Photos by David Uhrin
It’s kind of rare to catch dinner and a show in the same venue. Here in Coastal Virginia, there are innumerable top-notch eateries and plenty of places to catch a live musical act, but these days, the two aren’t typically combined.
Thank goodness Gershwin’s in Downtown Norfolk doesn’t conform to what’s typical of these days. The 1930s-themed bistro is all about transporting patrons back to the Jazz Age—tuxedos and flapper dresses included—while serving up unpretentious entrees and a spirited selection of craft cocktails.
Gershwin’s owner Claude Barnett behind the bar
Opened in 2014, the restaurant plays tribute to composer and pianist George Gershwin, whose portrait hangs prominently by a couple tables at the restaurant’s front entrance. As far as themed restaurants go, this one’s dedicated in every detail, from the gold leaf wallpaper and elegant chandelier in the entryway to the marble-topped bar Art Deco paintings and fonts featured throughout.
Perhaps most prominent though is the Hardman, Peck & Company baby grand piano poised atop a small stage to the right of the entrance. It’s here that Gershwin’s vibe truly comes to life, as local jazz musicians pour their talent into each vocal note and keystroke.
The restaurant features live music Tuesday through Saturday with performers belting out favorites from the Great American Songbook, as well as original music.
Jennifer Gammill, a vocalist, pianist and flautist performers at Gershwin’s most
Jennifer Gammill, a vocalist, pianist and flautist, organizes the performance schedule at Gershwin’s. She debuted at Havana Nights Jazz Club in 2013 and has since performed with live jazz quartets and as a soloist with the Jae Sinnett Trio. The VEER music award winner (for her Heart, Soul & Fire album) can be heard at Gershwin’s nearly every weekend. “I usually do my first two sets here with tracks so I can do vocals and flute,” she explains. “And then on the last set I’ll jump on the piano.”
During the rest of the week, the stage is energized with pianists and vocalists, along with a burlesque show once a month on Thursdays. Musicians include Anna Perkins, a pianist, vocalist and composer based in Hampton; Elizabeth Joy Terrell, who, per her website, is a powerhouse vocalist known for her commanding voice and stage presence; Skip Hancock, a well-known pianist playing a large variety of jazz hits; and Troy Todd, who takes patrons back with classics from Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.
“I love that kind of music,” says Claude Barnett, who, along with Garreth Thompson, took Gershwin’s over from previous owners Jim and Bernice Manning in 2018. “It’s not so much the actual period for the music—which is important—you have to have that as part of your repertoire as a singer,” but he notes that performers will also swing into more contemporary styles. “It’s the feel, it’s the vibe, that they bring to the stage.”
Gershwin’s scene is one of the major aspects that sparked Barnett’s interest in owning the restaurant. After running a kitchen in Kona, Hawaii, working at Kai Lanai for Chef Sam Choy and, after relocating to Coastal Virginia and working at Virginia Beach’s Lucky Oyster, he knew he wanted to own his own dinner house. After a previous restaurant deal had fallen through, he came across Gershwin’s online and set up a meeting the very next day. “I walked in and immediately felt that New York City, Chicago speakeasy vibe,” he remembers. “I just loved it.”
Bartender Nate Goode
Gershwin’s is known for their whiskey drinks.
Barnett didn’t mess with the vibe of Gershwin’s but did expand on the restaurant’s cocktail program. “When I came on, there were about 120 distinct liquors; now we’re pushing 185,” he says. They’ve added an assortment of bourbons (Gershwin’s has been long lauded for their smoked whisky drinks), scotches and other spirits from local distilleries. The craft cocktail menu has seen some improvement as well. “The bartenders have really upped their game,” he says. “They take on originals, but then they’ve added a little bit of a flavor with different bitters.”
In the kitchen, he says they’ve tightened up the menu—eliminated a few items and added some new selections, all in the tone of American bistro style—“simple but good dishes,” he notes.
Spicy Ahi Tuna Bites
Maryland Blue Crab Dip
Some typically ordered entrees are the fresh salmon—“I go to the fish monger three days a week, and we cut it in house,”—the Steak Au Poivre and the Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast. Favored appetizers are the pancetta wrapped diver scallops, the charcuterie board and mushroom mac and cheese. During my visit, I opted for the spicy ahi tuna bites—tender cubes of tuna spiced just enough and jazzed up several notches with an intense wasabi aioli—and the Maryland blue crab dip—a creamy, yet pleasantly delicate dip complemented with pecans and bleu cheese and served with toasted flatbread and a baguette.
Playing to all tastes and preferences, Gershwin’s has also added a vegan menu and a bar appetizer menu. Weekly specials include 10 percent off vegan dishes on Tuesdays, half off bottles of wine with the purchase of an entrée on Wednesdays, an LGBT night on Thursdays and SIN (Service Industry Night) on Sundays—plenty of options to draw all crowds.
Barnett, although acknowledging that the restaurant industry can be a tough business, says the takeover has been exciting. “Despite the anxiety—worrying about money, worrying about customers coming through the door, all those things that are always on your mind,” he says, “I’ve got the best job in the world.”
Gershwin’s is located at 332 Granby St., Norfolk. 757-226-0814. GershwinsNorfolk.net.