(Blackened yellowfin tuna over cauliflower rice risotto, spinach, citrus gremolata and orange hoisin served up at The Roads Bistro. Courtesy photo.)
By Marisa Marsey
Michael Baldwin, who recently opened The Roads Bistro, radiates joy. Even over the phone, you sense he’s bouncing on the balls of his feet, reveling in this new adventure. He looks like he could be a rock or movie star, a Russell Brand type, but he’s not fixated on fame or fortune. His success metric: “I want my staff to be as happy to come to work here as I was at Abbey Road and Pacifica.”
He started as a teenager at the former, thunderstruck that he could go to a job and hear live music every night. He matured into a professional tending bar over a dozen years at the latter, the last of Chris Glover’s epic Little Bar Bistros standing.
Now, pushing 40, he’s glad his wife goaded him into heeding his restaurateur calling and heaps praise on Glover. “Chris has been so helpful,” he gushes. “There are so many ideas that I learned at Pacifica.” And, in the sincerest form of flattery, he admits to stealing, er imitating, some of them.
Little Bar Bistro fans will recognize the hours (7 days a week, 5 p.m.-midnight) and the menu of Americanized cross-cultural hot and cold tapas (scallops with Thai crispy rice and orange-braised fennel; curried cauliflower steak; pot stickers; hummus du jour). Roads’ chef, Dion White, another Pacifica alum, augments the lineup with a couple sandwiches and freewheeling specials.
But where the LBBs were in hip, happening zones like Ghent, Downtown and the Oceanfront, Roads resides in a suburban strip mall near Tidewater Community College’s Virginia Beach campus.
Baldwin points to establishments nearby including Mannino’s and Bangkok Garden and, a bit further afield, Heirloom, noting that this unpretentious neighborhood offers a critical mass of good eats, an emerging restaurant row.
Roads reinforces it with a cozy sophistication of white butcher paper topping black tablecloths in a dining room that seats 54, a convivial center bar and a lounge-y area complete with fireplace and comfy couches for lingering over conversations that the garrulous Baldwin likes to instigate between strangers (aka new friends).
Harkening back to Abbey Road, there are guitars perched above the bar, a groovy coffee table by locally-based Funk Yard Designs incorporating vinyl that Baldwin inherited, and a weekly live jazz duo.
“I’m not a good guitar or mandolin player, but I play every day,” Baldwin shares his passion with unbridled exuberance. “Nothing brings people together like music, food and drink.” On the website he expands that thought, “Unfortunately, we suck at making music so we chose to start our business around the things we ARE good at.”
The “we” refers to his partners Dan Cunningham, a motorcyclist, and Art Marks, whom he met biking; hence their bistro’s bicycle logo. “It’s a Penny-farthing,” Baldwin explains. “A crazy dangerous bike to ride that evolution steered in a better direction.” It’s doubly meaningful, he continues, as they’re not out to reinvent the wheel, just make it more fun. And to embed their bistro as a locals’ hangout, they chose the name Roads, a cool rendering of Hampton Roads.
Returning to his goal of a happy staff, he shares that Roads’ focus is classic cocktails, not obsessively crafted ones. “Many places are doing craft cocktails well, but I feel that there’s some small French village that’s been making liqueurs for 100 years that contain all that’s going into them,” he says.
So while he encourages his mixologists to experiment with the more than 100 bottles in stock, he wants them to have time for whatever they’re into outside of work, too (the way he likes to dote on his daughters), “not have to come in here two hours early to mix tinctures.”
Just like Roads’ logo reminds, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Just enjoy the ride.
3809 Princess Anne Road, #123, Virginia Beach. 757-904-1566. Nightly 5 p.m.-Midnight. theroadsbistro.com