There are many treasures tucked inside the independent stores and eateries that line King Street in Old Town Alexandria. One of them, Alice Manor, turned 76 on Monday.
A petite, silver-haired dynamo, Manor can often be found just inside the door of the Bittersweet Cafe, where she hands out menus, offers drinks or dessert and asks customers after their families.
She has been the restaurant’s greeter and mistress of ceremonies since shortly after her son, Jody Manor, bought the place 26 years ago. On Monday, she spent the midday rush much as usual, hustling between customers and dashing back to the kitchen to pick up a dish gone astray.
Her routine was constantly interrupted, though, because so many people — alerted by a message her son posted on Facebook — turned up to wish her a happy birthday.
“She makes you remember this is a small town,” said John Porter, the former principal at T.C. Williams High School who runs the local community foundation.
The cafe is popular with lawyers and judges from the nearby federal courthouse as well as local residents. They all come for the conversation and to enjoy huge iced cran-lemonades, warm panini sandwiches and decadent cupcakes.
It’s “neutral ground,” said customer Christine Bernstein — a place where Democrats and Republicans, old-guard residents and millennials, can agree that a well-made salad outranks political and generational differences.
Regulars give much of the credit to the elder Manor.
“If you come in here when Alice is not here, it’s a very different vibe,” warned Connie Pierce, who was dining with Bernstein.
“The atmosphere is compromised,” Bernstein agreed.
An intent listener, Manor has sent flowers to a regular who lost a beloved dog, asks after the long-dispersed children of elderly parents and helped find a new apartment for one frequent customer who lost his housing.
She once brokered a marriage between two longtime patrons, Steve Duncan and Mary Strobel.
“I said, ‘Do you two realize you belong together?’ ” she recounted. “I told them if they got married, I wanted to be invited, and we should cater the wedding.
“They did, I was, and we did.”
Reached by phone in Annapolis, where he and his wife now live, Duncan laughed at the memory. “She’s sort of like the mayor of Old Town,” he said. “She greets everybody who comes in and she knows everybody.”
Jody Manor plans to close down the cafe sometime this summer, so he will have more time to ride his motorcycle across the country and pursue civic volunteer work. But he is assuring customers that his mother will continue to be a presence at the bakery and catering shop that he operates around the corner on Alfred Street.
Neither he nor his mother can remember exactly when she started helping out at the cafe. “Jody asked me, ‘Can you come and work for two weeks?’ — and I’m still here,” she said. “I’ve quit, I was fired and I retired. But I’m still here. And to get me back, he bought me a fur coat. From a consignment shop.”
An Alexandria resident since she was 9, Manor raised three children with her husband, now deceased, and was a foster parent for 11 years, taking in more infants than she can easily count.
She met folk singer Joan Baez and her band when they stopped in before a performance at the Birchmere. On another occasion, she greeted Desmond Tutu when he came by for a bite. She says she’s not one to sit around her condominium, which is in a seniors-only building.
“I’m not staying home with the old people,” she said. “I’m having a good time.”