TASTE OF SUCCESS: (L-R) Peter and Jon Pruden have enhanced and expanded the specialty gourmet food brand known for its delicious sandwiches, prepared food items, and spot-on wine selection

By Marisa Marsey

As nightmarish as the past year and a half was, Hampton Roads was spared the degree of devastation suffered by metropolises we often gaze at aspirationally. As we begin to bask in the light at the end of the tunnel with fingers crossed (‘round here, we know we’re not through the tunnel until we’re off the bridge), we want to celebrate restaurants, for among businesses, the pandemic dealt them a special blow. We could fill an entire magazine limelighting all the independent 757 eateries we know and love but narrowed our scope to two dozen that have been with us for at least two decades (listed from most senior to newest of the bunch). Each is a distinctive gem where the mundane feels like a milestone and actual milestones become indelible memories. They’re the landmarks of our lives for more than a generation (Tautogs even bears a historical plaque), transcending flavors du jour and flashes in the pan. Before Covid-19, they surmounted other Herculean hurdles including 9-11 and the Great Recession. Now there’s another tough nut: labor shortages. Big Sam’s sports a sign: “Please be patient. We are short-staffed and doing our very best to serve you.” No Frill Grill offers $100 gift cards for referrals who get hired. Others have modified operating hours. But they’re resilient, standing the test of time, tribulation and, above all, taste.

Steinhilbers (Virginia Beach, steinys.com) 

In 1939, FDR was president, Bette Davis won an Oscar for Jezebel and Robert Steinhilber established Steinhilber’s Thalia Acres Inn on the sprawling banks of the Lynnhaven River. Over the years, his daughter Jeannie and her son Brady Viccellio have mastered the delicate balancing act of refreshing this communal family heirloom while upholding tradition. “Just as in my dad’s day, he wanted to take care of his guests,” says Jeannie. So stellar service perpetuates alongside classic seafood, chateaubriand, twice-baked potatoes and, as fabled as the Norwegian Lady, Steiny’s fantail shrimp.

Isle of Capri (Virginia Beach, vboceanfrontnorth.com/dining/isle-of-capri) 

Oh, the colorful tales they tell of the back room at the original on Laskin Road. But even in the swinging Rat Pack days, the upscale Italian food was just as legendary. Today, founder Pascal Arcese’s son Pasquale honors his family’s recipes, only now the restaurant is perched on the top floor of the Holiday Inn North Beach, so tableside Caesars, linguine alle vongole and veal parmigiana come with a side of breathtaking beach views. Bada bing!

Black Angus (Virginia Beach, blackangusrestaurant.com) 

The “1953” emblazoned on the awning references the first Black Angus in Norfolk. It’s long gone, but it prompted Michael Savvides and partners to open an Oceanfront offshoot several years later. The name, chosen via a newspaper competition, is still synonymous with beefy pleasures, amplified by seafood, chicken and pasta. Savvides lobbied for liquor-by-the-drink back in the day and his son Chris, who oversees the brand now, continues as an industry leader.

TASTE (Multiple locations, taste.online) 

Back when folks thought the purview of brie, pâté, and quiche was big city swells, the late, great Peter Coe made sure we had our fill with a string of gourmet shops called Taste Unlimited, starting at Hilltop in 1973. Today the Pruden family owns the nine-store operation reaching to Richmond, championing Coe’s commitment to quality wines and packaged comestibles with an emphasis on sumptuous sandwiches, soups and salads to savor there or take away. They streamlined offerings and abridged the original name, but the delight this market/upscale café/catering chain spreads still feels unlimited.

Le Yaca (Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, leyacawilliamsburg.com) 

Lafayette might be gratified to know that superb French cuisine flourishes in Williamsburg thanks to perfectionist Daniel Abid, recruited from France as Le Yaca’s chef four decades ago on Alain Ducasse’s recommendation. He eventually bought the restaurant, moving it to the Shops at High Street, and opened another at Hilltop (in the capable hands of his son, Marcus, and daughter-in-law, Cecile, also Ducasse alums). If you seek authentic Gallic gastronomy and attentive service in the prettiest of dining rooms, to paraphrase Colonel Stanton’s World War I Paris speech: “Lafayette, it is here.”

Watermans Surfside Grille (Virginia Beach, watermans.com) 

We’ve had an Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon magnitude crush on this family-owned, 40-year old boardwalk mainstay ever since, well, our first crush here. Of the fresh-squeezed orange variety, that is. Quintessential coastal, casual dining (props for sustainable seafood selections) wrapped up in a seafoam green-shingled beach cottage make this the place where locals feel like vacationers and vacationers feel like locals.

Monastery (Norfolk, 443granby.com) 

Romantic rhapsodies resonate throughout Anna and Adolf Jerabek’s unique Granby Street restaurant where servers once donned monks’ robes until the draping sleeves proved hazardous around candlelit tables. What remains constant is welcoming, first-class hospitality and delectable, classic Central European cuisine – escargot, steak tartare, roasted duck. The couple opened its iconic wooden doors, resembling those of a medieval chapel, nearly four decades ago after escaping from the former Czechoslovakia and first becoming restaurateurs in New York City. Married 56 years and working side-by-side all along, they are the American dream incarnate.

Captain Georges (Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, Kill Devil Hills, Myrtle Beach, captaingeorges.com) 

Spend any time at the Oceanfront, and you’ll undoubtedly see a plane trailing a Captain George’s AYCE banner. You’ll also undoubtedly hear someone proclaim, “They can’t be beat.” Even buffet-phobes won’t argue, if only for the Alaskan snow crab legs. Air traffic controllers could come in handy here as multitudes spend more time traversing the hot and cold food stations (especially those crab legs!) than seated beneath stained glass domes reminiscent of The Poseidon Adventure. There is an à la carte menu but we’re not sure anyone’s ever requested it.

Rudee’s Restaurant and Cabana Bar (Virginia Beach, rudees.com) 

Whoa, are you swaying? Yes, but not necessarily because you’ve had one-too-many “docktails.” You’re whiling away a summer’s day at an awning-topped glider table! This jaunty Coast Guard Station replica with multiple sun-dappled decks on Rudee Inlet Marina (hence the showers in the restroom) has parlayed a picture-postcard setting into a perfect spot for fresh local seafood since 1983.

Café Europa (Portsmouth, cafeeuropava.com) 

Pop-ups and food trucks titillate, but can’t compare to the rare world of fine dining. Not yet extinct, it thrives in the Continental sumptuousness of Café Europa where hands-on chef-owner Michael Simko specializes in Mediterranean cuisine. “The Italian and French sides,” he explains. “Fresh herbs, fresh stock, olive oil, lightness.” His wife Veronique instills service with a kid-glove graciousness and together their European roots (his Czech, hers French) lend Old World panache to Olde Towne. As if running a restaurant for 35 years isn’t challenge enough, Michael recently summited Kilimanjaro to benefit St. Jude’s.

No Frill Bar and Grill (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, nofrillgrill.com) 

We maintain this unassuming name is a misnomer ever since No Frill moved from the modest Tidewater Drive location where it originated in 1987 (technically beginning as a pita-purveying festival cart) to Ghent. Sure, a familial casualness animating the restaurant-around-the-corner (just off Colley) and its retro-diner Hilltop locale (opened in the aughts) guarantees no one would mistake them for the Ritz, but attractive, artsy settings, caring service and a well-crafted, sweeping American menu (famed for funky chicken salad) equal lavish in our book. 

Freemason Abbey (Norfolk, freemasonabbey.com) 

Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the…contented diners. They’re congregating in this 33-year old Historic Freemason District restaurant dearly beloved for solid American eats (steaks, pasta, seafood), singing the praises of everything from fern bar faves – artichoke dip, spinach salad – to today’s righteous quinoa burgers and bowls, and giving thanks for Friday’s long-running “Wild Game Night” (the likes of elk, ostrich, venison, not strip Twister) in this most unexpected of settings: a Presbyterian church erected in 1873.

Coastal Grill (Virginia Beach, coastalgrill.com) 

Where’s the best seafood in Virginia Beach? Newcomers often ask and then are baffled by the answer of Coastal Grill; it’s on Great Neck Road, smack in suburbia, not by any seaside. Yet ever since Jerry Bryan opened in 1989, this has been the place for fresh-caught fish, steamed mussels, and soft shells (but don’t overlook the pork and lamb). Once Bryan and crew, led by chef Mo Cucchiaro, moved it across the street to a venue straight out of Coastal Living, the food got the setting it deserves.

Harpoon Larry’s (Virginia Beach, harpoonlarryskillerseafood.com) 

When you can barely peel yourself away from the sun and surf, but need sustenance, shoot for ‘Poons. Just a block off the beach, its spunky blend of respectable dive bar meets authentic raw bar is a rum runner of a restaurant. Fresh fish sandwiches and platters, piles of crab legs, crawfish, oysters, mussels, clams, and daily specials like Friday’s prime rib prove everything pairs with oyster shooters and Jägermeister shots. ‘Poons mantra: “Party or walk the plank” means you might not make it back to the cabana.

Todd Jurichs Bistro (Norfolk, toddjurichsbistro.com) 

Todd broached farm-to-white- tablecloth before millennials were seedlings. When his bistro (originally called 210 for its York St. address) moved to its current urbane digs, the revolving door (“Just like in major cities!”) ushered in an elevated Downtown dining era with a scene tailored to make-or-break business deals, marriage proposals and all things momentous. His menu of international and classic cuisine, filtered by the coast, is all the better for its touch of whimsy and an award-winning wine cellar. Fittingly, his restaurant sits across from the Battleship Wisconsin at Nauticus. It’s still a big gun.

Crocs 19th Street Bistro (Virginia Beach, crocs19thstreetbistro.com) 

Without 28-year old Croc’s, there’d be no ViBe Creative District. But even before co-owner Laura Wood Habr co-conceived the concept, this mural-coated oasis of cool pulsed with live music, a menu where her husband/partner Kal’s inspired Lebanese cuisine (kefta, tabbouleh, baba ghanouj) meets kickback coastal faves (gator bites, crab cakes, shrimp and grits) and environmental consciousness right down to farm-to-bar cocktails (in 2007 it became the first Virginia Green restaurant; ask for a garden tour). Ever on the vanguard, its Sunday’s Drag Brunch wins the grande dame crown.

Tautogs (Virginia Beach, tautogs.com) 

Whether you’re from near or far, you’re a traveler here. A time traveler. This preserved, circa 1920s, salt-encrusted cottage will whisk you back to the now-disappeared era when guest houses, not Hyatt Houses, lined the Oceanfront. Though Tautogs dwells in Winston’s Cottage, it’s made history of its own since 1994 with outstanding seaboard fare (stuffed flounder in a bag, tuna Martinique) that’s as fresh as ever. A riveting wine list, too. Along with Doc Taylor’s, its adjacent sister restaurant for breakfast and lunch, it’s not-so-buried treasure.

Big Sam’s Inlet Café & Raw Bar (Virginia Beach, bigsamsrawbar.com) 

Move over cheeseburger in paradise, this is eggs, bacon, biscuits, bloodies, steamed shrimp, fajitas, tuna tacos, wings, mahi-mahi, fried clams and crab cakes in it, too. During breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night munchies, it’s stuck on tiki time (the first “happy hour” of the day runs 7am-11am: pancakes shots for everyone!). With Rudee Inlet’s Jet Ski and parasail kiosks engulfing the joint, just queuing on the switchback ramp feels like you’re headed to a theme park adventure ride.

Mizuno (Virginia Beach, mizunosushi.com) 

Japanese-born, Tokyo-trained Wataru “Walter” Mizuno took sushi upstream when he opened at La Promenade in 1996. Today it’s located in the same plaza, just a few doors down, and is sleeker than ever with a lustrous icy-white bar well-suited to his glistening, pristine fish. Continually evolving while staying true to traditional technique, everything here – from scallop crudo and tuna poke tacos to nigiri and rolls – shimmers with sublime simplicity.

Bier Garden (Portsmouth, biergarden.com) 

Military who’ve been stationed in Germany, wanderlusters who dream of going there and Europhiles who’ve been all gravitate to Olde Towne’s High Street for traditional Bavarian fare like schnitzels and wursts and a staggering array of international beers (bottles and taps) as well as cordials and schnapps. The Osfolk family (who immigrated here in the 1960s) and their veteran crew suffuse gemutlikiet into every nook of the ratshskeller-ish dining room, bar, umbrella-studded patio and breezeway. Prost!

Luna Maya (Norfolk, lunamayarestaurant.com) 

The legend starts in 1997 with sisters Karla and Vivian Montano deducing that familiar Mexican fare would draw more customers to their Aragona hole-in-the-wall than their Bolivian homeland’s dishes. Turns out their sweet corn tamales surpassed any country’s. Sifting family traditions into scratch-made Latin cuisine, they eventually moved the cantina to Ghent, then traded up to their current Colley address, a capacious, industrial-chic space accommodating legions of fans. Their menu grew too, and now pastel de choclo and pique a lo macho are practically as popular as guacamole, burritos and a discriminating spectrum of margaritas.

Omars Carriage House (Norfolk, omarscarriagehouse.com) 

Peer through the picture window and succumb to the irresistible charms of this unbuttoned fine dining restaurant – artfully mismatched tablescapes, chintz-draped chairs – that could be as at home in Paris’s 15th arrondissement as Norfolk’s Freemason. At lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, a globe-spinning eclecticism kindles the menu, too: European cuisine (veal puttanesca, paella, gazpacho, mussels frites), American (NY strip, burgers galore), Moroccan (chicken tagine, kebabs). This was an actual carriage house, circa 1850, but for the last 23 years, the genial Omar Boukhriss has made it his – and our – own. 

Rajput (Norfolk, Suffolk, rajputonline.com) 

The warm, tantalizing scent of spices like cardamom, ginger and coriander instantly envelop you here before delivering on their heady promise in meals highlighting traditional and contemporary Indian cuisine. The décor, rich in colors of saffron red and turmeric gold, furthers the exquisite effect. Founded in Hampton by the civic-minded and effusively hospitable Paul Chhabra in 1999, Rajput today has two locations – Ghent and Harbour View – offering a gamut of delicious dishes (including halal, Jain and vegan) and, at lunch, an efficient buffet.

Cobalt Grille (Virginia Beach, cobaltgrille.com) 

Chef-owner Alvin Williams’ Hilltop hotspot turns 21 this year. How apropos, as you’d be hard-pressed to pick a better place than its sexy lounge to quaff, be it a brilliant cocktail or fine wine. Then stay for beef Wellington or burgers, scallops, rack of lamb or fried green tomatoes (bolstered by his own garden). When Williams arrived on these shores from England, his CV stamped with names like Grosvenor House and Savoy, he made a name for himself at the bygone Le Chambord and its Bistro. His admirers followed him here, where their number has only grown. Fun fact: Williams, whose restaurant is the youngest on this list, co-hosts The Check with Brady Viccellio of Steinhilber’s, the oldest. It’s a podcast about – what else? – restaurants.

And there’s more…

For tourists looking to dine where the locals go, Fellini’s in Norfolk continues to serve great, thin pizza in a wide variety; Orapax is a fine expression of Greek cuisine with all your favorite traditional fare; Doumar’s invented the ice cream cone and its Carolina-style BBQ is a must — be sure to use the drive-up service since little has changed since the 1940s it seems; Pierce’s Pit BBQ in Williamsburg started as a to-go shack back in the 1970s and today is arguably the best in Hampton Roads (and you can eat inside or outside on a picnic table).  And finally give Longboard’s in Norfolk’s scenic East Beach a visit — chef/owners Vince Ranhorn and Todd Leutner have been in the restaurant biz for over two decades.