By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
During the last five years or so, Alexandria’s dining scene has shifted and evolved, easing the port city into a new designation – a “foodie city.”
An informal classification, foodie cities like San Francisco, New Orleans and New York City are places that are known for their cuisine. They draw both locals and visitors to experience restaurants, new and old, that are doing interesting things.
In recent years, Alexandria has joined the ranks of other famous foodie cities as its restaurant offerings have boomed.
In 2019 alone, at least 21 new eateries opened in the city, many of which are already city hot spots, including Aslin Beer Company, Urbano 116 and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. In 2020, at least 25 restaurants have either already opened or are planning to launch.
Some of the establishments come from familiar restaurateurs or restaurant groups, such as Common Plate Hospitality, Alexandria Restaurant Partners and Homegrown Restaurant Group, while others are being launched by newcomers.
When ARP partners Scott Shaw and Dave Nicholas started opening restaurants in Alexandria, the city was underserved, Nicholas said.
“When we first arrived, I would have described the Old Town restaurant scene as [three] kinds of restaurants,” Shaw said. “One where restaurants focus on tourists, second was small ethnic restaurants and then you had a couple of local favorites. And I mean a couple, like two. Let’s call it Landini’s and Chadwicks. So [we] said, ‘You know what? There’s food trends out there that would probably do well here.’”
ARP’s strategy, one that they continue to follow, is to open restaurant concepts that Alexandria doesn’t yet have.
“What we do is look and go, ‘What’s not here?’ And we bring it here,” Shaw said.
Of the nearly 50 new restaurants in Alexandria that have either opened in the past year or are planning to open in 2020, several exemplify this philosophy. Many are bringing cuisines the city didn’t have before, such as bubble tea or Mediterranean small plates.
“We were kind of trying to see what Alexandria, especially Old Town Alexandria, was lacking,” Natalie Hilunmonkul, co-owner of Spill the Tea, a new bubble tea shop across from the Braddock Road Metro Station, said. “For us, we grew up drinking bubble tea. It’s like boba’s in our blood, [but] it’s a little bit hard finding bubble tea as well. We had to order from Falls Church, Crystal City. There wasn’t one around here.”
Bubble tea is a sweet Taiwanese iced tea that often has tapioca balls, popping boba or some other kind of pearls that can be sucked up through a straw. The dessert drink is so popular that two bubble tea shops have opened in Alexandria in the past year: Spill the Tea and Ya-Gút St., a gelato and bubble tea shop in Old Town North.
Another popular trend in Alexandria is Asian restaurants. About 10 restaurants serving Asian cuisine ranging from Indian food to sushi have either opened or are planning to open soon in Alexandria.
“[Asian food] has that great balance of salty and savory-ness that a lot of people like palate-wise, flavor profile-wise,” Teddy Kim, the restaurateur behind The Handover, a new sushi handroll restaurant on King Street, said. “And price point. Typically, they’re right in that place that’s above fast food but lower than fine dining, so within that category, that kind of fast casual that is sustainable. That’s something that people can eat a few times a week and still enjoy it.”
Zongmin Li, one of the owners of Yunnan by Potomac Noodle House, opened her Chinese restaurant because she felt Alexandria was missing authentic Chinese food.
At the core of Yunnan by Potomac Noodle House’s menu are Mixian noodle dishes that originate from the Yunnan region of China. The bowls are composed of rice noodles, braised meats, broths and sauces.
Li wanted to change people’s perspectives of American Chinese restaurants, which are often known for Americanized dishes that use too much soy sauce, she said. She also wanted to change the expectation of service at Chinese restaurants, which often revolves around takeout.
“It’s not rocket science, just put yourself in your customers shoes,” Li said.
Like Li, many restaurateurs are focusing on offering a dining experience, something that patrons are increasingly looking for when they go out to eat.
“When I hear about new restaurants, the ones that I like to go to are these places where there’s a proprietor or the chef or whoever, where they’re kind of in that spotlight, and you get to experience it as a guest firsthand,” Kim said.
That is the case at Kim’s new restaurant, The Handover, where guests can watch the chef assemble their temaki, or handrolls, across a long, skinny bar that acts as the focal point of the restaurant.
Kim said the Handover was inspired by two emerging trends in the restaurant scene: fast casual and healthy.
“You look at Sweetgreen, and that’s only a block away, there’s a lot of activity,” Kim said. “It seems like there’s a lot of people that are looking for something quick and looking for something healthy. And then personally, through travels and experience, handrolls are a great marriage of those two.”
In addition to fast casual, another emerging sector in the restaurant business is independent ownership.
“In the last five years, almost a decade if you think about it, the chains have been suffering,” Shaw said. “They’re doing all they can just to kind of keep sales flat year over year, but what consumers want is kind of authentic, locally owned, independent restaurants.”
With so many new contenders on the market, several restaurants have also closed in Alexandria in the last year, including Eammon’s Dublin Chipper, PX, Charlie’s on the Avenue, Catch on the Ave. and Bon Vivant Café + Farm Market.
To avoid a similar fate, many restaurants constantly tweak and adjust their menus to stay up to date on current trends and to keep customers interested. Urbano 116, for example, recently underwent a complete menu redesign. While the menu used to showcase traditional Oaxacan cuisine, it now features more Tex-Mex options, such as queso, burritos, fajitas and enchiladas.
Several restaurateurs mentioned that the key to success in Alexandria is establishing a solid community presence that appeals to both the city’s residents and visitors.
“The formula for ARP is really simple: We build great restaurants, and we work hard to build loyalty among locals, but there are crossover concepts that have appeal to the tourists too.” Shaw said. “What consumers are also looking for beyond authenticity and food and design and local ownership, they also want an experience and nothing touches Old Town for that. I mean, it’s the real deal.”
Below is a list of eateries by neighborhood that opened in Alexandria in the past year or are planning to open in the coming year.
New & soon-to-open restaurants
Taquería Señora Lolita
Spill the Tea
Whiskey & Oyster
Lost Boy Cider
Spice Kraft Indian Bistro
Northwest Old Town
Chop Shop Taco
Augie’s Mussel House and Beer Garden
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
For Five Coffee Roasters
French & Southern
Michael’s Little Italy
The Rub Chicken & Beer
Goodie’s Frozen Custard & Treats
Mount Purnon Cat Café and Wine Bar
Old Town North
Yunnan by Potomac Noodle House
Hinata Sushi Bar & Grill
Hank & Mitzi’s Italian Kitchen
St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub (second location)
Wooboi Hot Chicken
Riverside Taco Company
Café du Soleil
Misha’s Coffee (second location)
Aslin Beer Co.
El Saltado Restaurant & Carryout
Kung Fu Kitchen
Sushi Jin Next Door
Choong Man Chicken
Crafty Crab Seafood