Walking into a good neighborhood restaurant is like seeing an old friend. Although the experience is fresh, there’s also a sense of the familiar — even when seen for the first time. First impressions are important in the realm of food service, as in life. So Alexandria restaurants adopt a wide variety of ways to spin a willing suspension of disbelief at the table. Creative minds use a wide variety of tricks to accomplish this — everything from commissioning fine works of art to selecting the perfect lighting fixtures. Many restaurant professionals approach the task as a filmmaker might approach creating the right set.
"I guess you could say that we’re a little bit of Paris in Virginia," said Bastille owner Michelle Garbee. "We’re trying to create the feeling like you're coming into a neighborhood bistro."
In August 2006, Michelle Garbe and Christophe Poteaux opened Bastille in a building that was once the headquarters of the Smoot Lumber Company in north Old Town. One wood-paneled wall was made from old-growth trees that were considered jewels of nature to the Smoot family. When Garbe and Poteaux inherited the wall, they knew it would be the perfect focal point for recreating a Paris bistro on North Royal Street. So they assembled the appropriate shades of merlot and Portobello and applied a coat of polyurethane to the Smoot’s paneling.
"The banquette is a feature that suggests the bistros of Paris," said Garbe, who married Poteaux in Las Vegas last week. "Our main focus is creating a relaxing atmosphere."
EXPERIENCING THE FAMILIAR is an important part of ritualized eating, and few restaurants satisfy their distinctive archetype better than Los Tios Grill — the Del Ray Tex Mex Salvadoran food restaurant on Mount Vernon Avenue. After completing a recent expansion, the owner of Los Tios installed five large-scale colorful paintings depicting idealized scenes of mariachi life. Patrons waiting to dine can get lost in the detailed paintings, which depict rancheros romancing women and competing at rodeos.
"This restaurant has family style," said Los Tios owner German Mejia. "It’s really country and traditional."
Mejia, a native of El Salvador, said the bright color scheme of the Mount Vernon Avenue restaurant was chosen to evoke the feeling of Central America. He commissioned the paintings last year from a Mexican artist whose scenes lend a cinematic feeling to the grill. One of the most romantic scenes shows a mariachi performing a pre-dawn serenade to his love, a scene from Mejia’s past in El Salvador.
"This is something we used to do in our country," he said. "This was a very traditional thing to do, and it had to be very early in the morning just before the sun came up."
THE TRADITIONS OF 20th century American life live in yard sales and attic storage space. Others are kitsch, like the 1920s mannequin wearing black leather welcoming visitors from Montgomery Street. For Jennifer Russell, manager of Stardust restaurant, the evolving shtick routine is one that retains a sense of the past while keeping a sense of humor about itself. Each season, she reassembles a never-ending series of props at the north Old Town dining spot to create a sort of ironic mid-century wonderland.
"Our décor is somewhere between art deco and avocado green appliances," said Russell one recent afternoon. "It’s kitschy, yet fabulously glamorous."
As a neon martini shines inside of a hollowed old wooden television unit, a mannequin head named Starla oversees the green room. Sometimes she wears a feather boa. Other times she prefers animal prints. At the moment, she seems to be doing something with a bottle of whiskey and a manual typewriter. Another mannequin named Dino oversees the back room, which took on a Hollywood theme after Dino decided he wanted to become a movie producer.
"These are actual film reels once used at a movie theater," Russell said, motioning toward two circular cartridges mounted on the back wall. "We have so much stuff that we have to constantly rotate it."
WORKS OF ART can be on a plate, but they can also be on a table. At Flying Fish, almost every table has an original work of art under a protective tabletop lacquer. The art is often tongue-in-cheek with a canny sense of humor. Van Gogh’s head is one fish who is swimming through a Starry Night landscape. Looking closely at a traditional Japanese landscape, one notices the baseball next to a resting oriole. A trompe l’oeil poker scene sets its own table in the basement with a disturbingly realistic painting of cards, a spilled drink, a lit cigar and a smoking revolver.
"The only downside is that some people wander from table to table to see what’s painted on each one," said Joe Vallieres, manager the Flying Fish. "That can be a problem when we’re busy."
The art-deco vibe at Flying Fish greets visitors with a giant painting of — what else? — a flying fish. The original work of art commissioned for the restaurant is by Chad Brady and depicts the soaring sealife fluttering over a skyline that includes official Washington and Old Town Alexandria. Nicotine-colored walls develop an art-deco feeling in the ground level restaurant while a psychedelic explosion awaits visitors to a downstairs area Flying Fish staffers call "the speakeasy." The dimly lit basement features tables starring Jimi Hendrix, Cher and flying fish bearing a striking resemblance to George Washington.
"All of the paintings were done by local artists," said Vallieres, whose brother Larry painted several of the tabletop artworks. "The overall feel for the restaurant is upscale while the speakeasy is much more laid back. So we have the best of both."