You’d think that entertaining a crowd is the last thing restaurateurs Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong would want to do on their day off, but on Sunday afternoons between May and September, the couple can often be found doing just that in their Mount Vernon, Virginia, home.
When the whim strikes, the owners of Restaurant Eve, The Majestic, Eamonn’s and PX invite friends and family over at 4 p.m. for a barbecue that begins with Thibaut-Janisson bubbly and often ends with a dip in the pool on the far side of midnight.
A recent cause for celebration was a mini kitchen renovation. With help from Scott Knepper of Exceptional Interiors, Inc., in Ashburn, Virginia, Meshelle replaced an obtrusive kitchen peninsula with a flow-friendly island and traded Formica countertops for durable Corian. She also had a new Electrolux range installed. “No industrial-grade stove for me,” Cathal firmly states. “I don’t want to be reminded of work when I’m cooking at home.” But the collection of fine polished copper pots makes it clear that a serious cook resides here.
Meshelle is no amateur when it comes to design makeovers. She and Cathal met in 1992 when both worked at Cities Restaurant in Adams Morgan, she as the dining room manager and he as a cook—roles that foreshadowed their successful future together. While at Cities, Meshelle utilized her experience as a window designer for Le Château and Bergdorf Goodman to redecorate the restaurant every six months as a new locale: Havana, Mexico City, Paris.
“It’s the same aesthetic I use to this day for our restaurants and our living spaces,” she explains. “I design rooms as vignettes.” For example, the cozy living room with its eye-catching, Beardsley-esque paisley curtains and linen Roman shades is the black-and-white room. The front parlor, with a piano and wall-to-ceiling cases filled with books, Cathal’s photography and Meshelle’s sculptures, is the self-expression room.
The Armstrongs married in 1997. Cathal rose through DC’s culinary ranks to become chef at Jeffrey Buben’s Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill. By 2004, the Armstrongs were ready to open their first eatery, Restaurant Eve, named after their daughter, now 12 (while Eamonn’s is named for their son, now eight). Cathal’s star ascended rapidly and he has garnered numerous accolades, including a Food & Wine Best New Chef award and several James Beard nominations. The Irish-born chef recently received a Champion of Change award from the Obama administration for his non-profit organization, Chefs as Parents, which promotes healthy school lunch programs.
In 2004, the Armstrongs bought a house an easy drive from Restaurant Eve—though that wasn’t why they bought it, says Meshelle. “We bought this house the day we saw it because it had a greenhouse and a pool. We just knew it was right for us.” It didn’t hurt that the brick colonial, built in 2000, stood on a registered historic property, the site of George Washington’s stable grounds.
Meshelle has never used a decorator. Instead, she works with talented people who understand her vision, including Jeff Albert and David Chenault, owners of Decorium and D2 Interior Design in Old Town Alexandria. “Jeff and David totally understand me,” she says. “When I first walked into their store, I felt like I was at home.” The pair recently redid the Tasting Room at Eve and also had a heavy hand in the interior design of Virtue Feed and Grain, the Armstrongs’ new Alexandria restaurant, which opened in early June. They’re now consulting on Society Fair, a specialty food market and wine shop due to open on South Washington Street in the fall.
Since buying the home, the couple has definitely made it theirs. From the moment you enter, there’s a sense of warmth, openness and family, and a complete lack of pretension. The foyer features a 25-foot ceiling, a prodigious wrought-iron chandelier and a Palladian window that showers the entrance with light. The hardwood floors are stained light; the color palette reflects creamy beiges and swaths of goldenrod separated by crisp white wainscoting.
Meshelle’s creativity is apparent everywhere—in the dining room, for example, she took the linen-shaded chandelier from Decorium and hung crystals from its arms for added bling. “She loves to jump far from the box, not stifling her imagination,” says Chenault.
Placed strategically throughout the house are personal mementoes, including photos with U.S. Presidents and cooking-world notables. Family candids include a striking black-and-white shot of a cloche-hatted Meshelle walking their pocket beagles, Yum Yum and Albie Moonpie, at National Harbor. The composition of the photo brings Man Ray to mind.
Every item in the Armstrong house signifies a relationship: Local artist and Eve regular Maremi Hooff painted an oil of fruits and vegetables indigenous to Virginia farms in the breakfast nook; a kitchen drawer of chef’s knives includes a wedding gift cleaver engraved with the words, “Never cleave each other;” and a brass plaque on the dining room table, hand-crafted by a Kensington, Maryland, carpenter, reads, “Cathal and Meshelle: Happy Birthday 1999 from Ma and Da in Ireland with love.”
However, the Armstrongs consider their outdoor space, filled with peonies, herbs, lavender, apple, pomegranate, fig, dogwood trees, hostas and honeysuckle, their favorite room. “It’s a very important part of the house,” explains Meshelle. “The whole family was involved in the landscaping. After work, Cathal and I will wake the kids for a midnight swim—it’s what Eamonn remembers most about our summers.”
What guests remember is heaping platters of crusted, smoked brisket; colorful heirloom tomatoes and corn-on-the-cob enjoyed around backyard dining tables, where wine and good-natured conversation flow freely.
Who could ask for a more satisfying day off?
David Hagedorn is a freelance writer and food columnist for The Washington Post. Kenneth M. Wyner is a Takoma Park, Maryland-based photographer.