The Wayfarers, 110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria. 836-2749 Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations suggested. AE, DC, MC, V. Prices: Most dinner appetizers $4 to $6, entrees $11 to $19. Complete dinner with beer or house wine, tax and tip about $26 to $38 per person.
HOW MANY TIMES, shuffling footsore through one of those tours of Mount Vernon or Monticello, have you longed to be more than just an onlooker? To shake loose the guides and velvet ropes, to feel the building's life before it was frozen into a museum? Few restaurants in this area come close to capturing the sensation; The Wayfarers, in a beautiful little 19th century Alexandria townhouse, is one of them.
Let the experience come over you slowly. Pause for a moment on the street outside and look through the window into the small parlor, barely lighted by hurricane lamps: you could be peering into another century. Ask to sit in that parlor, with its three tables set for dinner, or in the room just behind it, with just four more tables. Sure, there are new parts to the restaurant, added a couple of years ago, and they're undeniably handsome. But it's in those two original front rooms where the magic resides, where, on a quiet night, the old house lives again. Speak softly and soak it up.
If the original rooms do the building proudest, the traditional English fare the restaurant has been featuring for years shows the kitchen off at its best. Although there are some pleasant seafood, veal and poultry dishes of vaguely "continental" origin, the best bets, for the most part, are the relatively plain meats and meat-filled pastries.
Prices are a bit high, and they're apparently derived by a strange formula in which, for example, the stuffed chicken breast comes out to be $11.10. To the penny. The wine list is not unusual, but that's almost beside the point: The Wayfarers is one of the few restaurants where you can quaff English beer and ale with your steak pie -- best of all, mugs of dark, nutty John Courage drawn from the tap. The service is unwaveringly friendly, but we've found it slow on occasion.
For appetizers, there are fresh, tart marinated oysters and a mixed smoked seafood platter (both very good) or, better to prepare for a meaty meal, a refreshing stuffed avocado or lightly marinated mushrooms and eggplant. The "salad trolley" (the trolley nowhere to be seen) is a nice assortment, but the tossed salad is best ignored. Deviled crab balls are not very devilish -- nice but ordinary. Beware the seafood pie appetizer, swamped in a bland, unpleasant slurry of a cream sauce, and the highland soup, thick and salty-brown. The shrimp bisque is another story, however, with a subtle combination of flavors and a remarkably velvety texture. Don't overlook the outstanding house-made rolls, big, yeasty beauties with that airy, naturally "pully" texture that comes from baking without dough conditioners.
When it comes to main courses, head straight for the traditional English meat-in-puff-pastry dishes, particularly those with beef. The beef is tender and flavorful, the sauces meaty, the pastries flawless: golden-domed, flaky, crackly- surfaced. (At least most of the time. On one occasion the pastry had apparently fallen flat and the beef mixture was simply ladled on top.) The steak and oyster pie is particularly good, with about 10 plump, perfectly fresh oysters waiting to be plucked out. Wayfarers Loin of Lamb suffers by comparison with the beef. Despite a good, nut-laced sauce, we found the meat inside the pastry dry and a bit tough. A much better lamb choice is the crown roast, pink and juicy, with a delicious bread and sausage stuffing.
A fair proportion of the menu is devoted to sauced meat dishes, most of which are pleasant if not memorable. The best choice in this category is the veal tenderloin, delicate and exquisitely tender, in a simple, sensible sauce of veal stock, cream and almonds that points up, rather than covers up, the meat's natural flavor. Except for an overabundance of cream sauce, veal steak Cumberland, topped with mushrooms and fresh, delicate sweetbreads, is another winner. In veal Windsor, top-quality, thin-sliced medallions are buried
in too much tomato-cream
sauce; and in breast of duck
with creme de cassis, good
tender meat is compromised
by a sauce so sweet it could
dress a sundae. As in many
restaurants these days, the
only chicken is chicken
breast, so choose your dish according to the flavor of the sauce: in the case of chicken Cynthia, a sweet, orange-flavored, cream-based blend with grapes, too cloying for our taste. A better choice would be the chicken breast with bread and sausage stuffing.
There are some fish dishes, too, which we've found the fish dishes consistently fresh but generally a bit overcooked and oversauced. Perhaps the best of them is the trout, in a simple butter sauce with tiny shrimp. The salmon, too, is satisfactory (but ask for the hollandaise on the side).
If you've eaten what passes for English trifle in most American restaurants (generally a dessert cup filled with what tastes like a Hostess Twinkie, Cool Whip and raspberry jam), you're probably wondering what all the fuss is about. Order a trifle at The Wayfarers and find out: good cake, a rich cloud of eggy custard, fresh sliced peaches, real cream, and a generous splash of oloroso sherry. Now that's the real thing. Among the other desserts, the best is a wonderfully dark, dense, deep-flavored chocolate mousse pie.
The Wayfarers is more than a place in which to eat. It's a special experience, best enjoyed at just the right time and in just the right frame of mind -- early on a dark winter's evening, say, when the parlor is hushed and near-empty and you can sit near the front window in the candlelight watching fresh snow fall on Pitt Street. In that setting, what could be better than a steak pie, a pint of John Courage, and a trifle? It is, as they used to say, a trip.