Steve Johnson maintains what amounts to a curious love-hate relationship with the city of Norfolk. The right-handed pitcher—a Baltimore native, St. Paul’s School graduate, and the son of former Orioles pitcher/current MASN broadcaster Dave Johnson—has spent two of the past three baseball seasons shuttling between the Norfolk Tides, the Orioles top-level farm team, and the big-league club.
“Obviously, it’s not really where I want to be while I’m there,” Johnson, 27, says of Norfolk. “Where I really want to be is in the big leagues.” Nonetheless, “while there,” he enjoys Norfolk, characterizing the city as a smaller version of Baltimore: commercialized waterfront, hot and humid summers, and with a nearby resort, Virginia Beach, that he compares favorably with Ocean City. “It reminds me a lot of home.”
In effect, the Norfolk Tides serve as an Orioles finishing school, the final stage of a player’s minor-leagues incubation period. Since the team became as the Orioles’ Triple A affiliate in 2007, 142 different players have moved between Norfolk and Baltimore, including stars such as catcher Matt Wieters, and potential stars like Johnson. That makes the Tides’ cozy but not claustrophobic Harbor Park (capacity: 12,000) -- as advertised, it faces the city’s picturesque harbor -- a great place for Orioles fans to see future talent in action.
A four-and-one-half-hour drive from here, Norfolk, with a population of almost 250,000, perches on the harbor of Hampton Roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in the southeast corner of Virginia.
Maritime affairs, both military and civilian, define the city’s ethos. In fact, one of downtown’s chief cultural attractions, Nauticus (1 Waterside Dr., 757-664-1000) combines the two: Nauticus itself (think: a mash-up of our Science Center and National Aquarium) boasts interactive exhibits, a high-def/huge-screen theater, naval museum, and aquarium; next door, also part of facility, sits the decommissioned U.S.S. Wisconsin, an imposing World War II-built Navy battleship open for tours. (Oddly, its daunting guns are trained on the city, as if ready to begin shelling.)
The more traditional Chrysler Museum of Art (1 Memorial Pl., 757-664-6200) located just northwest of downtown, features everything from classical to contemporary works, plus an impressive array of glass art and an extensive photography collection that emphasizes Civil War-era images, notably many of Abraham Lincoln. The museum’s neighbor Glass Studio (745 Duke St., 757-333-6299) permits visitors to view artists at work, and also presents giddy monthly events that match music, drinks, and glassworks incorporated into performance art.
Much of Norfolk’s best dining and shopping action occurs in the tree-lined Ghent neighborhood, cheek-by-jowl with Old Dominion University. The friendly-yet-funky restaurant/coffeehouse Café Stella (1907 Colonial Ave., 757-625-0461) lures both ODU students (their snouts deep into laptops), as well as young moms with kids. Its menu veers from healthful (steel-cut oatmeal) to artery clogging (grits and surrey-smoked sausage with fried egg), with ground-and-roasted-on-the-premises coffee and a surprisingly broad selection of beer and wine.
Or consider Charlie’s Café (1800 Granby St., 757-625-0824), perfect for an unfussy breakfast or lunch and dive-y in the best sense of the term, with a short-order cook working a steaming griddle, a sit-down counter, water served in mason jars, hot sauce on every table, and people actually perusing the city’s daily newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot.
For dinner, try Ghent’s attractive Press 626 café and wine bar (626 W. Olney Rd., 757-282-6324), whose nouveau-esque menu features seasonal salads, imaginative sandwiches and entrees, and refreshing spritzers. Alternatively, Pasha Mezze’s (324 W. 22nd St., 757-627-1318) Turkish cuisine ranges from chicken skewers to a grilled salmon sandwich to a red-lentil cake wrap. And given Norfolk’s close proximity to the ocean, seafood restaurants abound, notably A. W. Shucks (2200 Colonial Ave., 757-664-9117), a clapboard, no-frills raw bar and grill that serves oysters, clams, scallops, and every other seafood imaginable.
Skip dessert wherever you eat in order to devour a double-scoop waffle cone at the un-ironically old-fashioned and exuberantly well-lighted Doumar’s Cones and Barbecue (1919 Monticello Ave., 757-627-4163), which keeps things simple with only six ice cream flavors: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, butter pecan, and lime and orange sherbets. Also available: floats, sundaes, and shakes.
After dinner or a Tides game, relax at The Public House (1112 Colley Ave. 757-227-9064), a handsome bar with an intrepid array of regional, national, and international bottled and draft beers. Visiting baseball fans might catch a glimpse of off-duty Tides players: “I hang out there after a game,” Johnson allows, “spending some time with a couple buddies [teammates] to grab a beer.”
Extend an evening by investigating the city’s music scene. Downtown’s Granby Theater (421 Granby St., 757-961-7208), a sprawling, glittering dance club located in a rehabbed movie house, hosts DJs on Fridays and Saturdays, while The NorVa (317 Monticello Ave., 757-627-4547), housed in yet another repurposed downtown movie theater, presents touring rock, rap, metal, and country acts in an acoustically acclaimed setting.
Back in Ghent, bounce between a handful of consignment shops, all within strolling distance of each other immediately off W. 21st St., the main drag: Urban Castaways (1904 Granby St., 757-623-0100) for furniture and lamps; White Rabbit (334 W. 21st St., 757-627-4169) for children’s clothes, smart toys, and specialized kids books; and Wild Hare (2112 De Bree Ave., 757-622-7465) for women’s clothes and accessories. Nearby, a wholly different vibe reigns at Skinnies (431 W. 22nd St., 757-622-2241), which brims with used vinyl and CDs in all rock genres—not forgetting a store-length rack of band T-shirts (Black Flag, Tom Waits, Joy Division).
Regarding accommodations, Ghent’s stately Bed and Breakfast at Historic Page House Inn (323 Fairfax Ave., 757-625-5033) provides steps-away access to the Chrysler Museum, while downtown’s Courtyard by Marriott (520 Plume St., 757-963-6000) sits next to Norfolk’s pleasant and efficient light rail, which whisks riders to the doorstep of the Tides’ stadium.
The team’s regular season schedule runs from early April through early September (longer if they makes the playoffs). Understandably, if Steve Johnson has his way, he’ll be back in Baltimore as quickly as possible. But given Norfolk’s easygoing pace, cordial spirit, and abundance of distractions, Orioles fans and other visitors need not experience that same sense of urgency to leave.