Norfolk, Va., is having a moment. Home to the world’s largest naval base, the historic port city is in the midst of a revival. The newly renovated Waterside District lures with good eats; Virginia’s first light rail network glides through the streets; and colorful murals are popping up on historic warehouses in the NEON arts district. With a flourishing arts scene, Norfolk is coming into its own as a culture capital to complement the sun and sand of nearby Virginia Beach.
By Mary Winston Nicklin, Special for USA TODAY
And then there’s the food. A new wave of elevated eateries is joining long-time institutions like Todd Jurich’s Bistro. Sweet potato biscuits, house-cured charcuterie, oysters and fresh-caught fish are washed down with local wine and craft beer… creative energy in the kitchen is rejuvenating the region’s rich food traditions, with the spotlight on local producers. Foie gras hot dog, anyone? Head to Shiptown. Peach and pimento grilled cheese? Make a beeline for Commune. Or what about a cake from the folks who make the celebratory sweets for Navy Seals? That’s Elite Custom Cakes.
Here’s what’s cooking in Norfolk, Va.
The foodie faithful flock to the city for Todd Jurich’s she crab soup, a bit of sherry-swirled heaven in a bowl. Jurich first arrived from Pennsylvania in 1976, and has witnessed vast urban changes over the decades. “There have been many iterations of Waterside, the MacArthur Center (mall)… But right now there’s a real renaissance in the city,” the James Beard Award semi-finalist tells USA TODAY. “And it’s been named a top city for Millennials.” (According to a recent study by the Urban Land Institute, the Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Hampton Roads area is seeing the biggest Millennial population growth in the country.)
Situated in its W. Main Street location since 2003, Todd Jurich’s Bistro marks its 25th anniversary this year. A big celebratory dinner in October will see many famous kitchen alumni, like Chicago-based Graham Elliott (former host of MasterChef, now Top Chef judge), return for the important charity event. And Jurich has a makeover in mind for the restaurant soon...
Can’t choose between the delicious menu options? Besides the famous soup, star dishes include the jumbo lump crab cakes served with crab-bacon slaw, lemon confit and old bay chips; and the homemade truffle ravioli, stuffed with ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano and goat cheese. Pair with a wine from nearby Williamsburg Winery and eat your heart out.
Just a stone’s throw from the Bistro, the new Hilton The Main made a splash when it opened in April. The sleek 21-story tower has a killer downtown location next to Nauticus (the maritime science museum) and the beautifully renovated Slover Library. From this sky-high perch, you can spy both Waterside and the Battleship Wisconsin anchored at Nauticus. Food is a big draw. On the hotel’s ground level, Saltine specializes in fresh seafood sourced from local producers like Sam Rust Seafood in Hampton, Va., Virginia Beach’s Cullipher Farm and Lynnhaven Oyster Co. Start with the Crispy Oysters Aji Amarillo, then dive into the signature Seafood Paella — chef Fabio Capparelli affirms it’s a hot bestseller.
Varia, the hotel’s Italian-style trattoria, has a cool wine lounge, while the fifth floor is home to a rooftop beer garden called Grain. Drink up the Elizabeth River views from the outdoor landscaped terrace, complete with a fire pit. While inside, surrounded by trees illuminated with twinkling lights, you can snap shots in the photo booth. Hilton The Main also has an outpost of Fruitive, Virginia’s first certified organic eatery, now found in four locations across the state and D.C. Think smoothies, superberry bowls and collard tacos on a plant-based menu.
A coastal cornucopia
In April, the Waterside District showed off its new look. While locals bemoaned its previous incarnation, the new complex seeks to appeal to young and old alike with entertainment (like Family Movie Nights) and a host of fun eateries all under one roof. You’ll find favorites like Cogan’s Pizza and the Carolina Cupcakery, plus the first “taphouse” concept from Blue Moon Brewing Company. Charlottesville, Va.-based Starr Hill Brewery also opened a beer bar with 48 craft brews on tap. Locals are loving the trash can nachos at Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse. Brisket ends and pit baked beans are smothered in bourbon brown sugar barbecue sauce, jalapeños and all the fixings — then loaded into a miniature trash can and dumped on your plate.
You’ll also find a raw bar serving oysters by Rappahannock Oyster Company, the celebrated Chesapeake Bay business owned by tastemaker cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton. “We wanted to be part of Waterside because we lean heavily towards projects that are helping to revitalize downtown areas," says Travis. "We did that with Rappahannock in downtown Richmond as well as Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Northeast D.C.” (Note that the raw bar itself is not run by Rappahannock Oyster Co.)
While Waterside and The Main have injected new life into the downtown waterfront, other Norfolk, Va., neighborhoods are also evolving, thanks — in part — to great local restaurants. Anchored by the fine (free!) Chrysler Museum of Art, the NEON (“New Energy of Norfolk”) arts district is a place of creativity, and you can see this in the kitchen at Commune. What started as an educational organic community garden in Virginia Beach has grown into a must-visit restaurant in a former Texaco garage on Granby Street. Owner Kevin Jamison and chef Barry Smith champion the finest local produce — every grower is proudly featured on the menu — and preserve things at the end of the season for the winter (like pickled okra, dried herbs). In late summer, diners inhale watermelon and tomato salads, strewn with local prosciutto — all of the season, in technicolor, on a plate. Don’t miss the addictive fried chicken and homemade seasonal sodas (like lavender and watermelon-mint).
Good grub in Ghent
The historic Ghent neighborhood — a “hipster” haven before the word existed — has a burgeoning food scene with standouts like Pendulum Fine Meats. Calling all carnivores! Co-owner Dylan Wakefield is a kitchen veteran who cooked for eight years on a Navy submarine, followed by education at the Culinary Institute of America. “We lived in New York for a while, and after moving back we realized Norfolk lacked an artisanal whole animal butcher which is found in bigger cities," his wife, co-owner Dana Wakefield, tells USA TODAY. "We wanted to elevate the food scene here.” An instant hit, Pendulum is both a butcher shop and a terrific lunch spot serving some of the best sandwiches around. Go for the roast beef, Cuban, or brisket with caramelized onions and pickles on Texas toast. The fries, sprinkled with herbs and dipped in smoked garlic aioli, are so popular that one client asked Pendulum to cater her wedding, cooking up fries for her guests. “There are so many great things going on in the region’s food scene," Dana says. "We love being a part of the food community, supporting chefs that have become friends, and offering many local products in our shop.”
In Ghent you’ll also find long-time local hangouts like Luna Maya. When Luna Maya first opened in 1997 (in Virginia Beach), there weren’t any Latin restaurants in the area — and this fun eatery filled a void. Bolivian sisters Karla and Vivian Montano earned a loyal following for their Mexican-influenced fare, opening the current location in 2007 in a vast, brick space with soaring ceilings and a happening bar. (Margaritas are a must.) Leery of lard, you won’t find fried beans on the menu; the focus is fresh ingredients. A highlight is the signature tamale served with beef brisket slow-cooked in chile sauce. “Entire parties will come and just order the tamale,” Karla tells USA TODAY. Luna Maya is part of the community fabric. Families will fill the restaurant in the early evening, followed by waves of couples and reveling friends. “Long-time customers even got married here!” she adds.
Continue north on the Colley corridor and you’ll find some of the best restaurants in town, Shiptown and LeGrand Kitchen, named after two Norfolk record labels from the 1960s. LeGrand Kitchen opened in July 2014 as a friendly neighborhood diner with high-quality food. “The burger has been a menu staple since we opened and it’s gained an almost cult following,” says Stephen Marsh, head chef and owner. Shiptown followed suit in September 2016. “The inspiration was a throwback oyster bar utilizing seasonal products,” he adds. Bestsellers include classic deviled crab, local raw oysters (Windmill Point and Pleasure House oysters), and the whole grilled fish. On the ever-evolving menu, “we just added a house-made foie gras hot dog that customers are saying is the best hot dog they’ve ever had.”
Biscuits and beer
“Ghent has some great new restaurants,” says Norfolk native Kevin O’Connor, founder of the O’Connor Brewing Company, reflecting on the evolving food scene, and “my friends behind Handsome Biscuit and Toast are killing it.” These popular concept eateries (Handsome Biscuit is all about sweet potato biscuit sandwiches) are located on Colonial Avenue between W 24th and 26th streets, an area that’s decidedly off the beaten path. The O’Connor Brewing Co. abuts the railroad tracks at W 24th street; in a savvy move, O’Connor bought his vast property years before real estate developers started eyeing this undervalued area. A passionate home brewer in the 1990s, O’Connor officially launched in 2010 as the first craft brewery on the south side. Today his El Guapo Agave IPA has been the bestselling craft beer in Virginia, and distribution is expanding outside the state. The brewery has a fabulous beer garden and tasting room, a popular gathering spot which hosts a bevy of events, from O’Ctoberfest and concerts to game nights and even yoga classes.
In fact, suds lovers from all over the world are impressed with Norfolk’s ever expanding brewery scene, with beer-dedicated bars like The Birch pouring 21 craft beers on tap.
“When I started the brewery in 2012 we still had to convince people to drink local,” says Porter Hardy, the lawyer-turned-brewer behind Smartmouth Brewing Co. “Now, breweries are popping up everywhere and there is a lot of great beer being made and it’s all driven by consumer demand. It has been very exciting to see that demand grow and watch beer drinkers turn into craft beer drinkers.”
A retro throwback
A Norfolk, Va., culinary tour isn’t complete without a stop at Doumar’s, a local legend. You can’t get much more American than ice cream, and it was none other than Abe Doumar who invented the cone, improvising with rolled waffles when ice cream vendors ran out of dishes at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. Doumar’s waffle iron machines were fixtures from Coney Island to Jacksonville. Norfolk was the capital of Doumar’s empire, and it’s still in use at the drive-in here. Pull up for curbside service and a waitress will take your order at your car, or head inside the diner for barbecue in a booth. Also serving freshly squeezed limeade and ice cream floats, Doumar’s is a slice of real Americana.