By Jeff Maisey
First let me say I really like the newly opened Waterside District. To me it’s fun – a vacation akin to Disney World, but without leaving home for food and lots of craft beer. I’m also happy with the end result in that it doesn’t really resemble the old Waterside at all.
You see, back in 1983 when the Waterside – then unveiled as Waterside Marketplace – opened its doors I was working as a part-time cook in the food court at a place that sold fresh-cut fries. It was a summer job during my early college days at ODU.
The Waterside of 1983 was part of Norfolk’s revitalization efforts in downtown. These blueprints for success included the use of Town Point Park as a festival destination on the waterfront as well as a concert venue known as The Boathouse and a huge farmer’s market in a former warehouse-like building with the words Bessie’s Place painted on the roof so cars driving on the interstate as they crossed the bridge and headed towards Virginia Beach could see in an area now home to the Harbor Park baseball stadium and parking lot.
Norfolk itself is like a tide. It has historically had its ups and downs – high tides and low.
Waterside succeeded in the beginning with a unique mix of out of market restaurants and local favorites such as Pierce’s BBQ, High’s Ice Cream, and the Jewish Mother (it sold dessert items only). The anchors were larger restaurants not found anywhere else in the region – Phillips Seafood of Baltimore, Il Porto and Schooners (Alexandria-based Italian restaurant with a piano bar and large goblets of beer). It also had the area’s first Indian restaurant and British Pub – Reggie’s. It was a blend of food court and retail establishments as well. The guy tossing pizza dough high in the air at Mamma Mia’s loudly sang Italian opera to draw attention. The Fudgery – and it is back for 2017 – entertained crowds of all ages with a ringing of a ship’s brass bell and an entertaining crew of fudge makers singing popular melodies but with the word “fudge” injected as a substitute. It was a “show” and live music entertained from the center stage.
Most big-time entertainers performing in Norfolk stayed at the hotel – then the Omni, not Sheraton – next door to Waterside and it was common to see the stars walk through the food court. At my food court counter I served a broad array of people including all four members of KISS (without makeup), Metallica singer James Hetfield, comedian Whoppi Goldberg, actress Angela Bassett, Brad Delp of the band Boston, beloved TV news anchor Walter Cronkite (he docked his yacht in the marina out back on a stormy February weeknight), Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and others. Former boxing champ Mohammad Ali taunted playfully visitors as he walked through Waterside with a police escort. Waterside was the place to see and be seen.
For various reasons too long to rehash here, Waterside sputtered and then ceased to function. The shell remained until Cordish Companies submitted a proposal and today we have a complete fresh remake, though some ironic similarities.
I was curious – as you might imagine – what the Waterside District would look like and how it might operate. The focus is on food, beer and fun. And it feels like a getaway – kinda like I think a cruise ship might be docked in downtown Norfolk on a port-o-call. There are lots of TV screens and I must say the circular sports bar in the front section of Blue Moon Café is over-the-top. I’ll get there early of NFL game day for sure.
Without describing too many of its attributes – I want you to go experience it for yourselves – I did sit down with the Glenn Sutch, Waterside District man-in-charge, at the Starr Hill beer station in center court to discuss his vision and programming of restaurants, entertainment and more. Here’s what Sutch had to share about the fun-filled Waterside District.
Can you remind us again, Glenn, your history in commercial radio and then with Cordish Companies?
I got my start as a disc jockey about 25, 30 years ago. I’ve grown from there and took DJing to a whole new level.
I’m proud and privileged to work for the Cordish Companies and we get to open big districts like this. It’s a lot of fun going from city to city. I absolutely love this city of Norfolk. I want to plot my feet in this one.
Will you be in Norfolk for an extended period of time or move on to the next project?
I moved here in November. I’ll be here for the considerable future, and then we’ll see what happens from there. It’s my job to put a really great team in place before we get out of here.
What did you and Cordish Companies see in Norfolk and in this particular location on the riverfront?
I saw an absolutely gorgeous active river and beautiful waterfront property that was dormant, just not doing anything. We saw an opportunity.
What we do is go into different cities and we like to be part of what we call revitalization. That’s what’s been happening right here in Norfolk. The city has been absolutely tremendous.
You’ve got great things like ADP moving in. You’ve got the Icon Building next door. New IKEA and retail shops. Waterside District wants to be a part of that. We’re happy to be here.
Can you talk about the specific restaurants you’ve programmed into the mix at Waterside District and why you think these were ideal choices for Norfolk, Virginia?
So, at Waterside we like to be part of the neighborhood at the end of the day. I had the great job of going around to the great restaurants here locally. There might be something on their menu and we ask to be part of it. We started with Cogans Pizza. They have a great slice of pizza over there with some craft beer. We partnered with Rich and Dave from Cogans and it kind of trickled down from that – Dawn from Carolina Cupcakery, Norfolk Coffee and Tea. It was actually just building a great relationship.
Then we brought in our signature restaurants: Blue Moon Taphouse, Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse, which we have in a couple other cities. We though Guy Fieri would be a great fit here.
Why did you think Guy was a good match for Norfolk?
Bacon and barbeque. Do I need to say anything else?
He’s hot right now. Everybody’s watching him on TV. He’s got some incredible food. We had opened one in our Louisville project, and it was just so successful.
We called him and flew him up (to Norfolk). We showed him the site (Waterside). He said it was a no-brainer. That’s what good partners do. It was as easy as that – a quick airline trip.
Norfolk is a city by the sea. Seafood is an important part of what Waterside District offers. Can you share your thoughts on your programming in this capacity?
I’m from Baltimore and steamed crabs are my life? No, I’m just kidding.
But, yeah, we have lots of seafood and in different ways. That’s what’s pretty cool about this. You’ve got Stripers Restaurant opening in late summer with all fresh seafood, fresh fish. They’re out of Manteo.
Then we have the Harbor Club. It’s about 90 percent seafood. You’re going to see these beautiful ahi tuna stacks, crab rolls, lobster tacos, and great rockfish.
Rappahannock Oyster Company has the fresh oysters.
Craft beer is exploding in popularity everywhere in the country. Virginia’s craft breweries are hot right now. You’ve got a Starr Hill bar positioned in the center of the common area called The Market. There are roughly 10 to 12 Starr Hill taps, but also a good selection of other Virginia beers as well. Can you give is some details on this aspect of the business?
Right inside The Market where you walk in is Starr Hill in the middle. It’s a great meeting point. Twelve of the beers are Starr Hill. Starr Hill actually picked out the other 36 beers. They made sure it was all local – Virginia – beer.
There is a huge TV screen in The Market. Will this be a community go-to spot on Super Bowl Sunday? How do you plan to utilize it in general?
We’re known for our entertainment and programming. Those TVs are part of it. We have over 100 TVs, no less than 55 inches nig. You’re talking about the big LED screen. It’s fully programmable – 11-1/2 feet by 20 feet. We’re going to have the big games on there for sure.
Then we’re going to do something I think is really cool. We’ll have all the NFL teams playing throughout the District on our TVs. We’ll have all college sports on as well – March Madness, Saturday college football. You’ll have watch parties. If you’re a big Ohio State fan or ODU fan, we’ll have a spot for you dedicated just for you and your team.
Can you talk about the live music programming you’re going to have both inside and outside of your building?
We have four or five places where there’ll always be stuff happening with regard to music programming. I’m a big fan of local and live entertainment. It is going to be a lot of acoustic and power trio. Then every weekend starting during the day we’ll have family-friendly, fun entertainment with jugglers and street musicians. Then at night we’ll have live music from 5 PM to 11 PM.
Come out, enjoy the sunset with a great meal and listen to some great entertainment, including something that’s brand new we’re doing right here in Norfolk. It’s called Yacht Rock. We’re having a Yacht Rock party every Friday. The bands are dressed up like they’re from the ‘70s and ‘80s in captain outfits. We want you to bring your boat down and dock it at the marina.