Eat, Play, Love: Fun and Games at Laid-Back Eateries
Local Restaurants are Serving Up Simple, Unpretentious Eats with a Side of Games Galore
Quirks: A new reason to play at Town Center, Virginia Beach
A little over a year ago, the erstwhile Sonoma at Virginia Beach Town Center effectively transformed itself into the restaurant version of a mullet—business in the front, party in the back. Or maybe the other way around. Their long-running upscale wine bar and bistro concept featuring elegantly plated, locally sourced dishes and a custom-built wine-on-tap system would occupy one half of the space—that was the “business”—while the other half became the funky, fun casual eatery now known as Quirks—the “party."
It didn’t take long for it to become clear to co-owner and General Manager Mackenzie Hess that the business would need to take a backseat to the party. Quirks’ bright primary color palette, ceiling-suspended swing chairs, collection of board games and old-school Atari and eclectic but accessible menu were a hit, including with Town Center residents and young professionals who don’t always want to drop $30 or more on an entrée but love to go out for a bite and a brew within walking distance.
So, Hess and his team set about breaking down the artfully erected partition between the two spaces, painstakingly dismantling the wine bar (moment of silence, please) and quirking up the place and the menu from front to back. The “all Quirks all the time” version reopened in the fall of 2019. Where there once was charcuterie and steak tartare for starters, there are now blistered shishito peppers and nachos topped with your choice of hand-pulled chicken, shredded pork, bronzed tuna steak or grilled steak.
“You can come in every day and eat something different and it’s not going to break the bank,” says Hess. “We wanted that neighborhood bar feeling—a cool, comfortable vibe with really good food and really good drinks.” But just because they have traded tablecloths for table games doesn’t mean they aren’t still committed to local ingredients and scratch-made eats in the kitchen, says Hess.
The shift makes Sonoma-turned-Quirks a poster child for a trend in the restaurant business towards more casual settings, lower price points and interactive environments that bring people together for shared experiences over shareable plates and fun activities. Given the context of a 21st-century lifestyle in which people are more disconnected than ever from meaningful, face-to-face time, it’s perhaps no surprise that we have a longing to gather in public spaces to nourish body and soul over a no-frills meal and a no-holds-barred round of cornhole.
Restaurants around Coastal Virginia are offering up settings that include communal or nontraditional seating and service points (get your own fish taco at the window, buddy), games of every imaginable persuasion (holding your pint while playing your turn is an art), drag shows with a side of Eggs Benedict (bring your dollar bills and queen-sized appetite), trivia nights galore (knowledge is power and there will be prizes), pop-up yoga (with and without goats in pajamas) and much more. But, while fun might be the new fine dining, all the fun is more fun if the fun starts with simple, well-made, mercifully unpretentious food.
At Quirks, choose from “Cool Bowls” like the tuna or salmon poke with citrus soy, marinated cucumber and pineapple with a scoop of sticky rice, avocado and pickled veggies or the beet salad with fried mozzarella, basil pesto and a balsamic reduction. “Hot Bowls” include Quirks’ twist on a Vietnamese staple, cheekily named “Pho Sho,” right alongside comfort foods like beans and rice and good, but not-so-old-fashioned mac-n-cheese made with corkscrew pasta and a white cheddar cheese sauce and optionally offered topped with bacon and green onion or barbecue chicken, green beans and fried onions.
They’ve kept a few favorites from the Sonoma days including the Sonoma pasta with seared shrimp, Mediterranean vegetables and white wine butter sauce, and a certified Angus sirloin with purple potato mash, green beans, onion straws and housemade steak sauce. And while a “revolving door” of good local, regional and national beers has replaced the wine bar (not to worry, selected red and whites remain on offer for oenophiles), you can still get fresh cocktails like the Sonoma fave, the lavender lemon drop martini, as well as an assortment of Mason jar punches and mojitos, mules, old-fashioneds and, this being VB after all, a crush of crushes.
Crushes have become a perennial staple at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, which is also no stranger to fun and games at its restaurants, where locals and tourists are always on the lookout for good times and go-to eats with family and friends. Beachside Social, The Shack, Lunasea and Ocean 27 are just a few of the beach hangouts (see more below) where you can game and grub to your heart’s content after a day along the boardwalk. Pizza places have also long been a magnet for game-lovers and there are plenty of spots locally serving up pies and play (see more below).
At Sage Kitchen inside Anderson’s garden store in Newport News and Virginia Beach, you can chow down on a Hunted-Gathered Bowl like the green coconut curry with sweet potato hash, cauliflower, spinach and cucumber-mint cilantro relish; play games with the kids outside; shop for lawn ornaments; and call it a day. At Ballyhoos, tucked into a hidden corner in a shopping center off Great Neck Road in Virginia Beach, large garage doors open out onto a patio where you’ll need some wet wipes to tidy up from a half pound of peel-and-eat shrimp with housemade cocktail sauce before you can test your giant Jenga skills.
When The Main, the luxury hotel and conference center opened with great fanfare in 2017 in Downtown Norfolk, it boasted not one, not two, but three new restaurant offerings including seafood and craft cocktails in the refined Saltine on the first floor and a world of wines and trattoria-inspired Italian fare in the romantic Varia on the next level. But it was Grain, the rooftop beer garden with the million-dollar waterfront view and a veritable playground of games for grown-ups, that got penthouse billing.
At Grain, you can take your pick of nearly 100 beers on tap while playing life-sized chess on the deck, shooting pool or cozying up next to one of their giant firepits. There’s rooftop yoga on select dates along with live music and a variety of themed parties. Snack and share with filler-ups like house tots or a Brauhaus Pretzel. Try one of a trio of sausages like the brat dog with sauerkraut on a craft ale bun, or one of their tacos, “Big Sandwiches” and “Big Plates”—the bigger, the better to soak up the suds with.
Away from the high-end hustle of downtown, Norfolk's North Colley area has experienced a restaurant-driven rebirth in recent years, attracting a diverse crowd of students, foodies and fun lovers. In the center of it all is Hank’s Filling Station, immediately recognizable by the brightly painted mural of its namesake, local racing and car enthusiast James “Hank” Hankins, on its outer wall but also by its signature backyard play area. With its strings of Edison lights, picnic tables, firepits, foosball, cornhole, dartboards and a miniature stage, the setting is just right for regular events like Tuesday Movie Night and Music Match Bingo as well as special occasions like the Hogs for Hope Pig Pickin’ & Oyster Roast on New Year’s Day—a fundraiser for Hope House Foundation.
Hank’s owners Rich Katz and Dave Filipowski, who also bring the fun at both Cogans Pizza locations, say when they opened the spot in 2018, they were riffing off of the brewery concept but wanted to do it with the expanded capabilities of a full-fledged restaurant. “We were trying to combine that whole communal element, the family-friendly, dog-friendly environment,” says Katz, “but still offer quality food, a lot of handheld foods, things that you can put down and still play games.”
While you’re playing in Hank’s backyard, there’s always something cooking in one of several outdoor smokers and grills on premises. On a recent visit it was a whole salmon filet with fresh dill. But on a daily basis, it’s everything from pork barbecue to pastrami to corned beef. These end up stuffed and topped to the max in one of a long list of signature sandwiches on Hank’s fill-’er-up menu.
Not to fret, vegetarians, their famed Totchos (tater tot nachos) and their barbecue sandwiches come in pork, chicken and vegan jackfruit versions. You can lighten things up with a spinach and smoked salmon salad, warm up with Brunswick stew “just like momma used to make” or go full food coma with the Seafood Mac, macaroni with blue crab and shrimp topped with Old Bay and a four-cheese blend.
“Rich and I don’t own places that aren’t food-centered; our food is good,” says Filipowski. “We’ve got the best Cuban sandwich anywhere. And one thing that is pretty unique is our pit beef,” which is quick-charred on the smoker, sliced razor-thin and served with housemade pickles and a horseradish-y “tiger sauce.”
But how many barbecue joints have more than 125 bourbons behind the bar? “I would put our bourbon program up against anyone’s,” says Katz, who explains they saw an opportunity in the local market where they felt they could offer something unique. The bourbon list includes price points from modest to mogul. You can sample a shot of Buffalo Trace for under $10 or drop a Benjamin and a few of his friends on an exclusive Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year. Plus they’ve got 20 local beers on tap, a “drinkable, affordable wine list” and signature cocktails like the popular Dark Rye Old Fashioned.
While the owners of Hank’s wanted to build on the brewery concept, the folks behind the new Precarious Beer Hall just off Merchant Square in Colonial Williamsburg had already been there and done that brewery thing through their sister establishment Amber Ox Public House. They wanted to expand the idea with a co-branded space that began with a beer lab and evolved into the sleek, spacious corner destination now occupying the former Seasons Restaurant right in the heart of the ’Burg.
Long, beer hall-style communal tables fill the middle of the room while own Precarious’ always changing selection of beers on tap—such as the recently released 7 Lightyears American Porter or Night Hops Black IPA—line one large wall branded top-to-bottom in minimalist, industrial green and black. In the mood-lit back corner and scattered around the main room, you guessed it, there are games, games and a few more games. You can play Beatlemania pinball, tabletop Pong or Pac-Man battle royale, all with a choice window view of the adjoining brewery in action. Outside, there’s a wraparound porch, designer firepit and perfect people-watching seating along the street.
Speaking of street, let’s talk tacos. Like Hank’s, the Precarious team saw an opportunity in the market and their answer is the Electric Circus Taco Bar, permanently parked inside of Precarious with its retro neon sign and graffiti-themed paint job and serving handmade corn tortillas piled with color bombs of flavor and freshness. From the Bay Area Fish with perfectly blackened fried fish, cabbage-orange slaw, radish and lime sour cream to the Korean Pork Belly with sweet soy glaze, pickled carrot and cucumber slaw, sriracha aioli and cilantro, these tacos don’t play.
The Precarious vibe is a unique one designed for the place and the people it serves from history-hungry tourists to William and Mary students. “We wanted a family-friendly, a Colonial Williamsburg-friendly atmosphere,” explains General Manager Matt Sutton. “So having games and a menu that is approachable was key.”
Electric Taco’s menu, just like the Precarious beer selection, is always open to new ideas. In addition to tacos, you can now find tortas, quesadillas, nachos and plenty of kid stuff along with sweet treats like the Electric Churro with ancho chili, cayenne pepper, cinnamon and sugar. “It’s a constantly evolving space from a food and beer standpoint,” says Sutton, “and we’re focused on providing that next level customer service experience.”
And really, that’s what it’s all about. With all due respect to our many beloved fine dining establishments throughout Coastal Virginia, you don’t need tablecloths and maître d's for a fine dining experience. When the service and the food are thoughtfully considered with the customer in mind, sometimes a sublime street taco and a great local craft beer with a side of Skee-Ball are everything the doctor ordered. Game on, Coastal Virginia.
In Virginia Beach, the sun and sand pair perfectly with a cold drink. Go from lounging on the beach to sipping a cold cocktail and playing lawn games at these Oceanfront hangouts.
Bring the vibes of the beach inside when you shuffle down to Beachside Social. A games bar with second-floor views of the Atlantic Ocean, Beachside Social serves up refreshing mojitos as you challenge your friends to a game of shuffleboard, bocce ball or a classic childhood board game.
Lunasea Key West Café sets itself apart with the restaurant and club’s multi-level, open-air bar. Order a jumbo margarita or Lunasea’s fish tacos from the Tex-Mex-inspired menu. Take your drink outside and feel the sand between your toes during a game of cornhole, or simply chill out on the cozy outdoor seating.
Hop off the boardwalk and head to Ocean 27, the Oceanfront’s first outdoor-only restaurant. Ocean 27's expansive menu has something for everyone. Relax with a cold drink in your hand on one of the glider tables or play a game of cornhole as the sound of live music and the Atlantic breeze surrounds you.
When the weather warms up, The Shack starts juicing up the local favorite Orange Crush. Unwind at this seasonal, family-friendly outdoor bar with games that both the adults and kids will love, including giant Jenga and giant Connect Four. Get comfy by The Shack’s firepit or sway your cares away on the handmade swings.
Pies and Play
Pizza joints and games have always gone together like pepperoni and cheese. Here are a few area spots where you can have your pie with a side of friendly competition.
A Norfolk favorite, Cogans is known for dishing out mouthwatering pies from wood-burning ovens. Battle your friends for the last slice of pizza over a game of pool or on one of the retro arcade games.
Before you get to Sandbridge Beach, pick up a pizza from family-owned Lago Mar Pizza. Keep the kids busy while you wait on your specialty pizza and buttery garlic knots with some of the restaurant’s vintage arcade games.
You might not be from Virginia Beach if you’ve never hit up this family-owned landmark touting “the best pizza south of New York.” Order the Pungo Supreme, don’t skimp on the hot fudge sundae and then head to the cozy game room in the back.
Shorebreak Pizza and Taphouse is the choice spot to eat, drink and play in Chic’s Beach. Catch the big game on one of the flat screen TVs while you devour a massive pie, then make your way to Shorebreak’s game and billiard room for a round on the arcade games.
Battle of the Bar Arcades
Circuit Social Becomes Player Two to Norfolk’s PIXELS
If sampling IPAs while chasing the high score on the classic arcade game Dig Dug sounds like your idea of a party, you’re in luck in Norfolk. Reflective of a nationwide trend, the city recently welcomed its second bar arcade, Richmond-based Circuit Social, on Granby Street downtown shortly after PIXELS Pints + Bytes opened last March in Ghent.
With an industrial, retro-mod lounge vibe, Circuit Social boasts 48 serve-yourself beers, ciders and wines on tap along with rows of games, both nostalgic and new. There are the distinctive blips of 1980s arcade favorites as well as pinball, multiplayer and hands-on games like Boomerang Air Hockey and SkeeBowl, billed as “duckpin bowling with a skee-ball twist.”
And, yes, we said “serve-yourself” taps. There’s an in-house “tap master” if you’re not sure where to start and family-friendly hours if you want to bring the kids. The food menu features standard bar bites and a few creative twists like the Pig Newton flatbread with bacon, fig jam, arugula, hot honey and goat cheese, and the Perro Fiesta, a chicken apple brat with street corn salsa, bacon, avocado and poblano aioli.
Meanwhile, PIXELS has become a Ghent mainstay in the former Belmont House of Smoke location with an intimate environment and its very own collection of cabinet-style video games from Mortal Kombat to Mario Brothers, pinballs, challenge games, two-seater tabletops and more. You’ll have to buy your beer the old-fashioned way, but as a bonus there are also cocktails and happy hour specials.
On the PIXELS menu, you’ll find lovable, leveled-up bar food like the Shape Shifter corn dog, served with a fig and raisin catsup dipper; the Linda Ronstadt sandwich with coconut shrimp salad, tomato, shredded lettuce, pickled red onion and tarragon remoulade; and the Fungus Khan entrée featuring a portobello with mozzarella, arugula pesto, veggie-loaded couscous and agave-ginger Brussels sprouts.