By Holly Burnett
Follow me now. The road may not be paved with yellow brick, and the horizon certainly isn’t tinted green, but it rises in the sky with brilliance and luster. Certainly a horse (or perhaps a zebra) of a different color, but requiring no secret word for admittance, Crystal City is utopia come to life. Reminiscent of the fictional L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City or James Hilton’s Shangri-La, it’s a happy land, earth’s answer to paradise, protected, it seems, from the outside world, where people can live and work in harmony.
The neighborhood’s name, “Crystal City,” came about after the first residential structure, featuring a massive crystal chandelier in its lobby, was christened the “Crystal House” and all subsequent buildings followed suit, adopting some derivative of “crystal” in their names.
In 1963, the area unintentionally took on the persona of a planned community when high-rises and office buildings were constructed of like materials and then later connected by a series of underground corridors housing everything from dry cleaning services to high-end eateries, offering its residents a complete urban lifestyle almost entirely without venturing outside.
Today, the tunnels spanning 12th to 23rd Streets are known as the Crystal City Shops and include chic street-front restaurants amid meticulously manicured, landscaped sidewalks, further defining the utopian Crystal City experience.
Many refer to Crystal Drive as Chef’s Row due to its concentration of the nation’s most acclaimed chefs with none more popular and recognizable than Spike Mendelsohn, who first garnered our attentions with his affable personality and retro 60s hats a la Sinatra’s Rat Pack while competing on Bravo’s Top Chef: Chicago Season 4. He was sent home just shy of the finale, but came back to compete on Top Chef: All-Stars Season 8 as well as the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef. Well respected by his culinary peers, he’s the real deal both on and off camera — a genuinely nice guy.
Mendelsohn and co-owner Dave Greenberg selected Crystal City Shops for their second Good Stuff Eatery “My parents, who live on Crystal Drive, and I witnessed this resurgence of young people and business in Crystal City. So we wanted to get in on the ground floor! It is a great neighborhood for Good Stuff Eatery — between the growing lunch crowd, neighbors looking for a bite at night and the revolving tourists at local hotels, it is a great location,” Mendelsohn declares.
Known for his minimalist menus, Mendelsohn insists, “Food doesn’t need to be complex to be delicious. Molecular gastronomy and other methods are great, but simple is good too. If something is cooked properly and you make use of the freshest ingredient possible, the food speaks on its own. Simple, but done right can be satisfying and delicious.” And Good Stuff Eatery as well as We, the Pizza (wethepizza.com) and his new restaurant Béarnaise (bearnaiserestaurant.com), both on Pennsylvania Avenue in the District, support Mendelsohn’s beliefs.
Good Stuff offers nostalgic American classics — “handcrafted burgers, handcut fries, handspun shakes and farm fresh salads.” The Toasted Marshmallow Shake or Big Vern’s Black Cow Root Beer Float harken back to the days of camp outs and soda fountains, and the Farmhouse Bacon Cheeseburger, made to order, and Uncle D’s Famous Chili with cornbread are quite simply “good stuff,” as the sign says, with flavors and freshness the likes of which you will not experience in any other quick food service establishment. A favorite of President Obama and his family, the Prez Obama Burger features onion marmalade and Roquefort cheese.
“Fresh ingredients are delivered daily,” Greenberg adds, while also explaining the eatery’s motto, “Goodness. Gracious,” which relates not only to Mendelsohn and Greenberg’s commitment to food quality and customer service, but has been adopted as the formal name of their staff meetings. Good Stuff Eatery is Chef Mendelsohn on a plate — uncomplicated, well-seasoned and thoroughly delectable.
Also on Crystal Drive is Jaleo. famed chef José Andrés’ tapas restaurant, as well as Kora (the second restaurant from one of Alexandria’s favorite local chefs, Morou Ouattara, who created the cutting edge and wildly popular Farrah Olivia (farraholiviarestaurant.com) which, incidentally, is alive and well, living inside Kora every Wednesday through Saturday nights, featuring such menu show-stoppers as the Painted Soup, Goat Cheese Gnudi and gourmet Mac and Cheese.
On the Kora menu, dive right in to even more of Chef Morou’s exquisite and tantalizing plates, dubbed “Italian by Morou,” including Stuffed Eggplant, Cinnamon Cured Quail, Caramelized Pear Pizza and his Risotto of the Day. Finish with his version of Tiramisu or the Citrus Burst, a lemon mascarpone cake served with an orange compote and lime sorbet.
Kora, co-owned by Morou’s wife, Heather, is also a popular bar and lounge, but the expansive modern space offers a fine dining experience not to be missed. The waitstaff possess a rich knowledge of the menu, and will ensure a great evening. (Ask for Enzo, Zebra’s favorite!) If you loved Farrah Olivia, named after their first two daughters, you will adore Kora, named after their third. Chef Morou is one of the area’s most adventurous chefs, delivering skill and talent with every dish, and is counted among Zebra’s favorite chefs of all time, forever changing the way we look at food.
Once you enter the enclosed Crystal City Shops, specialty retail stores wind like ribbons through the seemingly underground city. These shopkeepers set themselves apart from other like venues by providing exceptional, owner-based quality customer service. So definitely stop in to meet owner Mary Beth Cox and her exceptional staff at the Ship’s Hatch offering the coolest collection of fascinating and varied nautical and military-related gifts in the metro area, including barometers, bells, chronometers, clocks, flag cases, boxes, clothing, ships’ wheels and seaworthy antiques, which, in many instances, she has lovingly restored.
Cox began the Ship’s Hatch in 1973, transforming authentic World War II Liberty Ship hatch covers into furniture. She practically invented what we now refer to as “repurposing” long before the word came into being. A resident of the Crystal City Shops since 1984, she is the foremost authority and producer of engraved/personalized gifts for retirements, promotions and the like, be it for the military or private sector. Ship’s Hatch also custom embroiders U.S. Navy ship ball caps for any ship that ever sailed. Her store is a treasure trove of exquisite objects that pay reverence to the military (including a stunning collection of challenger coins) as well as nautical history, an education of our heritage not to be missed.
A short walk away, you’ll find Puppet Heaven, owned and performed (upon request) by puppeteer Alban Odoulamy, who will provide a quick lesson or two for any puppet your children — or you — may take a fancy to. In the Crystal City Shops for 17 years, Odoulamy offers a vast area of puppets, including those for the hand and fingers as well as intricate marionettes and portable stage theaters. Remember “Punch and Judy” or Kukla, Fran and Ollie? You may, but your children or grandchildren may not. At Puppet Heaven, you can converse with Big Bird, laugh with Lampchop or put on a show like the Von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. It’s a world of wonder and memories for children of all ages.
If you’re in search of a ladies dress shop, the kind our mothers used to frequent, but with the latest styles and fashion-forward thinking, look no further than Nasrin Rashidi, a woman you need to know and co-owner, with husband Sasan, of Daniel’s Boutique , L.A. Moves and L.A. Jewels all located within the Crystal City Shops.
Featuring clothing and accessories for casual to formal evening wear, Rashidi, in business for more than 25 years, offers wardrobe consulting whether you live in the area, out of state or even out of the country. Her client list is vast, and she’s the one, and perhaps the only one, in town who will ensure that no one else is wearing “your” dress at the next official Washington function — a level of service primarily reserved these days for mega-celebrities with stylists.
If you’re having a wedding, bring all the girls in. She will dress them with her impeccable eye and provide custom on-site alterations to guarantee a proper fit. In addition, Rashidi and her husband offer fur cleaning, monograming, restyling and storage (for a reasonable $39.50 per fur piece per season). Regardless of your wardrobe needs, Rashidi will make you the belle of the ball.
For personal pampering, there is no one more knowledgable to visit than proprietor Nahid Wingfield of Nahid Spa and Salon . A beauty fixture in the Crystal City Shops for seven years, you may also remember her salon on King Street in Old Town where she called home for 18 years. Whether you’re looking for a quick, good haircut or a day of relaxation, Wingfield and her fabulous staff will rejuvenate your senses as well as your body.
Nahid’s offers every aspect of hair and nail care treatments. You can even schedule an appointment to get your makeup, nails and hair done directly before a special occasion. Facials, massages, body waxing and ear candling are just a few of the items on her spa menu in addition to Med Spa services, such as Botox, performed by one of Washington’s leading plastic surgeons. The spa/salon atmosphere is tranquil, and the staff nurturing and kind, led by Wingfield’s poised, elegant demeanor. There is no better place to enhance your beauty than Nahid’s.
Just around the corner, you should definitely stop in to see the art at the Gallery Underground, an Arlington Artists Alliance gallery promoting the works of established and emerging regional artists. Their mission is to make regional fine art accessible to the public through monthly exhibits, special events and art workshops (for children as well as adults).
The exhibit changes monthly and features several mediums, including painting, drawing, ceramic, sculpture, jewelry and glass. A reception, open to the public, is held on the first Friday of every month, from 5:00 to 8:00 PM, to introduce the new art. Co-Director Sandi Parker adds, “When we change the exhibit on the first Monday of each month, regular patrons are waiting for the doors to open so they can peruse the new artists’ works.” Celebrating its one-year anniversary, the Gallery Underground is a unique experience that will bring the joy of artistic expression into your life.
Crystal City Shops is also home to the Synetic Theater (synetictheater.org), a “physical” theater, fusing dynamic art forms, including text, drama, movement, acrobatics, dance and music. Founded by Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, Georgian artists who moved to the United States in the 1990s, the theater made its artistic debut in 2002 with a wordless Hamlet, establishing itself as a stellar physical theater company and earning three 2003 Helen Hayes Awards.
The Synetic Theater annually produces four to five stage productions and two to three family productions. In 2006, Synetic began a five-year partnership with The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to produce one show per season for The Kennedy Center. It’s innovative and exciting theater for the whole family, and one of the unique offerings of the Crystal City Shops complex.
Vornado/Charles E. Smith’s Director of Retail Marketing for the Crystal City Shops Brenda Davis, states, “Crystal City’s line up of acclaimed chefs combined with its unique cross-section of retail, an expanding arts scene and a year-round roster of special events make it a truly vibrant urban hub.”
Parking is plentiful and free every weekday after 4:00 PM and all day Saturdays and Sundays. Validation is also available on weekdays at the Information Desk if you spend at least $20.00. Visit thecrystalcityshops.com for further information.
Whether going out to lunch or dinner, shopping at a specialty retailer or taking in an art exhibit or performance, the Crystal City Shops has something for everyone, a city of dreams in our own backyard.