It's no secret. Alex and I love living in the heart of historic Old Town Alexandria. The charm and history of the city, and its proximity to Washington D.C. make it an extremely desirable place to live and visit.

At the same time, we're obsessed with the Napa Valley wine country. If you were to tell us we had to move and we could put down roots anywhere in the whole world, there is a good chance we would both tell you to drop us on Main St. in St. Helena, California and we'd find a house from there. The food, the wine, the scenery, the pace of life, and even the older homes just put me in a euphoric state of mind.

One of my favorite places, the Napa Valley Olive Oil Mfg Company

The changing history of Old Town Alexandria has spanned more than 300 years and follows quite an interesting transformation from it's early days as tobacco inspection port to where we've arrived today. The city, like most that have a winding and rich history, has seen it's high points and low points, and after World War II, the city fell on hard times until the early 1970s. 

King Street circa 1967

Sine the 1970s, and with the arrival of the King St. Metro in 1983, Old Town has seen an urban rejuvenation as a result of increased tourism, the booming D.C. and Northern Virginia job markets, and the recent construction of federal office buildings in the southwest portion of Old Town.

Lucky for us, this has led to a continued transformation of Old Town that we've been able to experience since we moved to the area in 2000, and into our house in 2003. When we arrived, Old Town was a very nice place to live, but it still felt like it was in transition. About half of King St. had shops and restaurants, but the Old Town area was nothing like it has become today. 

Recently, Old Town has experienced a tremendous influx of boutique shopping, acclaimed restaurants, specialty shops, and a few small luxury hotels. This has given rise to a sense that Old Town feels more and more like the area we've fallen in love with in the Napa Valley.

Today, if you take a walk down King St. (our Main St.) it's easy to see why we love living in Old Town Alexandria as much as we do. Everything you'll see in this post is within an easy five to ten minute walk from our house.

In this two-part post, I want to focus on the two things that I feel have truly transformed Old Town over the last eight years: specialty shops and delicious dining. For today's post, I'm going to concentrate on the specialty shops that have recently opened that give Old Town that Napa Valley flair we love so much.

Specialty Shops

The shops in Old Town along King St. and in the blocks just off of King St. have taken off in recent years. This includes specialty boutique shops, furniture and home stores, and niche food shops. There are far too many to name, so I'll 'd like to just mention a few of our favorites.

The first is Red Barn Mercantile. Red Barn is a great home furnishing and gift shop located just off of King St. at 113 S. Columbus Street. The shop specializes in an eclectic mix of old and new merchandise, and always has very cool and interesting things for sale. With an inventory inspired by the personal style of the store's owner Amy Rutherford, we love stopping by just to check out what's new. Red Barn also offers some great design seminars that I love to attend.

Red Barn Mercantile, 113 S. Columbus St.

Just across the street from Red Barn is a very quaint new British tea shop called The British Pantry. Though is doesn't have a tea room (hopefully they'll consider adding it), you can stock your cabinets with mushy peas, tea supplies, and other standard British fare, including Kate and Wills tea sets and wedding memorabilia.

The British Pantry, 110 S. Columbus St.

There is one little shop in St. Helena called Fideaux that I love to visit every time we're there. It is an extremely cute specialty dog supply store that just puts a smile on my face. Lucky for us, a store that is just as cute recently opened in the 700 block of King Street. It's call The Dog Park, and it has a great mix of puppy paraphernalia -- anything from high quality food and supplies, to baked goods, sweaters and leashes. We buy most of Lulu and Mel's food from them and have been known to pick up a collar or two on occasion. We currently have an adorable ice cream cone collar on order so Lulu can rock a summertime look.

The Dog Park, 705 King St. 

Another specialty shop that recently opened along King St. is called The Hour, and is dedicated to all things associated with one of my favorite times of day, the cocktail hour! Whether it is one-of-a-kind barware, a unique cocktail set, or the recipe for the perfect drink, store owner Victoria Vergason and the rest of the staff will be available to assist you. As you can see from the photo, their window displays are often some of the most fun on King St. 

The Hour, 1015 King St.

Continuing up King Street you run into Old Town's artisan cheese store, La Fromagerie. It doesn't matter if you are a cheese noob or seasoned cheese veteran, you're sure to find something you'll love. When walking in the front door you're greeted by the smell of the pungent but delicious artisan cheese offerings. This summer they've been carrying on of my favorites -- imported burrata from Italy. Paired with some of our Napa Valley balsamic vinegar, basil from our garden, tomatoes from the farmer's market, and little sea salt and pepper, you've got yourself the perfect caprese salad.

La Fromagerie, 1222 King St.

A staple of the Napa Valley is it's wonderful selection of locally made olive oil. Though we don't have olive trees growing in everyone's front yard, Olio Tasing Room, Old Town's first olive oil and aged balsamic tasting room, just recently opened. Alex and I were quite excited when we noticed the arrival of this store. We love a good aged balsamic, that's for sure.

Olio, 1223 King St.

No trip to the Napa Valley is complete without sampling (and purchasing) copious amounts of wine. Though there are several stores along King Street where you can purchase wines, including many of the stores we're including in this post, but one store in particular caters directly to the wine fan crowd. Le Tastevin Fine Wines opened in 2010 and offers a wide array of wines for any palette. On our first trip into the store we picked up a bottle of some of our favorite Napa Valley sparking wine from Domaine Carneros.

Le Tastevin, 1309 King St.

Wandering a little closer to the metro on our virtual King Street meets St. Helena tour, you'll run into a store called, The Butcher's Block. Constructed as part of the Lorien Hotel and Spa, the store's facade is still that of a hundred year old building. But when you enter you are greeted by a wonderful presentation of wines, champagne, and a butcher's counter with an ever changing selection of fine meats and house made sausages. You can also pick up prepared meals here, and really anything you would possibly need for a high-end picnic. It was designed to feel a lot like a European market.

The Butcher's Block, 1600 King St.

While not a new store, for general shopping we love to drop by Random Harvest. Their mix of antiques and new furniture tends to fit the smaller scale necessary in our home. They get new shipments often, and always have cool, classic, and eclectic items that can stand out in any decor.

Random Harvest, 810 King St.

Like I said, this is just scratching the surface of the shopping Old Town has to offer, but it is a sampling of how Old Town is starting to feel a little bit like the place we love so much. Now, if there was some way to get the beautiful weather and five minute drive into the heart of beautiful wine country, we might be in business.

As a little teaser for next week's post about the great dining that can be found throughout Old Town, I'll highlight one stop. If you're starved from a long day of shopping along King Street, make a brief stop into one of our top "feels a lot like Napa" destinations. 

Located just off of King Street on South Royal Street, a duo of eateries can nourish you. The first is Grape + Bean, where you can drink coffee or wine to your heart's content while sampling artisan cheese, fresh bread, and charcuterie. When you're in the restaurant, you can easily find yourself feeling like you are somewhere in Yountville, California. Once you're done, and if you have room for dessert, head next door for your gourmet cupcake fix at the second shop, Lavender Moon. Just one of several great cupcake places in Old Town.

Grape + Bean, 118 S. Royal St. & Lavender Moon, 116 S. Royal St.

Stay tuned next week for part two of our "Old Town is becoming as cool as Napa Valley" post for a sampling of Old Town's awesome restaurant scene.

Do you live in a town or city that you just love? Has it transitioned before your very eyes? Perhaps you've visited Old Town recently and feel the same way we do? Please share your experiences with us. We love hearing other great stories of change.

Note: We weren't compensated in any way by any of the establishments mentioned in this post. We just love them so much, we wanted to share them with you.

Comments 4


Amy Esmond Rutherford
7/8/2011 at 9:54 PM
Thanks for including Red Barn in your post! You are too kind. Keep up the great blogging!
7/10/2011 at 1:27 PM
I lived in Alexandria from age 9 until 19, when I moved to NYC to follow fame/fortune in the music biz. I always loved Old Town and even spent my summers in the area as a Red Cross volunteer (a glorified mail boy at City Hall).

The closest we have to Old Town in NYC is the East/West Village and Brooklyn Heights, which are considerably more bohemian (and expensive). I've also been getting some of my old house fix on Nantucket, which looks a lot like Old Town except that they ban most chain retail.
Steve, I've actually been a reader of your blog for quite a long time. Glad you found us. I have a pretty solid memory and when I saw your URL I thought I remembered you had grown up in Alexandria. I actually just found the "tag" post on your site where you mentioned it. #nostalker

Have you been back to Old Town recently? The changes since we came to the area in 2000 are really amazing. Our long time neighbor, Paul, who recently passed away had some crazy stories from the 1970s.

I've been to Nantucket, but Wendy hasn't. I've been telling here for years that we need to get up that way and that she would love it.

Old Town does not restrict chain retail, which is a big worry for us. Georgetown has become a large outdoor shopping mall, devoid of the character it once had. Old Town's rent keeps creeping up, and I fear this will pinch the little guy out and leave us with a CVS or Walgreens on every corner with an Urban Outfitters or J Crew stuck everywhere else.
7/11/2011 at 1:45 AM
I haven't been back to Alexandria since the early 90s, when I was consulting for PBS @ Braddock Place and staying in a King Street hotel. I've passed through it a few times since en route to southern destinations. But the changes from the 60s till 1994 were enough to disorient me. King Street used to be such a seedy place, which of course was a heavy attraction for me when I was 10 years old. My bicycle store was on King Street. I saw the Beatles' "Help" at a theater on King Street.

Nantucket carries its anti-chain store policy to extremes, especially insofar as the year-round residents don't have any practical options, especially when 2/3rds of the island's stores shut down after Christmas Stroll until Daffodil Days. The island doesn't even allow pizza delivery. I love the quaintness and its protection of its history but I think I'd go mad if I couldn't get my White Castle fix once a year... at least without a $90 round trip on the fast ferry.
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