Alexandria Sensibility with European Flair

Margaret and Laurent Janowsky
Margaret and Laurent Janowsky of Del Ray Café

By Holly Burnett

It was the mid-1990s. She was an accountant. He was a restaurant manager.

She was the daughter of Patsy Ticer, the then Mayor of Alexandria. He was from the Alsace region of Eastern France and had immigrated to America.

She had piercing eyes, dark hair and facial angles that could have graced any fashion magazine as a reincarnated Natalie Wood. He was pure European sophistication with a charmed accent, wavy hair controlled with a run of his fingers and a delightful glimmer in his eyes.

Each loved dogs. Each had a dog. And each had difficulty locating housing that would accept their canine companions. Enter fate, luck, magic or a little bit of all three (it can’t hurt) – ingredients to a secret soup, stirred for days until the melding of flavors had reached its most potent. A modern-day fairy tale courtesy of a pet-friendly apartment building on Alexandria’s Bashford Lane where one day, while each was walking their own dog, the accountant and the restaurant manager met.

No, this is not the book jacket summary of the latest Harlequin romance or a classic Barbara Cartland novel. This is the true story of Margaret and Laurent Janowsky, local restaurateurs and keepers of an Old Town flame, so to speak, when they purchased La Bergerie, one of Alexandria’s most revered French restaurants, in 2000 from brothers Bernard and Jean Campagne-Ibarcq.

The Janowskys chose to make few changes to the elegant venue on Lee Street, while instead capitalizing on the traditions of exceptional cuisine and five-star customer service that had originally brought acclaim to the Campagne-Ibarcq brothers. As a result of the Janowsky’s efforts, La Bergerie (labergerie.com) is celebrating its 36th anniversary this year – an Alexandria icon with enduring appeal that has stood the test of time.

However, never ones to rest on their laurels, Margaret and Laurent had a strong desire to put their own stamp on a restaurant – from the ground up this time, foundation to weathervane. So in June 2011, they purchased a 1925 Del Ray house at 205 East Howell Avenue and began restoration the following October on what would become Del Ray Café, a casual, unpretentious eatery that would complement the tenor of its neighborhood, offering good food, reasonably priced, in a relaxed, idyllic French farmhouse atmosphere. “The community was ripe for this concept,” Margaret exclaimed.

Both Janowskys share a commitment to sustainability, and this philosophy encompasses the mission statement of the restaurant – “Local. Natural. Organic.” – as well as its refurbishing, while also embracing the Del Ray community conscience towards “green” trends.

“It’s all Margaret,” when Laurent is asked about East Howell’s transformation. While she, in turn, sings the praises of Vice President Brandon Barg of Virginia Commerce Bank who helped them secure an SBA loan. And Margaret is quick to point out that she worked with local businesses whenever possible to keep the project within the community, benefitting the community. Larson Koenig Architects, two blocks away, and Harry Braswell, Inc. Contractor, a half mile away, shared Margaret and Laurent’s vision and sustainability credo. From sketches to scaffolding, these companies were instrumental in making Del Ray Café a reality.

The two-story facade was in a rather sad state of disrepair before renovations began. But the previous owner had done some upgrades inside, installing several kitchenettes with the original intention of renting out individual office space. Margaret donated the kitchenettes to Habitat for Humanity and, refusing to waste any usable materials, relocated all the fixtures to areas in the building that would best serve the restaurant. Blending the old and the new (much like a secret soup), the house boasts reclaimed pinewood floors, restored vintage lanterns, a large antique mirror and even an authentic cow bell hanging on the rear entrance door to announce guests.

From the tables and chairs to the carpet and window treatments, even the red gingham napkins and waitstaff shirts, sustainable or recycled fabrics and materials were selected. The state of the art kitchen utilizes the most energy-efficient processes available. A custom water filtration system and on-demand hot water heaters as well as a multi-faceted recycling and composting program were also implemented throughout the entire operation.

Chef Sylvain Tonello
Chef Sylvain Tonello

The menu, created by the Janowskys and Sylvain Tonello, executive chef over both restaurants, again adheres fiercely to the “Local.  Natural. Organic.” mission. Product is selected because it is natural (not altered chemically or synthesized in any form), organic (free of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and preservatives) and local (supporting farmers, suppliers and producers who share the Janowsky’s commitment to sustainable agriculture). The café offers numerous gluten-free menu options and is also a peanut-free environment for the safety of all its customers.

With breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday; brunch on Saturdays, Sundays and major holidays; dinner seven nights a week; and an extensive children’s menu for each service, the menu is resplendent with options. Among them, such French classics as Eggs Benedict, Crôque Monsieur and Madame, Duck Leg Confit and a variety of crêpes. Simple pearls of genius dot the offerings as well: a warm croissant with butter and organic jam to start your day or risotto with seasonal vegetables for lunch. The desserts are sumptuous with the Chocolate Mousse the equivalent of culinary bliss.

Opened in May 2012, Del Ray Café (delraycafe.com) features a glistening, pristine white farmhouse with red front doors and a wrap-around, screened-in porch, navy shutters and window boxes overflowing with tousled fresh herbs highlight the landscape. Just beyond a white picket fence stands a vintage Coca-Cola cooler repurposed as a garden planter alongside old Jack Daniels whiskey barrels converted to rain collectors. The ambiance is fun, colorful and enticing. You want to go inside. (This writer would like to live there!)

The former Del Ray home at 205 E. Howell has been lovingly refurbished with polished woods and elegant seating.
The former Del Ray home at 205 E. Howell has been lovingly refurbished with polished woods and elegant seating.

Host to neighborhood foot traffic, including families with strollers, as well as driving diners amply provided for with a large private parking lot behind the farmhouse (including a special entrance for disabled patrons), Del Ray Café welcomes all, whether you arrive on foot, by car or even by bike. And a diverse and knowledgeable staff are there to ensure you feel like a member of the Janowsky family and the Del Ray community.

Along with their daughter, Sandrine, and son, Marcel, Margaret and Laurent are a homegrown family, living their commitment to sustainability on every level. They honor the past with La Bergerie and honor the future with Del Ray Café, like a delicious, warm and inviting secret soup brought to the family table for everyone’s nourishment.