Mix it up with Mexican, Italian, Caribbean, Mediterranean, New York pizza, craft cocktails, a speakeasy and more
New Restaurant: Chef’s Kitchen & Cocktails (photo above)
To the culinary rebel who first dared to ignore the “seafood doesn’t go with cheese” adage by marrying the buttery decadence of lobster with the classic comfort of mac-n-cheese: I salute you. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of sinking my fork into the luscious Seafood Mac at Norfolk’s Chef’s Kitchen and Cocktails, the latest addition to the North Colley foodie corridor. This “go big or go home” iteration from DaShawn Blow, who sharpened his skills at Virginia Beach’s Orion’s Roof before taking on the executive chef role at Chef’s Kitchen, arrives screaming hot in a mini cast-iron pan with a full lobster tail—grilled or friedperched atop an uber-generous portion of spicy, creamy seafood mac.
It’s one entry on a menu that varies from opulent mains like a 6-ounce Filet Mignon with garlic mashers and broccolini or Rack of Lamb with roasted bell pepper sauce and verde salsa to Cajun- and Caribbean-inspired dishes like Red Snapper with plantains or Jerk Pasta, but also isn’t afraid to be playful with shareables like the Chef’s Popcorn Shrimp, featuring perfectly light, crispy fried shrimp served on actual spiced, buttered popcorn. As the name implies, craft cocktails are a specialty, and I recommend the Purple Rain Drop with vodka, fresh lemon and lavender. Owner Taneika Griffin has created a sleek, sexy interior in this intimate 65-seat space in which dark walls, jewel tones, hanging greenery, neon signage, elegant finishes and trendy art lend a high-end nightclub vibe. ChefsKitchenandCocktails.com
New Restaurant: Cocojam
While you won’t find golden sands and sparkling waters in Norfolk, you can enjoy a little slice of Caribbean paradise at Cocojam. Owner Deonna Moore grew Cocojam from a commissary kitchen, serving taco Tuesday specials, to a tropical-themed storefront that officially opened at Selden Market in August 2022. Indulge in vibrant selections such as jerk chicken, curry chicken and island shrimp. To deliver the most authentic taste possible, Moore imports pimento wood chips from Jamaica to chargrill the jerk chicken. Moore, whose father is from Guyana, learned Caribbean recipes from her family and brought them to her downtown Norfolk eatery. She puts her spin on these staple foods by serving them as tacos and loaded rice bowls topped with house-made sauces and pico de gallo.
One of Cocojam’s most popular Caribbean-fusion menu items is the Oxtail Birria. Oxtail is traditionally prepared as a stew, but Moore shreds this tender meat and serves it with cheese, red onion and cilantro. The savory consommé brings the same level of comfort that a classic Caribbean stew offers. Moore also strived to add some plant-based options to her menu. Jerk and Cajun cauliflower, plus curry chickpeas and pulled jackfruit birria, present the same bold flavors for those searching for meatless options. Wash down your food with one of Cocojam’s refreshing, fresh-pressed juices to really transport yourself to the Caribbean. CocojamNFK.com
New Restaurant: Drexler’s Wood Fired Grill
The Phoebus neighborhood of Hampton is experiencing a cultural explosion where visitors can satisfy their tastes for adventure. Those seeking new and delicious discoveries should take their taste buds on a global excursion with a layover at Drexler’s Wood Fired Grill. No passport necessary to immerse yourself in cultural indulgences that stem from Owner/Chef Eric Drexler’s travels around the world where he discovered authentic local dishes and learned recipes by cooking with host families. Stepping inside the former “The Point at Phoebus” building, you’ll get a flavor of what’s to come from the décor. It’s a Mediterranean vibe with Havana-esque notes, showcasing an attention to detail that parallels the thought and care that goes into the food.
The menu changes with what Mother Nature provides, but small plates might include Blue Crab Hushpuppies with pickled shallot tartar or Spanish-style Cured Chorizo with creamy feta, marinated olives and crusty bread. Entrees are locally sourced from area waters and small farms. Think Game Hen marinated in a sour orange mojo that offers a Cuban influence for a flavorful extravagance, the Double-Boned Pork Chop with maple agrodolce brined in black tea for extra moistness and flavor, Drexler’s Surf N Turf featuring innovative items for the land and sea that change daily, or the Coffee Duroc Pork slow roasted to melt in your mouth. DrexlersWoodFiredGrill.com
New Restaurant: Elevenses Fresh Table & Bar
Elevenses burst onto the Virginia Beach brunch scene last summer and has since charmed diners with its airy ambiance, fresh-pressed bevvies and 100% scratch kitchen crafting everything in house from breads and baked goods to butters and pastas. Its success lauded by midday visitors, Elevenses quietly announced a succinct dinner menu in November. Elevenses certainly stays true to its Fresh Table name as the inside of the Laskin Road restaurant is brimming with vibrant greenery, bare wood accents and Atlantic Ocean blues and offers an array of seating options from booths and high tops to neon-lit bar seats and al fresco dining on the front patio.
Elevenses’ menu is as lively as its decor. Gracing the brunch menu are traditional eats like the Princess Anne Fresh Waffle and Cado Smashed Toast to more eccentric bites like the Elevenses Hot Rachel, a savory serving of house-brined and -smoked brisket served atop fresh-baked rye bread and a blanket of provolone. Albeit shorter, the dinner and cocktail menus show similar zest in flavor and creativity. Try sinking your teeth into the Elevenses Threeses Smash Burger while sipping a Blackberry Bourbon Smash. Drawing inspiration for its name from 18th-century British Royalty who deemed a midmorning snack imperative to everyday life, Elevenses’ menu also features royally named menu items like the Classic Royal Toad in the Hole, Her Majesty’s Cinnamon Buns and the Lord Buttermilk Biscuit Board. ElevensesVB.com
New Restaurant: Lil ’Za Pizzeria
Other pizzas fall like dominoes compared to Ian Hock’s standard-deviating pies. He started composing them as a “pandemic passion project” but now they’re being tossed at Norfolk’s Veil Brewing Company, where he formerly ran farm-to-fork Codex (his Codex restaurant on Granby Street in Downtown Norfolk, opened in 2021, is going gangbusters). The versatile chef changed the conversation at the Richmond-founded, craft brewery’s Railroad District outpost so that you’re just as likely to hear “What are you eating?” as “What are you drinking?”
The rejoinder in this noir-ish, lofty warehouse might be the sweet-meets-heat Lil Bee (house-made tomato “Zauce,” mozzarella, ’njuda, pepperoni, hot honey), aromatic Lil Carnitas (salsa roja, Chihuahua cheese, pork carnitas, honey cilantro dressing, radish, pickled onion) or bianco Lil Rico (olive oil, roasted garlic and shallot, mozzarella, ricotta, kicky chilis, arugula, lemon). None could ever induce zzz’s, and each measures 12 inches (six slices) with crusts comprised of two flours—00 and King Arthur’s Sir Galahad Artisan—for what Hock calls “a nice, crispy floor.” Indeed, they’re the nexus of New York and Naples. “Non-zas” include wings and a buttermilk fried chicken sandwich. But you can’t get more classic than beer and pizza. Or, in this case, great beer and great pizza. TheVeilBrewing.com/NFK
New Restaurant: Luce Secondo
You’ll do a double take at Luce Secondo. Am I in New York City? Chicago? Vegas? With epic sweep and grandeur, you could be. But you’re in Chesapeake. Summit Pointe precisely, the burgeoning urban lifestyle community housing Dollar Tree headquarters. Corporate big cheeses will show off this Italian masterpiece, a giant sequoia of a restaurant with formidable columns, ritzy tiles, freshly pressed linens, even restrooms to swoon over. Secondo indicates that this is the second Luce (Italian for light, pronounced loo-chay), and its menu reflects the first’s, founded in a compact space in Downton Norfolk. Reading it is like riding on the back of Chef Tony Caruana’s motorcycle while the strapping chef careers around Italy.
He respectfully touches upon multiple areas of the Boot, imprinting each regional dish with his own macho charisma and fine-tuned skill from wild boar ragù over pappardelle to veal saltimbocca to cioppino. In tonno crudo e tartufo nero, a Luxardo cherry reduction cuts through pristine raw ahi, for a stellar appetizer. Sommelier Bethany Morris commands the impressively growing wine program aptly focused on regional Italians, augmented by sophisticated cocktails (with requisite dehydrated fruit) and a curated list of sparkling waters. Draft is reserved for local breweries, but Caruana makes an exception for Peroni, proud of his home here and his heritage. LuceSecondo.com
New Restaurant: Ocean’s Ole
Every tourist destination has its collection of must-find, hole-in-the-wall eateries. Virginia Beach is no exception. Ocean’s Ole, tucked among the Oceanfront’s miles of restaurants, is one that may be easily overlooked but is well worth a stop. Its unassuming exterior is juxtaposed by a bright and open dining room rich in vibrant colors, natural lighting and a massive mural of Mexico’s famed Frida Khalo flanked by columns of green leaves. The modern Mexican cocina opened its doors to Virginia Beach patrons last April and boasted a busy summer season, fueling beachgoers with street tacos and refreshing agave cocktails. What continues to draw many diners to Ocean’s Ole, even in the off season, is its from-scratch menu.
All cocktails are handcrafted and nearly all lunch and dinner offerings are prepared in-house. Supremely popular house sauces include the jalapeño-infused Ranchero Sauce, smoky Chipotle Mushroom Crema and the more traditional Poblano Sauce. Even sans sauce, Ocean’s Ole’s offerings are packed with flavor. Its menu—broken down into creative sections like Pequeños, Sizzlers and North of the Border—provides familiar favorites like Fajitas and Bean & Tortilla Soup to more eclectic combinations like the Chipotle Pork Chop and Salmon Poblano. With such an enticing variety, knowing which plate to try can be challenging. Ocean’s Ole’s cocktail menu poses the same, tasty challenge. Thankfully, the Tequila Bar offers a $35 Tequila & Mezcal tasting so you can sip before you commit. Did we mention it comes with complimentary sangria, too? OceansOleVB.com
New Restaurant: The Original Pizza Sam
Ask a New Yorker where you can get a quality slice of pizza on the Virginia Peninsula, and all you might hear is “fuhgeddaboudit.” Sam Schiralli Jr. is on a mission to change that. The owner of The Original Pizza Sam in Denbigh, Schiralli comes from a New York pizza family that opened their first place in Brooklyn in 1959 and another in Queens in 1967, where he remembers learning the business. How do you know his menu is authentic? In addition to traditional round and Sicilian pizza, Pizza Sam offers “grandma pizzas,” which are baked in a square or rectangular pan with plenty of olive oil like their Sicilian cousins but feature a much thinner dough. It is denser in consistency—and thus, crispier—than the crust of the thicker, softer Sicilian pie crust.
Dine-in or take-out, whatever your heart desires and deserves, Pizza Sam literally has your hunger covered with a variety of toppings. Think pepperoni, sausage, meatball, mushrooms, black olives, pineapple, onion, broccoli, spinach, peppers, bacon, and/or garlic smothered in traditional or vodka sauce. Specialty pizzas include margherita, chicken bacon ranch, veggie, white, chicken bruschetta, meat lover and supremo. If you have any room left, Sam also offers Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwiches. On Facebook: Pizza Sam 757
New Restaurant: Quemar
In literal terms, quemar means “to set fire to,” and that is precisely what Chef Evan Drake has done to the palates of his patrons since opening in May 2022. Drake created a menu rich in flavor and variety by marrying elevated Mexican eats with the more adventurous ingredients and savors of Latin American cuisine. Alongside Drake at the helm of quemar’s operation as a 100% scratch kitchen is a wood-fired Argentinian-style parrilla. The mammoth grill smolders local meats, vegetables, tortillas and other staples to a charred perfection for popular starters, brunch boards and dinner plates like the Loaded Yuca Frita, Charred Chayote Squash, Enfrijoladas and Bone-in Ribeye. Drake often concocts off-the-menu seasonal plates, too, so be sure to inquire during your next visit.
The wood-fire cocina not only has guests fired up over its menu, but its atmosphere as well. Quemar breathed new life into the former Bella Monte restaurant by expanding its central bar to overlook the kitchen, revamping the side patio with relaxed, covered seating and adding a new, suave lounge called Bar Tranquilo. Bar Tranquilo is quemar’s more intimate half, inviting guests to cozy up on leather sofas and plush velvet seats. Like the main dining room, Bar Tranquilo shakes and stirs an array of Latin-inspired libations. While sampling tequilas and mezcals is a must during a visit to quemar, you can also pair the bar’s live music and late-night menu with specialty mixes like a Oaxcan Mule, Michelada or the cold-brew coffee-based Carajillo. QuemarCocina.com
New Restaurant: Sandy Buns
It’s not every day you can say to a stranger, “I love your buns” without a justifiable chastening, but blurting it out to your counter server at this sunny Oceanfront café is perfectly acceptable. The fresh-baked cinnamon and sticky buns are undeniably irresistible. Besides, that staffer soon will become your willing accomplice as you call the shots—à la Duck Donuts—with spreads, toppings and drizzles like lemon curd and peanut butter mousse, berries and coconut, and caramel and maple syrup, for a bespoke bun. The name reflects the beach vibe (locally based Hardin Wood Designs crafted the surfboard-shaped tables) and, as owner Kirsten Houghton notes, “When rolling the buns, the cinnamon filling looks a lot like sand.”
She’s vegan; so are her buns. Not in-your-face vegan, though (you’d never guess they’re made with egg substitute “Just Egg” or that she switched a plant-based cream cheese into her mom’s frosting recipe), and carnivores will delight in Swirlwiches, toasted sandwiches built on bun dough in sweet or savory flavors (perhaps pesto, sun-dried tomato or Italian herb) and piled with deli meats (black forest ham, say, or turkey breast), cheese, veggies and spreads. There are vegan alts, too, like chickpea “tuna” salad. Oh, and employees’ comeback to your cheeky profession of passion: “Make it a buntastic day!” On Facebook @sandybunsvb
New Restaurant: 7 Mares Tacos y Mariscos
Muted gray walls starkly contrast with the cuisine’s kaleidoscopic colors and vibrant flavors at 7 Mares (sibling to Virginia Beach’s Plaza Degollado, named after the owners’ hometown in Jalisco). It generally fits the stereotypical north-of-the-border Mexican restaurant Americans have come to rely on—servers clad in intimidating mitts with a staggering row of plates scaling their arms, hissing fajitas and the white sauce-salsa-chips triumvirate landing at your table before you’ve shrugged off your coat—but while others slide into more gringo-y versions of their wares, 7 Mares holds fast to authenticity.
The brothy birria tacos, especially, reveal tremendous care. So, too, the piquancy of the salsa, fresh vegetables and the attention paid to tableside guacamole. There’s a passel of ceviches, mojarra al mojo de ajo (whole tilapia blanketed in garlic sauce mixed with onions, tomato and avocado) and michelada con camarones, fitting for a place named “Seven Seas.” The generous, unprompted delivery of a stack of soon-to-be-necessary napkins radiates hospitality along with the chipper “Hola amiga!” greeting (“Hi Hon,” in diner lingo) and constant, assiduous wiping of voluminous plastic menus (a COVID precaution, sure, but also necessary because you’re bound to drip that juicy salsa on it). Not everything wows (don’t dawdle over the wan rice), but the street food transports. On Facebook: 7 Mares
New Restaurant: Steak & Tonic
Coming into prominence during Prohibition, speakeasies were made popular by restaurant and club owners wanting to provide their clientele with fun and entertainment, in a place that was hidden away from the prying eyes of Johnny Law. Chef Kenny Sloane brings back the excitement and appeal of speakeasies, including at his newest restaurant in Newport News, Steak and Tonic—his third area establishment following in the successful footprints of his Fin Seafood Restaurant in Port Warwick and Fin & Tonic in Suffolk.
There are four notable differences between the hidden bar within Steak & Tonic and the popular “blind pigs” of the 1920s and ’30s: 1. Prohibition is long gone, although the cocktails are so sinfully good, you might feel a little guilty drinking them. 2. You don’t need a secret password or be well-connected to get in. 3. You are not required to keep the location a secret. 4. It may be one of the few places in town where you can get a perfectly prepared kangaroo, camel or ostrich steak. More in the mood for your basic bovine? While the menu options are far from basic, diners will also be able to find classics such as hamburgers and tenderloin as well as a cool bar menu that offers meatballs, spring rolls, empanadas or Philly sliders. On Facebook: @steakntonic