By Michael Curry
The restaurant business is notoriously a tough one requiring major investments, long hours and sometimes a fickle clientele. “Until you own one, you never know what it is all about” says Carlyle Bland with knowledge and a quiet authority that he has developed over the years. While it might be true that many restaurants come and go within a short space of time, that is certainly not the case with the three owned by Carlyle – Marker 20, Venture Kitchen and Bar and Brown Chicken Brown Cow.
Fifteen years ago an enterprising young man, Carlyle Bland embarked on an incredible venture, opening his first restaurant on Queensway in downtown Hampton. After 3 months of extensive (and expensive) renovations and upgrades Marker 20 became an instant hit. Now, it is one of the most popular destinations on the Peninsula for casual dining, including great fresh seafood, pub games and live music on the covered deck as well as wonderful craft beers on tap.
But that is only the beginning. After earning degrees in economics from Old Dominion University and Virginia Tech, Carlyle worked for a utility company, worked in Europe on ski patrols, served as a bouncer for a nightclub in Arlington and then ended up landing the job as Deputy Director of the Downtown Hampton Development Partnership in its early days of existence. It was while he was working for the Partnership that the Marker 20 property became available and Carlyle jumped at the opportunity.
Never afraid to take a risk, he now has 3 restaurants, all within walking distance of each other, – each of which has its own distinctive niche and ” flavor” and Carlyle is undoubtedly one of the most successful restaurateurs and business owners in Hampton. He has carved out a market of loyal and appreciative regulars and customers. .He is known and widely admired for his creative and innovative approach and unflagging energy, overseeing operations on a daily basis, fixing problems as they might arise and always listening. Here, within the space of one block, you can find customers of all; ages and backgrounds. When asked about the challenges facing a restaurant owner, Carlyle replied: “The first one was the most difficult. Once I learned how to delegate and to seek the input from my wife Chrisi Bauhof and my chefs, it became much easier”. Chrisi is an ace computer programmer but also is very active in helping design the incredible menus and now taking care of the beautiful patio at Brown Chicken Brown Cow.
Longtime business owner in downtown Hampton, Dick Fore (Foremost Flowers) says enthusiastically: “He has always run his businesses impeccably and I have never heard anything derogatory about Carlyle in any way…not about himself, his places or his food. Downtown Hampton is lucky to have such a great entrepreneur and leader”
Similarly Ross Mugler, Hampton’s Commissioner of Revenue, “Carlyle is a great guy. He possesses really good business acumen and really understands his market. He listens and constantly makes adjustments and that, in my opinion, is a major part of his success. He is a cornerstone of our downtown and has made considerable investments into the community. Both he and Chrisi, his wife, are wicked smart and they both fully understand their clientele and the price points for making his menus attractive and affordable.”
Carlyle has always also been a pioneer – leading the way by incorporating craft brews and micro brews from the day he opened Marker 20 back in 2002. Now he is leading the way again by introducing the concept of high pressure cooking at Brown Cow Brown Chicken. These highly efficient cookers look almost like bank vault with their screw down doors and they can cook up to 40 organic chickens at a time. The concept is pretty simple… the ovens feature a system of injecting water during the cooking process so that the meats remain moist all the time. Master chef Daniel O’Neill also adds signature touches by smoking various wood chips such as mesquite, apple and hickory in the ovens, giving a distinctive and tasty flavor.
Each of the three establishments boasts an inventive, innovative and amazingly creative menu. Here’s a quick rundown of what you can expect to find at each.
BROWN COW BROWN CHICKEN
Carlyle and Chrisi opened Brown Cow Brown Chicken just a couple of months ago and it is already showing tell tale signs of great success, becoming a popular lunch spot for hundreds of downtown employees and visitors , a must go to attraction for live music as well as the place to go for delicious burgers. Using only grass fed, humanely raised cattle from Brasstown Beef in North Carolina, the beef offers a consistently outstanding flavor. Check out the incredible combinations in such tasty concoctions as the Nostradamus (featuring gruyere, beer mustard, arugula and sherry caramelized onions) or the California Dreamin’ which includes white cheddar, avocado, pepper bacon and a fried egg). Then there are the Hala Kahiki, the Wild Whisky Trip, the Perfect Pair, the Aristocrats and the Brothers Grimm to tickle your taste buds. Or you can build your own burger, selecting one cheese and two toppings
And, all of the sauces and many of the cheeses are made in house. For a change from the tasty burgers, try the smoked meat platters – your choices being organic chicken, pulled pork or beef brisket. All are served with pickles, pickled red onions and a choice of side dishes ranging from Mac and beer cheese to seasonal vegetables or BBQ white beans and house sausage to name just a few Salads range from Tomato and Mozz to Pear and Gorgonzola or Blueberry and Avocado and the house made dressings include Ranch, French, Bleu Cheese, and either Apricot, Blueberry or Lemon vinaigrette.
There is also a nice selection of great sandwiches including the Outlaw, Curly Bill, Mother Clucker or Smoked Salmon cake.
For dessert as you sit and enjoy the ambience of the covered patio (very New Orleans French Quarter), try the wholesome floats made with Virginia made Homestead Creamery ice cream.
If you just want to stop in for a drink, then try one of the 20 beers on tap – half of which are made right here in Virginia. You can even get a growler to go!
And don’t forget the special events at Brown Chicken Brown Cow: Happy Hour is every weekday from 4pm – 7pm; Live Music on Wednesdays at 8.30 and on Fridays and Saturdays at 9.30
and the not to be missed: Bow Wow Happy Hour out on the patio on Monday nights (5pm til 8pm) when friendly dogs and their owners come to gather and Wednesday is called Hump Day Cluck it – featuring delicious fried chicken from 5pm until they run out!
For the complete menu which will bring a smile to your face, check the website at: www.bchixbcow..com
VENTURE KITCHEN AND BAR
Opened four years ago, Carlyle’s 2nd restaurant, Venture, far exceeded expectations within it first year of operation (with sales of more than 3/4 of a million dollars). It is now firmly established as an adventurous and much loved destination. During the day you can choose from salads or sandwiches or the ever popular specialty pizzas. In the evenings, the menu features an enticing array of tapas along with the salads and pizzas.- 10 inch dishes with a chewy crust baked in house in the brick lined oven.
What is the most popular? Well, Carlyle says with a smile: “The Everybody’s Pizza which is made with basil pesto, artichoke hearts, bacon, mozzarella and parmesan!
But the great thing that is largely responsible for Venture’s enduring success is the always surprising list of specials . The chefs create three or four new dishes for lunch and a further four or five for dinner – every day! In addition to the great pizza dough, the chefs also make various sausages in house – chicken and duck, Irish bangers, seafood sausage and pork and chicken frankfurters.
Be sure to try the fantastic House Made Tots – made with spicy mayonnaise…you will always want to come back for more.
One thing you must try is the Sunday Brunch at Venture. Half of the menu remains the same each week and the other half is a rotating selection of breakfast pizzas, Smoked Salmon Benedict, Brioche doughnuts and a host of other delicacies.
Like Brown Cow Brown Chicken and Marker 20, Venture offers a great selection of draft beers and more than 2 dozen bottled beers, most of which change regularly. But there is also the now signature cocktails menu including the Moscow Mule, or Planter’s Punch as well as the amazing selection of wines on tap – including Proseco – the base for the now famous sparkling cocktails such as Orange Blossom or the French 75!
Marker 20, the flagship of Carlyle’s restaurant empire offers great fresh seafood -and a sometimes dizzying array of specials. On Wednesdays, try the peel and eat shrimp. Saturdays feature a hearty breakfast from 10am till 1pm and Sundays are Fun Days with brunch from 10am -2pm, daily specials and live music on the deck starting at 5pm
Both Marker 20 and Brown Cow Brown Chicken offer catering for private parties and celebrations that can accommodate up to 40 people.
Not just an amazing restaurateur, Carlyle has also been the leading light in producing and presenting various special events downtown. ranging from the New Year’s Eve Crab Pot Drop, Rolling of the Bulls, , an hilarious drag race, scaryoke (yes at Halloween), Derby Day parties and the weekly outdoor Block Parties all along Queensway Mall. All of his colleagues in the downtown business community recognize Carlyle’s amazing talent and fortitude and just recently elected him President of the Board of the Downtown Hampton Development Partnership.
Obviously relishing the revelry of these special events, Carlyle comments, “My problem with these special events is that they are too short – they are over with in no time but everyone has a great time”.
That’s for sure. And when asked if he would like to add anything to this story for VEER, Carlyle simply says: “Come on to downtown Hampton – there’s a table, or a party, waiting for you!”
See you there.
Michael Curry founded and directed the Hampton Arts Commission and Foundation (The American Theatre and The Charles H. Taylor Arts Center). He is now a freelance writer and published his first book, Dining Among the Stars, in 2016. www.mpcarts.com