By Marisa Marsey

A cynic might sneer, “What are those guys trying to do, corner NoCo?” The thought’s not ungrounded. Dave Filipowski and Rich Katz own neighboring hangouts Cogans North and Hank’s Filling Station on the north side of Colley Avenue. So it’s reasonable to conjecture that with their recent opening of Craft on Colley, just a block away, they calculated it would be better to compete against themselves than someone else.

Wrong-o. The dynamic duo never hatched a masterplan to run restaurants clustered together. “We just always liked the building,” says Filipowski with a shrug in his voice. Years ago, they’d wanted the spot that has housed everything from a convenience store to Nouvelle Restaurant, but it wasn’t available. This go-round, the timing was right. 

But 80-seat Craft (40 indoors/40 outdoors), unlike pizza/beer-slinging Cogans North (they also own Cogans Ghent) and BBQ/bourbon-backyard bash Hank’s, presents as a cut-above cocktail bar. Humble rum and cokes get brushed aside for French Martinis and Hemingway Daiquiris.

The sleek bar is angled intentionally, not firing-squad straight, so convos stream across with no one stuck on an end peering into their preprandial. LED lighting showcases prismatic gravity pours, a kind of artwork unto itself. And frozen drink machines swirl in stainless steel glory, resembling a hip, mesmerizing neo-laundromat.

The entire buildout is excellent from the marble-y restrooms (“We didn’t want to be another Colley Avenue restaurant with just one bathroom,” says Filipowski) to the mega-booth (two raised tables facing each other that horseshoe into a single booth for 8-12) against a wall painted in the restaurant’s signature color – a rich vermillion that looks like a million –  to “fire on water” (a waterfall-fire pit combo) on the covered patio where every table has a heater above it for a nearly four-season al fresco.

The illumination throughout – especially stunning when you pass by at night – is a draw all its own.

And while cocktails may be the emphasis, Craft has really good food: smashburgers, tacos, sushi rolls, red curry bowls and more. “Food everyone knows, but crafted,” Katz explains. And, indeed, topnotch quality prevails in ingredients and preparation. Prices, though, are as friendly as the service, and there’s no whiff of pretention.

“It’s high-end without being high-end,” says Filipowski, coining an apt term: semi-fine dining.

Given that he’s in the kitchen of their establishments daily (when asked to describe his and Katz’s roles, he quips: “crazy and crazier”), the proximity of their ventures is a plus. Still, they’ve brought in Darren “Mickey” Vernon as Craft’s executive chef and general manager.

Craft’s label-fluid, cross-genre offerings contain a few flashbacks to Vernon’s 13-year tenure at RZ Restaurants, culminating as corporate chef over the organization’s venues (including 456 Fish, Leone’s Italian and Byrd & Baldwin Brothers Steakhouse). Leone fans, for example, will recognize the Asian-inflected, sesame seed-speckled calamari tossed with sweet Thai chili peppers, a recent special. He’s pulling out a tuna tartare from even earlier, circa his Velvet 25 days.

Vernon notes that although there are other places Americanizing international faves, “You don’t usually find Japanese, Korean, Thai and Mexican together.” It’s like an upmarket mall food court folded into one.

During one visit, our table laden with poke-stuffed avocado, bulgogi steak bowl, jackfruit tacos, quinoa salad and two smashburgers – the “Little Italy” featuring burrata, basil, tomatoes and crushed red pepper flakes and the “French Connection” starring brie, thick bacon and bacon jam (there are a dozen-plus burger varieties; you specify one, two or three patties) – so resembled an edible Model U.N., I half expected our plates to break into a chorus of “It’s a Small World After All.” 

Like the décor, the food shines in its smart unfussiness.

At another dinner, our entrées arrived while we were only halfway into the joys of the above-mentioned calamari appetizer special (also available that night as an entrée with crab cake). Pre-pandemic, that would have peeved me. But in our new normal world it seems silly to be so doctrinaire. 

Sure, we need standards, but categories can blur – apps become light entrées, entrées shared apps – and not all cuisines follow a rigid progression. Whether or not this was a one-off blunder, the vibe here is so chill and communal that you just want to go with the flow. 

Especially cool is the way the retractable garage door erases divisions of in and out, melting the vibrant interior into the patio and the night beyond so that you feel like part of the ‘hood whether you already are or drove from afar.

If I lived in Highland Park or Colonial Place, I’d stroll over regularly for a drink. I’d have to because it’s hard to choose among the options and I want to sip my way through the tempting list. It leans into tequila with many a margarita (the sunburst-hued mango habanero ignites the lips like a sweet fireball kiss, a spicy, kicky, liquid candy). There are also champagne cocktails and a thoughtful wine program.

Don’t skip dessert even though it’s not heavily promoted. A fancier schmancier place would have called one evening’s choice banoffee tart and expect you to know what that means (and, in fact, that’s what the ticket rang up as), but our kindly server just pegged it as good old banana caramel tart. Man, was it delectable; perfectly proportioned with a cap of real whipped cream attesting to a restaurant that doesn’t cut corners. Another night that individual pie-let might be yuzu or chocolate flavored.

Still a work in progress, Craft is on trend in many ways including a discount if you don’t pay by credit card (or a surcharge if you do; depending on perspective). The team has fans and shades on order for the patio and they’re expanding the kitchen to accommodate two dedicated sushi rollers. Sunday brunch is on the horizon. In other words, they’re plying their, er, craft.

Craft: 4110 Colley Avenue, Norfolk. 757-647-0352. Open at 11 am daily except Tuesday. Dishes $6-18. Cocktails $6-14.