Updated: Feb 28, 2021
A special on RCI.com lured me into a week-long road-trip as a make-up trip for the push out of the scheduled Mexico adventure in February with my mctraveler. Great deals in both Ocean City, Maryland and Virginia Beach, Virginia, provided an opportunity to begin my 2021 small-town city visits. With a toss-up between the two eastern shores, I selected Virginia Beach to get more coverage of areas I had been yearning to visit. Therefore, my first small-town adventure of the year was initiated in Virginia Beach and the surrounding areas.
On my first day out, I ventured into the Hampton Roads towns of Norfolk, Newport News, and Hampton.
The morning started out with a gentle late winter spring teased breeze with temperatures in the high 50’s, and by the time I reached Norfolk, the winds had picked up to over 30 miles per hour, requiring me to wear a hat to keep my hair from tossing around in the air. Loose boxes and plastic bags flying along the highway seemed to be attracted to my car as I dogged the flying debris throughout the drive on the interstate and into town.
I cannot say that I have ever been to Norfolk as its only claim to fame in my memory is that it is where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean and knew there would be massive shipyards based on the naval stations nearby. I expected to see large boats and ships everywhere and that expectation was met.
I followed the signs from the highway into the downtown area arriving on City Hall Avenue. From the highway I could see the tall buildings so I knew I was heading in the right direction. Once I came into the main downtown area, it had the landscape and layout of a typical small cosmopolitan city. The main shopping street in Norfolk is Granby street and that is where the bulk of the shops and restaurants were situated accented by Waterside Drive and Brambleton Ave as its borders. As usual, I take a drive around the outskirts to get a sense of the amount of area to cover so that I can park somewhere in the middle to get a full walking tour of the area. Lots of little street café’s and bistros dotted Granby street with a few cobblestones back allies for some old time city feel.
When traveling to new areas I like to check out the local cuisine, so I searched on my phone to determine if there was any local favorite food item of Norfolk. Low and behold, there was mention of the Cromer crab – a must have in Norfolk. Next was to find a nearby restaurant that served this local favorite. After identifying a few in the downtown area I proceeded to the menu to look and saw nothing identifying the delicacy of the Cromer crab. When I called the first restaurant Saltines and asked about what was on the menu with the Cromer crab the woman on the other ended acted like I asked for an exotic or rare foreign delicacy as she had never heard of such a thing. And after checking the online menu again I saw nothing of any item that resembled a seafood dish that might have a crab in it. I called a second restaurant which appeared to be an old, converted church that also was listed as a place that served Cromer crab and the received the same response. Figuring Cromer crab may not be well known for its name and probably everyone here just knows it as crab meat I decided to check out the church restaurant based on its historic location.
The Freemason Abbey restaurant was an old 1873 Second Presbyterian Church and has been a part of Norfolk’s history since the 19th century. Although not always known as Freemason Abbey, this building has always served as a gathering place in one form or another since its inception.
When it was purchased in 1987, it was a dilapidated structure and the owner had a vision of a restaurant in the former church setting inspired by a visit to a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia called The Abbey. The huge cathedral roof trusses in which a second floor was added to provide more space in the restaurant gave it an open room feel and more old-time character. Some of the original artifacts such as the stained-glass windows and the use of the pews for seating benches were restored as you could envision as soon as you were fully past the vestibule that it had been a church. It was given the present name since it is located on Freemason Street but has never been affiliated with the freemasons. The name Abbey was in honor of having previously been a church.
The lunch time crowd was widely spread out throughout the premises with large face cutouts of famous people sitting in the booths to separate the tables and provide for the social distancing needed to satisfy the COVID-19 requirements. I took a picture of Eddy Murphy as he sat across from with another well-known comedian in an upstairs booth, while ‘The Rock’ and some other celebrity sat behind me. They had several items highlighted on the menu as classics, so I went for the classic she-crab soup with a hopeful expectation that it was made with the famous Norfolk Cromer crab.
As I left the church, new entrants were standing outside describing how the entrance resembled a speakeasy that required a secret passcode. When they opened the door to enter, I stood there and asked them for the passcode which of course caught them off guard and with lots of chuckles.
I continued my journey down the main corridor of Granby street placing me along a sidewalk of what appeared to be a walking hall of famed stars melted into the concrete, just like in stars in the cement in Hollywood. I later learned that this part of the street was known as the Legends of Music Walk of Fame recognizing Hampton Roads natives who have made significant contributions of national or international significance to the world of music. Honored with bronze plaques set in granite, inductees included Pearl Bailey, Charlie Byrd, Ella Fitzgerald and many others.
Another local eating establishment that caught my eye when I initially started my walk through town was an old-fashioned hot dog/deli Famous Al’s claiming to have the best hot dogs on the east coast, so of course I had to have one to prove a judgment on its truth. NOT! It was a similar experience as the hot dog eaten at Ben’s Chili Bowl in DC, where I heard so much about it. I had such a high expectation that when I had one of the famous dogs, I was so disappointed as I have had better hot dogs at the 7-11. I ordered a chili dog and when my bag arrived with such a small footprint inside, I was already disappointed and had no hope it was going to be the best hot dog ever, which is wasn’t. Oh well, I contributed my $4.50 hot dog fee to help grow the economy of Norfolk, Virginia.