The New in Old Town: Alexandria

Alexandria’s historic district has fared better than most through this economic slowdown—and is lots more dynamic than one might think.

It’s 4:00 p.m. on a Saturday night in January, and inside the kitchen at Brabo restaurant in historic Old Town Alexandria, Chef de Cuisine Chris Watson and his staff are in full knife-twirling prep mode, gearing up to serve some 140 diners later that evening. Watson is slicing some blood oranges for a scallop dish that’s on the menu of the upscale, two-year-old eatery. Still wearing his apron, he takes a break to show me around Brabo and its three adjacent sister properties on the upper end of King Street. His first stop—he’s a chef—is an outdoor freezer where a few Randall Lineback carcasses are hanging on hooks just inside the door. Watson bought the Randall Linebacks, said to be the oldest cattle breed in America and producing what is known as rose veal, from John Henderson and Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville. “John is trying to bring back the breed,” says Watson, “and the only way to do that is to eat it.” Chefs may adorn plates, but they speak plainly.

Managed by Executive Chef Robert Wiedmaier (best known for his D.C. restaurants Marcel and Brasserie Beck), Brabo serves what Watson says is “French and American food with Belgian flare,” adding: “It’s a white tablecloth bistro with high-end service in a relaxed setting.” Certainly, the place has given Old Town a little uptown sizzle during an economic downturn. The décor is both modern and minimalist—a copper bar, bronze hues, high-back chairs and warm lighting in an open space—and the restaurant has gotten strong reviews. Next door to Brabo is the cozy Brabo Tasting Room, which with its Belgian beer menu, tarte flambeés, mussels and charcuterie has been a hit with Old Town locals. And next to it is The Butcher’s Block, a retail venue with classic black-and-white tile flooring that sells meats and poultry and fresh baguettes along with some 100 wines creatively displayed on the back wall.

Brabo, the Tasting Room and Butcher’s Block are all owned by a partnership between Kimpton Hotels and the DSF (investment) Group, and all form a sort of commercial vanguard for the Lorien Hotel and Spa, a six-story boutique hotel that sits back off King Street, behind a courtyard, and anchors the development. From the outside, it’s almost easy to miss the Lorien, but inside one notices the subtle eggshell blue, gray and white motif, and the mix of classical and modernist design elements by Vincente Wolfe—floors that are a mix of brick and slate, an oversize Queen Anne-style mahogany reception desk in the lobby, old-fashioned tubs in otherwise spare bathrooms. In the lobby lounge there are plenty of books, but all are cloaked anonymously in plain white covers. Surprisingly, the Lorien is the first hotel in Old Town with its own spa. Stephanie Landrum, a senior vice president with the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP), calls the Lorien development an “amazing infill project that we hope is mimicked here.”

Few places in America are as distinctive as Old Town Alexandria, which was founded in 1749 and offers a singular mix of early American architecture and historic sites combined with a sophisticated yet neighborly culture. The place has an image of almost impregnable charm and stability—but as I learned during my recent visit, like every business and commercial district in the country, Old Town changes. Unsurprisingly, Old Town has been bruised by the three-year recession; there has been turnover in the district’s usually robust retail sector—which comprises about 300 shops in a two-square-mile area—and spending by tourists, a pillar of the city’s economy, has dipped. And yet Alexandria and Old Town have fared substantially better than most localities during this downturn—and they seem poised, with the help of newish projects like Kimpton’s Lorien enclave, to flourish again. “Fortunately, we are doing very well,” says Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille. He calls the district a “very unique place with its history, architecture and people. You daily sense and appreciate its oldness but at the same time get to experience its new and diverse culture—restaurants, retail, entertainment.” The mayor says that “lack of affordable housing and transportation funding” are the biggest issues facing the city.

The Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association (ACVA) reports that tourism spending in the city fell off in 2009 (the latest year for which numbers are available), to $616 million. Still, Stephanie Pace Brown, CEO of the ACVA, is encouraged. For one thing, the 2009 spending drop came after a record $645 million in tourism spending the year before. What’s more, while tourism outlays in the United States and Virginia as a whole dropped by eight percent in 2009, the decrease in Alexandria was much smaller—4.5 percent. In fact, notes Brown, Alexandria sold 66,000 more hotel rooms in 2009 than in 2008, but lower room rates constrained the income total.

Even during a recession, Old Town’s appeal as a retail location is apparent. Cristina Mindrup, vice president of commercial real estate for the AEDP, points out that the district’s retail vacancy rate is lower than five percent. “Over the last year, we have had a lot of turnover and vacancies,” says Mindrup, “but the reports we are getting are that the vacancy periods are [brief]. Many of the spaces are already spoken for or are in negotiation. Retail is rebounding—more quickly than the rest of the market. The commercial market is taking a little longer to recover.”

As evidence, she says that 33 new businesses opened in Old Town over the last 12 months. And most are the independent, locally-owned businesses for which the district is known. (Old Town’s retail sector is about 77 percent independent, according to the AEDP.) Among the new shops are The Hour, a boutique that sells vintage and chic barware and glassware, and Alexandria Cupcake, which touts its made-from-scratch sweets. Jennifer Donohue, a patent attorney in D.C. who opened the women’s boutique Treat three years ago, told me she picked Old Town after investigating various retail enclaves in the D.C metropolitan area. “I wanted a place that was a little more personable,” she says, “where you could get to know people and have a positive shopping experience. There is a great community feeling in Old Town, and I like being able to support other independent businesses.”

And new ones are coming. Cathal Armstrong, the chef and owner of Restaurant Eve and Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper, will open two food spots this spring. One, named Virtue Feed and Grain and located near the waterfront, will be a gastro-pub offering “global comfort food.” The other, Society Fair, will be a European-style bakery and butcher shop, and also sell prepared food.

“What everybody loves about Old Town is that it is unique and authentic,” says Landrum, “but things do change. If you come here [after an absence of a couple of years], your favorite shop might still be there, but the one next door to it could be new and a response to market changes. For those of us who’ve been here for a long time, that’s exciting.”

Victor Dash, who owns the men’s shop Dash’s of Old Town, worries that some of the newer shops lack the cachet of some of the businesses they replaced. Says he: “If somebody comes in and stacks clothes in a front window and the place looks like Canal Street, that’s not good.” Two years ago a new “couples boutique” named Le Tache opened in Old Town, selling sex toys and videos in addition to lingerie. It put a twist in the knickers of a few Old Town veterans, and city officials reportedly asked the owner to tone down his window displays. The tempest blew over, though, and Le Tache’s business reportedly has been good. C’est la vie!

While new shops open, some of Old Town’s stalwart retailers and restaurants carry on. They include the children’s toy store Why Not, the women’s clothing shop Gossypia, and La Cuisine, The Cook’s Resource, a destination for cooks featuring hard-to-find European items. What’s more, on Saturday nights, you can still find older amateur vocalists singing classic ballads in the Morrison House Grille piano bar, accompanied by Bob Smith. I tasted Executive Chef Dennis Marron’s homage to coconut while enjoying the music along with a milk chocolate pot de crème. It was a decadent way to end a cold day of trekking. There are also weekend sing-alongs at the elegant Morrison—it is an Old Town tradition.

So is browsing for antiques. There are many fine antique shops in the district, none more reputable than Sumpter Priddy III, Inc. on South Washington Street. The shop is off the beaten path, but what Priddy lacks in location he makes up for in expertise: He is a scholar of southern furniture and American decorative arts.

Nancy Pollard is equally knowledgeable about cooking gear, having owned La Cuisine for 40 years. In the 1970s she and her husband bought a four-story 1810 brick building on Cameron Street, facing City Hall, and have been there ever since. Pollard says that “business was rough two years ago, last year was better and 2011 looks even better.” She adds that “new residential buildings are being built in line with this architectural style—and more young couples are moving in. That’s made a nice base for us as a shop.” She too lauds the broad mix of independent stores in Old Town, and mentions Grape + Bean, a newish coffee and wine-tasting shop, as a place she has come to appreciate. “I was always complaining to my daughter who lives in Bologna that she has 80 fabulous wine bars and we have none. Now, we have one.”

There is a big economic and development issue facing Old Town. Like every city, Alexandria would like to boost its tax revenues—and one way it hopes to do that is by redeveloping Old Town’s waterfront, which officials perceive as having untapped economic potential. For the last 18 months, the city has been formulating a waterfront development plan whose broad aim, according to Farroll Hamer, director of Alexandria’s Department of Planning and Zoning, is “to encourage access to the waterfront by everyone.” The plan basically envisions a new pier at the foot of King Street and Waterfront Park, a new hotel, more outdoor dining, more pedestrian walking paths along the waterfront and the “adaptive reuse” of two old industrial terminals and some historic warehouses on Duke and Union Streets. Hamer puts the total cost of suggested improvements at between $30 and $40 million.

Whether the city can sell this idea to Old Town merchants and residents is not clear. They worry about any new development increasing traffic and congestion. The Old Town Civic Association (OTCA), in particular, seems skeptical of the city’s intentions, and would oppose any redevelopment concept with the potential to alter the area’s character or culture. The OTCA has produced a sizeable white paper outlining its concerns, and John Gosling, president of the group, says that the issue “is coming to a boil.” While acknowledging that tourism, real estate and retail are economic drivers in Alexandria, Gosling says that “this is not a brown field redevelopment. You need a more subtle approach; you have to think very carefully about how you infill in a less intrusive way.” He says that the city’s plan “has been changing,” adding: “We have been nudging [city officials] in the direction we’d like them to go, but have not seen anything that will satisfy homeowners.”

The Old Dominion Boat Club will have a say in the matter. According to Hamer, it has a parking lot that currently blocks access to the waterfront. The city would like the club to consider reconfiguring the lot to allow full public access. Meantime, more public hearings will be held. “We have good answers to [community] questions,” insists Hamer, “but there is concern.”

This year the city is promoting its own “uncommon” Civil War experience. The events will include a “living history” demonstration in Market Square and a “spies and scouts” family festival in the Carlyle House—both on May 21. Alexandria holds the distinction of being the longest occupied territory during the war, and the fomer Marshall House, now the Monaco Hotel, was where the first Union officer was killed, on May 24, 1861. Colonel Elmer Ellsworth spotted a Confederate flag flying from the roof of the inn, marched in with some troops and pulled it down. That did not please James W. Jackson, the owner of the Marshall House and an ardent secessionist. He pulled out a shotgun and shot Ellsworth, and then one of the men in Ellsworth’s party shot and killed Jackson.

Today, there is a plaque at the Monaco noting the incident. I failed to notice it, perhaps because I was too keen to chow at the hotel’s Jackson 20 restaurant, which is well known for its pork—there’s a sizeable bronze pig perched in the center of the dining room. There I tasted oysters Rockefeller before digging into a few barbequed pork ribs, and pork stew with sweet potatoes. The meal was every bit as good as it was hearty.

During my trip I also ate two brunches in two charmingly old buildings. My spinach-and-cheese omelet soufflé at Two Nineteen Restaurant was so light it practically floated away from the plate. Two Nineteen is located in a shambling Victorian-style house built in 1890 and restored in the 1970s by owner Clifford Cline. Today it’s a New Orleans-style French-Creole restaurant with some classic wrinkles—solid brass wall sconces, period millwork, marble fireplace mantels and Hungarian crystal chandeliers. My other brunch was at the Columbia Firehouse, which occupies a capacious building built on South St. Asaph Street in 1883 for the Columbia Steam Engine Fire Company. Opened as a brasserie two years ago, the Firehouse has a charming atrium, patio and barroom so redolent of old-world saloon (brass railings, stained glass and dark wood) that I rued not having a pocket watch when I entered. The restaurant’s “cookies and confections” dessert special is said to be popular. I instead tasted the Firehouse’s passion fruit crème brûlée with toasted coconut and coconut lime sorbet—“all homemade,” said Powell. And all good.

That sweet treat was a fine way to wrap up a trip to one of Virginia’s best neighborhoods, but before leaving I noticed a few new multi-space parking meters on lower King Street that the city had just installed. They are solar-powered and accept credit cards, which got me to thinking that while Old Town is synonymous with historic charm, it also changes more than you think.

For more about where to shop, visit and eat in Old Town, go to VirginiaLiving.com/OldTown

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