Less than 30 minutes outside DC, Old Town Alexandria feels like a different world. You can stroll through cobblestone alleys admiring the historic architecture, take in the view at the sailboat-speckled waterfront, and browse through the abundant adorable boutiques. But the real draw is the downright-impressive dining scene, so next time you find yourself in the Port City, make sure you’re wearing stretchy pants. Here are the 14 restaurants you need to visit in Old Town.
If you can’t get to Paris, dining at Bastille is a worthy alternative. The brasserie and bar is owned and run by the husband-and-wife team of Chefs Christophe and Michelle Poteaux, who infuse French flair into the decor and food. The menu includes mainstays like coq au vin, cassoulet, and escargots, as well as more avant-garde creations like shrimp beignets with spicy guacamole. During the week, opt for a “French Quickie” -- two courses for lunch in the bar and café space.
Belgian fare takes center stage at this classy establishment, featuring a tasting menu with dishes like foie gras torchon and Atlantic striped bass a la plancha. You can also opt to order a la carte from a succinct list of apps, entrées, and steaks. The brasserie area has familiar Belgian standbys like steak frites and mussels, and if you’d rather keep things more casual, try BRABO Tasting Room, the more laid-back café next door.
For Vietnamese staples like bánh mì, pho, vermicelli, and summer rolls, Caphe Bánh Mì is the move. This shop nails the expected dishes, but they also get creative with broiled catfish bánh mì and vegetarian soy chicken with lemongrass. The prices can’t be beat -- grab a sandwich for under $10, while rice or vermicelli entrées will only run you a couple bucks more. And don’t skip the coffee.
Originally built in 1883 for the Columbia Steam Engine Fire Company, the preserved firehouse lends old world elegance to what is now a brasserie and bar. The seasonal menu runs the gamut with raw bar offerings, steamed mussels, hearty sandwiches, and sizable supper dishes. The cocktail list is an archive of drinks dating as far back as the 1850s, from the Sazerac to the sidecar.
This taco and tequila bar bucks tradition with their namesake item. Fillings range from the usual suspects like pork belly and Mexican short rib, to head turners like fried oyster, lamb chimichurri, and buffalo chicken. For dessert, there’s a Nutella banana split taco, as well as the obligatory churros. If you’re not feeling taco Tuesday, opt for a rice bowl or a few small plates, such as empanadas, tortilla soup, and mahi-mahi ceviche.
While the iconic Hank’s family has outposts all over the DMV, Old Town is home to the only one dedicated to pasta, with homemade plates of linguine, fettuccine, bucatini, and all the other -inis, -olis, and -ettis you can think of. Choosing just one would be like asking a parent to choose a favorite child, so avoid drama and go for the family-style option, which allows you to pick three-to-five pastas for the table.
The fresh fish and friendly service at this Japanese spot make it a local favorite for sashimi, nigiri, rolls, and more. There are sushi combinations aplenty as well as enormous party platters featuring up to 64 pieces of the rolls. If raw fish isn’t your thing, you also can sample a variety of teriyaki, katsu, yakisoba, or udon.
When you head to Magnolia’s on King, prepare yourself for a “Southern immersion.” That means indulging in elevated Southern fare like pulled duck BBQ; shrimp and grits with maple bourbon butter; and stuffed dates with duck fat ranch, Berkshire bacon, and blue cheese. The menu boasts regional ingredients and seasonal dishes, along with a splash of local wines and beers. There’s also a cocktail lounge upstairs, which overlooks King Street and features live music on Thursdays.
This fine dining institution is the place everybody recommends in Old Town. Impeccable service, top-notch ingredients from sustainable local farms and the restaurant’s garden, and flawless culinary technique keep Chef Cathal Armstrong’s magnum opus at the top of an ever-changing list of the city’s best spots. It is, justifiably, on the pricey side, so if you can’t afford the splurge, you can still sample Armstrong’s cuisine at one of the other, more casual establishments in his restaurant group, like restaurant-market hybrid Society Fair and Irish chipper Eammon’s.
When someone tells you about an upscale, five-course Japanese tasting menu executed by a Tokyo-trained chef in a 20-seat restaurant, you’re probably bracing for sticker shock. At Nasime, it’ll only set you back $48 per person. It’s a real steal consider the quality of the various styles of Japanese cuisine, from tsukuri (raw), to yakimono (grilled) and agemono (fried).
The kitchen team is all about sustainable sourcing and works with local farms to make sure its getting the best ingredients for the seasonal tasting menu and a la carte options. Twice a month, they go all out with the Farm Table, a dinner party highlighting local farmer and forager friends. The restaurant also partners with an Alexandria nonprofit, the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. All that to say, you can feel really good about downing the Berkshire pork loin or the garden vegetable salad.
Virtue Feed & Grain is exactly what you picture when you think rustic American tavern. Situated in a building that used to be a feed house in the 1800s, the place has that shabby chic look with flooring from an old oak barn, Victorian-era wallboards, and grain-sack pillows. The food has a farmhouse vibe, too (think wild boar burger and BBQ brisket sandwich), but there are modern touches like tuna tataki tacos, quinoa salad, and duck meatloaf.
On Thursdays at Taverna Cretekou, there’s live Greek music, dancing, and plate-breaking that’ll make you want to join in and shout, “Opa!” On other nights of the week, things are a little more refined in the formal dining room, but the food is quintessentially Greek. Take your pick from any of the traditional dishes like pastitsio, moussaka, spanakotiropites, and dolmades, or try something you probably haven’t heard of from the ancient Greek section of the menu. Whatever you order, make sure to pair it with some of the great Grecian wines.
When in Old Town, you pretty much have to dine on the waterfront, and the best new spot to do it is Vola’s. Their patio is the prime position for people watching and boat ogling over seafood and beers. You’ll find a great ocean bounty -- crab dip and conch fritters, raw oysters and seafood cocktail, lobster rolls and fish tacos, blackened mahi, and fish and chips. Don’t forget to add Old Bay fries as a side.
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Lani Furbank is a freelance food writer who will go to almost any lengths to get that basic Insta shot of her cocktail by the waterfront. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lanifurbank or read her work at www.LanisCupOfTea.com.