- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 7, 2016


I needed a break. After a difficult and somewhat-heartrending holiday week, I was ready to start off 2016 by getting out of Washington. So after calling it an early — and sober — New Year’s Eve, I’m up by 8 a.m. New Year’s morning, with my Scion gassed and ready to head south.

It’s a good three-hour drive from the nation’s capital to scenic Norfolk, Virginia, a port city that sits at the extreme southeastern corner of the Commonwealth, where the James River meets up with the Chesapeake Bay as both collectively empty eastward into the Atlantic. It’s a military town, which saw action in the American Revolution and has boasted a consistent naval presence ever since.

History in southeastern Virginia is ever-present, from Jamestown, the first English settlement in the New World, to Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown, where the British forces finally surrendered to Gen. Washington and the Colonial Army in 1781. Norfolk has its own history and its secrets as well, as I discovered during a two-day sortie from the hustle and bustle of D.C. to ring in the new year.

Whether or not I escaped the ghosts or found new purpose in those 48 hours, I surely enjoyed exploring in the meantime.

Day 1

I roll in for brunch at 11:30 to the No Frill Bar & Grill (806 Spotswood Ave. Norfolk, Virginia, 23517, 757/627-4262, NoFrillGrill.com). If ever there was a spot that is truth in advertising, this is it. No Frill is a place to sit, eat and go without pretense or loitering.

I’m tired from a 200-mile drive and it’s still early, so I forgo the mimosas in favor of rather inviting iced tea. The service is exceptionally friendly this New Year’s Day, and I felt ever attended to.

For brunch I choose the crab eggs benedict. It arrives in a rather great presentation, although, sadly, the strawberry used to garnish to plate is both bruised and beginning to turn — a bit off-putting. No matter, however, as I dig in. The eggs are cooked well, if served a little cold, and not nearly as runny as benedicts are supposed to be. However, the crab cakes are a delight to the senses and rather flavorful, as are the attendant potatoes.

It’s a mixed delivery for my first meal, but the waitress is exceptional, and the doors of No Frill lead out onto a shopping, dining and entertainment district highlighted by a great old theater, the Naro, which was showcasing such surefire Oscar contenders as “The Danish Girl” and “Spotlight.”

I head to the Ghent Historic District (GhentNorfolk.org), a pedestrian-friendly urban enclave hosting vintage homes and quaint shops and a good place to get lost.

Just down the street from the Ghent’s locus is the Chrysler Museum of Art (1 Memorial Pl, Norfolk, Virginia, 23510, 757/664-6200, Chrysler.org), founded by Walter Chrysler, Jr., scion of the automobile baron. For a resident of the District, who lives a 10-minute walk from the National Gallery and the various Smithsonian campuses, I admit to feeling a tad provincial when it comes to galleries, but what I get at the Chrysler was a personalized experience unlike in any museum I’d ever stepped into prior. A docent named Richard takes me on a private guided tour of the two-story edifice’s offerings, paying special attention to offer as many tidbits of historical and artistic information about numerous works throughout the galleries (I promise you, you won’t get that most places in Washington!).

The elder gentleman, military veteran and retired medical professional and I trade informational know-how about works of Baroque, Medieval and, my personal favorite, French Impressionism. As with any museum, there’s really too much to see in a single visit, but Richard gives the grand quickie tour of the wings of African, Egyptian and glass art. After bidding me adieu, I backtrack to get second looks at some of what I’d missed in my whirlwind tour.

Feeling a bit zapped, I make my way across town to my erstwhile housing, the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel (777 Waterside Dr., Norfolk, Virginia, 23510, 757/622-6664, SheratonNorfolkWaterside.com), where I am greeted ever so courteously and professionally by the desk staff.

Mind you, I’m a Motel 6 kind of guy, as that’s about what my journalist’s salary can typically cover (OK, sometimes not even that), so the deference and obsequiousness the concierges show me at being a weekend VIP still makes this reporter a tad uncomfortable, having worked in so many hospitality and restaurant jobs in my life to ever fully see myself as being perhaps worthy of being on the other side. But I’ll take it from the exquisitely professional.

Although my room isn’t yet ready — perhaps being cleaned up from New Year’s Eve revelry of 14 hours prior — the concierge, Ryan, hands me a key to the 10th floor lounge, where he says I am free to relax and enjoy complimentary snacks and soda for the moment.

The 10th floor lounge offers an exquisite view of Craford Bay and naval vessels being attended to. I’m alone here, so I enjoy a Dr Pepper and an episode of a crime series about the day John Lennon was shot while taking in the views of this city of waterways.

A call from Ryan at the front desk informs me my room is in fact ready. It’s a spacious affair, outfitted with generous desk, office chair, cavernous bed and ottoman. Only complaints here are the stiff-backed chair neither reclined nor was comfortable for reading, and my window faced the street instead of the water. Oh, and my TV was smaller than I would have hoped, but that’s a first-world gripe I’m willing to admit is both childish and whiny.

After a refreshing nap it’s time to head out to dinner. Having lived in Los Angeles for a decade and a half, my senses are keenly attuned to Mexican cuisine, so I am primed for Luna Maya Restaurant (2010 Colley Ave., Norfolk, Virginia, 757/622-6986, LunaMayaRestaurant.com). Luna Maya has an open floor plan, which fosters an atmosphere that is both intimate and communal, with conversations about me neither too loud to drown out my thoughts or too low that I couldn’t eavesdrop were I so inclined.

My outstanding server, Melissa, produces an extensive choice of margaritas. As it’s still New Year’s Day — and having completely abstained the night prior — I opt for the connoisseur reposada margarita, the top-shelf offering. The drink has a pleasant, refreshing taste after a long day, even if the glass seemed a bit generous with its helping of ice. For my entrée I select the spicy shrimp burrito, which arrived on a platter in what can only be called a generous portion. While the dish does indeed have a bit of a bite, the spice was nowhere near overwhelming, and in fact I ask Melissa for some extra hot sauce.

I wish I could have sampled the homemade guacamole, but as Melissa warned me, the burrito was indeed titanic, so I begged off. Fortunately, there is still some room for dessert, which came in the form of a flourless chocolate torta. It was small in portion but mighty in taste, served with just the right amount of cream to top off my meal.

In the mood to check out the nightlife, I set out to the Ocean View beach area, which looks across the mouth of the Chesapeake at Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Scoping for music, I first popped by the Thirsty Camel (394 W Ocean View Ave, Norfolk, Virginia, 23503, 757/587-1420, ThirstyCamelNorfolk.com), where New Year’s Day bowl games are on the TV. Beer prices are thankfully far lower than what I’m used to in D.C.

It’s still on the early side and the music hadn’t yet begun, so I head down the road to Cap’n Ron’s Bar & Grill (9300 Chesapeake Blvd., Norfolk, Virginia, 23503 757/587-0547, CapnRonsBarAndGrill.com). Pool tables and beer taps abound, but unfortunately, so does the indoor smoke, which assured I wasn’t staying long. However, a rather spirited cover band was plying the new year crowd with rather competent strains, which enlivened the spirits.

Alas, Kurt Russell was nowhere to be found.


Day 2

I awake refreshed and hungry. Fortunately, next to the Sheraton’s front desk is the City Dock Restaurant, where the visitor can choose from between buffet offerings or custom-made cravings. For my first omelette of the new year I opt for a sausage, cheese and spinach variety, which arrives looking plump and healthy. Complemented by iced tea and yogurt, it’s a great way to start out the glorious day as I enjoy the sunny views of the waterfront.

After breakfast I pick up my Scion from the valet (available from the Sheraton for $24 per night, or $12 for self-service parking) and head out to the Norfolk Botanical Gardens (6700 Azalea Garden Rd., Norfolk, Virginia, 23518, 757/441-5830, NorfolkBotanicalGarden.org) on the northeast side of town. It’s an expansive piece of property, entailing 155 acres of flora from around Virginia and elsewhere, and is virtually impossible to see in a single afternoon. To get more of a roundup, try out the trolley tour. (I preferred to walk.)

Alas, it’s also wintertime, which means little is in bloom. Still, it’s a pleasant place to wander and enjoy the Christmas decorations, which still bring a smile to the face even unlit in the daylight hours.

I’m reminded somewhat of my visits to the Huntington out in California, wherein the wanderer can lose himself in the grounds, and new sights await every turn. I am especially enchanted with the Japanese section and the many benches around the Botanical that invite the visitor to simply sit and just be, including one facing a pond that gives me some peace.

The most unfortunate thing about the Botanical Gardens, however, is its location — sited as it is right next to Norfolk International Airport. As I sit gazing across a lovely pond relaxing with my own thoughts, the tail of a Southwest jetliner, with its unmistakable red-and-orange livery, crosses my field of vision through the treeline, and my quiet little self-tour of the grounds is frequently interrupted by the howl of 747s firing up to lift off for parts unknown.

Having worked up an appetite, I head back into town for lunch at the Green Onion (1603 Colley Ave., Norfolk, Virginia, 23517, 757/963-1200, Facebook.com/GreenOnionNorfolk). The joint is run by a rather affable North Carolinian named Randy, who, when he says “I’m a Southern boy, I don’t kid around” about the sugar content of his sweet tea, means business.

The lunchtime menu is primarily focused on brunch items, and as I’d already had an omelette at breakfastime, I inquired of Randy as to his New England “Lobstah” roll. Randy brings in the lobster meat from Maine, and the bread is baked Boston-style, so it was an absolute yes. The dish is served as two smaller sandwiches, with fresh, hot butter and green onion ketchup for the fries. I’ve spent some time in Maine, and this was the best lobster roll I’d ever had outside of the Pine Tree State. The liquid butter turned the sea crustacean flesh into candy that melts on the tongue.

Pretty full but still obeying my sweet tooth, I accept Randy’s entreaty to the chocolate creme brulee, which is an absolutely fine meal-capper. Unlike more traditional creme brulee, the surface is warm but the innards more room temperature. No matter, as the combined sensation of warm, cool, crunchy and smooth perfectly finalizes my lunch.

Now it’s time to hit Smartmouth Brewing Co. (1309 Raleigh Ave., Norfolk, Virginia, 23507, 757/624-3939, SmartmouthBrewing.com), the area’s contributor to America’s ever-growing craft beer scene. Walking into the tasting room, my eyes are met with a crowd of hipsters and a chalk drawing by a local tattoo artist showing Kylo Ren, Captain Phasma and a Stromtrooper all hoisting suds in celebration of “The Force Awakens” breaking box office records the world over.

This place clearly has my number. 

Smartmouth was started by Porter Hardy IV, a former business lawyer who decided he’d rather spend his time on his brewing passion than fussing over legal briefs. In business since 2012, Smartmouth offers a bevy of hop-heavy pleasures, including the special First Order IPA in honor of the return of “Star Wars” to theaters.

Tasting room manager Clint offers a generous sampler of all of Smartmouth’s wares. Of all those on tap, my personal favorites are the crisp Safety Dance Pilsner (though I promise I didn’t sing the eponymous ‘80s tune while imbibing), the pleasant Rule G IPA and the hoppy Holiday Helper IPA. I tend to veer away from beers that are too generous with the hops, but the staff was so friendly and the tasting room so full of new year revelery that I couldn’t help but sit and enjoy the atmosphere, take the tour and smile at the “Star Wars” artwork.

A few hours later, after freshening up back at the room, I take a half-mile walk to Todd Jurich’s Bistro (150 West Main St., Norfolk, Virginia, 23510, 757/622-3210, ToddJurichsBistro.com), where I am joined by my writing colleague Erin for dinner. While we discuss our various adventures in the pen trade, we nosh on raw moonstone oysters from Rhode Island, an absolute palate-seducer. They’re followed by roasted oysters served with bacon and greens, but we agree that if we’re going for thirds, it’ll be back to the raw variety.

Continuing with the “Star Wars” motif, I choose the Han Solo seafood special, so-named, of course, for Harrison Ford, who has been known to pop by Todd Jurich’s when he’s in town. Erin tries the flounder and lump crab Norfolk combo, which she graciously shares.

To underscore our meal, we split a bottle of St. Innocent Chardonnay Coravin 2012 from Oregon’s booming Willamette Valley wine country. It’s crisp and forward on the nose, if not a grand slam.

For dessert comes a bevy of a brioche bread pudding, walnut whisky tart and apple cobbler courtesy of the chef, who pops by for a chat. I chase it all down with a smooth after-dinner Sambuca to finalize the meal.

After bidding Erin adieu I walk the streets around the restaurant, but not much seems to be happening, so I head back to the Sheraton and turn in early.

The next morning, feeling invigorated and perhaps a bit more optimistic about the very young year, I’m ready to head back up north to Washington to get to work for my afternoon shift at The Times — feeling, if not great, at least satiated.

Then my check engine light comes on. Four days and $900 later, I have my horse back. And after biking to the shop to pick up the car, I get home and find that my bike has broken down in transit.

Yin and yang, O fortuna, et lux luna, welcome to 2016.

See you again, Norfolk!

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