Food

Crazy Aunt Helen’s Is the Joyful, Nostalgic, Comfort Food Restaurant Capitol Hill Needs

Take a first look inside the all-day American spot from restaurant industry vet Shane Mayson.

Crazy Aunt Helen's, an all-day American comfort food restaurant and entertainment space, opens on Barracks Row. Photograph by Abdul Rahman Majeedi

After 30-plus years working in the restaurant industry, Shane Mayson arrived at a crossroads in 2019. The longtime marketing director of Hank’s Oyster Bar had started waiting tables when he was “a little 18 year old with no skill,” scoring a job at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill shortly after arriving in DC from his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. Three decades and countless restaurant jobs later, Mayson was starting to feel burned out.

“Should I go to a non-profit?,” he recalls thinking. “No, I’ll just go wait tables. So what if I’m 52? Figuring out what you want to do—that’s what waiting tables is good for.”

It didn’t take long. On his third day as a server at Nina May, Mayson says, “I looked up to the universe and said, okay, I get it. I’m going to open a restaurant. But I didn’t have prospects or money.”

Good karma doesn’t always kick in—but it did in a big way for Mayson, an effervescent presence with plenty of friends in DC’s close-knit hospitality industry. Mayson found a silent business partner, Mary Quillian-Helms, the current owner of Mr. Henry’s. Her father was a partner in the restaurant when Mayson worked there in the ’80s, and Mayson would wait on the teenage Quillian-Helms and her family.

Comforting plates include smothered fries, boiled peanuts, and hearty salads. Photograph by Abdul Rahman Majeedi

The two found a space on Barracks Row, formerly Finn McCool’s. The rooms were dark, wood-paneled, and lined with taps. But the space had two floors and two stages, and Mayson—an acting major in college (“obviously I wasn’t very good, because I’m still in the restaurant business)—knew he’d found a home.

The idea for Crazy Aunt Helen’s, an all-day American comfort food restaurant and entertainment venue, was born. After a year of planning and pandemic delays, it’s slated to open in July.

Mayson was stuck on a name for awhile, but he kept coming back to notion of a fun, slightly eccentric aunt when describing the vibe. “When I described what I was picturing, I kept saying things like, ‘You know when you go to your crazy Aunt Helen’s house, and none of the dishes match, but the food is really good? And she’s always waiting at the door with some sugar?’ That’s what I want. For the sake of my family, I want to state clearly that she was not crazy. But Warm and Loving Aunt Helen’s doesn’t roll off the tongue.”

Miss Pixie’s owner designed the bright, two-story space. Photograph by Abdul Rahman Majeedi

More friends jumped in to help. Pixie Windsor of 14th Street’s funky furnishing store Miss Pixie’s transformed the tavern-esque space into a bright, colorful destination with a pink-hued patio, neon David Amoroso paintings of Elvis and Jackie O on the walls, and (of course) mismatched vintage plates and mugs. Longtime friend and bartender Jo-Jo Valenzuela (the Game, Tiki on 18th) designed a cocktail menu inspired by flavors in a Southern grandma’s candy dish—think a vodka lemon drop, a root beer-esque old fashioned, and a Pisco cocktail with sassafras bitters. Beer expert Thor Cheston of Right Proper Brewing Company put together a local beer and cider list—plus fun sips like draft Prosecco, white wine, and rosé.

Perhaps a surprise, Mayson didn’t tap a pal to lead the kitchen—at least not a pre-existing one. He met Mykie Moll,  who most recently served as executive chef of shuttered Petworth restaurant, Pom Pom. “I knew right away he was the one,” says Mayson.

Moll, who also cooked at Doi Moi, has created menus that are as eclectic as Aunt Helen’s herself. The restaurant rises early with daily breakfast, partly inspired by the neon-lit diners of Mayson’s youth. “When I lived in NYC, I was broke and young, and all my friends were broke and young, a diner breakfast was the only meal we could afford to eat,” he says. The morning menu will boast bagel sandwiches, lox platters, and breakfast plates with eggs, hash browns, and a choice of meats (or non-meats). 

Fluffy pancakes will be a morning staple. Photograph by Abdul Rahman Majeedi

 

Southern-leaning lunch dishes include deviled egg salad, fried green tomato sandwiches, and fried chicken, plus house-cured corned beef tucked into Reuben sandwiches. Dinner gets a bit dressier with comfort fare like red wine-braised brisket—a recipe from Moll’s Jewish grandmother—a pork chop with mac n’ cheese, or a brined and roasted chicken. Burgers with fun toppings can be ordered afternoon or night. Meaty, yes, but there are also plenty of vegan items at every hour—from a dairy-free riff on homemade yogurt to “crab” cakes fashioned out of lion’s mane mushrooms.

Vegan “crab” cakes fashioned out of mushrooms. Photograph by Abdul Rahman Majeedi

The 76-seat first-floor bar and dining room will open first, but Mayson already has grand plans for the 53-seat “Peacock Room” above. “Honey, when the kitchen closes, that’s when it’s time to let your hair down, have another drink, and watch people do their magic,” says Mayson. He’s invited musical theater friends to perform on Mondays, and is talking with local comedians and improv groups for Thursdays. Weekends might bring jazz or cabaret. Non-locals will occasionally headline. Another friend, drag star Sherry Vine, will perform for a weekend in August. Comedian Jessica Kirson is booked for September.

The team is still deciding about whether they’ll have food upstairs during performances. They’re leaning towards simple, nostalgic snacks and treats like boiled peanuts or chocolate chip cookies with milk.

“A lot of stuff here reminds me of childhood. Nostalgic, no fuss,” says Mayson. “I’m 54, so any chance I have to feel young again—I will take it.”

Crazy Aunt Helen’s. 713 8th St., SE.

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Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.