Friday, July 27, 2012

The Del Ray crawl

Del Ray is the area of Alexandria, VA, between the historic central district of Old Town and just-over-the-river-from-DC Arlington. The main drag of Mount Vernon Avenue - which puffs itself with the endearing slogan "Where Main St still exists" - has become increasingly gentrified over the past decade: it's now awash with upmarket food shops and trendy little restaurants and coffee houses. On my last two or three visits to the States, Del Ray has been my primary crash, so I have got to know the 'hood modestly well.

The one thing it doesn't have, alas, is a bar bar.

The closest to it is the Evening Star Bar & Restaurant; but that has rather more of an emphasis on the restaurant part. It also has some problems of identity: the separate bar area at the back is supposedly called The Majestic, and I gather the upstairs bar (which occasionally hosts live music, I'm told, although it doesn't seem to have either the space or the acoustics for it) has recently been designated the No. 9 Room. Although these are reasonably distinct spaces, they are all interconnected, and this attempt to give them a differentiated branding strikes me as half-assed, fatuous, futile. I think most of the punters concur; few people ever seem to use, or even to be aware of the alternate names. I am afraid it was The Star that I (anonymously) vilified on my previous visit three years ago as painfully loud. I think a redecoration in the downstairs bar has improved the tinny, sound-magnifying acoustics slightly, but this is still a major problem with the place (and the upstairs area is just as bad; which seems to me to be a deterioration from the last time I was there!). It's also usually uncomfortably crowded. As the restaurant's reputation grows, it seems its custom is more and more spilling over into the bars - making the clientele progressively younger and more well-heeled. Many of the long-term regulars I'd met on earlier visits are starting to grow disenchanted with the place and to cultivate alternate drinking venues.

The favoured new venue for my buddy The British Cowboy and many of his cronies is DRP (the Del Ray Pizzeria, or 'The Derp', as its regulars know it). The Cowboy, of course, knows the staff, he knows the crowd, he likes that they have several TVs around the place showing sport. The food is OK too; well, some of it. However, it is primarily a restaurant, which tends to undercut the 'bar' feel: it is noisy, overlit, and doesn't have that much room at the bar.

I much preferred the Pork Barrel BBQ just a few doors along. Again, its restaurant status is slightly offputting, but this is a much less troubling factor than it is at The Derp. It seems not often to be all that busy on weeknights, and it tends to attract more couples and singles than families (and they often elect to sit at the bar to eat). The room is way overlit for my taste, but it is dominated by a LONG bar - which makes it feel like as much as or more of a bar than a restaurant. Moreover, they have all their draught beer options clearly displayed on a pillar in the middle of the bar on which the taps are mounted (unlike The Star or The Derp, where you have to hunt down a menu to find out what's available). Very good food (I think; The Cowboy, something of a BBQ queen since his days in Nashville, is not entirely convinced) and very good beer. And a very good barman! Though I suspect what appealed to me most about the place was the absence of crowds. I don't get on well with crowds. I suspect the place is fairly new, still establishing its reputation; the next time I visit, I fear it will be just as jammed out as everywhere else on that strip.

These are three very reasonable options for an evening's drinking; and, if the crowd or the ambience is unamenable in one of them, the other two are within a minute or two's walk. It is unfortunate, though, that there is - as yet - no proper bar in this area. For that, I have to hike 25 minutes or so over to Old Town.

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