There's more to Norfolk, Va., than the country's biggest naval base. Thomas Berger just needed a few years to realize it.
When I was growing up, Norfolk was not a popular place for tourists—it was a place where people just lived. And it was a kind of rough-around-the-edges seaport city. My friends Mike and Ilona, who still live in town, like to remind me that there was a monkey at the zoo who'd smoke cigarettes and flip kids the bird. That monkey was the real Norfolk.
Before a recent trip back to Norfolk (the stress is on the first syllable, pronounced nah; the pronunciation of the second syllable is unprintable in a magazine—well, most of them anyway), I hadn't been to my hometown in almost 15 years. After my parents moved away, there was little reason to return. But, in the past few years, I've noticed that scrappy Norfolk has turned into quite the destination.
Downtown Granby Street, which once wasn't very safe even during the day, is now lined with restaurants and trendy bars like Bodega, which has a tapas menu and "the best bartender on Granby," according to my friend Kevin. There's also a fancy new cruise port next to Nauticus, a combination ocean-science and naval-history museum. The kid in me liked strolling around the deck of the USS Wisconsin, a decommissioned World War II battleship staffed by retired Navy personnel.
But what made my recent visit most enjoyable was rediscovering the spots that have been around for years, such as the Donut Dinette. I went there the morning I arrived for a hearty breakfast of eggs, corned beef, and hash browns. (I had to stop back a couple of days later just for the doughnuts, which are not made on Mondays in the summer.)
The diner is down the street from an art-house theater, Naro Expanded Cinema, that used to be the place to go for $3 double features and midnight showings of Stop Making Sense. The theater still screens cult flicks, but it's now one movie for $8. After a matinee, you can get a cheeseburger at Dog-n-Burger Grille and sit outside in the picnic area.
For a caffeine fix, there's a cozy coffeehouse nearby that's run by Elliot Juren. A few years ago, he closed his popular restaurant, Elliot's, to take some time off. It wasn't long before he was looking for something else to do and noticed the stream of people heading for a certain national coffee chain across the street from his wife Gail's collectibles shop, Texture. So he opened Elliot's Fair Grounds, a café that has board games and free books. Downstairs at Texture, I was tempted to buy a clock made from a folding camera.
A couple of my favorite Norfolk sights are the Hermitage Museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art. On the banks of the Lafayette River, the Hermitage was once a private home built by William and Florence Sloane, who made their fortune in textile mills. There's a beautiful collection of Japanese snuff bottles, and kids will love checking out the hidden door and passageway. The Chrysler is another spot I know well because my mom was a docent there. The museum is in a sprawling Italianate mansion and known for its collection of glass, including works by René Lalique and a gorgeous group of Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps.
Norfolk has several historic homes downtown—many of which date from the late 1700s and early 1800s—that visitors can explore during the Historic Garden Week in the spring. If you want to spend the night in the area, I found a good B&B called the Freemason Inn. The breakfast was a three-course feast: fruit and yogurt, followed by poached eggs with salmon, and, to finish things off, a waffle topped with fruit and whipped cream.
That night, I joined Mike, Ilona, and another friend, Christine, for a Norfolk Tides game at Harbor Park. When I followed the Tidewater Tides, a farm team of the New York Mets, they played on a field by the airport. Now they have a new name, a nicer park, and they're affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles. The Tides won, but I didn't catch much of the game—that's the downside of going to the ballpark with people you haven't seen in decades.
I also met up with my friend Larry and his son Derek at Cogan's Pizza. When I first heard the name of the place, it didn't register, but then I realized that I'd been there when it was called Cogan's Instant Art Bar. A group of noted local beer experts (i.e., friends of Derek) claim that Cogan's has the best beer selection in town. There's also some interesting art on the walls, including a painting of a gorilla being attacked by aliens; the caption reads: FOR SPACEMAN STRENGTH AND ENDURANCE, EAT AT COGAN'S.
On my last day, I had lunch at Doumar's Cones and Barbecue, a diner with curbside service. (To signal to a waitress, pull up under the awning and turn on your lights.) The $2 sandwiches are excellent, but the main draw is the ice cream, served in waffle cones hand-rolled on the premises.
On a sugar high, I then did something touristy: I went on a narrated cruise past the naval base aboard the Victory Rover. I'd taken a regular bus tour of the base, but the cruise let me see a bit of the city, as well as Portsmouth just across the river.
My final stop had to be the Virginia Zoo, which has been spruced up since I was a kid. The African exhibits have raised walkways, so you're now at eye level with the giraffes. And the monkeys are behind glass, so they won't be getting any cigarettes. I didn't try to find out if they know any obscene gestures.
411 W. York St., 866/388-1897, freemasoninn.com, from $145
1917 Colley Ave., 757/625-0061, from $5
2001 Manteo St., 757/623-1667, cheeseburger $4
Elliot's Fair Grounds
806 Baldwin Ave. #2, 757/640-2899, fairgroundscoffee.com
Doumar's Cones and Barbecue
1919 Monticello Ave., 757/627-4163, doumars.com, from $2
1 Waterside Dr., 800/664-1080, nauticus.org, $11
Naro Expanded Cinema
1507 Colley Ave., 757/625-6276, narocinema.com
7637 North Shore Rd., 757/423-2052, thfm.org, $5
Chrysler Museum of Art
245 W. Olney Rd., 757/664-6200, chrysler.org, $7
Historic Garden Week
757/451-1512, vagardenweek.org, from $25
150 Park Ave., 757/622-2222, norfolktides.com, from $9.50
1 Waterside Dr., 757/627-7406, navalbasecruises.com, $16.50
3500 Granby St., 757/441-2374, virginiazoo.org, $7
806 Baldwin Ave., 757/626-0991
442 Granby St., 757/622-8527, bodegaongranby.com, tapas from $5
1901 Colonial Ave., 757/627-6428, pints from $2.50