YE OLDE MEETS NEW

Across the river from D.C., Old Town Alexan­dria, Vir­ginia, en­chants with a heady mix of his­tory and mod­ern-day in­dul­gences.

Where Washington - - CONTENTS - By Jen­nifer Barger

In Alexan­dria, Va., his­tory and mod­ern in­dul­gences abound.

WITH A COBBLESTONE lane or two, red­brick side­walks and colo­nial- era build­ings (in­clud­ing the circa 1767 Christ Church, home parish of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and Robert E. Lee), Old Town Alexan­dria re­mains one of the great­est hits and pit stops for fans of early-Amer­i­can his­tory. Af­ter all, hand­some, well- dressed Ge­orge danced here (at Gadsby’s Tav­ern, still open as a mu­seum/restau­rant hy­brid), Robert E. Lee’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War-hero dad Harry “Light Horse” Lee made his home here, and early Scot­tish mer­chants helped make Alexan­dria one of the busiest colo­nial ports in the late 18th cen­tury.

That tri­corn- hat­ted quaint­ness, so fa­mil­iar to me af­ter liv­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for more than two decades, still res­onates in the walk­a­ble, his­toric burg just nine miles from the U. S. Capi­tol. But on my re­cent evenings and af­ter­noons there, I’ve been get­ting a feel for Old Town’s other charms: build­ings from the tur­bu­lent, hoop-skirted Civil War pe­riod (Alexan­dria is the inspiration for PBS’s Union hos­pi­tal drama “Mercy Street”), restau­rants dish­ing up mod­ern South­ern fare and one of the best indie bou­tique scenes on the East Coast.

“It’s so easy to stroll around the main parts of Old Town, and there’s such a cool patch­work of his­tory and mod­ern busi­nesses,” says Ash­ley Valan­zola, who last year founded the walk­ing tour com­pany Dis­cover Alexan­dria. Her most pop­u­lar trek? A “Mercy Street”-themed jaunt tak­ing in sites like the Car­lyle House (where the real- life Green fam­ily lived, cur­rently a his­toric house and mu­seum) and the Stabler- Lead­beater Apothe­cary Mu­seum (where the Union hos­pi­tal that’s the cen­ter of the drama would’ve picked

up po­tions). Though “Mercy” was filmed in Rich­mond, fans (my­self in­cluded) can geek out on the old-school phar­macy’s slightly creepy col­lec­tion of hand-blown glass medicine bot­tles (what is Cret­prec any­how?) and weathered mor­tars and pes­tles. Hand­some TV sur­geon Dr. Jed Fos­ter (ac­tor Josh Rad­nor) isn’t any­where in sight, but I tell my­self he might drop in mo­men­tar­ily with some smelling salts.

Other guided trips, in­clud­ing a run­ning tour, take in the Con­tra­bands and Freed­men Ceme­tery, as well as Mar­ket Square, both touch­stones in the long and com­pli­cated his­tory of African-Amer­i­cans in Alexan­dria from slav­ery on­ward. “They’re such pow­er­ful lo­ca­tions, and peo­ple re­act so strongly,” says Valan­zola.

Pro­pelled per­haps by all this his­tory and Vir­ginia’s lo­ca­tion on the edge of the South, the restau­rant scene veers be­tween down-home com­fort and up­town foodie. That’s per­haps no more ap­par­ent or plate- clean­ing tasty than at the new Hen Quar­ter, where, on a re­cent Satur­day, two girl­friends and I tucked into fried chicken and cheese-flecked bis­cuits in a two-level space dec­o­rated with a bour­bon-bot­tle chan­de­lier and weathered wood. “This doesn’t look like what I think of as ‘ Ye Olde Town,’” re­marked one pal, as she downed the last of an herbaceous mint julep.

Nearby, sec­ond-floor speakeasy PX Lounge beck­ons for me to once again climb the rick­ety stairs to the dark, vin­tage wood bar for retro cock­tails with in­spired lo­cal in­gre­di­ents (tobacco, lo­cal hon­ey­comb). I’ve also slurped many a briny oys­ter while tak­ing in the daz­zling views of the Po­tomac River at the cav­ernous, fish- cen­tric Black­wall Hitch.

The just- opened Megg Rolls feels more “new Vir­ginia” than old, too, with its beachy vibe and walls cov­ered in retro al­bum cov­ers (think The Cars, Zep­pelin). Still, owner and Alexan­dria na­tive Meghan Ba­roody knows her com­fort chow. Her cafe serves up eg­grolls stuffed with down- home fill­ings like mac and cheese and chicken parme­san. “I’d been work­ing in restau­rants and bars in the area for years, and I love Old Town’s re­laxed vibe,” says Ba­roody, who, when she’s not wokking and rolling her sa­vory treats, hangs out nearby at old-school wa­ter­ing hole Chad­wicks. “It’s the kind of place where you can stroll in wear­ing a hoodie and a base­ball cap to watch the game,” she says.

Me, I’m of­ten dressed more fash­ion blog­ger than sports fan when I’m hit­ting these short, row house-lined blocks, since my fa­vorite Old Town pur­suit is shop­ping. Dozens of indie bou­tiques (more than most ‘hoods across the river in D.C.) en­tice with vin­tage and new cloth­ing, house­wares and a smat­ter­ing of an­tiques.

King Street, the main drag since colo­nial times, buzzes with per­sonal fa­vorites like The Hour, where I’ve scored col­or­ful vin­tage cock­tail shak­ers and bar nap­kins, and Red Barn Mer­can­tile, where owner Amy Ruther­ford over­sees a den of cozy so­fas, decor books and in­tox­i­cat­ingly scented can­dles. “We keep try­ing to re­fine the mix, which is some­thing I think Old Town it­self is do­ing,” says Ruther­ford.

Drop­ping in on a cou­ple of my top­choice cloth­ing shops re­in­forces Ruther­ford’s claim: the brands and stock here ri­val that of D.C., and heck, N.Y.C. At new, haute- end The Hive, I try on a flo­ral Rag & Bone dress that’s one part rocker, two parts lady and paw through feath­ered ear­rings from Lizzie For­tu­nato. Nearby, at Bishop Bou­tique, I can’t re­sist buy­ing a pair of vel­vet flo­ral pumps by Kate Mid­dle­ton fave L. K. Ben­nett. They’re retro yet oh-so cool—just the thing I could wear to one of those fab­u­lous balls Ge­orge W. went to back in the day.

Dozens of indie bou­tiques en­tice with vin­tage and new cloth­ing, house­wares and a smat­ter­ing of an­tiques.

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