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Nostalgia is a popular design aesthetic for restaurants. Some places use genuine antiques; others cram their dining rooms with ’50s reproductions—metal Coca-Cola signs, glass straw dispensers, miniature jukeboxes—in an attempt to establish a rapport with diners that may be beyond the ability of their entrees to conjure.
Stardust, in Alexandria, is arguably better positioned for customer connection than your average Cracker Barrel or Johnny Rockets—its menu features such non-chain-cuisine specialties as lamb-and-vegetable curry and Asian-spice roasted duck. And the 7-year-old restaurant, decorated with vintage toasters, neon signs, cast-off women’s shoes, and innumerable other such knickknacks, has certainly succeeded at putting diners at ease, perhaps beyond its owner’s wildest dreams: Customers feel at ease enough to commit petty larceny.
One evening several years ago, when Stardust regular David Underwood was feeling “mischievous,” he liberated a plastic pink flamingo that was stuck inside a planter in the restaurant. “I ‘birdnapped’ the flamingo,” admits Underwood, one of the publishers of the Old Town Crier community newspaper.
A few days later, he sent Stardust a ransom note, from a P.O. box, demanding four or five martinis in exchange for the bird’s safe return. A few days after that, he received a response. “They said, ‘There’s no way we’ll meet your demands….We’re gonna report you to the FBI—the Flamingo Birdnapping Institute,’” Underwood recalls.
After exchanging notes with the restaurant for a month, Underwood decided to step up and reveal his identity. “I wear an eye patch—I’m blind in my right eye,” he says. “So I took the flamingo, took some elastic, and put a cloth eye patch over one of flamingo’s eyes, and delivered it. They said, ‘We knew it was you all the time!’”
Jennifer Russell, Stardust’s general manager and chief interior designer, says that the staff, amused by the prank, in the end acceded to Underwood’s demands for free drinks. “He came in and we gave him his toddies.”
It wasn’t the only time a regular has made off with one of the restaurant’s goodies, although it was one of only a few times a missing item has been recovered. In 2003, for example, the hands were stolen off one of Stardust’s four resident mannequins. A reward ad placed in the Crier yielded no leads, but Russell doesn’t think the hands’ fate is any mystery. “We’re convinced they’re on the desk of some regular,” she says, noting that “Ginger” now wears leopard-print gloves in place of her missing appendages.
The thrift-store décor of Stardust seems almost to attract the light-fingered, even repeat offenders. Russell recounts the story of one regular who always demanded to use the same pig-shaped salt and pepper shakers. One day, both diner and shakers made their last appearance. Part-time wait staffer Alicia Suhre tells of a steady customer who used to come in and steal a single blue marble from a gumball machine of marbles on every visit. “I didn’t notice until one day he confessed to me,” says Suhre.
But Russell is quick to protest that not every regular who crunches into Stardust’s busy bar for fried calamari and crab dip after work or fills its two bright dining rooms on weekend evenings has theft on the brain. Quite the opposite, in fact: Many diners have given their vintage treasures over to the restaurant. She mentions a man who donated a Stardust Memories movie poster and several people who left items such as a reel-to-reel tape player and a bowling ball behind when they moved away.
“And they send their friends in to come and check on their things,” Russell says, with a grin.
The idea to decorate the place with old cooking gadgets and other bits of midcentury Americana came to Stardust owner Avery Kincaid before she opened the restaurant, in 1998. For a bit of funky-on-a-budget chic, she took old appliances and other collectibles from her own attic, combining them with flea-market finds into Stardust’s apparently irresistible blend of kitsch and kitchiana.
Russell, who inherited the job of decorator from Kincaid, ensures that not an inch of the place goes unembellished, not even the menus. The restaurant has a large selection of novelty drinks—from the chocolatey Yooo Hoooo! to the Marcia, Marcia, Marcia (Charbay blood-orange vodka with a “backstab” of Grand Marnier)—for which Russell hand-makes sparkly martini menus of cardboard, shiny fabric, and glittery puff paint. They’re an eye-catching way to push the drinks. And they make lovely souvenirs, evidently.
“At first when they were being stolen, it was a kudos,” Russell says. “Then, 20 martini lists later, when I have to make 20 more, I’m like, ‘Wait a minute—I know they’re cool, but c’mon!’”
Craft-project headaches aside, Russell argues that the restaurant’s décor is overall a plus. The goal, she says, is to complement the ever-changing “culinary panorama” of chef Pat Phatiphong’s menu, which includes dishes drawn from his Thai heritage—vegetable spring rolls that are twice as long and half as greasy as most—as well as regional favorites—she-crab soup, crabcakes, North Carolina barbecue—and vegetarian-friendly preparations—grilled eggplant steaks and stir-frys. If diners find it disconcerting to be consuming such high-end entrees as pan-seared panko-dusted rainbow trout and black-pepper-crusted Black Angus ribeye amid broken typewriters and dismembered mannequins, they’re not letting on.
“There’s not a person who walks in the door that you don’t hear say, ‘That was my grandmother’s blender!’” says Russell.
Stardust, 608 Montgomery St., Alexandria, (703) 548-9864.
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Pilar Vergara.