by Justin Goff
From time to time, visitors to Washington, DC will find themselves swept a few miles down the Potomac, disgorged by their tour buses in Old Town Alexandria for an afternoon. Likewise, business travelers occasionally find they have booked rooms near the King Street Metro Station, a growing neighborhood only two Metro stops away from Reagan National Airport and a short, scenic Metro ride from the Pentagon and from downtown DC.
While few travelers make Alexandria their primary destination, most learn to make the most of the time they spend here, taking advantage of our quaint little oasis from the hustle and bustle of the Beltway. Visitors shop, visit our historic buildings and musems, and enjoy street performances on Old Town’s fair-like waterfront.
Most importantly, however, visitors eat. Alexandria has a well-earned reputation as one of the best places for a meal inside the Beltway, offering a bewildering array of choices, from boardwalk fries and burgers to French haute cuisine. This article highlights just a few of the best bets for newcomers to the Alexandria culinary scene.
First, a word about Alexandria’s culinary geography: the closer you get to the water, or the closer you get to King Street, the more expensive everything gets. For the most part, then, the cheapest eats are to be found inland and on the side streets, or (literally) on the other side of the Metro tracks, to the west and north. This article presents a few choices from each price range and each area, but is in no way comprehensive or complete–even Alexandria natives can’t possibly eat everything the city has to offer, and exploring new restaurants is a local pastime that can’t be beat!
Visitors seeking low-fuss American fare generally do best to stick nearer to the Metro line, in the Upper King Street neighborhood. This area features a branch of the locally-famous Five Guys Burgers and Fries (near the intersection of King and Fayette, link), a no-frills Boardwalk-style lunch counter specializing, as you might have guessed, in juicy burgers and thick-cut peanut-oil fries (and, besides hot dogs, not much else). Waits can get long in the evenings and on weekends, so unless you call ahead, don’t plan on treating Five Guys as fast food. Do plan on Five Guys for a late-night snack–their generous french fries are sure to keep you till morning.
The Upper King Street area also offers several options for sit-down American dining. The Tiffany Tavern (on King Street, link) is a regional bluegrass mecca, featuring live performances or open mikes nearly every night of the week. The food isn’t spectacular–think East Coast diner food plus bar fare, slightly overpriced–but the casual atmosphere is a big draw for business travellers looking to unwind after a long day’s work. Across the street, you can find the Rock-It Grill, the Tiffany Tavern’s 1950s-style doppelganger, with worse music but better food. The Rock-It is also even more informal than the Tiffany Tavern, featuring karaoke, billiards, and–most importantly–specials almost every night of the week.
At the higher end of simple American cuisine, the Upper King Street neighborhood offers Joe Theismann’s (yes, that Joe Theismann’s) Restaurant (link), a slightly classier TGIFriday’s clone with an unobtrusive sports-bar theme. Theismann’s strong suit is undoubtedly its sandwiches and fries–the blackened chicken sandwich is particularly good.
As you move further down King Street, the dining options become a bit more culturally diverse. Sultan Kabob (Henry and Cameron, one block north of King) offers simple, affordable Persian cuisine with a heft dash of almost oppressive hospitality. Twin Asian eateries Asian Cafe and Non La (King Street) offer, you guessed it, pan-Asian cuisine, with the latter displaying a particular Vietnamese twist. (Non La also offers half-off entrees on Sundays.) The Austin Grill (link), a quirky DC-area tex-mex chain, can be found at the corner of King St. and Columbus. And even authentic Irish lunch-counter fare is available at Eamon’s, which bills itself as a classic Dublin chipper (i.e., fish, more fish, and chips), though its fare is a little overpriced for anyone less than desperate for a fish-and-chips fix.
The Middle King Street area also features three of Alexandria’s true local gems. Murphy’s Pub (King Stree) is as authentic an Irish pub as you can find this side of the Atlantic–dark wood decor, hearty entrees, and good beer. Stick to the Irish classics here–meat pies, stews–and possibly some American bar food standbys. Taverna Cretekou (King Street, link) offers upscale Greek cuisine in a festive setting, including patio seating straight out of the Old World. Alongside familiar standards like roast lamb and spanikopita you can find a number of lesser-known Greek and Classical dishes–here, everything is worth a try. Finally, King Street Blues (oddly enough, located just off of King Street, on St. Asaph) offers the best of American Southern fare, with a distinct Creole-Cajun flair (link), served up in a quirky, narrow, three-story bar and dining room steeped in New Orleans style.
For its part, Lower King Street offers some of the very best and very worst (or at least most overpriced) of Alexandria dining. Here, the best bets and the best deals are found a block or two off of King. Near City Hall, just down the street from the Old Town Alexandria Visitor’s Center, rabid anglophiles can treat themselves to pasties or an afternoon tea at The British Collection Company (South Royal), a cozy little tearoom and specialty shop featuring an array of British breakfasts and lunches. The teas are second to none. The Union Street Public House (Union Street) also has a certain British flair, though Americanized, offering upscale pub food, steaks, and a variety of craft beers in an elegant, Gilded-Age-themed dining room and bar, where the hospitality is second to none.
Two blocks on the other side of King Street, you can find side-by-side two of Old Town’s best and most overlooked restaurants–Queen Street is, after all, two blocks out of most tourists’ ways. Momo is a miniature hole-in-the-wall sushi bar offering consistently superb fish and a number of creative house concoctions. But be advised: Momo seats about 12, with its biggest table seating 4, so it’s a poor choice for large parties, and you will want to have a back up plan in case there’s a wait.
Just next door, the whimsically-named Bilbo Baggins (link) boasts Alexandria’s largest and most eclectic beer and wine lists, as well as an inspired, crowd-pleasing menu of innovative, hearty American fare, served in a rustic dining room by an enthusiastic staff. Not only is Bilbo Baggins a venerable icon of Alexandria dining, it is one of those rare icons that meets and even exceeds expectations: this is a dining experience not to be missed.
Finally, the waterfront area of King Street does offer at least one solid and consistent value in the Fish Market, one block off the water on King. The Fish Market is iconic Tidewater/Down East seafood at its finest: simple, fresh, and usually fried. Everything is very good, but the crab imperial is especially addictive. Street-side outdoor seating also offers an Old-Country-Style view of the King Street waterfront’s festival air. If you’re only in Alexandria for an evening and you want a flavor of what life is like on the “Fun Side of the Potomac,” the Fish Market is the place to be.