From time to time Wendy and I like to keep you all informed of local happenings in Old Town Alexandria. While we are primarily a DIY blog, we're also a couple of local bloggers who simply love where we live. We enjoy writing about our town so readers from afar can see what a great place Old Town is to visit, and also so we can share information with local readers about some of our favorite or new places in town. Last night we were excited to check out the soft launch of Society Fair, a European inspired market and restaurant/wine bar.
Cathal Armstrong was one of the first chefs to shine a spotlight on Old Town Alexandria's restaurant scene when he and his wife, Meshelle, opened Restaurant Eve on Old Town's Pitt Street in 2004. They quickly gained acclaim from most who visited, both critics and everyday diners alike. Following the success of Eve, the Armstrongs began branching out and created The Majestic (reopened actually, and now one of Wendy's and my favorite restaurants), Eamonn's - A Dublin Chipper (for authentic fish & chips...and fried Milky-Way bars), PX (for a swank speakeasy-like experience with some of the best drinks you'll ever taste), and more recently Virtue Feed & Grain. Well, they're expanding once again with their new addition, Society Fair, at 277 S. Washington St.
The Armstrongs have been kicking around the idea of a European inspired butcher, bakery, wine bar, gourmet market, and cafe in earnest since at least late 2007 or early 2008. Now in 2012, that vision is coming to fruition with a location that several food critics and publications, as well as its creators, have been comparing to Mario Batali's Eately in New York (incidentally, DC is supposed to get its own Eately sometime in 2012). Though it is considerably smaller than the 50,000 square foot Italian food extravaganza.
People often remark how much Old Town tends to remind them of a quaint walkable European town, and the Armstrongs understand this as well as anyone. They're also keenly aware of a hole in the market that an establishment like Society Fair is perfect to fill.
Over the past few months we've been keeping our eyes on their location as their renovation took place. Recently we noticed their signage going up and the store really beginning to take shape. To say we were excited is an understatement. It's always fun to see new places like this opening in the neighborhood. It only adds to the wonderful qualities that make living in our area extra special. And you know us, we also love the renovation aspects of any project like this.
Our eager anticipation paid off as a few days ago I saw a notice that Society Fair would be opening to the public "soon," but they would be holding a soft opening for "friends, family, and the curious" starting January 17th. While I'm not so sure we can bill ourselves as friends or family even on our best days, we figured we could soundly put ourselves into the "curious" category and should drop by out of responsibility to Old Town and the blog reading community that might appreciate it. Yeah, we'll take one for the team like that.
Approaching the storefront on opening night we were met with a warm and comfortably lit environment that really did remind us of some of the markets and food shops we absolutely love in London. They nailed the ambiance and feel of those great shops the United States is too often without.
Upon entry, the staff behind the counter seemed genuinely excited to have us and were eager to help. I can only imagine the huge sense of relief to finally be open after months of building anticipation for this day. So much time, effort, and training went into this opening, so I can absolutely appreciate their enthusiasm.
When you walk through the front door you enter into the main market and butcher area of the shop. The large black checkout counter with shop staff waiting to help you is actually the first thing you see. The store is divided pretty roughly in half, with a bar and restaurant portion to the left, and the market and butcher to the right. Wendy and I decided to peruse the market before eating to see what unique items Society Fair is offering.
First we explored the fresh baked bread and sweet dessert treats. From loaves and baguettes to cakes and pies, everything down to even the wrappings were wonderfully presented.
Walking further towards the back of the store you reach the brightly lit cabinets of the butcher. Though I'm not a meat eater any longer, I can still appreciate the quality and cuts that are available here. I have a feeling I know where many of our neighbors' summer grill meals will be originating.
Opposite from the butcher's counter is a large and brightly lit open refrigeration section. It's in this large cabinet where you can find the assorted selections of jarred goods, eggs, dairy, produce, a domestic and imported beer selection, and even the supplies needed to create the drinks made famous at Eve, Majestic, and PX by Todd Thrasher and Clinton Terry, Old Town's resident expert mixologists. Hint-hint, we've got a little project going on in our sun porch area where some of these items could come in handy.
In the middle island of this portion of the store you can find the ingredients you'll need if you want to create that perfect starchy pasta based feast. From hand made pastas to imported tomatos for sauce, they have everything on hand.
Just around the corner from the refrigeration case there's actually a large chalk board that lists out the current sandwich offering. Don't expect this to stay the same from day to day, as I'm sure the menu will be changing often (especially early on), so this is just an example of what they were offering on day one.
If you're in the mood for some wine with your food, they've surely got you covered there. In the center of the store is an expansive wine cellar that I like as much for the look as the massive number of bottles it holds. The whole time I kept looking at it and thinking how we could maybe, just maybe, incorporate something similar in our basement. I can dream can't I?
At this point Wendy and I had worked up enough of an appetite staring at all of the food that we decided to have a bite to eat in the restaurant portion of the store. We grabbed a table for two and sat down to enjoy the ambiance of this extremely well done eatery and market. We were able to really look around to get a sense of how they decorated the place. The store was previously a brightly lit antique shop that left something to be desired. Now, the ceiling was open and full of exposed pipes and duct work, but it was painted in a consistent flat black leaving lots of depth and irregularities without distractions. Lots of pressed tin patterns adorned the many angles, and extensive use of color and unexpected fabrics make each element more interesting than the last. We were definitely taking mental notes on how we could use similar approaches on a much smaller scale to add visual interest to projects in our home.
In the dining area to the right of the art deco inspired bar is a full fledged demo kitchen. While we were dining Cathal was performing in the kitchen in front of a group of onlookers. The demo kitchen has a themed menu based on the evening and is a flat charge per person. It is one of the restaurant events that is worth doing every now and again to get a bit of an insider's look at the inner workings of a kitchen. If you're interested, be sure to call ahead as reservations are required.
But enough about the store, let's get down to the food business. We started our evening with drinks. Wendy ordered a glass of wine and I selected one of their "wine inspired" cocktails, the White Port Dode. My drink, another outstanding Todd Thrasher creation, is described as "Ferreira White Port, Lustau ‘San Emilio’ Pedro Ximenez, Fentiman’s Tonic Water, and House Made Nutty Bitter." All that means to me is that it was "excellent."
We also placed an order of three assorted cheeses. The cheeses, a soft, medium, and hard variety, were served with quince and fresh baked bread. I really liked all three options, but one was particularly stinky. I care more for the stinky cheeses than Wendy, so she wasn't a fan of that one.
Afterwards we split the TNT sandwich. It is a roast fennel, ricotta, garlic, kale, onion and lemon juice sandwich served slightly warm. It was the only veggie option on the sandwich menu, so I'm hoping they'll add more over time, but we enjoyed it quite a bit.
As you can see from the photos, the table area is somewhat dimly lit and each table is lit by its own candlelight. It's a nice place for a casual meal in an intimate setting. We actually got to talking to the couple sitting next to us. It turns out they were investors with the venture and were as interested as we were in trying out the product they believed in. They had nothing but great things to say about the Armstrongs and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their evening.
We finished up our fun for the night with dessert, a slice of their "Big Ass Chocolate Cake." Now let me say, this cake is only for fans of dark chocolate and icing. The slice was huge, and I really enjoyed it. If you're into a bitter and rich chocolate, I think you can do yourself a favor and grab this for dessert.
Last night's soft opening was the culmination of years of hard work and effort on the part of the Armstrongs and the entire staff and restaurant group, and Wendy and I were glad to be able to enjoy it with them. Overall we're quite thrilled to have such a wonderful spot within easy walking distance of our house. There aren't many places where you can live among such historic architecture while enjoying the amenities that you find within an short walk of our home. We've gotten really spoiled by all of the places that have opened since buying our house in 2003.
While Society Fair may not be a location where we'll be doing our grocery shopping (and it isn't intended to be either), it is a place where we'll be able to go to get those specialty or luxury items that are otherwise hard or impossible to find. The store will also double as a neighborhood wine bar and hangout, and I'm sure we'll see quite a few regulars bellied up to the bar as time goes on. The prices are far from low, but they do seem on par with other specialty food locations in the area. The main thing to remember is that the items they're selling are all fresh, hand made, and made from high quality ingredients, so I do expect to pay a bit of a premium for this sort of a thing.
We're looking forward to watching this store grow and change as it becomes more established. One thing is for absolutely sure, as residents of Old Town we are both appreciative and very fortunate to have people like the owners of this and the various boutique and speciality stores in and around Old Town. They are a large part of the reason why our town is such as special place to live.
How does it sound to you? If you're in the area are you going to try it out when it fully opens? If you're a reader from outside of the area does this sound like yet another reason why you might want to visit Alexandria? The more the merrier and we'd love to see you around town, so if it sounds good you should stop on by before it gets too crowded.