The downtown renaissance has turned Granby Street from Main to Charlotte streets into Norfolk's Restaurant Row, as hip new dining rooms open all the time (and a few disappear). Here you'll find a wide range of restaurants and pubs.
The swanky Byrd & Baldwin Brothers Steakhouse, 116 Brooke Ave. (tel. 757/222-9191), in a restored 1906 building half a block west of Granby Street, has the best steaks. Bodega, 422 Granby St. (tel. 757/622-8577), serves tapas along with the street's best Spanish and Italian fare. The fast-paced Empire Little Bar & Bistro, 245 Granby St. (tel. 757/626-3100), specializes in tapas and is open daily until 2am. Domo Sushi, 273 Granby St. (tel. 757/628-8282), serves just that, plus other Japanese offerings. Havana, 255 Granby St. (tel. 757/627-5800), serves Cuban-influenced fare. Sirena, 455 Granby St. (tel. 757/623-6622), is tops for Italian fare.
To catch the games and woof a burger, head to Baxter's, 500 Granby St. (tel. 757/622-9837), a monstrous sports bar with pool tables and good pub fare (daily 11am-2am, Baxter's cures my late-night hunger pangs).
The MacArthur Center, on Monticello Avenue at Market Street, has a very good and inexpensive food court up on the third floor.
My favorite downtown breakfast spot is D'Egg, 404 E. Main St. (tel. 757/626-3447), opposite the Norfolk Marriott, an inexpensive diner serving eggs, waffles, pancakes, and other traditional day-starters. It's open daily from 7am to 3pm. (For you Starbucks addicts, there's a branch next door to D'Egg.)
Dining & Picnicking Beside the River -- I seldom patronize the food court in the Waterside Festival Marketplace, but I do occasionally have lunch at its branches of Hooters (tel. 757/622-9464) and Joe's Crab Shack (tel. 757/625-0655), as they are the only Norfolk restaurants with outdoor tables overlooking the Elizabeth River.
The benches in the Town Park are ideal for a riverside picnic. The fixin's are available at the Market at Harbor Heights, 260 Boush St. (tel. 757/213-7396), at Tazewell Street, a monstrous supermarket on the ground floor of a towering condo building. It has a wine and cheese department, a bakery, and a deli with ready-made sandwiches and salads.
The heart of Ghent lies along Colley Avenue between Maury and Harrison avenues, flanking the artsy Naro Theatre. I love to stroll these short blocks and take in the busy scene, especially on warm weekend evenings when the restaurants are busy and their sidewalk tables are packed. In addition to No Frill Bar and Grill and The Green Onion, several good restaurants satisfy a variety of tastes.
Best of the lot is The Winehouse Bar & Bistro (tel. 757/622-7777), which serves an international menu and has live music some evenings (Monday is jazz night). San Antonio Sam's (tel. 757/623-0233) and Colley Cantina (tel. 757/622-0033) both serve Tex-Mex, while Kelly's Tavern (tel. 757/623-3216) dishes up reasonably good pub fare. Vegetarians and vegans will be at home at Ten Top (tel. 757/622-5422), in a three-store shopping center on Shirley Avenue east of Colley Avenue. Best place for a cooked breakfast is the Do-Nut Dinette (tel. 757/625-0061).
It's not on Colley Avenue, but the neighborhood branch of Baker's Crust, 330 W. 21st St. (tel. 757/625-3600), in the Palace Shops between Llewellyn and DeBree streets, is both the best place in town for breakfast and one of the better values for lunch and dinner. The bakery provides fresh pastries to start your day and bread for a variety of sandwiches at lunch and dinner.
Cones & Carhops -- Some of the wafflelike ice-cream cones made at Doumar's, an old-fashioned drive-in with carhops and curb service at 19th Street and Monticello Avenue (tel. 757/627-4163; www.doumars.com), come from the original cone-making machine invented by Abe Doumar at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. Abe's descendants keep his invention oiled and working, and descendants of his North Carolina-style barbecue sandwiches (a steal at $2.50 apiece), burgers, hot dogs, sundaes, and milkshakes round out the extremely inexpensive menu. Doumar's has been around since the 1930s, which makes it a hip historical attraction. Open Monday through Thursday 8am to 11pm, Friday and Saturday 8am to 12:30am.