Alexandria, VA – Who doesn’t love being a tourist in their own backyard? Alexandria is known for offering events and attractions that make it one of the most visited cities in the country. Ms. Hope Nelson is a longtime Alexandria resident (19 years) and the owner of Alexandria Food Tours. She has spearheaded a new way for residents and visitors to experience the culinary delicacies in the city while learning about its food history. The self-proclaimed recovering journalist sat down with me to discuss her longtime career in the media arena, her book, Classic Restaurants of Alexandria, and her budding tour company. Let’s dive in to learn more about the ambitious Ms. Nelson.
Zebra: How long have you been a food writer and columnist? How did you get started in this profession?
Ms. Nelson: I basically grew up in the newsroom. My journalism career began at the Tallahassee Democrat when I was 13, working on the sports desk. I continued working there through college, first as a news assistant and later as a copyeditor.
The foundational experience I received at the Tallahassee Democrat led to a great opportunity as copyeditor and several other positions at The Motley Fool here in Alexandria. Even though I moved away from a traditional newsroom environment at The Motley Fool, the art of journalism was still calling me.
My journey to food writing began with a casual conversation I had with the publisher of the Alexandria Gazette Packet a few years ago. I mentioned that I was thinking about writing about the restaurants and food scene in the city, and she suggested that I write a food column in the paper. The rest is history!
Zebra: In 2019, you published your book, Classic Restaurants of Alexandria. Tell us how that came to be.
Ms. Nelson: In 2018, I received a call from The History Press. They were looking to partner with someone on a book titled Classic Restaurants of Alexandria. I immediately said, “I’m your girl.”
When I started working with the publisher, we first mapped out a list of what might be considered classic restaurants in Alexandria. We defined “classic restaurants” as establishments ̶ either still in existence or already closed — that were 20 years or older based on the publication date of the book (December 2019).
Most important, the restaurant must have had an impact on Alexandria or the Alexandria culinary scene throughout the years.
Zebra: Tell me about a surprising story you discovered when researching your book.
Ms. Nelson: There are so many stories. One of the best was about the Beachcombers restaurant built on stilts over the water, in roughly the same area that the Old Dominion Boat Club is today. It was famously known as one of Alice Roosevelt’s (daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt) favorite restaurants in the area. She was a persistent customer and was there every week. She loved to sit outside on the dining portico and look at the tranquil waters of the Potomac River.
The restaurant opened in the 1940s and unfortunately burned down in 1954. Alexandrians who remember it have fond memories to this day.
Zebra: From your book you pivoted to establishing your business, Alexandria Food Tours. Did you recognize a need for a food tour in the city?
Ms. Nelson: The tours came about in a couple of ways. When I debuted the book at the end of 2019, we had all these great events planned for 2020, and then the pandemic happened. That ended my grand plan for the official launch of the book.
So, I had all this great information seared into my brain and I wanted to share it. And I thought Alexandria, especially Old Town and Del Ray are such walkable neighborhoods, so why not start a culinary walking tour? Alexandria already has so many great tours, such as the Alexandria Colonial Tours and the Manumission Black history tours conducted by Councilman John Chapman; a food tour would be a great addition to the tourism scene.
In the fall of 2022, I started toying with the idea, taking some highlights from the book and stringing them together on a walkable route. The first tour I premiered and is currently available for booking is a 75-minute walking food history tour of 10 restaurant sites in Old Town Alexandria. It’s usually priced at $35 per person – but I’m currently offering the tour at a summertime sale price of $25. This isn’t a tasting tour, but I have several of those in the works for the summer. As a thank-you gift, every guest leaves with a complimentary copy of my book, Classic Restaurants of Alexandria. To date, I have given quite a few tours, and I’m looking forward to ramping up our offerings and expanding.
Zebra: What are some of the stops on your tours?
Ms. Nelson: I can’t give away all ten stops, but to give you an idea of the tour, we start by the waterfront and end past Market Square near Gadsby’s Tavern.
We feature restaurants such as Chadwicks and the Union Street Public House. Also, a lot of time is spent on the 100 block of King Street. I tried to feature as many classic restaurants as possible to provide guests the most bang for their buck.
Zebra: Are any new endeavors for Alexandria Food Tours coming up in June?
Ms. Nelson: My next launch is our new coffee tour. I am working with several coffee shops in Old Town. At each stop, guests can taste the coffee and learn from the owners about the various styles of coffee and how it’s prepared.
Here’s a little sneak peek for Zebra readers: I’m in the early stages of developing an ice cream tour that will be offered in the summer months. More to come on this soon! I encourage everyone to sign up for our monthly newsletter to find out when our new tours are being offered and to keep updated with all our goings-on.
Zebra readers can keep updated and reserve tours with Alexandria Food Tours by visiting their website (alxfoodtours.com/). They are also on Instagram (instagram.com/alxfoodtours/) and Facebook (facebook.com/ALXFoodTours).