washingtonpost beach weekend 1997 cover

Fishing for Flavor in and Around Virginia Beach

By Donna Reiss 1997
Reprinted from the Washington Post Weekend, Friday, May 16, 1997

The culinary pleasures of a trip to Virginia Beach extend beyond the double beaches of the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. Day trippers can enjoy food inspired by history or by contemporary cuisine in nearby Norfolk or Williamsburg. For wine lovers, some of the most inspired cellars join some of the most spirited kitchens.

Right on the boardwalk, Mahi-Mah's (Seventh Street and Atlantic Avenue, 757/437-8030) is popular for its ocean view, extended menu for the whole family, sushi bar, a large selection of microbrews, and cheery staff. Only a few blocks from the boardwalk, local history joins fresh fish at Tautog's (205 Twenty-Third Street, 757-422-0081), housed in the former Winston family beach cottage, which has been lovingly restored, preserving much of the original wood and a homey mood. Begin with Benny's oysters and proceed to their simplest fish offering or their crabcakes.

Visitors often miss outstanding food in neighborhoods away from the water and across the city line. The Coastal Grill, for instance, is nearer the Chesapeake Bay than the Atlantic Ocean (1427 N. Great Neck Road, 757-496-3348), a much-lauded lovely neighborhood restaurant that serves some of the finest seafood in town including my favorite fried softshell crabs along with a range of all-American specialties like bistro chicken, roast lamb, and steak. Casually decked out in nautical decor, Croakers (3629 Shore Drive, 757-363-2490) has a family feel to help you forget that the windows overlook a busy thoroughfare rather than lapping waves. An order of buttery oysters William, the house special, is the best choice for an appetizer. And just down the road, Charlie's (3139 Shore Drive, 757-481-9863), still owned and operated by the family that opened it fifty years ago, is comfortably old-fashioned with its fifties dinette furniture but up to date with perennially popular she-crab soup, plump round hush puppies, and straightforward fish dishes fried or broiled. Steinhilbers' Thalia Acres Inn (653 Thalia Road, 757/340-1156) is another family restaurant, this one in a former country club with a lawn sweeping down to an inlet. Butterflied jumbo shrimp in a tempura-type batter is their trademark, accompanied by their Afamous sauce@ a sweet thousand island orange dip that reflects the restaurant's origins in the 1930s along with an au courant horseradish-rich red dip.

Locals are partial to a row of restaurants along the Lynnhaven Inlet off Shore Drive. At twilight, motorboats park at the docks to pick up dinner from these river-hugging eateries, popular for steamed crabs and shrimp, fish specials, and indoor-outdoor seating. Chick's Oyster Bar and Marina (2143 Vista Circle, 757/481-5757), Bubba's Crabhouse (3323 Shore Drive, 757/481-0907), and the Dockside Inn (3311 Shore Drive, 757/481-7211) all offer rugged picnic-style benches and tables outdoors as well as nautical motifs indoors.

First and foremost, you want seafood. To enjoy the Beach's culinary best, take a chance with a chalkboard special.

These menu additions usually are the freshest catches and have the special attention of the kitchen staff.

Ask when the fish came in and whether the kitchen will prepare your selection broiled plain. If they say yes, chances are it was not prepared four hours or even four days earlier. Then order with more confidence whatever fancy preparation they're promoting.

Special Treats

Fish is featured everywhere, but the most exciting restaurant on the boardwalk is Timbuktu (Thirty-Second Street and Atlantic Avenue, 757/491-1800), where you'll find no fried seafood platters but the most innovative and elaborate food at the oceanfront. New American dishes, beautiful presentations, and a patio overlooking the ocean keep the excitement level high. Wine dinners are a regular feature now that Andrea Simek, formerly of a local Napa wine shop, has become a partner with chef-owner Willie Moats.

If you crave a buffet while you're on holiday, take Sunday brunch at Le Chambord and its Bistro (324 N. Great Neck Road, 757/498-1234 or 486-3636), where international offerings include salmon in puff pastry, carved beef and ham, freshly rolled spring rolls with wasabi creme fraiche, omelets to order, mesclun greens at the salad station, and lush desserts from a local patisserie--all to the tune of a baby grand piano.

Barbecue reigns at the recently relocated Beach Bully (601 19th Street, 757/422-4222). Vinegary chopped pork or smoky ribs, sliced beef, and chicken with a side of freshly cut and cooked fries are highlights of this popular place that outgrew its former location.

Great Getaways

Sometimes you need to get away from your getaway, perhaps hungering for history in Williamsburg or at Nauticus in Norfolk. An hour's drive from the oceanfront at the Colonial Capital, you can eat at famous taverns or the Williamsburg Inn in the restored area or at the chocolate-lover's mecca, the Trellis, but other options might tempt you. Tucked into gated private residential communities are two gems, the tiny Kitchen at Powhatan Plantation (3601 Ironbound Rd., Williamsburg 757/220-1200) with contemporary American meals influenced by Virginia culinary traditions, and the elegant award-winning Dining Room at Ford's Colony (240 Ford's Colony Drive, Williamsburg, 757/258-4104), where exceptional traditional and New American cuisine are served in an upscale clubby room. Reservations are essential for both.

In Norfolk, half an hour by car from the oceanfront and not far from the Elizabeth River is Todd Jurich's Bistro (210 W. York Street, 757/622-3210), considered by some local critics to be the best restaurant in South Hampton Roads. Barbara Jurich, co-owner and the chef's wife, grows heirloom vegetables in an organic garden on the Eastern Shore, and Todd's staff turns her sugar snaps, May peas, and Asian greens into grand accompaniments for innovative American-international cuisine.

Wine and Dine

When wonderful wines are central to your dining pleasure, follow the advice of M. F. Onderdonk, Wine and Spirits Critic for Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot, and eat at Aldo's (1860 Laskin Road, 757/491-1151) or 501 City Grill (501 N. Birdneck Road, 757/425-7195). Popular among families as well as oenophiles, Aldo's offers Italian favorites, brick oven pizzas, and sumptuous desserts. 501 is eclectic American, its wine collection on view in handsome glass-fronted display cases in the main dining room. In Norfolk, Onderdonk recommends the wine lists at Bobbywood, La Galleria, and the Dumbwaiter. La Galleria (120 College Place, Norfolk, 757/623-3939) is a chicly cavernous Italian restaurant with a massive square bar and gloriously garlicky meals. And the Dumbwaiter (117 Tazewell St., Norfolk 757/623-3663) is resplendent with local art and architectural whimsy, modern Southern meals, and wine tastings you can order by the glass or in trios of flights. So take your pick. Stay close to the sea and restaurants in the resort area or venture away from the water to the eateries locals love. Either way you can enjoy your dinners as well as your days in Virginia Beach.

modified 08 September 2000 by D. Reiss