Hometown Flavor In Alexandria

Mary Abraham, co-owner of Del Merei Grille, comes from a restaurant family. Her parents own Monroe's American Trattoria, another Del Ray fixture.
Mary Abraham, co-owner of Del Merei Grille, comes from a restaurant family. Her parents own Monroe's American Trattoria, another Del Ray fixture. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 10, 2006

m arylisa Lichens, 31, remembers riding her Big Wheel along Mount Vernon Avenue when she was 5 -- past the bank and the "fluff and fold" and the mom-and-pop shops that lined the street running through Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood.

Lichens moved away after high school, attending culinary school in New York, where she met her husband, Daniel Lichens, 29. For a while, the couple worked in restaurants in Boston and Texas. But when it came time to put down roots and start their own business, they chose Marylisa's home town.

In 2002, they opened FireFlies on Mount Vernon Avenue, transforming a former auto parts shop into a slick brick-oven eatery filled with the works of local artists, racks of wine and the smell of bubbling pizzas.

Today, with its umbrella-covered outdoor tables, little FireFlies is one of a dozen restaurants transforming the formerly working-class enclave northwest of Old Town into something of a dining destination. That culinary trend has gotten a push, locals say, from a handful of homegrown restaurateurs such as Marylisa Lichens, who opened shop on the streets where they grew up, enhancing the area's small-town feel and ultimately creating a stronger sense of community.

"There's a great neighborhood feel here," Daniel Lichens said. "People are walking, not with shopping bags, but with dogs."

It wasn't always that way.

For decades, Mount Vernon Avenue was known as a sleepy and, at times, run-down thoroughfare as it stretched from Arlandria into Del Ray.

RT's restaurant, with its paneled booths and spicy she-crab soup, was the first "hot" new addition to the corridor, moving in years before revitalization began.

"The area was borderline," said Alexandria native Ralph Davis, 58, who opened RT's in the mid-1980s. "Looking at the property, I thought, 'It's just not going to work,' " he said. "I looked at it again and again and again and just decided, 'I'm going to do it.' "

Davis has been rewarded with the devotion of countless patrons, from Hill lawmakers to his young and increasingly affluent neighbors, who have snatched up and renovated Del Ray's aging bungalows and Sears cottages. What was once home to workers in a nearby rail yard has become an eclectic and increasingly trendy area.

Like many such neighborhoods where food plays a central part, Del Ray has drawn not only restaurants but also a growing number of gourmet shops hawking a variety of delicacies. For those who hanker for triple creme fromage or strawberry balsamico sorbet, Mount Vernon Avenue delivers.

* * *


CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company