Ada’s on the River heats up Alexandria’s waterfront.
Is it someone’s birthday?” our server asks when she bounces up to our table. My family is dining at Ada’s on the River, on the waterfront in Old Town Alexandria. We look at each other and laugh. We are celebrating life, and Ada’s feels like a good place to do that.
Ada’s is part of the reactivation of the Old Town riverfront. In recent decades, the city has removed the warehouses and industrial buildings, some dating to the 1830s, and added full pedestrian access to the Potomac.
Built on the southern end of Old Town’s promenade near Robinson Landing, Ada’s on the River debuted in January of 2020, making a splash before being shuttered during months of lockdown. Once it reopened, locals and critics alike spread the word about the exciting new destination, and the vibe is definitely happening.
To get there, we walked down a cobblestone street, toward the Old Dominion Boat Club Marina. In a city recognized for its historic architecture, Ada’s sleek style looks more Miami than Old Town. Poised beneath 18-foot ceilings, the dining room’s big, bold furnishings are encircled by glass on three sides. Greenery lends texture and beauty to the airy space, and the wooden transom scaling the length of the restaurant ties it all together.
Although every indoor table has a view, Ada’s also offers year-round dining on a landscaped patio under ultra-modern heating lamps. From here, we can see the Capitol dome, while nearby birch trees frame the Capital Wheel across the river at Maryland’s National Harbor. Seabirds call overhead as the sky turns pink and gold, drawing a curtain on the day.
If the stellar views are not enough to delight, the pretty plates of food tear our gaze from the horizon. A tower of silky crab, a wedge salad with curly strings of endive, a merry-go-round of char-grilled scallops nestled among purple cauliflower florets; each plate arrives to a chorus of “Wows.” Our server says she loves hearing that.
Despite the chill outside, Ada’s is toasty warm. The open kitchen with its long prep area and red pots of garnishes includes a high-tech grill burning live oak and hardwood coals. The aroma of smoked and grilled meat curls around us, creating anticipation. Looking over the menu, we keep ordering, especially the sides, and of course, the steak and seafood.
Eighty percent of the menu is touched by the coal or wood grill at some point, says regional executive chef Brandon Whitestone of Alexandria Restaurant Partners. “Ada’s is classic Americana with Mediterranean influence. Our custom Mibrasa charcoal oven gives Ada’s its signature flavor.” Mibrasas are made in Spain to exacting standards.
One of Ada’s signature dishes is the black brioche loaf with activated charcoal. The bread, spongy and sweet inside a charred crust, pairs nicely with the Lord Byron cocktail—Maker’s Mark bourbon poured over coffee and tinged with orange bitters.
In Ada’s vegetables, we taste a complimentary swirl of citrus and smoke. The golden-brown Brussels sprouts rest in a creamy, buttery aioli with a dollop of tart yogurt. The wedge salad is an explosion of baby iceberg lettuce, adorned with cornbread croutons, whipped blue cheese, sultry bacon vinaigrette, and pickled tomatoes. A heaping bowl of charred cauliflower is brightened with harissa vinaigrette and a punch of pine nuts. Everything is kissed by a flame.
These are the perfect accompaniments to fluffy swordfish tattooed with grill marks and roasted scallops resting in a brown butter cauliflower purée. Tender and firm, the scallops are lightly browned and surrounded by chunks of Granny Smith apples, nuggets of lardon, and crunchy hazelnuts. Even better was the half-pound crab cake made with preserved lemon rémoulade, creamed leeks, and a mixture of greens. The secret, Whitestone says, is the Dijon mustard in the background.
Smoke and fire are on full display when you order a 65-day-aged cowboy ribeye steak. It sails from a sizzling oven blanketed by a sliver of garlic butter and escorted by a tureen of chimichurri sauce made with shallots, jalapeño, cilantro, and other fresh herbs. The richness and texture is unparalleled. “Ada’s beef is aged no less than 45 days, some for more than 75 days,” Whitestone explains. “It’s a unique program where ranchers hand select their cattle and are really stringent on the standards. We want to provide the traditional steakhouse experience, but elevated.”
Before dessert, we ask about Ada and the elegant portrait of her beside the bar. She is the mathematician Ada Lovelace. The only daughter of the poet Lord Byron, she is widely recognized as the first computer programmer.
In the 1830s, Lovelace solved the problem of data input with polymath and sometimes collaborator Charles Babbage. An aristocrat who built a career in technology, she is hailed by the Computer History Museum as “the prophet of the computer age.” Discovering that Ada’s is named in her honor adds extra joy to our evening.
For our final course, we order beignets and a jam jar of s’mores. From our table, we see the lights reflect upon the water, and a satisfied glow descends around us. When an evening is this special, an ordinary day feels like a celebration. AdasOnTheRiver.com
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue.