The strip of Jefferson Davis Highway that runs through Alexandria screams 21st century with strip malls, a big-box grocery store and billboards that boast “condos starting at $600K!”
But head west toward a pocket of town known as Del Ray and a pleasantly antiquated landscape unfolds. Avenues are lined with white picket fences and American Foursquare homes, often with children playing out front while mom and pop look on from the porch. Norman Rockwell would run out of paint within two hours here.
The neighborhood was founded in the late 19th century and, because of a light rail that swiftly connected to Washington, became an ideal settlement for commuters.
The Braddock Road Metro station that spills out around the corner from Mt. Vernon Avenue — Del Ray’s main drag — and the recent addition of four Capital Bikeshare stations mean Del Ray has only gotten easier to explore.
St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub
2300 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-739-9268. www.stelmoscoffeepub.com.
Positioned smack dab in the heart of town, St. Elmo’s is a natural gathering place where the chairs are mismatched, the WiFi is free and the coffee is strong. “We get everybody,” says general manager Will Nichols of the cafe, which was founded in 1996. “We get Congressman [Jim] Moran. We get lots of families and lots of people who work from home.” Though the coffee shop carries pastries from Bread and Chocolate and sandwiches from nearby Caboose Cafe, St. Elmo’s is best known for its atmosphere. Growing bored of that historical fiction read? Swap it for something in St. Elmo’s free library. “I saw a book in there the other day about Miley Cyrus’s life story,” Nichols says.
See also: For a sleeker caffeine pick-me-up, visit the impressive M.E. Swing Company coffee bar and roasting facility, where you’ll find single-origin pour-overs and cold-brew coffee on tap. 501 E. Monroe Ave. 703-370-5050. www.swingscoffee.com.
Del Ray Artisans
2704 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-838-4827. www.thedelrayartisans.org.
This community gallery, steps from the Mount Vernon Recreation Center and the James M. Duncan Branch Library, provides a place for budding van Goghs to show their work. Founded in 1992, the organization hosts revolving art shows displaying work from locals as well as an outdoor art market on the second Saturday of every month from May through October. If you’ve got the urge to create something, Del Ray Artisans offers workshops in line drawing and hand tool basics. The gallery is a key participant in the Art on the Avenue festival.
See also: SewLab LLC is an adorable studio from lifelong seamstress Pamella Shaw. Shaw offers sewing classes for all levels, although they’re geared toward younger students. “I provide the scaffolding, and pull away once students get the hang of it,” Shaw says of her introductory sewing classes, which never exceed four pupils. 1315 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-646-1428. www.sewlab.net.
Del Ray Farmers Market
203 East Oxford Ave. www.delrayfarmersmarket.com.
Late sleepers may need gentle prodding to make it to Del Ray’s beloved farmers market in time: Sales begin at 8 a.m. and wrap promptly at noon. Nearly two dozen vendors have squeezed into the tiny parking lot every Saturday since 1994, rain or shine. (“The yogurt guy even came out in the middle of December with 16 inches of snow on the ground,” says market manager Pat Miller.) Good finds include chocolate chip cookies from Together We Bake, a nonprofit organization that sells granola and cookies prepared by underserved women, and produce from 3 Way Farm in Warsaw, Va.
See also : Though smaller in scope, the Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market is worth checking out on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., April through October. There’s a healthy mix of food and craft vendors, including organic teas from Whole Health and eco-friendly soaps from Old Town Suds. 4109 Mount Vernon Ave.
Market 2 Market
116 E. Del Ray Ave. 517-312-3010. www.m2mdelray.com.
If it’s good enough for Bryce Harper, it’s good enough for us. The Nationals outfielder is a regular at this no-frills cafe from the owners of Cafe Pizzaiolo. (Harper’s go-to is the Howell sandwich, a hot sub made with light bacon, mozzarella and turkey in place of chicken.) Market 2 Market’s selection of 200-plus bottled beers hits it out of the park as well, with obscure suds from craft breweries available by the six-pack or mix-and-matched. “People find beer from places they’re from,” says Larry Ponzi, who owns the sandwich shop with his wife. “We get a lot of [transplants] from other cities, so it becomes a home to people right away.”
See also: Brioche roll. All-natural Angus beef. A slice of American cheese. Holy Cow keeps things simple, yet the results are always delicious. The build-a-burger joint is owned by the team behind the adjacent Sushi Bar (which has garnered attention for its nobody-under-18-allowed policy) and Pork Barrel BBQ (currently serving a “redneck burrito” filled with pulled pork, mac and cheese and collard greens).
2312 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-666-8616. www.holycowdelray.com.
Bon Vivant Cafe and Farm Market
2016 Mt. Vernon Ave. 703-399-0357. www.bvfarmfood.com.
The menu at Bon Vivant (formerly known as Seva Cafe) is composed primarily of locally grown produce, hormone-free chicken and grass-fed beef and dairy. Many of the veggie-heavy dishes are gluten-free (there’s something magic in those flourless brownies) and paleo-friendly (any sandwich can be served over grilled vegetables instead of bread). Recently, husband-and-wife owners Jawad Laouaouda and Tania Leach began serving “bulletproof coffee,” made with fresh farm butter, coconut milk and cinnamon. “It coats your stomach so caffeine releases slowly throughout the day versus one big jolt,” Leach says. If that sounds unappetizing, opt for a house-made kombucha or an organic dairy-free fruit smoothie sweetened with honey. Parents take note: Bon Vivant also has a soundproof children’s play room in the back.
See also: Del Ray Cafe is a local haunt in a renovated 1925 home with a screened wrap-around porch. Co-owner Laurent Janowsky’s croissants are extra buttery, and the French-born chef (who worked under Jean-Louis Palladin) has a way with eggs. 205 E. Howell Ave. 703-717-9151. www.delraycafe.com.
Del Ray Variety
203 E. Custis Ave. 844-378-9209. www.delrayvariety.com.
It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday and you’re in desperate need of an inflatable triceratops. (Don’t ask.) Del Ray Variety has you covered. The locally owned shop also has pickling kits, pirate pinatas, shark lunchboxes, model car kits, pompoms in every color of the rainbow and grilling equipment. Don’t even get us started on the creepy Halloween decorations. Bright, tidy and spacious, the store is like a much quirkier, locally owned version of Target, minus the obnoxious long lines.
See also: Some call it an eyesore. Some call it the most spectacular oddity for miles. No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, there’s no denying that Exotic Planterium and Card and Comic Collectorama is in a class of its own. The poorly lit boutique is crammed with disheveled stacks of comic books, dusty baseball cards and peculiar succulents in the front windows. 2008 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-548-3466.
Amalgamated Classic Clothing and Dry Goods
1904 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-517-7373. www.amalgamated-clothing.com.
“It’s the opposite of disposable fashion,” owner Shelly White says of the inimitable collection of vintage clothing available at her shop. A majority of White’s business comes from costuming (she’s provided wardrobe for multiple Broadway plays as well as HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”), and she sells to designers from Anthropologie and Anna Sui looking for inspiration. Her racks are packed with threads that date from the Titanic era to the 1960s. If you ask nicely, White will grant you access to her back room full of particularly delicate pieces. The shop also carries an impressive selection of plus-size vintage and made-in-America menswear and accessories.
See also: With a constantly refreshed stock of comfy-yet-cutting-edge sweaters, dresses and jewelry, Kiskadee caters to fashion-minded women with a penchant for current styles. Owners Neil Hall and Darby Rush also fill their boutique with giftable home goods and toiletries. 2205 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-549-0813. www.kiskadeeshop.com.
2400-B Mount Vernon Ave. 703-548-8226. www.taqueriapoblano.com.
The dining room is cramped, but the margaritas are stiff at this festive Cal-Mex restaurant from chef Glen Adams. Inspired by the food trucks he encountered growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., Adams serves L.A.-style tacos that are slightly smaller and served in a crunchy shell. The Baja fish taco is a must, made with beer-battered and fried mahi-mahi with slaw, pico de gallo and crema. House-infused vodkas are available in such flavors as habanero or jalapeno.
See also: If you’re craving more room and less of a wait, Los Tios Grill offers a spacious patio where Tex-Mex classics mingle with lomo saltado and other Salvadorian dishes. 2615 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-299-9290. www.lostiosgrill.com.
Evening Star Cafe
2000 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-549-5051. www.eveningstarcafe.net.
Maybe it’s the subtle touches, such as complimentary sweet potato biscuits and corn bread. Maybe it’s the fresh-from-the-rooftop-garden herbs. Or maybe it’s chef Jim Jeffords’s Georgia drawl. Whatever it is, fans are smitten with this Southern-pointing restaurant — the first from Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which later went on to open Bluejacket, Red Apron and ChurchKey, among others. Menu mainstays include the grilled Blue Point oysters and crispy poppadews — peppadew peppers stuffed with pimento cheese.
See also: When Bombay Curry Company temporarily closed in 2011 to move down the street, supporters of Balraj Bhasin’s Indian restaurant eagerly awaited its return. They got their wish when Bombay Curry Company finally reopened at the beginning of 2014. 2607 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-836-6363. www.bombaycurrycompany.com.
2411 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-706-5300. www.cheesetique.com.
This boutique-meets-bistro is overflowing with gourmet chutneys, raw honey, craft beers, more than 40 wines, cured meats and rare cheeses. Until the FDA lifted its ban on mimolette (a hard French cheese whose rind is aged with the help of harmless mites), Cheesetique was one of the only places to find it. The adjoining cafe serves artisanal grilled cheeses, mac-and-cheese and mixed boards. Show a receipt from your meal to the market cashier and knock 10 percent off your market purchase.
See also: With 24 hours’ notice, Let’s Meat on the Avenue will take special orders. But the selection in this neighborhood butcher’s cooler is a great place to start, with cuts of beef and less common meats such as alligator sirloin and kangaroo. 2403 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-836-6328. www.letsmeatontheavenue.com.
The President Obama Tour of Del Ray
The commander-in-chief has made multiple visits to Del Ray since taking office. Trace his footsteps with this mini-tour.
Dairy Godmother: In June 2009, President Obama took his daughters, Sasha and Malia, to this always-packed custard shop from Elizabeth Davis. He opted for vanilla custard topped with hot fudge and toasted almonds. 2310 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-683-7767. www.thedairygodmother.com.
Del Ray Pizzeria: After Obama’s December 2011 visit, Del Ray Pizzeria renamed one of its pies “Supreme Clientele” and added a “Barack My World” and “Obama Rama” pie. “Immediately after he visited, we got a big spike,” manager Sean Snyder says. 2218 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-549-2999. www.delraypizzeria.com.
Fireflies: In June, the president took Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Fireflies to grab an American burger topped with lettuce, tomato and Dijon with a side of fries and a salad. “We got a half-hour’s notice from Secret Service agents that a dignitary wanted to have lunch with us,” general manager Greg Sanders says. “All of a sudden black vans showed up and Obama stepped out and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s the president.’ ” 1501 Mount Vernon Ave. 703-548-7200. www.firefliesdelray.com.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of a local business and its director. Pamella Shaw, not Shawl, is the director of SewLab LLC, not Sew Lab LLC.