When COVID first hit, I never thought I would open another restaurant again. The stress and hurt it caused (and is still causing) restaurants and restaurant employees is difficult to come to terms with. Earlier in September when the initial dust had settled, I was approached by Scott Shaw, local restaurateur and owner of ALX Community, about a new coworking space that he was pursuing at 277 S. Washington Street, the space above the old Society Fair. He asked me if I had any interest in joining and looking at this shuttered space.
As an Old Town resident, I loved Society Fair. It was where I went to get my commissary needs and to take my out-of-town guests. I still miss the falafel sandwich. Knowing how much I enjoyed the sprawling space and falling for Scott’s charms and enthusiasm, I decided I would take a look. I reluctantly walked the space, already knowing it was a venture I wanted to take. Feeling beyond anxious about COVID and its size (y’all, the space is huge) allowed a few very honest conversations with the landlord. To their credit, I was entirely struck by the real possibility of opening a project because of their willingness to work with me. I’m a small business owner and a young, single woman; in my field this is more uncommon than any of us would like to admit. I like to joke that my staff thinks I go home and swim in coins just like Scrooge McDuck, but the reality of the situation is that my personal finances are tied directly to my restaurant finances and COVID is scary, period. Despite my demands and expectations, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
But more importantly, walking the space all those months ago made me dream big for the first time in a very long time. I realized that I had to think beyond my current circumstances – it was time for me to swing for the fences. Opening this restaurant will allow me to slowly build a communal space where folks in Alexandria can gather when all of this is over. It’s allowing me to think about a future that ten months ago seemed unrealistic and unreasonable.
The next question to tackle: what would the concept be? Ever since opening Stomping Ground in 2015, I have tried to pay homage to my great grandmother, Mae. She is my mom’s grandmother and therefore was not Southern (I get it from my Daddy), and so it always felt like fitting a square peg in a round hole. I’ve written other articles in this publication about how her cookies inspired me to become a chef and she remains as influential, but not as central as I would like, in my cooking today.
Additionally, one of my greatest limitations at Stomping Ground, and now Bagel Uprising, is that the spaces are small and not perfectly outfitted for the wear and tear we put on them. All of the complaints you have about the menus, like not getting fried eggs or more variety, are a direct result of the limited size. So, in this one building, in this one opportunity, lived the chance to think about the future; the fulfillment of wanting to honor my great grandmother and all of the ways she taught me that food memories mean something, that food is a way to collect people around a table, and that I can really stretch myself creatively beyond the smallest space I currently inhabit, both literally and figuratively. Plus, Old Town needs the kind of spaces I like to build, does it not? How could I say no?
Thankfully, because the landlord has been so incredibly thoughtful that we are trying to open a very large space during COVID, we will be opening one step at a time. We will start with Mae’s Market and Cafe, an all-day food market (starting small!) where you can enjoy a high quality, made-from-scratch selection of coffee, baked goods, salads, and gourmet sandwiches. For meals enjoyed at home, you’ll find an edited grocery and larder filled with house-prepared food and pantry items, produce, freshly baked bread, charcuterie and cheese, prime meat and fresh seafood case, craft beer, wine, and more. As restrictions ease, you will see more and more additions and changes to the space, culminating with the opening of Virginia’s Darling, a wine bar and full-service restaurant that is classically American with major influences from all of the women in my life that have made such an impact on who I am and how I cook, and who better than the great Matriarch that was Mae Pechulis?
If you wander down Del Ray’s, “The Avenue,” you won’t miss the farm-red building with a rustic fence bordering the patio. Stomping Ground opened two years ago and quickly became popular for its made-from-scratch biscuits and its neighborhood vibe. On weekends, excited guests line up before Stomping Ground opens hoping to be the first to get a just-out-of-the-oven biscuit or a fresh salad. Stomping Ground is mostly known for its fast casual breakfast and lunch but on Thursdays and Fridays they provide a full dinner service after 5:00pm. All meals are built from local, seasonal food that is organic whenever possible.
2309 Mt Vernon Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22301