By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
When it’s not 90 degrees with 75 percent humidity and when people aren’t sprinting for cover in an impromptu thunderstorm, Alexandria’s summers are filled with residents and visitors enjoying the outdoors.
In a nationally recognized tourist destination with a growing catalog of acclaimed, chef-driven restaurants, dining alfresco has become one of the city’s must-do summer activities.
Outdoor dining spaces are a major part of Alexandria’s food scene at both beloved city staples and newly opened hot spots. And while some restaurant patios have remained steady community fixtures for years, others are testing new trends in alfresco concepts.
Anyone who’s taken a stroll down King Street knows that those two or three tables in front of the Majestic, Bugsy’s or Fontaine are some of the most coveted seats in the city.
Sidewalk tables give diners a front row seat to the bustling activity of Old Town, not to mention a prime stakeout for people-watching.
“When people go to a waterside port city, if the weather’s nice, the preference is to dine outside,” Scott Shaw of Alexandria Restaurant Partners said. “Just like if it’s nice, wouldn’t you rather get the sidewalk café seat in Paris?”
But Old Town hasn’t always been that way. In fact, up until the 2000s, outdoor dining was prohibited on King Street.
Karl Moritz, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said he wasn’t aware of a particular reason for the ban, other than to regulate noise and rowdiness coming from restaurants, especially bars.
In 2004, though, the community called for change.
“There was this outcry saying Old Town needs some help,” Mike Anderson of Homegrown Restaurant Group said. “[Something] triggered city council to say, ‘Hey we need something to make it more of a palatable kind of environment for people in Old Town.’”
Thus, the city began a pilot program in September 2004 to allow sidewalk café dining along King Street. While the pilot had its challenges, such as dealing with noise, maintaining space for pedestrians and ensuring visual appeal, council made the program permanent in 2006. After addressing a few other hiccups, council adopted the King Street Outdoor Dining Overlay Zone in 2008.
“I don’t know who to give credit for, for passing the outdoor dining ordinance but that was the game-changer,” Shaw said. “It created a framework for restaurants to do it, and everybody who’s done it, it’s been successful, and it just brings life to the city.”
Patios and gardens
Beyond those cozy pockets of café tables on King Street, Alexandria’s restaurant scene features a variety of outdoor dining spaces, big and small, throughout the city’s neighborhoods.
These spaces have become some of Alexandria’s most recognizable scenes, from Vola’s picturesque patio on the waterfront with its signature red umbrellas, to the string lights and magenta façade of the Front Porch’s backyard-barbecue hangout in Del Ray.
“It gives really good street cred to the restaurant,” Anderson said. “You drive down the street and you look over and you see a nice patio set up, right away you identify that location as a restaurant … so that really helps. Of course everybody loves to sit outside when the weather’s nice on a patio.”
One trend Anderson said he’s noticed over the years is patios becoming more welcoming to dogs and families.
“What you’re seeing more of is dog-friendly patios,” Anderson said. “At Sweet Fire Donna’s, we have a lot of people that bring their dogs, and they just kind of hang out on the patio, and it’s a pretty relaxed atmosphere. So that’s definitely been a change from what it was years ago.”
In larger outdoor spaces, another trend cropping up is “secret garden” and “hidden oasis” themes.
Looking through the King Street-facing windows of Taverna Cretekou, pedestrians are blind to the exotic, plant-filled patio through the restaurant’s back door that all but transports diners to Greece. Down the street at Sonoma Cellar, guests can escape the formality of a typical wine restaurant for the laid-back, California-inspired patio that’s tucked away past the bar. In Del Ray, Hops N Shine’s graffitied walls and strip mall setting mask the beer garden with picnic tables and painted fences that awaits guests out back.
While some restaurants are situating their outdoor spaces in backyards and courtyards, others are looking up. Rooftop dining, although rarer in the city than other types of alfresco spaces, is another outdoor trend on the rise.
“I’d like to see us going up,” Shaw said. “I mean, the biggest trend in outdoor dining is building rooftops, so if we could find a way to do that, that would be neat. It’s a special challenge in Alexandria, given our physical infrastructure.”
Moritz said he’s been seeing more requests for rooftop dining in the applications coming to Planning & Zoning, including the recently approved Hank’s Pasta Bar expansion and a new hotel that’s proposed for the corner of Prince and South Washington streets.
New and notable
Alexandria’s ever-growing outdoor dining selection can be attributed to the visions of those who are constantly adding to the city’s repertoire of restaurants. This summer alone, several long-awaited concepts have opened their doors.
Riverside Taco Company, the latest venture of Alexandria Restaurant Partners, opened on the waterfront side of the Torpedo Factory on June 21, serving up views of the Potomac and tacos out of an airstream trailer.
Whiskey & Oyster opened in Carlyle in late May after years of anticipation. In a couple weeks, it will debut a patio with seating for about 50 guests.
“It’s going to be one of the largest patios in the city,” Anderson said. “You gotta love the planners who laid out Carlyle. They had some forethought about wide boulevards and stuff down there, and it’s working out pretty nice.”
In Del Ray, the group behind Live Oak and Charlie’s on the Avenue opened a completely outdoor concept, The Garden, this past weekend. Featuring a varied yet simple menu and a high-tech ordering system that allows customers to order and pay by using a QR code on their phones, The Garden is going for a casual, modern atmosphere, co-owner Jeremy Barber said.
The 100-seat restaurant is located adjacent to Charlie’s on the Avenue at the former Greenstreet Gardens site at 1503 Mount Vernon Ave. It features a 15-person firepit area and games, including corn hole and a giant Jenga set made from two-by-fours.
“What we really wanted to do was be an outdoor gathering place,” Barber said. “‘Gather and Relax’ is what we’re putting on everything, because that’s what we want all of our restaurants to be, and … I think having something outdoors like that brings people together.”
The restaurants mentioned above are just a taste of what Alexandria’s outdoor food and drink scene has to offer, and it continues to grow. So grab a seat at your favorite beer garden or sidewalk café, order a cold drink and sit back and watch the city evolve.
(Foodie: Savor the flavor of homemade buttermilk biscuits)