It seems likely that the site of the world’s largest Naval would be a place where meat monopolizes the menu. But in Norfolk, Virginia that’s simply not the case. The small city has truly embraced vegetarianism (and veganism as well), with nearly all of the restaurants featuring an ample list of veg-friendly options-plus plenty of places that cater solely to the meat-free crowd.
Obviously, larger cities like New York, San Francisco, and Toronto or towns that attract more eclectic inhabitants such as Portland, Bloomington, and Austin have plenty of demand for vegetarian eateries. In Norfolk, however, something else seems to be at work. The big influencer is actually the world’s largest animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is based there. For many positions at the organization, it’s actually a requirement that the employee is vegan-and it’s a bit of a no-brainer that the office culture probably dictates most employees stray from meat.
As the sailors filter in and out of the city, the PETA employees stay. As a result, there are plenty of places for vegetarians to eat morning, noon, and night. In the funky neighborhood of Ghent alone, there is a laundry list of over two-dozen restaurants that cater to vegetarians-and all seem to have mastered clearly marking menus for easy perusal.
Just a few of the favored pit-stops for vegetarians around Norfolk include Machismo Burrito Bar for Tex-Mex covered with nondairy sour cream and cheese, Rajput for Indian cuisine like veggie samosas and tofu palak, and Azar’s Market & Cafe for over 40 meat-free Mediterranean options. The menu at The Ten Top is dominated by veggies, and at Dragon City you can get cheap Chinese takeout that is assuredly vegan. Bella Pizzeria serves up pizza with soy cheese, and Yorgo’s Bageldashery goes above and beyond tofu cream cheese by serving a tempeh BLT wrap and “egg” salad. Even a local greasy spoon, the Donut Dinette, serves soy sausage with breakfast and vegan chicken salad for lunch.
Of course, the food isn’t the only draw to this seaport. There’s wine, too. Each year in May, the city’s waterfront becomes home to the Spring Town Point Virginia Wine Festival, when visitors pack the downtown area to sample Virginia’s finest vino and listen to live music.
But seriously: Besides food and wine, Norfolk has historical and cultural attractions that draw visitors year-round. History buffs will want to explore the naval museum Nauticus, where you can walk the decks of the impressive USS Battleship Wisconsin, a retired ship that’s storied history launched during World War II and continues through firing the first four missiles in Operation Desert Storm. Art lovers, on the other hand, should head to the Chrysler Museum of Art to peruse the expansive collection of 62 galleries or partake in a glass blowing workshop at the museum’s brand new studio. It’s also a good idea to weave through the local artist studios at d’ART Center, or possibly even plan a visit around the Stockley Gardens Arts Festival, a free event that brings 25,000 people to a local park (and just so happens to coincide with the Wine Festival in May).
No matter why you choose to come to Norfolk, it’s a city that is sure to surprise you once you arrive. My advice is to come for the food and wine, and stay for the great festivals and museums.
[Photos by Libby Zay]