D.C.’s recent French restaurant revolution crosses the Potomac next month with the opening of Josephine, bringing Old Town a hot new spot for martini service, escargots, beef Bourguignon, and big bottles of bubbly.
Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s charming French bistro (109 S. St. Asaph Street, Alexandria, Virginia) breathes new life into the old Columbia Firehouse, NRG’s brick-lined American restaurant that operated for 10 years and never reopened when the pandemic hit.
Starting Wednesday, June 7, daily hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m., with plans to quickly start weekend brunch.
Newly named executive chef Matt Cockrell has devoted his entire 20-year restaurant career to the cuisine. Cockrell got his start under chef Patrick Orange at Georgetown’s French countryside institution La Chaumiere before joining the opening team at Stephen Starr’s perennially packed Le Diplomate. More recently, he helmed kitchens at Adams Morgan’s now-closed Mintwood Place and Georgetown’s Brasserie Liberte after that.
“French cooking requires a complete commitment to the details,” he says.
Cockrell pays extra attention to his pates and terrines at Josephine, which are all made in-house, joined by over 25 stocks and sauces spread out across the menu. Classics like French onion soup, escargots, skillets of mussels, and beef Bourguignon join some of his own French-influenced inventions, as seen in a seared red drum with tomato concasse, eggplant, olives, herbs de provence, and squid ink beurre blanc.
NRG’s expansive portfolio is blanketed all over the DMV and includes places like Rustico, the Roost, Bluejacket Brewery, B-Side, and Vermilion. But Josephine marks its first full-on go at French food.
“We’ve been wanting to do French for a long time and the bones of the space really speak to that genre,” NRG founder and CEO Michael Babin tells Eater.
In addition to salads ($16 to $22), appetizers ($12 to $18), and entrees ($20 to $40), Josephine’s menu will feature an extensive raw bar and an all-French selection of curated cheeses.
In Parisian fashion, wines and Champagnes naturally play a starring role at the bar. A collection of more than 350 French labels showcase both traditional and modern winemaking styles, with an extensive list of reserve offerings and large-format bottles fit for cork-popping celebrations. Bubbles are spontaneously poured atop a stacked pyramid of glassy coupes on any given night. (Look for an absinthe tower “or two” too, he says.)
“It’s going to be a party trick,” says Babin. “There’s a lot of fun history around this kind of dining and if you’re doing it as we are, you have to take full advantage.”
Wine director Erin Dudley also offers at least 30 options by the glass at any given time, with a special focus on grower Champagnes. On the cocktails front, NRG spirits director Nick Farrell sends out all sorts of inventive aperitifs and classic riffs. Draft and bottled beers and ciders lean into local, French and Belgian producers.
The three-level space with room for 220 inside offers plenty of cozy nooks to dine and drink. The historic hideaway — born as a functioning firehouse in the late 1800s — is repurposed with two large and (one small) dining rooms and a bar area with room for 40. A third-floor lounge and Champagne bar with a fireplace resembles a “pocket ballroom,” he says. A intimate courtyard adds another 25 seats.
“We pulled a lot of inspiration from the Art Nouveau period,” says Babin.
A chandelier salvaged from NYC’s old Commodore hotel in Midtown lives on at Josephine, joined by vintage pendant lights that once lit up the Paris Metro. Pressed tin elements, millwork, a vaulted skylight over the dining room, and stained glass add to the timeless vibe.
“It’s been interesting to watch. We feel like it’s a genre that’s really right for Old Town,” he says.