Study at Morrison House

Central American cuisine in Old Town Alexandria.

The Study, Alexandria, VA

I smile at the tableau of folks gathered around The Study Bar in Alexandria’s Morrison House. Emmanuel Pressley is shaking martinis for one couple, while a woman at the end of the bar nurses her Fire & Ice cocktail. Between sips, her fingers dance over her laptop. Two hotel guests drop in, shrugging off jackets before ordering Port City beers, brewed just a few miles from here.

Call it Alexandria’s Cheers, The Study is an intimate and buzzy place with locals arriving after work to mix with visitors to historic Old Town. Jazz pianist Dehrric Richburg tickles the keys. With a voice that conjures John Legend’s, he’s a big draw on Thursday through Saturday nights. 

The luxurious boutique hotel one block off King Street in Old Town, is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Once a private home, it’s tucked in a brick alleyway and fits like a glove amid the 18th- and 19th-century Federalist homes that surround it. From the street, a set of stairs leads to a heavy front door that feels unyielding at first, but inside, the atmosphere is intimate and welcoming. 

The Study, Alexandria, VA

The Study Bar and Restaurant opened in April 2021 with Tomas Chavarria, its acclaimed young executive chef, heading the kitchen. Chavarria grew up in Costa Rica’s coastal province of Guanacaste and his Mesoamerican-inspired menu showcases the indigenous culinary traditions of both Mexico and Central America. 

The Study, Alexandria, VA

He’s worked under Michelin chefs and overseen Marriott kitchens in the Philippines, Mexico City, Havana, and Dubai. But Chavarria’s menu also reflects his multicultural study, first at Costa Rica’s Universidad Politécnica Internacional and, later, at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. 

In 2022, he competed on Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay. After winning the first round, Chavarria challenged the incomparable chef Flay to make Adobo chicken, an iconic Filipino dish. The contest ended in a draw, with Chavarria falling short of Flay-slayer status but, at just 30 years old, his youthful charm made for a playful match. 

My husband, Eric, joins me at the bar, and I order A Beautiful Little Fool, a showstopper of a cocktail with layers of purple Malbec and golden bourbon. The sultry mixture warms from the inside out.

Bar food is definitely a thing here, as Chavarria explains, “There’s a tradition in every single culture when you sit down for a meal, there’s always something at the center of the table. For some it’s tortillas, but in Costa Rica, you’ll always find pickles.” We begin with crudités of pickles and cauliflower. One is fermented in mustard, one with tomato, another with Scotch bonnet peppers. Our waiter recommends mixing the pickles into the dishes to infuse heat and sour with sweet.

Nearby patrons share stoneware platters of soft-centered Heritage Croquettes and local cheeses from Firefly and Lancaster Farms. Adventurous eaters will find these appetizers memorable.

The Study, Alexandria, VA

The Crudo Tostado Trio showcases the Mesoamerican melding of flavors. Three bite-sized corn tortillas are crowned with beef tataki, octopus, and tuna. I relish the textures of crunchy chips with velvety toppings, marinated in fish and soy sauces, with ginger and chiles. Chavarria says these piquant seasonings reflect the trade route from Asia, which brought new spices to the continent.

A second starter wows with a lobster claw, which arrives perched on the lid of a ramekin. Inside, we discover a potato pastry in a moat of buttery jus embellished with a dollop of caviar. 

The Study, Alexandria, VA

We then settle into the dining room where the Hollywood Regency interior is outfitted in tufted couches and silver and gold accents. A lattice chandelier sprays intricate shadows across the ceiling. The space inspires guests to speak in low voices, like a club you’d like to keep secret. 

The Study is an inspired choice for the book club gathered at a nearby table. The cocktail menu includes The Giving Treebasil-infused gin, lime juice, lassi, and Green Chartreuse—and Paradise Lostorgeat, pineapple juice, lime juice, and reposado tequila. The group also orders wines from Barboursville Vineyards and Williamsburg Winery. 

Eric and I share the Run Down Stew, with red snapper, lobster, cod, and shrimp in a briny broth. Seafood figures prominently here, which the chef cures, salts, and smokes to develop its flavors, as well as in his Hamachi Crudo and gingery Scallops Tiradito.

Although he’s made a home in Alexandria, Chavarria also loves recalling his childhood in Guanacaste, where his grandmother instilled his love of cooking. “She was making tortillas, tamales, and cooking for my grandfather and my family every day.” The flavors turn up in the satiny Steak and Onions—his grandfather’s favorite dish.

Here, the strip loin from Seven Hills Farm in Lynchburg is dry-aged on-site for 60 days. Iron-seared in butter, the tender beef is served rare, and accompanied by three types of onion, with gravy flavored with Lizano, a sweet and tangy condiment popular in Costa Rica.

The Study, Alexandria, VA

This tangy sweetness also brightens the Shenandoah Valley Chicken, smoked for 16 hours, with crisp, deeply burnished skin. It’s plated with fingerling potatoes and zingy red onions. Chavarria uses annatto—an endemic seed from the tropics, considered the saffron of Latin America.

While the seasonings are Mesoamerican, Chavarria says the diver scallops were caught in the Chesapeake Bay, and The Study’s purveyors are primarily in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

We end the meal with a tribute to cacao, perhaps the culture’s most delicious culinary contribution, with Churros in a Row and The Study’s Chocolate Sampler—a cream-filled brownie with chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Before heading home, we pause in the parlor to admire a print of Mark Twain above the fireplace. In the bar, people are tapping their toes to the jazzy tunes. 

“We are the pura vida people,” says Chavarria. Pure life. It’s about living peacefully with happiness and gratitude. “That’s the experience in Costa Rica, and it’s what we are trying to do. Give a little back to our culture.” Clearly, The Study’s team is sharing a taste of pura vida with its guests—it’s a place we’d revisit, happily. TheStudyAlx.com 

The Study, Alexandria, VA


This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue.

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