Chef Cathal Armstrong expands his culinary kingdom with Society Fair

Chef Cathal Armstrong expands his culinary kingdom with Society Fair
Society Fair, slated to open later this month, is the latest project of local restaurateur Cathal Armstrong. (Derrick Perkins)

Local chef and restaurateur Cathal Armstrong hopes foodies far and wide will eat up his new wine bar and market, a marriage of American fare and European style, at 277 S. Washington Street.

When patrons begin trickling into Society Fair, slated to begin serving customers before January’s end, they’ll find a bar and demo kitchen blended with a bakery, butcher’s shop and grocery store. There’s nothing quite like it on the East Coast, Armstrong said.

“We were talking about how to describe it the other day and the word ‘interactive’ came up,” he said, leaning against the combination check out counter and coffee bar as employees put the finishing touches on the store Tuesday. “[Interactive] reminds me of video games, but there isn’t another word for it.”

Like a particular glass of wine? Bring a few bottles home. Wonder what brand olive oil Armstrong prefers at his string of Alexandria restaurants? It’s available for purchase at Society Fair.

Part grocery, part restaurant, Society Fair is the brainchild of the same team that created Restaurant Eve and Virtue.

“We want to be able to showcase the foods we love and share them,” said Robbie Shinn, Armstrong’s man in charge of retail development. “These are the things we love, anything from potato chips to home ware.”

From the seed of an idea to fruition, the process lasted about five years. Two of his employees wanted to strike out on their own and Armstrong, owner of Restaurant Eve, Eamonn’s and Virtue, among other local institutions, set about making it happen.

He gives his wife and business partner, Meshelle, full credit for the concept, but admits his Irish heritage played a role. His parents still go to one shop for fish, another for beef and a third for lamb. The idea is to take a typical European town center, flush with individual shops, and combine it into one stop.

And several nights a week patrons can reserve a seat at the demo kitchen to watch one of Armstrong’s chefs prepare and serve a meal. Shinn compared it to dinner and a show or getting a front row seat to a Food Network taping.

“It’s almost like dinner theater,” he said. “The chef will talk about where [the ingredients and meal] comes from or why he chose this dish … It’s kind of a fun, interactive way to do it.”

Armstrong is banking on the country’s rapidly growing interest in culinary arts and Alexandria’s homegrown food fetish to spur Society Fair to success. Every product on the store’s shelves will boast the additional distinction as an Armstrong-approved ingredient.

And if an amateur chef doesn’t quite know how best to use a particular cut of meat or specialty item, Armstrong’s employees will be on hand with suggestions.

“People are really interested in cooking and in food,” he said. “Some of the stuff we sell here, if you searched around the Internet for a few hours you can find it, or you can come here and find it at arms reach.”