History: Waterfront Dining in Alexandria — From Beachcomber to Barca

ALEXANDRIA, VA – It’s been 68 years since there was waterfront dining on the Potomac River in Alexandria. Given this opening, I should quickly start with my definition of waterfront dining:

  1. Open-air: One sits outside; e.g., on a balcony, terrace, or deck;
  2. Unobstructed: You don’t have to cross a street, pedestrian walkway, marina, or park to get to the river;
  3. Sea-level (ish): Don’t get me wrong, I love a rooftop terrace. I just don’t consider it waterfront dining.
  4. Open to the public: Private clubs don’t count.
  5. On the Potomac: It must be on the actual Potomac River, not a tributary, bay, harbor, or another river.

The last time we Alexandrians had a place to dine that met all of my criteria was 1953, at the Beachcombers Restaurant, pictured here. The City of Alexandria did some wonderful research and captured much of the history of the Beachcombers Restaurant [PDF]. This passage below is an oral history excerpt from that research, and it stood out to me:

We used to enjoy eating outside with our parents on the high terrace of the Beachcomber Restaurant…. The lights on the Maryland shore were few, and the silence was broken only by the distant hum of the infrequent cabin cruiser passing by with its blue-green and red navigation lamps glowing in the deep darkness. The rhythmic lapping of the small waves onto the riverbank was just about the only other sound, since there was no Wilson Bridge then with its noisy trucks. Air traffic was just beginning to increase from National Airport, but the sight of aircraft taking off at night was unusual. I can barely recall the sight of seaplanes, bobbing on their pontoons, tied up at the old ferry dock on Strand Street where the Norfolk-Washington steamboat used to call.

The postcards and photos below are just some of the everyday items related to waterfront dining from the OurHistoryMuseum collection. They transport us to another era.

It’s worth noting that I am (as well as everyone I know) eagerly anticipating the spring opening of Barca Pier & Wine Bar, the latest venture from ARP. This will be the first Potomac River waterfront dining anyone has experienced in Alexandria since the Beachcombers Restaurant. It will be one of the first truly waterfront dining experiences in the region in a very long time, perhaps also since 1953. I’m adding a rendering of Barca at the end of this article. If Barca is anything like the recently opened, utterly fantastic, and adjacent Ada’s on the River from the same owners, it’s going to be hugely popular.

The Beachcombers Restaurant was opened in 1946.

beachcomberPC-frt
(Photo: Ken Lopez, OurHistoryMuseum.com)
beachcomberPC-bck
(Photo: Ken Lopez, OurHistoryMuseum.com)
beachcomberPC-bck90
(Photo: Ken Lopez, OurHistoryMuseum.com)

The Beachcombers Restaurant lasted until roughly 1953 when the owners closed the business. A fire consumed part of the second floor in 1954.

BeachcombersPostcardFRONT
(Photo: Ken Lopez, OurHistoryMuseum.com)
BeachcombersPostcardBACK
(Photo: Ken Lopez, OurHistoryMuseum.com)

The Alexandria Motor Boat Club was one of many boating clubs in 20th century Alexandria. This is not the Old Dominion Boat Club. The steamship is the Charles MacAlester probably en route to Mount Vernon.

PostcardFront-1
(Photo: Ken Lopez, OurHistoryMuseum.com)
PostcardBACK
(Photo: Ken Lopez, OurHistoryMuseum.com)

This is the recently constructed Old Dominion Boat Club that is essentially a reconstruction of the Beachcomber Restaurant.

old-dominion-boat-club
(Photo: Ken Lopez, OurHistoryMuseum.com)

Here are pictures of Barca, which just opened.

Barca Pier lies on the beautiful Potomac River between Duke and Wolfe streets. (photo by Susan Fleischman/The Zebra Press)
Inspired by Barcelona’s beach bars, Barca Pier serves tapas, small plates of delicious, ingredient-forward food. (Photo by Susan Fleischman/The Zebra Press)

Conditions certainly have improved on the Alexandria waterfront since this photo was taken.

DockyardPhoto
(Photo: Ken Lopez, OurHistoryMuseum.com)

MORE: PHOTOS: Barca Wine Bar Joins Alexandria Waterfront

4 COMMENTS

  1. I wasn’t born in 1946, but I sure recognized the name of one of the proprietors at that time. The magnificent Tom Hulfish. He was a fellow commissioner with me on the Historic Alexandria Resource Commission. He had to be a millennium, while he was part of the restaurant business. I recently saw him just last week leaving McEnearney Associates Realtors’ front entrance on Pitt Street, still working and loving what he does. When I grow up I want to be just like him. Thanks for the history lesson Mary Wadland. Dining on the waterfront is my cup of tea. Maybe because I am a fish and water sign. That might explain it. Ask HulFISH.

  2. Not sure when John Richards opened his gun shop in the old Beachcomer but not much was done to the inside. I joined the Old Dominion Boat Club in 1968 and just celebrated 53 years. So many memories. Used to go over to Goat Island and have bonfires and party.

    George Ellmore

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