that Wednesday is the day when the weekly shipment of comic books arrives at this tiny 29-year-old storefront. But manager Howard Marshall says that there’s also a steady procession of walk-in customers—especially with television’s The Walking Dead and the Avengers and the Captain America movies. Aftertime Comics is bursting with floor-to-ceiling shelves of graphic novels as well as current and vintage comics, including owner David Erskine’s own rare collections (1304 King St.; 703-548-5030).

Apple seed Maternity & Baby Boutique

“It’s a little scary if you’re a first-time mom,” owner Susan Gibeson says of buying maternity clothes. “You need well-made, pretty clothes.” With jeans from Citizens of Humanity, dresses from Maternal America, and designer clothing from Olian, Apple Seed provides just that, plus a well-edited collection of baby clothes and gifts (115 S. Columbus St.; 703-535-5446).

Bishop Boutique

Kelly Ferenc opened Bishop Boutique (815-B King St.; 571-312-0042) 2½ years ago to indulge her passion for stylish accessories. You’ll find shoes by L.K. Bennett and Ivanka Trump plus colorful jewelry and funky bags by Charlotte Ronson and Elaine Turner. The shop’s most recent “look book” was photographed at Old Town venues, pairing its products with clothes from Zoe Boutique (130 S. Union St.; 571-970-6324) and dogs in collars from the Dog Park. “Customers, locals, the other shop owners—they’re all incredibly supportive,” Ferenc says.

Daniel Donnelly

This shop is a destination for fans of midcentury furnishings, lighting, and accessories. Donnelly will restore and reupholster original pieces and build midcentury-inspired custom furniture; he also sells pristine-condition designs by names from back in the day, such as Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto, and George Nelson. Donnelly’s own furniture and lighting collections fit seamlessly with Mad Men-era originals (520 N. Fayette St.; 703-549-4672).

Hysteria

Photograph by Andrew Propp.

Ask a well-dressed local where she shops and you’ll undoubtedly hear, “Hysteria.” This 15-year-old boutique carries such lines as Tory Burch, Rachel Zoe, Diane von Furstenberg, and DL1961—it’s a good bet for everything from conservative-chic workwear to skinny jeans for the soccer sidelines (123 S. Fairfax St.; 703-548-1615).

La Cuisine

This kitchen shop is crammed with every cook’s tool and specialty food imaginable, from a $10 cooling rack to a $690 sauté pan. Owner Nancy Pollard also offers tasting bars for chocolate, olive oil, and vinegar in addition to classes on knife skills and cookie decorating (323 Cameron St.; 703-836-4435).

Lawrence Miller & Co.

This 45-year-old workshop is a hybrid silversmith and custom-jewelry boutique, with a gallery upstairs that can be rented for events. Customers seek it out to fix broken candelabras, restore heirlooms, or straighten a silver spoon that got caught in a disposer. But the custom-jewelry business has gotten much more popular, manager Tim Shaheen says, as younger customers seek unique stones and settings (121 S. Royal St.; 703-548-0659).

Mint Condition

It’s not immediately apparent that Mint Condition (103 S. St. Asaph St.; 703-836-6468) is a consignment shop, with its brand-new, current-season designs from Chanel to Lilly Pulitzer gracing the shelves. At any time, up to 50 items of clothing have the original store tag on them, owner Toni Henderson says, noting that she gets “the good stuff” from women who suffer buyer’s remorse after realizing a non-returnable purchase doesn’t work with their wardrobe.

Patina

Decades of friendship and a mutual passion for design led Amanda Mertins and Kimberly Weiler to open this home-decor shop last year. The mixture of vintage auction and estate-sale finds along with new pieces is arranged to look like separate rooms in an elegant home. Customers can also buy fresh flower arrangements—“like an ever-changing accessory,” Mertins says. (605 Franklin St.; 703-780-6800)

The Shoe Hive

For a decade, shoe worshippers have returned to Elizabeth Todd’s Shoe Hive (127 S. Fairfax St.; 703-548-7105) for styles and brands not typically available at department stores. The girly yet sophisticated Butter line is a case in point, along with new offerings by Italy’s Claudia Ciuti, whose $352 “shoetie” (a snake-embossed bootie with a slingback heel and open toe) is “flying off the shelves,” according to manager Christen Kinard.

Why Not?

This quintessential children’s toy store/boutique celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and many customers are the children and grandchildren of the original tykes who pleaded with their parents for a doll or truck. Noticeably missing from the toys, books, and clothing? Anything electronic. (200 King St.; 703-548-4420)

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Resident to Know: Wendy Santantonio

Real-estate agent and blogger at OldTownHome.com

We have a really special block where everyone looks out for each other—I don’t know that I expected that, coming into an urban area like this. Every other month, we have a TGIF party. One neighbor hosts and provides the beverages, and other people bring an appetizer or a dessert. It’s a neat way to see the inside of people’s houses—they’re never what you expect from the outside.

Where You Can Bring Your Pets

The Dog Park

“Dog-friendly” is an understatement in Old Town, and the Dog Park (705 King St.; 703-888-2818) indulges the neighborhood’s obsession. It doesn’t sell just leashes, manager Lara Muller says, “but ones that won’t break when your dog is going for a squirrel.” And not just kibble but food made naturally by American and Canadian producers. Staffers also dole out advice on training and grooming—along with home-baked treats on the counter.

Jackson 20

It’s a Thursday destination for Old Town dog lovers: Jackson 20’s DOG-GI Happy Hour in the Hotel Monaco’s outdoor courtyard. Dogs get freshly made treats to go, but there’s a lot to like for humans as well, including craft cocktails, chef Brian McPherson’s ribs (which even Texans swear by), and local vegetables, many of which come from the rooftop garden (480 King St.; 703-842-2790).

Windmill Hill Park

To residents, it’s simply the Lee Street Park, and in late afternoon it becomes a gathering spot for dog walkers and parents. The grassy fields have a playground, a basketball court, beach volleyball, and waterfront views. “The parks are a big social network for new moms,” resident Julianne Belevetz says. “You put the baby in the stroller, walk down to the park, and meet all these people.” (501 S. Union St.; 703-746-4343).

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Resident to Know: Carolyne Roehrenbeck

Longtime community volunteer

When I was nine, I visited from Kentucky. My aunt brought me to Old Town, and we came to the corner of Prince and Lee streets. I loved the fact that it was cobblestone and there were so many buildings connected to history. I remember thinking, “This is where I want to live when I grow up,” and now I live two blocks from there.

The minute my daughter became pregnant, she moved back to Old Town, and now her stroller gets more mileage than her car. We take her daughter to Lee Street Park [a.k.a. Windmill Hill Park], exactly what I did with her.

Markets & Other Things to Do

Fleurir Hand Grown Chocolates

Photograph By Andrew Propp.

Robert Ludlow and Ashley Hubbard are the husband/wife chocolatiers behind Fleurir, where you can watch the chocolates being made in the sprawling space—and take classes to learn how to make your own. Ludlow says they have been overwhelmed by Old Town friendliness—they’ve been brought baby gifts when their daughter was born, cookies made with Fleurir chocolate, and even beer. First-timers should try the salted milk-chocolate caramels, which the New York Times rated among the top ten in the nation (724 Jefferson St.; 703-838-9055).

Old Town Farmers’ Market

George Washington is rumored to have sold his produce at this 260-year-old market, the oldest in the country. But the forefathers might not recognize the place today, as customers browse fresh-made kimchee and Greek yogurt, locally raised meat from Moroccan native Jawad Laouaouda, and mozzarella and fresh-squeezed orange juice from Italian-born Joseph Clemente. “I shop here every weekend,” says an Old Town resident who collects her weekly fruits and vegetables in a hand-woven basket she bought there (301 King St.; 703-746-3200).

Old Town Theater

For some, the 2012 renovation of this 100-year-old theater symbolizes a greater revitalization along the middle stretch of King Street. “When we bought our house, the movie theater was boarded up,” says Wendy Santantonio, a real-estate agent. “It’s so nice to see the excitement travel this way.” Today the theater hosts old movies, plays, seminars, and private events—with a restaurant and bar open for each (815 King St.; 703-549-1025).

This article appears in our June 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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