Anyone who loves shopping at Miss Pixie’s, a Logan Circle institution that sells vintage furniture and other household curiosities behind a hot pink facade, might have daydreamed about what it would be like to go to a dinner party at owner Pixie Windsor’s house. Snagging a table at Crazy Aunt Helen’s, a new all-day spot for American comfort food that opens on Barracks Row tomorrow, could be the next best thing. Owner Shane Mayson handed over decorating duties to Windsor, who’s never designed a restaurant before.
Mayson originally met Windsor at a jazz show, and the two became such fast friends that he stayed at her apartment for couple of months, admiring her maximalist taste. For his first restaurant, he wanted to recreate that environment. Now, the formerly dark space that used to house Irish pub Finn McCool’s (713 Eighth Street SE) is bright and glitzy, with a “lots of interesting, crazy stuff,” Windsor says. That includes a stairwell full of Mona Lisa replicas, a men’s room decorated with headstones, and a glowing neon pink sign that just says “crazy.”
Aunt Helen is a real person, with one important distinction, Mayson says: “I had an aunt Helen. I want to say this very clearly, she was not crazy. She was a wonderful woman...she was really warm and always very welcoming.”
But the “crazy” descriptor captured the wacky, madcap energy of Auntie Mame that Mayson wanted to infuse into the space. “This is a happy, joyous place,” Mayson says. “I’m always saying we are a neighborhood restaurant that’s a safe space for everyone.”
Crazy Aunt Helen’s executive chef Mykie Moll, who led the kitchen at short-lived Pom Pom in Petworth and worked as a sous chef at Doi Moi on 14th Street NW, has embraced that theme with a homey menu (full versions below) that veers from meat-heavy to vegan. A traditional, Jewish-style braised brisket riffs on the recipe from Moll’s grandmother. There’s homemade corned beef, gruyere mac and cheese, roasted chicken, an array of burgers, and cinnamon bun pancakes. “There’s something about that cinnamon sugar,” Mayson says. “It smells amazing. it fills the room.”
Moll’s fried chicken sandwich comes with a lime leaf aioli. Mayson, who hails from Charleston, South Carolina, wanted to serve boiled peanuts, so Crazy Aunt Helen’s serves them as an appetizer that comes with an option of adding mumbo sauce. Meat-free items include a “gatherer’s pie” with seasonal veggies and lentils baked underneath mashed potatoes. Vegan “crab cakes” look like the real deal but incorporate okara (soy pulp) and lion’s mane mushrooms. A kid’s menu has items like burgers, chicken tenders, and grilled cheese, all for $12 or less.
Mayson commissioned Jo-Jo Valenzuela, who owns the Game Sports Pub in Adams Morgan, to develop cocktails that played with flavors typically found in a grandmother’s candy dish. “I ordered all these old-fashioned candies like sassafras and root beer” for reference, Mayson says. Valenzuela came up with a lemon drop cocktail, of course, as well as the “Kiss My Sassafras,” featuring with Macchu Pisco, Don Ciccio Cerasum Aperitivo, Embitterment Sassafras Bitters, orange peel, and mint. Each cocktail folds in locally distilled spirits. Right Proper Brewing Company co-founder Thor Cheston of put together the list of local beers.
Mayson, who got his start in the D.C. restaurant scene as a waiter at Mr. Henry’s in Capitol Hill in 1984, wants to showcase local performers, too. Later in the summer, Crazy Aunt Helen’s will start hosting theme nights in an upstairs performing space called the Peacock Room. The plan is to bring in improv on Thursdays, cabaret on Saturdays, and invite members of the D.C.’s theater community to stop by on Monday nights. “I’ve hired an amazing piano player who is used to accompanying musicians and singers,” Mayson says. “I am going to say, ‘Bring your book. Bring your friends. I’ll buy you a drink. You get onstage and sing a song for us.”
Crazy Aunt Helen’s will open Wednesday through Monday to start. Breakfast runs from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Lunch is available from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and dinner runs from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. The restaurant seats 76 on the first floor, including 26 at the bar, with 53 seats upstairs. The outdoor patio can accommodate 12, and there are an additional 12 seats on a streetside setup.