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Where to Eat in Alexandria VA: Skip Old Town and Head to Del Ray
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Evening Star Cafe, Fireflies, Los Tios Are Local Favorites
Alexandria, Virginia is one of the most popular side trips for tourists visiting Washington, D.C. Old Town Alexandria, which was George Washington’s home, consistently ranks as one of the top 10 travel destinations in the United States (the National Trust for Historic Preservation just named Alexandria one of its Top 12 Distinctive Destinations). The colonial-era city, with its cobblestone streets, unique shopping, and Potomac River waterfront is a frequent destination for bus tours, independent adventurers, history buffs, and anyone who is charmed by quaintness.
It’s also foodie heaven, with hundreds of unique restaurants and bars featuring dozens of ethnic cuisines. Many are clustered along King Street stretching 20 blocks from the Metro station to the water. They range from local joints such as Hard Times Cafe chili parlor west of Washington Street to Landini Brothers, the Tuscan restaurant where House Speaker John Boehner is a regular (he also frequents the new, exclusive cigar bar upstairs called CXIII Rex (the roman numerals refer to its street address: 113 King St.)
But while the tourists flock to Old Town, locals favor a stretch of restaurants in a different section of town known as Del Ray. Here, a mile-long stretch along Mount Vernon Avenue (“the avenue” in local parlance) features some of the best local cuisine around. There’s nary a chain restaurant to be found, just a plethora of unique eateries and shops. These are some of my favorites:
♦ Los Tios, at 2615 Mount Vernon Ave (703-299-9290). This Salvadoran-Mexican restaurant serves margaritas as big as your head and plates to match, with a gregarious side of service from a staff that has worked hard to foster relationships with regulars (and there are lots and lots of regulars). Soccer (futbol!) is always on the television, the food is authentic, the atmosphere is undeniably festive, and everyone in the dining room seems to know one another. It’s ridiculously popular on Friday and Saturday nights – even the bar can get crowded when there is a standing-room only wait for a table. But the meal is well worth it. I highly recommend the Los Tios Carne Asada. It has patio seating.
♦ Fireflies, at 1501 Mount Vernon Ave (703-548-7200) is on the other end of the strip. It is studiously hip and authentically local, with a stage of rotating musicians and a standing-room only bluegrass brunch on Sundays. It has one of the more extensive and unique beer lists I’ve seen in the Washington, D.C. region (including microbrews imported from the Bluegrass Brewing Company in Louisville, Kentucky). It also has a movie screen for showing sporting events. Like Los Tios, you’re likely to see locals running into each other at the restaurant, especially at peak times. Food service can be a little slow, but the plates are well worth it. And there is plenty of ambiance to soak up (and music to listen to) while you wait. It has patio seating.
♦ Evening Star Café, at 2000 Mount Vernon Ave (703-549-5051) anchors the strip. It is a Del Ray institution of sorts, boasting an extensive wine list (it owns Planet Wine next door, which stocks more than 1,500 bottles), gourmet American comfort food, and a relaxed atmosphere. Two lounges are a bit of a local secret (and a nice diversion from the hustle and bustle of King Street night life). They include the Majestic Lounge in the back and the No. 9 lounge upstairs, which has an exclusive speakeasy ambiance. Try the BLT Mac and Cheese. It also has patio seating.
♦ St. Elmos Coffee Pub, at 2300 Mount Vernon Ave (703-739-9368) is such a local landmark that local real estate agents list proximity to it when advertising homes they are selling. This is no Starbucks: There are two rooms of casual seating with comfy sofas galore), friendly service, a performance area, wifi, and an extensive variety of coffee drinks (bring your own cup for a discount). It also has interesting food, including New Zealand-style meat pies prepared by Kiwi Kuisine, an Alexandria company (which can also prepare vegetarian meals). It’s on a corner, so there is extensive patio seating
♦ The Dairy Godmother is located next door at 2310 Mount Vernon Ave (703-683-7767). During the summer, it’s common to find a line winding outside the door to buy Wisconsin-style frozen custard, flavors of which change by the day. The Dairy Godmother got global attention on Father’s Day in June 2009 when newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama brought his daughters here for a cone .There are ice cream shops galore in Old Town, but frozen custard puts them all to shame.
♦ When I tried to get into Artfully Chocolate and Gifts at 2003A Mount Vernon Ave (703-635-7917) to buy the wife some sweets before Valentine’s Day, I had to give up because the line for service was just too long. The owners are eminently creative and the shop has become a local favorite, offering handmade gifts, food, and other cocoa creations. Located across the street from the Evening Star Café.
♦ Cheestique at 2411 Mount Vernon Ave (703-706-5300) is a popular wine bar that specializes in pairings with artisan cheeses from around the world. It offers gifts and table service. Its niche attracts wine and cheese lovers from across the Washington, D.C. region.
These restaurants (and several others) bracket a collection of unique stores, including a children’s clothing boutique, an old school local hardware store, several spas, and art galleries along the Avenue. It makes for a pleasant diversion from Old Town Alexandria. Del Ray really isn’t Metro accessible (unless you want to hike up from Braddock Road) but there is extensive free parking.