Never mind that we’re well into pumpkin spice/plaid/boot season. Places like Vola’s Dockside Grill, the new seafood restaurant in Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory, make summer feel like it will last forever. When you inherit a patio like this one — right on the Alexandria waterfront, with views of boats and fishermen and a spectacular sky lit from a violet-and-amber sunset — you’ll wish you could wear flip-flops year-round.
The restaurant, modeled on East Coast seafood shacks, is the newest offering from Alexandria Restaurant Partners, the team behind Virtue Food and Grain, the Majestic and others. ARP’s corporate executive chef, Graham Duncan, used to spend his winters in Florida and his summers in Sag Harbor, N.Y., so the menu he developed has a little bit of everything, from New England to Key West.
“I’m just going by my memories of eating up and down the coast,” said Duncan.
Start in Maine, with a hefty lobster roll topped with claw meat on a buttery bun. Groups would do well to split the New Englander, a pail of clams, corn, red potatoes and a one-pound lobster, with butter for dipping. Oysters are half-price every day from 3 to 6, and the raw bar is one of the busiest parts of the restaurant, with half of its oyster list typically coming from the mid-Atlantic and the rest from colder waters up north.
Farther South, dishes are more variable: The conch fritters are more like hush puppies — mostly breading, with a little pearl of conch meat here and there. And the crabcakes seemed heavy on the filling. But dishes like the skate fingers make up for that. The wings of the raylike fish are brined in hot sauce and buttermilk before being dredged in seasoned flour and deep-fried, like fish or chicken fingers. The name has raised a lot of questions among guests, but “once we tell them about it, they’re excited to try it,” said Duncan. And for non-seafood eaters, Vola’s has a great riff on the Chick-fil-A sandwich: Cooks pickle-brine their chicken before frying it, just as the chain was once rumored to do. Another copycat dish — Duncan’s riff on a Chipwich — is a sweet finish.
The bar serves tiki drinks, which have been trendy all year, though one wonders whether our taste for them will last into a winter that the Farmer’s Almanac warns will be “exceptionally cold, if not downright frigid.” Hurricanes and spicy pineapple margaritas are on tap, and the piña colada, not too sweet, is served in a cup modeled after the Red Solo — a fun touch. Port City and Devil’s Backbone, naturally, are on tap, along with some other local favorites and old standards. A separate bar, the Hi-Tide Lounge, serves an extended menu of tropical libations.
There were a few small service glitches — one server dropped off a plate of various oysters without telling us which was which — but nothing that can’t be fixed or forgiven, especially when you’re sitting outside with a gorgeous view. Duncan says the restaurant plans to extend patio season as long as possible with heaters. But indoors, where the views are more obscured, you’ll find a lively, albeit noisy space playing an oldies soundtrack, decorated with old black-and-white photos.
As for the restaurant’s name: It honors Vola Lawson, a community activist and Alexandria’s chief administrative officer from 1985 to 2000. She oversaw anti-poverty programs and was an advocate for animals.
“She set the direction of the city for a generation to come,” former U.S. House Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), told The Post in Lawson’s 2013 obituary.
Duncan said that the restaurant supports many of Vola’s causes — it hosts regular fundraisers for animal-rescue groups — and even consulted with the family on her favorite dishes.
“She was big on brunch and desserts. Deviled eggs were one of her favorites,” said Duncan, though he admits, “Strangely enough, she wasn’t a huge seafood fan.”
Vola’s Dockside Grill, 101 N. Union St., Alexandria. 703-935-8890. volasdockside.com. Entrees, $13 to $42. Tom Sietsema will return next week.