From Refugee to Restaurateur in Alexandria

From Refugee to Restaurateur in Alexandria

Old House Cosmopolitan opens on Route 1.

From left: Almir Mahmutovic, Karmela Svalina, Miljana Midic, Ivica Svalina, Amela Svalina, and Mayor Allison Silberberg.

From left: Almir Mahmutovic, Karmela Svalina, Miljana Midic, Ivica Svalina, Amela Svalina, and Mayor Allison Silberberg. Photo by Vernon Miles.


Ivica Svalina (left) and Mayor Allison Silberberg.

If you went back and told Ivica Svalina in 2000 that he’d own a restaurant in Old Town, he says he wouldn’t have believed you. He’d had a cafe before, but that was a lifetime ago. That was in Yugoslavia, before the breakup of the country, and before the war that would ultimately drive the Svalina family out of the country. When he arrived in the United States in 2000, Svalina was starting again from scratch with limited English but a lot of determination.

“We were scared, but here you can do anything if you want it,” said Svalina. “We are a hard working family. When we came here, we thanked God we were free.”

Eighteen years later, Svalina was running around his restaurant making sure everything is ready before the mayor arrives and it officially opens. Old House Cosmopolitan, at the corner of N. Henry Street and Cameron Street is Svalina’s second restaurant in the area. The first is the Cosmopolitan across the street from the Huntington Metro Station in Fairfax. Old House Cosmopolitan was an effort on an entirely different scale. Svalina bought the location two years ago. At the time it was an old home badly in need of repair, but Svalina said he saw it for what it could be. It took a year and a half, but Svalina and his contractors worked to replace everything in the building except the bricks.

“It’s a dream,” said Svalina. “To own a restaurant right on Route 1. The other restaurant is a mix-match of food types; here the focus is on German food.”

Svalina said he was nervous at first about the idea of opening a restaurant in Old Town, saying he heard from other people about how difficult it could be to open a location in Alexandria, but Svalina said he was surprised by how much the city had helped out. Svalina said everyone he talked to and worked with in the city had been friendly and did a great job of getting him through the process.

After years of preparation for what was supposed to be just a ribbon cutting and gathering of a few colleagues, one of Svalina’s friends asked off hand if they should open, and Svalina agreed.

“We’ve been waiting 15 months to open, so why not?” Svalina said. “It feels so happy to be here, you have no idea. It’s exhausting but we had a lot of help from the city. It’s an old house and it took a long time for construction. Today is a soft opening. We didn’t plan to open today, but why not? We’re ready.”

While the focus of the restaurant is German cuisine, the new Cosmopolitan hasn’t lost the Bosnian touch of the old one. Svalina points to a guitar hung up in the corner of one of the rooms and says it was a gift from the man who rebuilt the interior, and adds at the end that the man was Bosnian. In addition to the German food, Svalina says Old House Cosmopolitan will have Bosnian foods with salads and soups from Croatia and Bosnia. Svalina says he highly recommends the restaurant's schnitzel and 10 draft beers, but there’s a certain pride when Svalina notes that the restaurant will soon be serving an award-winning beer from Croatia.

Mayor Allison Silberberg joined Svalina and his family for the official ribbon cutting.

“This is very exciting and a welcome addition to the city,” said Silberberg. “Alexandria is a town devoted to great food. I can’t wait for Cosmopolitan to take off. The story behind this restaurant is the story of a family that came here and is sharing their values and culture; and what better way than with food?”

Ivica Svalina’s family was just as busy at the opening. Amela Svalina, Ivica’s wife, will continue running the Cosmopolitan location in Fairfax County. At the opening, while Ivica Svalina showed guests around the new location, Amela Svalina was making last minute adjustments to make sure everything would run smoothly.

“It is my dream come true,” said Amela Svalina. “When we came here in 2000, we were nervous and anxious. But we’re here.”

“It is so exciting,” said Karmela Svalina, Ivica’s daughter. “It’s surreal and it’s a long time coming. So much work went into this. It’s a dream come true. I walked around Old Town as a little girl when my family first came over. I never dreamed my family would have a place here to call our own.”