Nicole Jones chose optimism. The Alexandria chef runs popular Del Ray cafe Stomping Ground and Bagel Uprising next-door, so she’s well-acquainted with the logistical and emotional toll of trying to keep restaurants afloat during the pandemic. But she also couldn’t deny the upside of adding another one.
By introducing Mae’s Market & Cafe in Old Town this week, Jones is hoping to fill a hole for sandwiches and quality groceries that Society Fair left behind when it closed in the same space a couple years ago. Mae’s announced its opening on Instagram on Wednesday, August 25, and Jones says a more formal ceremony is set for next week.
The fact that she’s introducing Mae’s (277 S. Washington Street) while she’s seven months pregnant and unable to find management-level employees who could run a bakery or build a wine list makes the challenge even greater. But on the plus side, with a 6,000-square-foot space in her own neighborhood, Jones can picture a future where her cooking capabilities are no longer constrained by tight quarters.
“I live five blocks from this place,” Jones says. “I’m basically opening the neighborhood joint that I wish existed here.”
Due to Stomping Ground’s success, Southern-style biscuits are Jones’s calling card. At Mae’s, they’re the base of a fennel sausage sandwich smeared with roasted strawberry preserves. Egg-and-cheese sandwiches dressed with parsley-shallot butter are available on biscuits or croissants. Espresso drinks, juice, lemonade, and iced tea will all be available.
Jones is too modest to call Mae’s a bakery, but the cafe (full menu below) makes its own croissants, baguettes, and country white bread with commercial yeast and a two-day, cold fermentation to develop some natural flavor. Jones named the restaurant after her Lithuanian great grandmother who taught her to cook. She says about half of the goods in the pastry case are verbatim reproductions of an original Mae’s recipe, including coffee cake, a cookie made with Lay’s potato chips, and a chocolate chip cookie that curiously lacks eggs.
“I’m really getting to pay homage to the woman who taught me about the value and meaning of food in people’s lives,” Jones says.
From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Mae’s sells sandwiches ($8 to $13.50) ranging from a ham and butter baguette or an Italian grinder to a lamb meatball sub with whipped garlic feta, onion, and mint. Salads and bowls include Italian antipasto, a Cobb, a Greek wedge, and a shrimp and watercress combo with grapefruit, mango, black sesame, and cilantro.
Jones says Mae’s has about five shelves for groceries, and she describes the market as more of a bodega than a gourmet operation. She’s stocking bags of flour, cereal, and milk, and also high-low options for pasta, spaghetti sauce, and tuna. She’s excited to carry vegan crisps from Snacklins and Dreams Aren’t This Good tortilla chips, which come in an oven-safe bag for reheating.
There will be also be some prepared dishes, like chicken enchiladas or eggplant Parmesan, and some locally farmed meat for purchase, but Jones doesn’t want to get carried away with variety. She promises she won’t be selling $14 jars of mustard. “I’m trying to avoid what I like to call a food museum,” she says.
At opening time for Mae’s, a big piece of the project was dormant. Jones plans to open a full-service wine bar called Virginia’s Darling inside the same building about a month from now.