After touring the 2014 Strolling Supper at the Waterside Marriott[i], I can safely say the last thing Hampton Roads lacks is another restaurant serving crab soup, pork belly, mac and cheese, biscuits, cornbread, greens, etc.
While not always dedicated exclusively to Southern fare, most of HR’s restaurants[ii] have some aspect of comfort food on their menu.
Now, if Supper’s goal is to unseat Chow from the pillar of Southern food excellence in Norfolk, then that’s all Well and Capitalistically Good. But Supper’s executive chef Edward Storey is dead wrong to claim a lack of southern food in Hampton Roads.
[iii] spells out the region’s bias clearly. Owner Kevin O’Connor said of Hampton Roads, “when we started this business I looked around at the general market and was cautious as to whether people would buy Imperial Stouts and Belgian-style ales out of the gate. We felt Hampton Roads is more of a segway[iv] [sic] beer kind of town.” As a Southerner who grew up in the multi-ethnic food scenes of Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida, Ghent presents an inescapable Southern influence by comparison. The tendency of restaurants in this area that don’t claim the Southern genre to nevertheless lean heavily on sandwiches, pork, mac and cheese, etc. indicates that the region has a stated food preference already. A recent feature on O’Connor’s Brewery in Veer
You know, plain stuff, vanilla; nothing as interesting as the flavor wallop of an imperial stout. While this statement describes the region’s beer preferences, it is not difficult to extrapolate what that implies about their food preferences.
I spoke to Field Guide/Handsome Biscuit owner, David Hausmann, at Café Stella a few weeks ago about the very same bias. In our brief conversation we lamented the unadventurous nature of Norfolk’s eaters. He said his goal was to slip in little gems on his menus, like an Iberian paprika and saffron stew[v] that he serves at Field Guide, and to continue to experiment with ways to manipulate people’s stated preference into more adventurous food options.
Compare that to other food regions where diners can’t walk five feet without four different Thai/Vietnamese/Cambodian restaurants, six different Mediterranean restaurants, Ethiopian food, actual Spanish tapas (not like whatever the fuck is happening at Bodega), and a picture of missing pieces forms around this region’s food culture. The last thing Tidewater lacks is more biscuits and gravy around the ever-expanding rim of its restaurant scene. In fact, smaller outfits are starting to exploit and subvert this region’s bias. In the future, maybe, Hampton Roads will welcome diversity and a flavor palate that goes beyond the Paula Dean-approved trinity of butter, cheese and pork.
But, what we do miss are the homier elements that Supper seems to promise. An intimate bar that isn’t as bro-tastic as P. House or Red Dog, a motherly feel to pair besides Chow’s open efficiency. Surely, Supper will succeed and thrive, but don’t think for a second it is because they are doing anything risky or interesting in Hampton Roads.
[i] The Platinum Plate Awards for Coastal Virginia magazine. A foodie event that featured the region’s top restaurants as well as some skull scratchers like Nawab that indicated the Platinum Plate Awards did not have exclusivity rules or were at least totally friendly with the bare-knuckle-capitalism of mediocre restaurants buying themselves access.
[ii] Excluding all the fancy Platinum Plate restaurants in the larger HR Region featured in endnote supra that this writer has never been to, here is an off the cuff list with explanations:
Taphouse (Mac & Cheese), Public House (Mac & Cheese and porkophilia), Chow, Stove, Still, Chop House, Red Dog Saloon (general comfort food), Vintage, Handsome Biscuit (duh), and to a lesser degree Green Onion (comfort style), A. W. Shucks (fried oysters, upper class Southern seafood), and Field Guide (sandwiches with mac and cheese, pork, bacon).
[iv] Veer misspells the word segue for the mobility product Segway here.