By Bob Tagert
This months’ restaurant takes us away from Old Town and out of the heart of Alexandria to the wilds of Arlandria on Mount Vernon Avenue. RT’s is a short distance from the ever popular Birchmere Music Hall and is pretty much the only place to fine dine in the immediate area. RT’s will also take us back in time. In order to understand RT’s you have to know a little about the legendary founder and owner, Ralph Davis. I first met Davis in the early 80’s when I first discovered Old Town. Davis had finished college and had taken a job as a bartender at the Wharf Restaurant…something to do before graduate school.
Davis enjoyed what he was doing and took an interest in the restaurant business and was thrust into management by owner Cliff Cline. Cline also owned the 219 Restaurant at the time, and soon Davis was running that restaurant as well. His interest in the business grew and when the city announced plans for the revitalization program for Mt. Vernon Avenue, Davis jumped at the chance to start his own restaurant, and RT’s was born.
In September of 1985 RT’s opened its doors and soon the restaurant was one of the most popular in the area. It was the first restaurant to open in that end of town and is the highest rated restaurant in the DelRay area and one of the highest rated by most Alexandria web sites. When food critic Phyllis Richmond of Washington Post fame visited early on and gave the establishment rave reviews, their reputation was complete. Since then, RT’s has been a fixture in Washingtonian Magazine’s “Top 100 Restaurants” list in the metropolitan area and is one of the highest rated seafood restaurants in the nationally acclaimed “Zagat Survey”.
It had been many years since I had eaten at RT’s so we decided to make a trip to Arlandria and see what has changed. The only thing that appeared different was that Davis, as I have, has grown older and his young son, Matt, is now grown and actively involved with the restaurant.
RT’s menu is unique in this area in that it serves authentic old school Creole and Cajun dishes. They also serve extensive seafood dishes, sandwiches and bar food. The restaurant is down home style with a large bar with booths for patrons as well as two adjacent dining rooms. Their patrons include locals, tourists and the occasional visit from folks on Capitol Hill. Clinton and Gore were the first presidential types that graced RT’s during their stay in the White House.
On the night I went with two friends I was famished. I usually can’t eat both an appetizer and an entrée but I am a big grits lover, so I tried the Cajun Crawfish & Grits. The Andouille-Cheese Grit Cake was wonderful and absorbed enough of the roux from the Creole sauce to make everything work well together.
For my entrée I ordered the Crawfish Etouffee from the list of RT’s Specialties. Maybe it was a little overkill on the crawfish side, but these plump little shellfish were firm and tender and the taste was true creole. The rice was cooked just perfect and I did finish the whole dish. One companion ordered the Pan seared Crabcake. As advertised, it was mostly lump back fin meat that was seared to a light crust but left the crabmeat light and tasty. This dish is served with the prerequisite fries and cole slaw. The third diner in our party is very partial to red beans and rice so couldn’t pass up the Spicy Crawfish version served here. The crawfish is sautéed with Tasso ham, garlic, spring onions and Cajun spices. She is a bit of a Cajun snob and thought that the sauce had more of a barbeque taste than a spicy creole but that it was very pleasant in any event. The red beans and rice were pretty much spot on. All in all it was a good choice and she said she would order it again.
Desserts were in order even though we were all pretty full. We opted for the pecan pie and the Creole bread pudding. Both were very tasty and easy to share. That would have been enough but I couldn’t resist ordering the Cajun Nightgown! While it is actually an “adult” beverage, I’m not going to tell you what it is comprised of….you have to go to RT’s and see for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
While I could rattle off everything that is offered on the menu (you can check the whole gamut by logging on to their website), I think touching on the highlights is best. The prices at RT’s are pretty reasonable – $22+- range – and the selection covers all of the bases. Clearly they specialize in the Cajun/Creole but there are substantial offerings for the “meat and potato” lovers out there.
The most popular items at RT’s have always been their She Crab Soup, Creole Alligator Stew, Red Seafood Chowder and Chicken and “Comeaux” Andouille Gumbo. Available by the cup or bowl, these are perfect for the chilly days ahead.
The wine list is sufficient and has something for everyone at reasonable prices. We opted for a Horton Viogner since we are big Virginia wine supporters. It fit the bill. They have a fun specialty cocktail list and plenty of beer selections to satisfy those palettes. The bar is extensive and they have Happy Hour every day (not just Monday through Friday) from 4-7:00 pm – cocktail and food specials daily!
As I mentioned before, RT’s is a neighborhood style restaurant…nothing pretentious; just, as they say,”It is all about the food.” They serve an excellent lunch in the $14 range and serve special cocktails at the bar by Mark and Kat.
To continue with the early history, after RT’s had been opened for a few years, Davis returned to his roots and bought The Wharf and the Warehouse Restaurants in Old Town which he also ran successfully for a number of years. One of the first things he did was incorporate some of his popular dishes at RT’s and they remain today. Last February, Davis sold his Old Town restaurants and began to work closely with his son Matt, as they plan to up tick RT’s a bit and begin work on new menu additions.
What began as a thought and a project by one of Alexandria’s pioneer restaurateurs is now the go-to place on upper Mount Vernon Avenue. Swing by for a drink, lunch or a great Cajun experience.