Off the Beaten Path: Del Ray

Funny how things have a way of reinventing themselves. We've seen that in various D.C. neighborhoods. But even the 'burbs need some reinventing from time to time. One of the most dramatic transformations has been in Del Ray, a quiet Virginia neighborhood of cape cods and bungalows tucked between Crystal City and Old Town Alexandria. It was one of Washington's first bedroom communities, originating in 1894. And it claims to be home to the first interurban streetcar line.

I spent part of my childhood in Del Ray. The main drag, Mount Vernon Avenue, once a sketchy area with boarded-up buildings, is now the neighborhood's biggest draw. The street is chock full of unique shops and outdoor eateries that are attracting the residents who have moved into Del Ray in the last few years to fix up homes. But then outsiders like me have also realized the unique shopping experience of Del Ray.

Since I've now fallen into the monthly habit of featuring a community off the beaten path for great shopping, some of you may wonder how I define great shopping. First, it has to have some places to eat or to grab a cup of caffeine. Second, there has to be some variety. Give me some clothes, some home decor, some kid stuff, some shoes (duh!) and some unique gifts. Third (this might be the most important), let me be the only person there. OK, that's totally impossible. I can tolerate a few other people but the fewer, the better.

Now, back to Del Ray. While Mount Vernon Avenue, tenderly called "The Avenue" by business owners, stretches for several blocks through Del Ray, I found the best shopping between Uhler and Bellefonte avenues. The blocks are filled with a wide range of retailers selling clothing, gifts, local art, home furnishings, wine and fine cheeses and hats. And mixed in is an unusual amount of therapeutic businesses, such as a yoga studio, a few massage places -- including one devoted to feet, and some spas.

Here are a few of the stores I liked:

The Purple Goose is a small shop stuffed with children's clothing, shoes and a few toys. You won't find any bargains here even though some of their kiddie clothes were marked down. But the threads, which included the popular Lily Pulitzer designs, were unique and cute. The store had a rack devoted to Easter dresses, which ranged from $30 to more than $100.

Kiskadee, a women's clothing store, feels like a chic boutique in a quiet beach town. The store, painted in a beachy yellow, featured what I like to call "happy clothes" -- the kind of threads you wear on vacation. Nice bright colors and unique designs in tunics, cocktail dresses, flowy pants. The store also sold stationery, jewelry, handbags, placemats and frames.

Eight Hands Round is a great spot for garden accessories and neat gifts. Here you'll find iron garden decorations that look like they've been weathered for several years, as well as wooden Adirondack chairs. The store also has nice soaps, neat stationery, journals and address books, some matted artwork and other home decor items. You'll even find some baby gifts.

A Show of Hands is also a nice find in the heart of Del Ray. The gift shop features the work of local artists, including paintings, pottery, glass work, jewelry, handbags and even some $15 headbands made by young kids. As a consignment shop, the inventory belongs to the artists but the shop gets a cut when something is sold.

And the shops will keep coming. Del Ray will soon be home to Let's Meat on the Avenue, a butchery, and Bungalow, which will sell home furnishings from around the world.

Are you familiar with Del Ray? Where do you like to shop off the beaten track? Post a comment below.

By Tania Anderson |  March 6, 2008; 3:00 AM ET Off the Beaten Path
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Well-written article. But the old Del Ray I remember wasn't- as so many twenty and thirtysomethings like to say, "sketchy"-but
more overtly working class (yuppie averse, perhaps?) I dont spend a lot of time in Virginia, but I do find myself wondering where businessses like, say, the black barber shop went...

Posted by: reuben | March 6, 2008 9:52 AM

Well, I would've said that you seemed to miss Cheesetique, but since it already gets online space quite regularly, then it's okay.

But, you didn't mention the Fireflies cafe & coffeehouse, which is one of the most awesome places. And, real natives like myself know that you can't go through Del Ray without showing love for Al's Steakhouse. Al is the purveyor of the best cheese steak and chicken philly subs in the Metro area.

Posted by: Native Alexandrian | March 6, 2008 12:46 PM

As someone who grew up in Del Ray during the late 70's and 80's, and return often to visit relatives who still reside in Del Ray....I believe that your observations of the 'old' Del Ray are not accurate. Del Ray....before the revitilization, also known as the class and racial shift, was not, as you describe, "sketchy". The "Ave" was not a "sketchy area with boarded-up buildings". Working Class town.....yes.....Sketchy, Absolutely not!!!!!!!!! Also I note that you reference many of the newer shops.....when in Del Ray, I suggest a chicken philly at Al's Steakhouse then grab a cup of coffee as you enjoy some jazz at St. Elmo's Coffee Pub.

Posted by: Raised in Del Ray | March 6, 2008 1:17 PM

I live in and love Del Ray. My favorites are the Dairy Godmother and Cheesetique, but also enjoy the farmer's market (in season), St. Elmo's, Artfully Chocolate, and the restaurants. Some of these are more commonly discussed, including the Dairy Godmother, but it is a must visit for all my guests so it is worth mentioning. Plus, we're getting a new organic butcher in the old Cheesetique slot which should be fun too. Come visit!

Posted by: alexandriamom | March 6, 2008 1:42 PM

My apologies for calling the old Del Ray sketchy. I checked with my mother after reading the comments defending the Del Ray of the past. She agreed that Mt. Vernon Avenue wasn't exactly a place known for shopping in the early to mid 70s when my family lived there. But it wasn't exactly sketchy either. Working class, yes. Sketchy, no. I guess life looks different through the eyes of a 6-year-old.

Posted by: Tania Anderson | March 6, 2008 5:51 PM

Don't apologize Tania, you had it right the first time, it WAS sketchy back in the 70's and 80's, especially between Mt. Vernon Ave and Rte 1. Even into the 90's. I don't remember many boarded-up buildings over the years though.

Posted by: another native del raynian | March 7, 2008 11:41 AM

Don't forget Caboose Cafe for great soups, sandwiches and breads. And FYI, I lived in Del Ray from 1989-1993 and it was indeed sketchy on the "Avenue." If you do not remember Mack's Bar(now Taqueria Poblano) or the Snuggery (now Evening Star) you never ventured there at night, and would not know. The joke was that Mack's bar closed when the first fight erupted.

Posted by: Jim | March 7, 2008 3:15 PM

Mancini's is a local favorite too. The owner is a bit cranky but she can cook. the atomosphere is light and airy. Really great spot for breakfast and/or lunch. I've heard- although not tried- dinner. Supposedly Ms. Mancini makes some delicious sauces and entrees. thanks for this article, tania. as a del ray native, i think your views are pretty right on.

Posted by: teddy | March 8, 2008 9:00 AM

This article and the comments give me some insight into the history of Del Ray. I've lived in VA for 10 years, most recently back in Alexandria for 4 years. I enjoy the wide variety of food, restaurants and shops, from Evening Star Cafe (where my husband and I had our second date) to Marcela's Bakery for some of the best saltenas the area has to offer.
I wish I could walk to the Avenue, but it's only a short drive and I visit often.
I'm looking forward to the reopening of the Farmers Market!

Posted by: Ramona | March 8, 2008 3:06 PM

BRAVO! It is true that Del Ray is very fortunate to have such a great variety of shops along the Avenue. As a resident I must thank the business owners for celebrating the spirit which lies within the neighborhood!
Tucked away amid the frenzy is our little Mayberry. A place where neighbors truly enjoy each other from impromptu backyard picnics to chili cook-offs in the alleys to small neighborhood newspapers to First Thursdays and Art on the Avenue....we enjoy celebrating the best of the wonderful people who live here...and dogs and kids seem to always take top billing!
We are indeed fortunate to be a part of little Del Ray and I do feel sorry for those who don't live here. But do visit and catch the "good vibe" that will surround you!
(Who else can walk a block and see a nutritionist, get a massage or acupuncture and then grab chocolate at Artfully Chocolate?! It's nice to patronize hard working people that are not part of big chain stores).

Posted by: Karen | March 11, 2008 8:51 PM

Del Ray doesn't seem bad at all around East Glebe Road. What is this about boarded up buildings or am I not going far enough away from the Four Mile Run? I do not recognize the places of business. I don' venture far beyond Mt. Vernon and East Glebe, or at least not except on voting day.

Posted by: Chris Marsh | March 19, 2008 2:36 PM

Most of the commenteers have already identified some local favorites that didn't make it into the article. But let me add the Del Ray Artisans. Not "shopping" in the traditional sense and they keep rather limited hours (it staffed by volunteers after all), but one can find some nice work from local artists, often at an affordable price. Their monthly (? -there's one tonight at any rate) openings are particularly festive.

Posted by: Del Ray Guys | April 4, 2008 3:37 PM

I also grew up in Del Ray during the 1960s until 1971. Went to Mt. Vernon Elementary, Jefferson Middle School graduated from GWHS loved every year in Del Ray. I have to agree if you live in Del Ray or just passing through a must stop is Al's Steak House (I think John still owns Al's and been the owner since the original Al. Del Ray was a diverse neighborhood of working class people and now still a mix. The old houses are being torn down and large houses being built on the small lots. I loved the small houses with the big front porches.

Anyone remember these places along Mt. Vernon Ave? Mt. Vernon Phamacy (wooden phone booths with seats, pink lemonade in frosted glasses) next to Pep Boys, Bakery across the street, Barney's, Miggett Kitchen, Scott Shop, Monticello, Brownie's, Mt. Vernon Theatre, Ed's Speed Shop, Dime Store next to the Post Office corner of E. Howell and Mt. Vernon Ave, Thompson's across from Mt Vernon Elementary School where we'd buy candy before and after school, and who could forget the YMCA and the dances? There were lots of bars back in the day as well; Blue Fox, Donahue's, Fireside Inn. I think my folks went to all of them! I remember the first large grocery store build was the Giant on Monroe Ave, People's Drug Store. Just a few of the many wonderful memories of growing up in Del Ray.

Posted by: Growing up in Del Ray | May 1, 2008 1:41 PM

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