Alexandria, VA – Chef Caroline Ross of River Bend Bistro in Alexandria’s Hollin Hall Shopping Center is in her happy place. She and her husband and co-owner, Bill Ross, just passed the seventh anniversary of opening their own casual fine dining restaurant. Reaching the milestone would normally be cause for celebration, but of course, this is not a normal year.
Bill Ross had been a self-employed businessman for years, a self-described risk-taker, though the term could apply to both of them. In the restaurant business, five years is generally the make-or-break goal. The second year is the toughest, explained the Rosses. “The first year is a novelty,” said Bill Ross. “People are curious, you have lines to get in and great sales. In the second year, reality sets in, and that’s where you need to balance your costs with your sales.”
River Bend has found that balance, and Chef Caroline Ross is quick to give credit where it’s due. Her sous chef and several employees have been with them since the beginning. Additionally, the restaurant’s purveyors have played a large, and long, role in their success. “I’ve worked with my seafood guy for more than 20 years, and with the meat company for 20 years,” she said. The extensive wine list is curated from her contacts made while she worked at Rick’s Wine and Gourmet several years ago.
Of course, any foray into the restaurant business, and keeping it running smoothly, involves a lot of risk, from fickle customers, high employee turnover, and the newest, riskiest factors of all, pandemic-induced closures and restrictions on capacity and operating hours.
Surviving through a pandemic
When the pandemic hit, the Rosses were forced to close the restaurant for just over a month. During that time, they took advantage of the opportunity to redo the bar and tables. They’d had a standing schedule of cleaning out the kitchen every Monday, but now did a major overhaul, purging everything in the kitchen, fridge, and freezers. They gave the food to their cooks and staff before it had to be thrown away.
In late April, River Bend Bistro reopened for takeout service only. In early June, when Governor Northam gave the ok, they added limited outdoor seating. The Rosses ran a successful Go Fund Me campaign and Caroline handed staff members a big check. They used PPP funds to give employees paid vacations. They applied for and received a Fairfax Rise grant and are now looking at Northam’s Rebuild Virginia grant to help small businesses. The Rosses are doing all they can to stay on this very bumpy road.
The road to chefdom
Caroline Ross has been in the restaurant business since age 18. After she graduated from Fort Hunt High School, she worked at Portner’s in Old Town (now Columbia Firehouse) as a cashier in 1983. (That’s also where Bill and Caroline met.) Executive Chef Wendy Albert (now at Tempo) would bring Caroline into the kitchen to make salads when it was busy. Drawn to the hustle and bustle, Caroline advanced to prep cook and then began working on the line. She explained, “As everyone says, you don’t choose to become a chef, the job chooses you.”
Caroline followed Wendy to Bilbo Baggins, then to a catering company. After the catering season ended, Wendy encouraged Caroline to go to the Morrison House for a job at Le Chardon D’or, a Relais & Chateaux property at the time. Caroline hit it off with the chef, who took her under his wing and pushed her to new culinary heights, including pastries. Caroline said, “Believe it or not, 23 years later, I am still using the pastry recipes I learned there.”
At a friend’s suggestion, Caroline applied for a culinary scholarship from Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international nonprofit dedicated to promoting women in the culinary, beverage, and hospitality industries. Caroline won the $5,000 scholarship, and off she went to Paris to study and work for six months. Très bon!
Newly energized, Caroline returned home and honed her skills, working predominantly in French and Italian restaurants. While recovering from back surgery, she spent nine years at Rick’s Wine and Gourmet. “I walked into Rick’s thinking I know a lot about wine. A week later I thought, I know nothing about wine,” she laughed.
River Bend Bistro today
Incorporating everything she’s learned along the way, Caroline Ross brings her considerable experience and talent to River Bend. Her menu focuses on fresh foods, seafood, and meats. While some chefs find it tempting to follow various food trends, Caroline said, “Of course I pay attention to them, but our menu is more classic than trendy.” She wants to showcase the food she likes to make with the best ingredients she can get.
Speaking of classic, pairing food and wine is a classic gastronomical endeavor, arguably an art, sought by many yet done well by few. Caroline credits her tenure at Rick’s as essential wine education. Now when she tastes wine, she also tastes food. As in, “Oh, I wish I had a slice of pepperoni pizza to enjoy with this nice chianti.”
It’s been and continues to be a long road getting through the pandemic, but they are beginning to see customers come back who have been gone for months. As Bill explained, “Our customers all know Caroline and each other, and it’s been great to see the familiar faces.”
Of course, it’s still a far cry from the level they were operating at before the virus hit. “We had a very successful catering business,” said Caroline. They catered events and celebrations for local businesses, associations, and private clients. They hosted annual parties also, such as the crab feast, oyster roast, pig roast, and champagne dinner. And just like everyone else, they’re patiently waiting for all that to resume, including their free wine tastings on Saturday afternoons from 2 to 4 pm.
“We’re making it work, so far,” said Caroline. “We sell beer, wine, and cocktails to go, in addition to our menu items. But really, I just want to have our barstools back. That would make all the difference.”
River Bend Bistro is located in the Hollin Hall Shopping Center at 7966 Fort Hunt Road in Alexandria. They’re open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Visit www.riverbendbistro.com for hours, menus, and daily specials, and to place orders for takeout.