You stroll past a rustic-chic restaurant whose founder cooked at the legendary James Beard House. Turn the corner, there’s a sushi bar whose chef-owner trained under Iron Chef Morimoto. Take several steps down the street, and chili-spiked watermelon and pineapple spears in fiesta-colored Mexican fresh fruit cups dazzle you. Are you in hip Santa Monica? A cool Brooklyn enclave? Hon, you’re in Downtown Suffolk, where quaint Southern charm is oft labeled a best-kept secret or surprising. But with top-tier culinarians and international flavors, perhaps the most suitable sibilant is superior.
“If you got plopped down in Downtown Suffolk, you’d be astonished at the caliber and the offerings,” says Ed Beardsley, owner of the Plaid Turnip, who’s seen the rise of superlative independent restaurants since he opened his popular, curiously-named café a decade ago. “We complement each other.”
They bolster each other, too. “We’ve found a lot of neighborhood support,” concurs La Shawn Conner, co-owner of year-old General Public. Its eclectic menu takes the fine dining background its chef-co-owner General Lewis and transposes it onto elevated pub fare with mass appeal. Baskets of Buffalo chicken tenders skew retro, salmon bowls lean forward, and everything else from Cobb salads to burgers and waffle fries aims to offer “something for everyone” at high quality and low price. Lewis imbued his eponymous restaurant with an industrial funkiness utilizing corrugated steel, exposed ductwork and a graffiti wall.
He sports a tattoo proclaiming “Chef doesn’t mean you’re the best cook, it simply means you’re the boss,” but Lewis caters to his clientele. “General is adamant on cooking fresh,” says Conner. “Everything is made to order so he can accommodate special requests.”
Nansemond Brewing Station is adjacent to The General Public, so folks often take their orders of triple decker clubs and hot wings next door to pair with craft beers (GP is in the process of obtaining a liquor license). Later this year, Conner and Lewis will unveil General Public Express in Newport News.
Though not the oldest, Harper’s Table, established 2012, is the keystone of Downtown’s esteemed eateries, bridging a reverence for local sourcing and tradition with refined technique. Here you drink in the essence of vintage Suffolk—the interior’s pinewood trim was reclaimed from the Suffolk Peanut Company warehouse—as well as expertly crafted cocktails. The haute Southern cuisine chef-owner Harper Bradshaw showcased at the James Beard House in New York as one of the hand-picked chefs for a menu billed as “Small Towns, Big Flavors” shines in pork belly biscuits, Chesapeake Bay flounder with stone-ground grits, baby back ribs and sweet onion hushpuppies.
Down-home sophistication is ingrained at Harper’s Table, and likewise at Sushi Aka. Michael Hart opened his casual Asian restaurant in 2006 then closed it several years later, heading to Philadelphia to sharpen his skills before boomeranging and reincarnating Sushi Aka near the original in 2017. Hart’s years at Morimoto’s acclaimed flagship restaurant validated his decade plus of sushi-rolling experience (starting under the venerable Kevin Chang of Virginia Beach’s Zushi) and opened his eyes to what he calls “a whole under-the-ocean world of fish I’d never seen before.”
That awakening led him to create a most distinctive sushi bar, nudging diners to branch out from run-of-the-mill rolls and typical tuna and salmon. He might offer flying fish, inada, and other specialty fish from Japan and Hawaii, plus the best bluefin from Spain and Mexico. Hart is akin to big-city players in seafood selection but offers something they can’t: fresh fruit and vegetables he picks at a farm practically a cucumber’s toss away. That produce inspires seasonal changes in his sought-after six-course omakase (chef’s choice meal), drawing regulars from as far afield as Richmond.
Just as you can make a strong case that the best sushi and sashimi around is in Suffolk, you’d be hard-pressed to find better authentic Mexican. The Delgado and Herrera families transport you to their homeland on Mexico’s Pacific Coast—Riviera Nayarit—via ceviches, caldo mixto (seafood stew), and platters of whole fried tilapia at two-year old El Korita (the name refers to their indigenous heritage). Canopied booths recreate the beachside shelters of Puerto Vallarta restaurants while home recipes undergird sopas (soul-soothing soups) and tamales and thirst-quenching aguas frescas.
If you’re a foodie, you’re pinching yourself for discovering these gems. Or smacking your forehead for waiting so long to try them. But it gets better. At Uncork’d, Emily Brewer (who’s also a Virginia state delegate) hosts Friday night wine tastings. Occasional pop-ups and food trucks complement her dizzying array of wines and craft beers that you can sip on the patio presided over by a statue of a dapper Mr. Peanut (in case you forgot where you are).
And still more restaurants cometh, bringing us back to Ed Beardsley. After a decade of wowing guests at Plaid Turnip with hearty omelets and BLTs with fried green tomatoes, it was time to renovate. He relocated his café to the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts in January thinking the face-lift would take a couple months and, indeed, it was completed in March. Then COVID-19 mandated closures. With extra time, Beardsley kept tweaking things. As restaurants re-opened, Turnip settled into a natural fit with the Arts Center, its clientele followed, and the spruced-up original location began assuming a new persona.
“It has a Mad Men, dressed-up ’60s feel,” describes Beardsley, planning to serve lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch when he opens it this fall. The name? Mod Olive (what would you expect from a man who fancies juxtaposing “strange bedfellow” words?). Olive’s fun, affordable dinner menu will suit its mid-century milieu—ambrosia salad, beef stroganoff, deviled crab. Classic sandwiches such as Dagwoods will carry over from lunch.
“It’s going to be another neat place,” Beardsley predicts. “Adding to what we already offer.” He pauses. “You know, I love it when someone walks into one of our unique restaurants and goes: ‘Oh, I can’t believe this is in Suffolk.’” His reply: “This is Suffolk. This is what we are now.”
Suffolk Restaurant Week
These downtown establishments are just some of those participating in Suffolk Restaurant Week, November 7-14, offering chef-created delicacies and simple three-course, price fixed menus for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. Learn more at SuffolkRestaurantWeekVA.com.