washingtonpost beach weekend 1996 cover

Beyond Surf and Turf at Virginia Beach

By Donna Reiss 1996
Reprinted from the Washington Post Weekend, Friday, May 17, 1996


Just as the sands shift along the shore and the Atlantic Ocean ebbs and flows, the Virginia Beach restaurant scene is always in motion. Visitors returning for a second or for a sixteenth summer can still count on many of their favorite places to serve familiar food, but they'll also discover new and transformed restaurants. New American cafes are the most appetizing additions, from the eclectic Timbuktu and Eurasia to the more traditional Sage's and Suddenly Last Summer.

Everybody wants to eat overlooking the ocean, where the most exciting restaurant is also one of the newest, Timbuktu (Thirty-Second Street and Atlantic Avenue, 804/491-1800). Behind the exotic name is a soothing interior in creamy peach tones and an outdoor cafe overlooking the boardwalk. The chef stacks and layers eggplant with scallops and salmon with portabello mushrooms. Lamb chops with cumin and chili, couscous, radiccio, and cilantro yogurt sauce is surprisingly subtle. Although located in a Days Inn, the chef's kitchen is truly his own and already so popular that dinner reservations are essential. Another newcomer along the boardwalk is Silverado (501 Atlantic Ave., 804/491-4700), with stylish appointments and a semicircle of glass overlooking the street instead of the sea. Their southwestern food is worth sampling, and the view of people and cars cruising Atlantic Avenue has a certain urban appeal. Nearby is Mahi-Mah's (Seventh Street and Atlantic Avenue, 804/437-8030), with an expanded menu and inconsistent fare; nonetheless, it's the only sushi bar on the strip and boasts an excellent list of wines and microbrews in a clubby comfortable setting where locals like to hang out and valet parking is available year round.

For satisfactory sustenance with an ocean view and outdoor seating to send sea breezes over your crab cake sandwiches, any boardwalk cafe will do, but Virginia Beach serves some of its finest foods away from the resort area. Perpendicular to the boardwalk is the five-mile stretch of Laskin, a long road that changes its name eventually to Virginia Beach Boulevard. Interspersed among the chain restaurants along this well-traveled route are many worthwhile places to dine.

Just two blocks from Atlantic is the new Suddenly Last Summer (313 Laskin Road, 804/422-5588), where a longtime local chef Monroe Duncan (who also hosts a radio program called "The Restaurant Show" specializes in dishes from the days when nobody was counting fat and calories but also offers lighter contemporary meals. The shrimp Savoy is wonderful. Steak Diane, Caesar salad, and bananas foster are prepared tableside, so you can treat the family to a flambeed dessert in a casual atmosphere.

Not new but relocated, Coyote Cafe (972-A Laskin Road, 804/425-8705), across from the beach multiplex, serves an eclectic menu with southwestern accents in a lively atmosphere. Highlights are a cheery chambray-shirted staff, oysters Santa Fe, and one of the best Margaritas in the vicinity. Among the many good Italian restaurants in Virginia Beach, a chef-owned favorite is Pasta e Pani (1069 Laskin Road, 804/428-2299), with authentic Italian dishes and seasonal specialties. Pastas, breads, and sauces all are fresh, and a wood-burning oven makes pizzas. In the same vicinity is La Caravelle (1040 Laskin Road, 804/428-2477), a country French setting for classically rich cuisine and upscale Vietnamese specialties featuring fresh vegetables and fragrant Southeastern Asian herbs. If a touch of Thai, a soupcon of western Europe, and an emphasis on regional American is your fusion food of choice, newcomer Eurasia (4000 Virginia Beach Boulevard, 804/463-7146) brightens a big strip shopping center.

The ocean isn't the only waterfront in Virginia Beach. At Rudee's Inlet, only a few blocks from the main strip, Rudee's (227 Mediterranean Avenue, 804/425-0850) and its airier neighbor Rockafeller's (308 Mediterranean Avenue, 804/422-5654) are pleasant marina eateries with weathered wood siding and watch towers, both serving respectable fish and a variety of other dishes in casual comfort.

By the residential beach areas of the Chesapeake Bay are the popular Duck-In (3324 Shore Drive, 804/481-0201), more notable for its gazebo that juts into the surf and its Friday afternoon traffic-stopping beach party than its food, and the venerable Lynnhaven Fish House (2350 Starfish Road, 804/481-0003, an old favorite on a fishing pier and its light-filled solarium attachment, Pier Cafe (2350 Starfish Road, 804/481-5950). Alexander's on the Bay (4536 Ocean Ave. and Fentress, 804/464-4999) is tucked into a quiet neighborhood near the Cheseapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel; in an elegant but unstuffy atmosphere with sweeping views of the bay, the simpler dishes are more reliable than the fancy ones.

Riverside restaurants at Lynnhaven Inlet are local favorites, especially the ultra-casual fish houses with boat docks. Chick's Oyster Bar (2143 Vista Circle, 804/481-5757), Bubba's Crabhouse (3323 Shore Drive, 804/481-0907), and the Dockside Inn (3311 Shore Drive, 804/481-7211) all offer rugged picnic-style benches and tables outdoors as well as nautical motifs indoors. These are the places to spread out layers of paper and pick at steamed seafood for hours. Since last summer, all three have expanded to accommodate more diners.

But if you're serious about sampling the best food in Virginia Beach, you'll have to do without waterfront vistas. Serving for its first summer is Sage's (1658 Pleasure House Road, 804/ 460-1691), elegantly appointed with Italian tiles, textured linens, and faux Renaissance art to showcase a smart menu of contemporary dishes accented by field mushrooms, polenta, and couscous. The pastry chef bakes fresh biscotti and pound cakes. Just down the road is the Lucky Star (1608 Pleasure House Road, 804/363-8410), where the specials of the evening always are stellar, featuring fresh fish and produce from local farms.

At Cafe Society, two glass walls overlook the corner of Mediterranean Avenue and Nineteenth Street (804/422-8774) and the food is eclectic new American brought by friendly servers. Nearby Five-01 City Grill (501 N. Birdneck Road, 804/425-7195) displays a handsome new custom wine vault in the main dining room and a carefully thought-out wine list. Chef-owned 501 has gained loyalty with fresh new American dishes and a bar so popular that a walk through the lounge is entertainment in its own right.

Superior fried soft shell crabs and some of the finest fish in Virginia Beach (often freshly caught by a partner in the business) are served at the Coastal Grill (1427 N. Great Neck Road, 804/496-3348) by Jerry Bryan and Mo Cucchiaro. Basic, traditional, reasonably priced, and utterly reliable for its meats as well as its seafood, the Coastal does not take reservations, so come early on a weekday for the shortest wait. At the other end of N. Great Neck Road at number 324, Le Chambord (804/498-1234) is the only elegant European-style fine dining restaurant in town. Belgian chef Alain Jacqmin ensures that the continental and seasonal American dishes are first rate. Here you're likely to find rabbit, sweetbreads, and venison as well as more familiar meats and seafood. Reservations are advised and dress is upscale but not formal; in fact, ties are optional here as everywhere in this beach town. Behind Le Chambord in the Chambord Commons shops but not visible from the road is the Bistro and Rotisserie (804/486-3636), a large casual room where chef Alvin Williams serves juicy rotisserie chicken, French and American casual fare, a lush Sunday buffet, and jazz from 7 p.m. on Sunday nights. A cigar section is new in 1996.

Having evolved from a life saving station and summer cottages, Virginia Beach offers no conventional urban downtown restaurant scene. Instead, restaurants have grown up along waterways or are tucked into strip shopping centers. Seafood with a sea view might be the menu of choice for many guests in this beach town, but new southwestern, eclectic regional American, and contemporary cafe dining are among the appetizing alternatives in Virginia Beach.

modified 08 September 2000 by D. Reiss