Before it was a Starbucks, before it was the Seaport Inn, the restaurant at the corner of King and S. Union Street was a bawdy little tavern with a petrified pig.
As early as 1893, records refer to the location as Brill’s Restaurant, and local newspaper reports from a year later detail a curious incident with a slab of ham. These details, and others about local Alexandria restaurants, are featured in a new book by local journalist Hope Nelson called Classic Restaurants of Alexandria.
A newspaper article from the Alexandria Gazette-Packet from 1894 said the restaurant kept a unique petrified ham on display.
“A curiosity in the shape of a petrified ham is on exhibition at the restaurant of Mr. Jacob Brill,” the article said. “The ham was found in the ground near Staunton and will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.”
After Brill’s restaurant closed, Nelson said the space was eventually transformed into the Seaport Inn, a more upscale restaurant that served seafood for more than 50 years before it closed in 2000. All that remains of the restaurant today is a plaque outside the building, which now houses a Starbucks.
Nelson, who has written a food column for the Gazette-Packet for several years, said Alexandria has a unique culinary history shaped by restaurants both long gone and currently active. Given the city’s long culinary history and numerous restaurants, the book only discusses the long-time establishments.
“The litmus test was, if it’s currently operating, it needs to have been operating for more than 25 years,” Nelson said. “A few are right at the level, while some like Gadsby’s have been around much longer.”
One of the youngest on the list, Nelson said, is Taqueria el Poblano — a baja-style taco place in Del Ray, though it’s since expanded to Columbia Pike and Lee Highway in Arlington.
“It’s slightly over 25 years old, so it is the baby of the book, but it has such a following in Del Ray and Alexandria that I couldn’t not include it,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the restaurant’s family-friendly reputation and welcoming environment are the keys to its local success.
“It’s a small little restaurant that whether winter or summer, there’s always a wait to get in,” Nelson said. “Because it’s such a family-oriented place, a lot of families with young children feel comfortable that their kids can be loud and act up and they’re part of the family. Management welcomes you like an old friend and they have a knack for recognizing people.”
The book is available online or at The Old Town Shop. Nelson will be signing copies at her book launch party next Wednesday, Dec. 11, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in the Union Street Public House (121 S. Union Street).