Crazy Aunt Helen’s is the cheerful, nostalgic, heartwarming restaurant Capitol Hill needs
Crazy Aunt Helen’s, an American all-day comfort food restaurant and entertainment space, opens on Barracks Row. Photograph by Abdul Rahman Majeedi
After more than 30 years of working in the restaurant industry, Shane Mayson came to a crossroads in 2019. Hank’s Oyster Bar’s longtime marketing director began serving tables when he had “a little 18 without any skills, “scoring a job with Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill shortly after arriving in Washington from his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. Three decades and countless restaurant jobs later, Mayson was starting to feel exhausted.
“Should I go to a non-profit organization?” He remembers thinking. “No, I’m just going to serve the tables. What if I was 52? Determining what you want to do is what waiting tables are for.
It didn’t take long. On her third day as a server at Nina May, Mayson said, “I looked up into the universe and said, okay, I get it. I’m going to open a restaurant. But I had neither prospects nor money.
Good karma isn’t always there, but it has done it in a big way for Mayson, a effervescent presence with many friends in the tight-knit DC hospitality industry. Mayson found a silent business partner, Mary Quillian-Helms, the current owner of Mr. Henry’s. Her father was a partner in the restaurant when Mayson worked there in the 1980s, and Mayson was expecting teenage Quillian-Helms and her family.
The two found a space on Barracks Row, formerly Finn McCool’s. The rooms were dark, paneled and lined with taps. But the space had two floors and two stages, and Mayson – a drama student in college (“obviously I wasn’t that good, because I’m still in the restaurant business) – knew that. he had found a home.
The idea for Crazy Aunt Helen’s, an American all-day comfort food restaurant and place of entertainment, was born. After a year of pandemic planning and delays, it is slated to open in July.
Mayson was stuck on a name for a while, but he kept coming back to the notion of a funny and slightly eccentric aunt when he described the vibe. “When I described what I imagined I kept saying things like, ‘You know when you go to your crazy aunt Helen and none of the dishes match, but the food is really good. ? And is she still waiting at the door with some sugar? That’s what I want. For the sake of my family, I want to make it clear that she was not crazy. But the warm and loving Aunt Helen does not stick out her tongue.
More friends stepped in to help. Pixie Windsor from funky 14th Street furniture store Miss Pixie’s transformed the tavern space into a bright, colorful destination with a pink-hued patio, neon David Amoroso paintings by Elvis and Jackie O on the walls and (of course) mismatched vintage plates and mugs. Longtime friend and bartender Jo-Jo Valenzuela (the game, Tiki on the 18th) designed a cocktail menu inspired by the flavors of a Southern Grandma’s candy dish – think a drop of lemon vodka, an old-fashioned root beer and a Pisco cocktail with sassafras bitter. Right Proper Brewing Company beer expert Thor Cheston put together a list of local beers and ciders, along with fun sips like draft prosecco, white wine, and rosé.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mayson didn’t hire a pal to run the kitchen, at least not a pre-existing one. He met Mykie Moll, who most recently served as executive chef at Petworth shuttered restaurant, Pom Pom. “I knew right away it was him,” Mayson said.
Moll, who also cooked at Doi Moi, has created menus as eclectic as those of Aunt Helen herself. The restaurant rises early with a daily breakfast, in part inspired by the neon-lit dinners of Mayson’s youth. “When I lived in New York City, I was young and broke, and all my friends were young and broke, breakfast at dinner was the only meal we could afford to eat,” he says. The morning menu will include bagel sandwiches, lox platters and Breakfast platters with eggs, hash browns and choice of meats (or non-meats).
Southern-trending lunch dishes include a stuffed egg salad, fried green tomato sandwiches, and fried chicken, plus Homemade salted corned beef slipped into Reuben sandwiches. Dinner gets a bit more dressy with comfort food like braised beef brisket in red wine – a recipe from Moll’s Jewish grandmother – a pork chop with macaroni and cheese or a brined and roasted chicken. Burgers with fun toppings can be ordered in the afternoon or evening. Meaty, yes, but there are also plenty of vegan items every hour, from a dairy-free riff on homemade yogurt to “crab” cakes made from lion’s mane mushrooms.
The 76-seat first-floor bar and dining room will open first, but Mayson already has big plans for the 53-seat Peacock Room above. “Honey, when the kitchen closes, that’s when it’s time to let go, have another drink and watch people do their magic,” says Mayson. He’s invited friends from the musical theater to perform on Mondays and chats with local comedians and improv groups on Thursdays. Weekends can bring jazz or cabaret. Non-locals will sometimes make the headlines. Another friend, drag star Sherry Vine, will be performing for a weekend in August. Actress Jessica Kirson is booked for September.
The team is still deciding if they will have food upstairs during performances. They turn to simple, nostalgic snacks and treats like boiled peanuts or chocolate chip cookies with milk.
“A lot of things here remind me of my childhood. Nostalgic, no fuss, ”says Mayson. “I’m 54, so any chance I have to feel young again, I’ll take it.”
Mad Aunt Helen. 713 8th St., SE.