Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Don’t expect your mugs to match when Crazy Aunt Helen’s opens for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Barracks Row this summer. “I’m going to pour you a cup of coffee, but everyone’s going to have a different mug, just like you came to my house,” says owner Shane Mayson. He’s been scouring thrift stores in the region looking for quirky finds. The mismatched mugs are a small detail, but they speak to the American comfort food restaurant’s aspirations for diners to feel like they’re visiting an eccentric relative.
Pixie Windsor, the namesake and owner of Miss Pixie’s funky, vintage furnishing store on 14th Street NW is designing the space that used to be Finn McCool’s at 713 8th St. SE. There will be two stories of indoor dining with a total of about 130 seats, plus outdoor dining on a patio with wrought-iron furniture and just enough azaleas to achieve Mayson’s goal of creating “a Southern backyard” vibe.
Mayson moved to D.C. from his native Charleston, South Carolina, in 1984. He immediately took a job waiting tables at Mr. Henry’s even though he jokes he was too young to work at the time. While Mayson been a fixture in local restaurants and bars, this is his first project as an owner. “I had an Aunt Helen,” he explains. “For the sake of my family, she wasn’t crazy. But she was fun and wonderful.”
The new restaurateur was insistent on serving breakfast not only because it’s his favorite meal, but also because he thinks it’ll help solidify Crazy Aunt Helen’s as a neighborhood fixture. “Diners have been my thing ever since I lived in New York City,” Mayson says. “Breakfast is my favorite meal to share with people and friends. It’s an opportunity to eat out and not pay a fortune.”
Crazy Aunt Helen’s is hoping to open in mid-June. To start the hours will be from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., except on Tuesdays when the restaurant will be closed. Reservations will be accepted through Tock.
Don’t expect anything fussy for any of the meals. “I love this idea of really wholesome nutritious fresh foods where you don’t have to go to the table and hear, ‘The chef would like you to enjoy this dish from right to left.’” Mayson says. “I want to be like, ‘Here is your fried chicken and we want you to eat it with your fingers or your fork. Just love it.’”
Mayson says the pandemic practically prescribed comfort food. “We all need it,” he says. “Just come in and let us hug you. Well, we can’t touch you, but we can hug you through food.”
Executive chef Mykie Moll will lead the kitchen. Moll, formally known as Amanda, served as the head chef at Pom Pom in Petworth before it closed. He also did stints at Doi Moi on 14th Street NW and Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan. Most recently, he helped open Ada’s on the River in Alexandria.
Yes, there will be hearty dishes like house-made corned beef hash, but Moll defines comfort food broadly and will provide healthy options and choices for people on various diets. He’s working on dairy-free yogurt and a vegan crab benedict. “We want everyone to feel safe, seen, and welcome and that includes the food,” he says. “We’re not going to have a place that’s safe for everyone but you can’t order things.”
If you’re a meat eater, don’t skip Moll’s brisket, which uses his grandmother’s recipe. “I’m throwing in my Jewish heritage for sure,” he says. Grandma doesn’t know yet. Moll plans to surprise her by presenting her with the menu and telling her she’s famous. Or maybe his grandma will see this story. He’ll also call upon his cooks and sous chefs to contribute to the something-for-everyone menu. His sous chef, Kyle Burnett, makes great jerk chicken, he says.
Mayson tapped veteran D.C. bartender Jo-Jo Valenzuela to consult on the drink menu. Valenzuela owns The Game Sports Pub and Tiki on 18th in Adams Morgan. Crazy Aunt Helen’s gave Valenzuela a prompt: Design drinks inspired by “an old lady’s candy dish.” That’s while you’ll see a cocktail called “Kiss My Sassafras” with Macchu Pisco, Don Ciccio Cerasum Aperitivo, Embitterment Sassafras Bitters, orange peel, and mint. Valenzuela is leaning heavily on local spirits to keep up with a kitchen that will be sourcing ingredients from local farms like Little Wild Things.
Crazy Aunt Helen’s also got some help on its local beer list from Right Proper Brewing Company co-owner Thor Cheston. A vestige of an Irish pub, the restaurant has 16 taps. Thirteen will dispense local beers hand-picked by Cheston and the others will be dedicated to a prosecco, a rosé, and a white wine.
Mayson has big plans for entertainment at the restaurant. He wants to offer up the stage in what he calls the “Peacock Room” to comedians, cabaret performers, drag queens, and musicians on a regular basis. While most acts will come from the D.C. community, Mayson says he booked well known drag performer Sherry Vine in August.
“We’ve all been home for so long and I want to create a space where we can all come together and laugh,” Mayson says. “Put your wig on and let your hair down.”