May 28, 2017

Talk about a sense of place: Waterside District is Norfolk's new happy hour spot

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A couple of years back I sipped and sampled my way across the southern part of the state, a grand gastronomic tour for my book the “Food Lover’s Guide to Virginia.”

Along the way, I fell for a couple of very-Virginia happy hour spots: relaxed into a wicker chair on the deep and shady front porch of The Martha Washington Inn way out west in Abingdon, and the Terrace Lounge at The Tides Inn in Irvington within view of the croquet lawn and the Rappahannock River, where guests are serenaded by sailboat rigging, sea gulls and the wind in the pines.

Recently, I fell for another very-Virginia happy hour spot: the decks overlooking Elizabeth River’s working harbor at the newly reopened Waterside District. Talk about a sense of place. The 180-degree view offers Navy warships at drydock, pleasure craft, barges, old sailing sloops and the occasional mega-yacht and submarine.

I also imagined, while sipping riverside, how this harbor must have looked hundreds of years ago, when wharfs crowded the waterfront like teeth on a comb. Or I’d pull up the MarineTraffic ship tracking app on my phone. It shows the name, type of vessel, nationality, last port and other info on boats in the harbor and under way.

Pretty cool stuff. But what to sip while doing all this?

Fortunately, barkeeps at the Waterside District’s watering holes have come up with some pretty inventive drinks. Here are a few of my favorites.

The Harbor Club – This sleek second-story bar has a clubby, upscale feel with sleek nautical decor and plenty of roomy indoor and outdoor seating. Try the Strawberry Basil Chillarita, muddled strawberries, basil, lemon and lime juice and triple sec with a ballast of tequila blanco. It’s kept Arctic cold with dry ice. Pricey, but good. $14.

Rappahannock Oyster Co. – Walk past the expansive, oyster-filled raw bar and take a seat outside and toss back an Oyster Shooter (or two), made with midgrade vodka, the restaurant’s signature Rocky Mountain Shooter Mix and your choice of a briny, sweet or mild Rappahannock oyster. $6.

Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse – I’m a sucker for an old-school sidecar, so I had to try Fieri’s Kentucky Sidecar, which switches out the brandy for Woodford Reserve bourbon and keeps the Cointreau, then adds apple and a pair of lemon quarters on the sugarless rim. It’s a nice twist. $12.50.

Blue Moon Taphouse – Of course, there’s plenty of beer to choose from at the taphouse. They even mix beer into the cocktails. For a taste of both, try the Commonwealth, a mix of oak-aged tequila, lime and orange juice squeezed right at the bar and triple sec, all shook up and poured into a pint-sized, salt-rimmed glass. $9.

PBR Norfolk Country Bar – Lots of wood and lots of waitresses wearing cowboy boots and riding chaps at this nightclub-style bar that stays open till 2 a.m., and where specialty cocktails are served in souvenir light-up pilsner glasses or a cowboy boot. Cowpokes with a sweet tooth might like the Killer Cowboy, a blend of coconut rum, hazelnut liqueur, tropical Red Bull and fruit juices. $16, with $12 refills.

Hours: Blue Moon Taphouse, Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse and Rappahannock Oyster Co. are open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; The Harbor Club is open on Thursdays and Sundays from 4 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturdays from 4 to 11 p.m.; PBR Norfolk is open Thursday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Parking: Paid parking is available in the public lot across Waterside Drive, with a flyover walkway to the District. Valet parking is available on Waterside Drive for $7 Sunday through Thursday and $15 on Fridays and Saturdays, but check the website at www.waterside for changes.