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Atlantic Bounty in Virginia

When we ordered our smorgasbord at Saint Germain, a Norfolk bar so new when I visited this fall that even locals hadn’t heard of it yet, we figured we would see how full we were and then order more food. There were 10 of us after all.

But once the nearly two-and-a-half-foot-long platter arrived, piled with a full serving each of orange-blossom-scented Greek loukaniko, daring African blood sausage, spice-fueled Moroccan lamb merguez, Filipino longaniza and so many cured pork products and cheeses that we stopped trying to remember their names, it seemed like we’d need to call reinforcements. I’d chosen the right city to kick off my driving tour of Virginia’s coast.

New in Norfolk

Norfolk has long been known for its military culture, with the world’s largest Navy base in town and with Coast Guard, Air Force, and CIA in the Greater Hampton Roads area. But a burst of new construction and a flurry of chefs returning from studying at places like Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to open restaurants — Norfolk is home to more than 80 chef-owned establishments — is quickly turning the city that once played second fiddle to nearby Virginia Beach into a hot spot.

Right off MacArthur Square, the daily grazing ground for folks looking to grab barbecue or fish tacos from the latest food truck enterprise, an unlikely new attraction is turning heads: the Slover Library. While it has the typical stacks and computer card catalogs you’d expect in a city library, Slover’s 138,000 square feet also encompass an indoor gym for children, an art studio, a game room, a 3-D printer for public use and archives in which history is brought to life with “Minority Report”-style touch screens. The library’s new building, an airy yet angular edifice complementing the historic library without stealing its gravitas, has several rooms for rent with floor-to-ceiling views of the city for private group dinners.

Next door, The Main, a mixed-use hotel, entertainment and conference center is slated to open in early 2017, adding a rooftop garden, three restaurants and a 1,500-person ballroom to the square.

The Ghent historic district has also received a facelift in recent years with the conclusion of a landmark renovation of the Chrysler Museum of Art, which originally opened in 1933 at the entrance to the stately Victorian Ghent District. In addition to exploring a collection The New York Times has lauded as one “any museum in the world would kill for” thanks to works from heavy hitters from Tintoretto to Jackson Pollock, groups can learn the art of glassblowing in the state-of-the-art studio during a visit.

Norfolk’s Craft Bars

Part of Norfolk’s evolution is a new focus on bars and restaurants serving the perfect combination of inventive food and drinks, that include ingredients and products from local farms, wineries and breweries.

At Saint Germain, the bartender will pour just about anything you can dream up, from local Victory Golden Monkey or Smartmouth Cowcatcher beer with a shot of Fernet to house-infused gins, tequilas and whiskeys. In addition to the ample charcuterie and cheese platters, groups can round out a cocktail hour with nibbles like pig’s ears with pimento gastrique and deviled eggs with truffle and sea urchin. Finish off with coffee orbs, siphon coffee and other molecular-gastronomy sweets.

Norfolk’s Public House, which leans far more toward gastropub than the typical public house environment for which it is named, has earned multiple accolades for its inventive cocktails, like its bacon-and-egg brunch cocktail and award-winning bloody marys. Public House features frequent microbrew “takeovers” showcasing lesser-known beers such as New Belgium Brewing Company’s Cascara Quad and Mad Hatter’s Oak Aged Hatter IPA to wash down your duck fat fries, fried pickles and scotch eggs.

A certified green restaurant, Press 626 Café and Wine Bar maintains a firm commitment to using the best local ingredients for everything from the vegetables in its signature pressed sandwiches to the daily seafood special. The Wine Spectator Award-winning wine list features a robust section of Virginia wines, along with an eye-opening journey through the world of wine and wines of the world. Staff members are happy to educate your group further with a custom wine seminar in the 16-seat speakeasy or in a buyout of the 45-seat restaurant.

For a more mobile take on cocktail hour, groups embark on combination tasting and behind-the-scenes tours of three of the city’s breweries with cheese pairings with Taste Tidewater Tours.

Gabi Logan

Gabi Logan is a freelance travel journalist whose work has also appeared in USA TODAY, The Dallas Morning News and Italy Magazine. As she travels more than 100,000 miles each year, she aims to discover the unexpected wonder in every destination.