By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
The line was almost out the door hours after the lunch rush at Al’s Steak House Tuesday afternoon – and at the center of the activity, owner Dorothy Breeding was behind the
counter taking orders.
It’s been less than a week since Al’s reopened at 1504 Mount Vernon Ave. on July 21, but the volume of customers has grown each day, Breeding said. Some of those customers are returning every day and one customer, Breeding added, even returned three times in one.
The rush isn’t surprising given the popular local cheesesteak eatery’s history.
It’s been just more than a year since Breeding and her daughter, Emily Breeding, 22, bought the restaurant following the death of its longtime owner, John Severson.
Dorothy Breeding and her husband, Jim, who were raised in Del Ray, were regulars at Al’s through the years.
“We grew up in Del Ray, so we’ve been coming into Al’s since we were kids,” Breeding said. “My husband always joked with John, ‘When you’re ready to sell, let me know.’”
Years later, after Severson was diagnosed with lung cancer, that joking turned to actual negotiations. Every time Severson and Breeding got close to a deal, however, Severson would decide against it, saying he couldn’t commit to selling just yet. It wasn’t until after Severson’s death on Aug. 15, 2015, that his son, John “Bo” Severson, approached the Breedings again.
The sale was made final in June 2016, and the Breedings officially opened the restaurant a month later on July 6 – a day of highs and lows for the family. Five hours after the restaurant’s doors opened for the first time in six months, a customer noticed smoke coming from a light fixture.
Dorothy Breeding soon realized the smoke wasn’t isolated to the fixture. After vacating the restaurant, she and her husband watched as smoke billowed from the building.
Once the Alexandria Fire Department was on-scene, the Breedings, who had invested significant funds toward opening the restaurant, had their worst fears realized.
“When [the fire department] pulled out the axe, my husband and I just sunk,” Dorothy Breeding said.
When the ashes settled from the three-alarm fire, the Breedings were left with a restaurant space in need of extensive repairs. The interior needed to be gutted, while the air conditioning and electrical wiring needed to be repaired.
Most of the work fell to the landlord, meaning that the Breedings were largely left out of back-and-forth with the city – another complicating factor.
While the family initially estimated it would take them about six months to reopen Al’s, it
took more than a year to get the green light from all necessary city agencies. The go-ahead finally came when the fire department gave its approval on June 14. Dorothy Breeding felt relieved – and more than a little nervous – when the final approval came through.
“I was nervous and anxious to start,” Breeding said. “I knew we were going to be overwhelmed once people found out.”
Her initial thought was correct. Once word about the restaurant reopening circulated around town, the crowds flooded in. Suddenly, the Breedings’ plan for a quiet soft opening, one that catered to family and friends more than the masses, was superseded.
The crowds have been consistent since then, and the restaurant, which has four tables and 16 seats at the moment, has been swamped. The restaurant was particularly busy before and during the Del Ray Music Festival, on Al’s first weekend back in business.
“It’s been exhausting and exciting,” Breeding said. “We’re very happy about it.” That the Del Ray community is flocking to the restaurant is reflective of the support Al’s and the Breedings have received from their community over the past year.
Just a week after the fire, Holy Cow restaurant, led by owners Mike Anderson and Bill
Blackburn, hosted a fundraiser for Al’s. The fundraiser, which also involved fellow Del Ray eateries Evening Star, Taqueria Poblano, Del Ray Pizzeria, Cheestique, Market 2 Market, Stomping Ground, Sweet Fire Donna’s and St. Elmo’s, brought in guest chefs to make 400 cheesesteaks – with Al’s original recipe from Severson’s son.
The restaurant sold the cheesesteaks to lines of patrons for $20 per sandwich. Within an hour and a half, the subs were sold.
For Blackburn, hosting the fundraiser wasn’t something he even had to pause and think about.
“When the fire happened last year, there was a groundswell of folks in the community that wanted to do something,” Blackburn said. “It was really just capturing the groundswell – that need to give and help. All we did was create a place for it to happen. It was really the people of Del Ray and the people of Alexandria, the community – Al’s community.”
Blackburn hasn’t been able to stop by the restaurant since its opening last Friday, but has been cheering them on from the sidelines throughout the process.
“Al’s has been there for decades, for generations. So many Alexandrians have gone through there and have nostalgic memories of going there for special occasions, after baseball games. It’s terrific that it’s reopened,” the restaurateur said.
Customers returning to the restaurant might notice a few changes to the original Al’s menu. Although the staples are all there – the namesake steak-and-cheese sandwich and other Philly-inspired subs like the chicken Philly, the pizza steak and the steak-and-egg – the Breedings have added buffalo wings, reintroduced the meatball sub and removed seafood from the menu.
The Breedings have also started to make the “Al’s Cheeseballs” in-house. Soon, after the initial rush has died down, they’ll introduce breakfast sandwiches and pizza.
Their philosophy on food is quality first, Breeding said.
“We’d rather sacrifice the time than the quality,” she said.
The restaurant plans to host its grand opening next Wednesday, Aug. 2. Until then, Breeding said they will be working out the kinks and working to build up the business a little more each day.
“We’re hoping to keep everything flowing,” Breeding said. “I hope we can try to stay as true to [Severson] as possible.”