The port city of Norfolk offers more than meets the eye as a hotbed of local arts culture and a focal point for Virginia’s dynamic culinary scene. On the eve of Hampton Roads Pride, I set out to meet the city beyond the shore. There is the Ghent neighborhood, which thanks to a new wave of hip bars, restaurants, and independent art shops, has made Granby Street home to plenty of young bohemians. Downtown is equal parts old and new, where the lofty high rises stand side-by-side cornerstones of the antebellum era. Steeped in the city’s colonial history is the ever-charming West Freemason, a living portrait of Americana past and present, with grand old homes and winding cobblestone streets.
I set up digs at the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel (777 Waterside Dr., Tel: 757-622-6664. www.sheratonnorfolkwaterside.com), a 468-room low-rise hotel with a prime location in the heart of Norfolk proper. Amenities include a bona fide onsite business center and a large outdoor pool on the banks of the Elizabeth River, both of which are put to good use once I check in. My room is bright and airy, and comes complete with a small blue sofa and coffee table by the window. Free highspeed Wi-Fi sweetens the deal, too, as do the harbor views from my suite, all bright with lights against the night sky. I can’t wait to check out what the city’s culinary scene has to offer on my first night.
Pendant lights hang high above the brick-and-rafter spaces of Luna Maya (2010 Colley Ave., Tel: 757-622-6986. www.lunamayarestaurant.com). This upscale Mexican restaurant has earned a high standing for serving some of the city’s best Mexican fare. At the top of my menu is the flank steak, topped with a tangy drizzle of chimichurri, and paired with a limemuddled mojito. House specialties like the slow-cooked sweet yellow corn tamales, and the roasted Poblano peppers, stuffed with spicy chicken chorizo and chipotle enchilada sauce, are standouts among a big assortment of tacos and quesadillas.
Without a masted sail, visitors can travel the city via The Tide, Norfolk’s high-speed monorail system. Stations at York Street and Civic Plaza make inland transport a snap between the city’s 11 stations. A midday stroll through Ghent becomes minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Harbor Park. You can just as well go on foot or by bike, too.
The fresh summer sea air is invigorating as I easily hop on the tram and head to the Chrysler Museum of Art (1 Memorial Place, Tel: 757-664-6200. www.chrysler.org), which doubles as Hampton Roads’ mostsought-after wedding venue. Voted among the nation’s six most intriguing art museums, the Chrysler’s main building houses a formidable body of work, ranging from photographs by Ansel Adams to some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most quirky glasswork. The glass studio draws big crowds at noon each day between Tuesday and Sunday for live demonstrations, which I end up catching twice. The studio also offers glass blowing classes for newcomers who are taught by local professionals, and promotes glass art as performance art at monthly adult-only galas.
When I find myself inevitably in need of a glass of wine, I amble over to Mermaid Winery (330 W. 22nd St., Tel: 757-2334155. www.mermaidwinery.com), Virginia’s only urban winery, in nearby Ghent. Dizzied by the over 450 wines to uncork, I opt to kick up my feet and embark on a wine flight. Bold, yet fruity flavors punctuate the house wines, like the East Beach Peach, blended in Viognier for a tart finish. The Riverview Raspberry, blended with zinfandel and a touch of blackberry, is also a must try, along with the Siren’s White, a semi-dry, peach-packed player with notes of nutmeg and vanilla. With two bottles in tow, I resolve to take a bite out of what the local nightlife has to offer.
It is Pride weekend, after all, so Wave Club (4107 Colley Ave., Tel: 757-440-5911. www.twitter.com/thewavenorfolk) is abuzz with sun-kissed twentysomethings. Four nights a week, the tide rolls into this place with a swath of surfer types, and tonight is no different. I head to the back patio while I sip a tequila with Grant, a local pal, while watching two bronzed townies, their arms wrapped tightly around each another. At that moment I promise myself that tomorrow I’ll catch some sun like the locals do.
Come Summer, Norfolk’s eight-mile stretch along the Chesapeake Bay turns into an outdoorsman’s paradise. Beach dwellers head to Ocean View Beach, where soft sand and gentle surf hug the shore of one of Norfolk’s four city beaches. Some people opt for kayaks or water skis, but with streaks of sunscreen still fresh on my face, I climb aboard the Spirit of Norfolk (333 Waterside Dr., Tel: 866-304-2469. www.spiritcruises.com) for a front-wave seat to the Hampton Roads Pride Boat Parade. The only seafaring Pride parade in the country, dozens of ships float along the Elizabeth River while festivities thump away on the grassy lawns of Town Point Park, Norfolk’s seven-acre waterfront city park. What looks on land like an affronting armada of gay pirates is, in actuality, a vibrant, family-friendly parade of over 30,000 festival goers. On or off the high seas, PrideFest isn’t to be missed.
Back on the dock, the lively booze tent beckons me like a moth to the flame. Sipping on the house specialty is Andrew Davies, chairman of events and member of the board of directors for Pride. Originally from Wales, Andrew now calls Norfolk home. He tells me about the ins and outs of Pride, might I add, in a particularly nice accent. “Pride is my favorite time of the year, hands down. A lot of hard work goes into organizing Pride Week, so watching it come into fruition is that much sweeter.”
With a revved-up appetite, I make a beeline for one of Norfolk’s best-kept culinary secrets. For the city’s finest seafood, look no further than Todd Jurich’s Bistro (150 W. Main St., Tel: 757-622-3210. www.toddjurichsbistro.com), where five-star cuisine meets casual, unpretentious dining. Joe Peirson’s hand-harvested Eastern Shore oysters are a year-round staple here at Todd’s, where seasonal menus keep even the locals on their toes. Roasted in sweet Kentucky bourbon, fried, and topped with a celery-root remoulade, or plated raw and served with a classic cocktail sauce, you can’t go wrong with fresh oysters. Seared dayboat scallops arrive on a bed of savory saffron risotto, paired with pickled fennel and preserved oranges. They’re done to perfection, as is the black Angus filet mignon, plated with crispy polenta. Stuffed beyond belief, I hail a cab to Virginia Beach for a night out, and later retreat to my room, tipsy and tuckered out, for some much-needed shuteye.
As my trip draws readily to a close, I heed the call of the locals and set out to sample the best-loved tradition of Southern brunch at 456 Fish (456 Granby St., Tel: 757-625-4444. www.456fish.com). With a stellar Sunday brunch service, which runs from 11 A.M. to 3 P .M., bottomless mimosas aren’t all there is to be excited about. The fresh buttermilk biscuits and the Crab Norfolk omelet, scrambled with caramelized onions, fresh scallions, and sweet morsels of She crab, bring all of my desires for a classic brunch to life.
Norfolk is no stranger to the culinary scene, but this food-loving city has been invigorated by an array of bistros, markets, and small cafes in recent years. You can feel the palpable energy all around you here, in the city’s lively arts culture and in its local cuisine.
I bid adieu to my Virginian enclave by the sea with a pour over at Cure (503 Botetourt St., Tel: 757-321-0044. www.curenorfolk.com), a coffeehouse and brasserie that serves craft beer and spirits in the West Freemason District. I grab a coffee from the bar and sit out on the curb, watching the lights come on as it gets dark. People go by in twos and threes, turning down Botetourt Street toward the harbor. From a city where trend and tradition have so gracefully taken root, what I take away from my weekend (apart from the soft tinge of a hangover) is that in Norfolk there is ample room for a modern spin. After all, it’s a city laid on the foundation of reinvention, with a charm that refuses to be swept away with the tide.