Virtue Feed and Grain, a new Alexandria restaurant, keeps a distinctly old feel

Correction: Earlier versions of this article misstated the last name of a city archaeologist who helped research the history of the building. She is Pamela Cressey, not Pamela Cressler. This version has been corrected.

July 20, 2011

As a young girl, Meshelle Armstrong would meander down Alexandria’s King Street, eating ice cream, hopping cobblestones and visiting the old Olsson’s Books and Records, where she fondly remembers buying her first Bruce Springsteen album.

The city, she says, is charmed. “Few places remain as authentic as Old Town.”

It’s this authenticity that she and her husband, chef Cathal Armstrong, strove to preserve in Virtue Feed and Grain, their most recent restaurant restoration, in the very building that Olsson’s once occupied.

The couple, both 41, along with mixologist and business partner Todd Thrasher, also 41, first gained recognition in 2004 with the upscale dining venture Restaurant Eve and followed that with Eamonn’s Dublin Chipper, PX and the Majestic, all in Old Town. Virtue Feed and Grain, which opened last month, took two years and nearly $6 million to pull together.

“It was a beast,” Meshelle Armstrong said, “but this site deserved it.”

Although the Armstrongs’ other properties celebrate the farmer, their new haunt celebrates craftsmen, including the artisans and masons who have worked at the site over the years. The building is largely composed of repurposed original materials, an architectural nod to the site’s past lives: a beloved bookstore, a brewery run by an 18th-century Alexandria mayor and even a feed house, from which the restaurant gets its name. (The faded sign from when it was “Walter Roberts Hay, Grain, Flour & Feed Office” remains on the building’s brick exterior.)

Inside, a bygone Alexandria lives on. The bar shelves and wooden tabletops are recycled from Olsson’s. Watermarks from Hurricane Isabella, which struck in 2003, stain wooden beams near the entrance. Upstairs, stools welded from tractor seats line the walkways, and a custom-made winged bust hangs above the bar, a tribute to “virtue” in the restaurant’s title.

A commissioned 8-by-12-foot cubist painting by British artist Andre De Moller titled “The Mechanical Period” hangs by the stairwell. Befitting the theme of the decor, the painting illustrates the restaurant’s builders and is supported by a beam donated from the old Seaport Inn next door, now home to Starbucks.

“This is an old place,” Meshelle Armstrong said. “There are generations of roots here that we wanted to honor.”

Pamela Cressey, an archaeologist with the Office of Historic Alexandria, met with the Armstrongs during the building process to help with historical research. She said it is exciting to see the landmark designed “responsibly and compatibly.”

“They are preserving this structure but suiting it to the 21st-century economy,” she said. “I think it’s a perfect juxtaposition of old and new, with an incredible ribbon of continuity tying it all together.”

Mindful of the location’s prominence on historic Wales Alley, the Armstrongs enlisted the help of a team of Alexandria-based artisans including Jeff Albert and David Chenault of D2 Decorium Design, Paul Beckmann of Bartzen and Ball architects and Murray Bonitt of Bonitt Builders. The Decorium studio has assisted the Armstrongs with every project since Restaurant Eve.

“We’re very proud of Virtue,” Albert said. “The space is true to itself, it’s fun and it’s social. . . . It’s exactly what Old Town needed.”

The restaurant looks to offer something for everyone. For the chatty, there are clusters of plump sofas reupholstered in rugged burlap, a dose of coziness in the industrial space. For youngsters, there is a cavernous back room with Wii, Xbox, a pool table and vintage Pac-Man machines. For night owls, there are two spacious bars (each sits 24 comfortably) that serve beer-inspired cocktails and draw boisterous crowds after-hours. And for romantics, there are bench swings by the windows overlooking the Potomac riverfront that have been a hit among couples. Thrasher has even developed a cocktail called the Porch Swing in their honor.

“They’re romantic, but in an old-school way,” she said, “like you’re at home again.”

The Armstrongs’ next restoration project, Society Fair, is underway and due to open this fall. It will be a fusion of their other projects — part boulangerie, part wine bar and even part culinary school — resulting in a marketplace Cathal Armstrong describes as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for people who love food.”

And Society Fair happens to be in the old site of Alexandria Hospital on South Washington Street, where Meshelle Armstrong’s mother worked when Meshelle was growing up.

“Restoring these old landmarks is a personal experience for me,” she said. “Ultimately, we want people to feel at home.”

Virtue Feed and Grain is located at 106 S. Union St., in Alexandria, Va.

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