NORFOLK, Va. — I’m standing beneath a fork — a 13-foot-tall dinner fork, to be exact. It’s one of downtown Norfolk’s new sculptural bike racks and a perfect symbol for the Virginia seaport’s consuming passion.
Forget earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. The hot topic here is the healthy-hedonist food scene. What’s wrapped around that sidewalk fork’s tines? Curry favor with local foodies by suggesting ‘‘buckwheat linguine,’’ ‘‘spinach tagliatelle,’’ or ‘‘spiralized zucchini.’’ Not spaghetti.
Norfolk exuberantly supports its local chefs. Hungry hordes pressed Luna Maya, which began in a strip mall, to expand into a cavernous Bolivian-accented bistro. The Public House, a gastropub, fills seats with hip twists on Brit bites. College-sweatshirted, bike-jerseyed, and power-suited regulars find zen, rain or shine, in Quenna’s year-old tangerine-colored raw vegan sanctuary.
Norfolk gourmands demand maximum flavor for their calories and dollars. And they want it from fresh, healthy, artfully prepared foodstuffs free from the traditional trinity of salt, sugar, and fatty sauces.
And there is no need to dress up in this port of affordable gastronomy. Nobody’s going to look at you unless you’re on a plate.
On streets where drunken sailors once stumbled between bars and brothels, mobs of modern epicures cafe-hop, increasingly car-free. The streets have become bike-friendlier, plus there’s the fresh 5-mile Elizabeth River Trail. NET electric transit stops pepper the city. The F.R.E.D. (Free Ride Every Day) ferries passengers downtown in battery-powered, solar-roofed vehicles. And the old naval town’s new source of pride? The Tide light rail that launched last August.
‘‘You can even put your bike on the Tide and zip across town,’’ says Alex Costanzo, a nutrition major at Old Dominion University. I suggest a new-Norfolk slogan: ‘‘Eat-drink-ride-repeat.’’ Today’s Norfolk urbanites rave about transit and crave quinoa, flaxseed flatbreads, seaweed tapas, and cashew crème. Avowed carnivores embrace meatless dishes, regarding vegan as a cuisine instead of restricted territory. Bars are upping their food game to attract the bistro crowd.
In the Ghent district of garden-rimmed estates and flower-boxed brick townhomes, Colley Avenue has eclipsed downtown’s Granby Street as foodie central. Flagged by the orange umbrellas of its sidewalk seating, Luna Maya’s vast interior looks as if it would double as a nightclub, but no — into the night, diners fill tables for all-from-scratch Bolivian translations of Mexican fare inspired by Karla and Vivian Montano’s family recipes. I skip the pomegranate margarita, absorbed in crunchy spiced cabbage, dense roasted chipotle, and cloud-like guacamole. I barely dent the burrito campesino’s spinach tortilla bulging with borracho beans (beer-spiked pinto beans), diced tomatoes, mushrooms, poblano peppers, caramelized onion, and cilantro-lime potatoes. No problem; doggy-bagging is the custom. Chowhounds leave no morsel behind.
For dinner, will it be Azar’s zesty herbal falafel? Bardo’s truffle edamame, banh mi, ‘‘Dip Sum’’ doughnuts, and other Asian-fusion tapas paired with Pitaya Lemonade, a citrus-berry muddle? How about the new Pagoda Cafe on the downtown waterfront, which serves all-vegan local, sustainable comfort-food adaptations? Alas, it’s not open this evening, so off to nearby Rajput.
Walls of awards are not enough for owner Paul Chhabra. Last August, he greened his Indian kitchen by going freezer-free, using all fresh ingredients, turning buffet overage into dinner specials, using copper pitchers and cups (copper’s good for digestion, bad for microbes), and emphasizing low-on-the-food-chain selections such as lentil flour-battered vegetable pakora, biryani tofu, and gajjar halwa, a refreshing carrot-dried fruit pudding. Tip: Hit the buffet for budget-friendly sampling.
Another day, another taste. Charmed by my quest for a delicious hole-in-the-wall, three brunchers escort me to a Ghent nook redolent of cinnamon, apples, and basil. The Ten Top’s name was conveyed from its previous location, which had just one table surrounded by 10 chairs. ‘‘You would come and eat among strangers,’’ says owner Don Lester, one of Norfolk’s popular self-taught chefs apprenticed by ‘‘helpful street cooks and self-proclaimed chefs.’’ I order the Toasted Curry Veggie Wrap, which mates greens, chickpeas, carrots, coconut milk, and tart cherries. Perfectly balanced heat and flavor, savory and sweet. Is it wrong to fall in love with a sandwich?
To avoid falling into a food coma, cleanse the palate with Norfolk’s cultural abundance. A quick Tide or bike ride from the waterfront and Ghent is the MacArthur Memorial, a fascinating walk-through biography-museum of the general who stated ‘‘There is no substitute for victory’’ and later advocated the abolition of war.
The free exhibitions at Chrysler Museum of Art quickly take the mind off food. This visit, I spot works by two acquaintances, painter Matt Sesow and glass master Tim Tate, who are based in Washington, D.C. Tate, who helped prepare the museum’s 7,000-square-foot Glass Studio for its November debut, said, “The studio has a furnace that can melt 560 pounds of glass, a full hot shop, flameworking studio, nine annealing ovens, and a cold-working area.”
There’s quality art-spotting outdoors, too, with the wacky new bike racks and proliferation of murals depicting imaginary worlds, sailing dogs, and provocative messages. Huge murals painted by Norfolk artist John Hickey flag Yorgo’s Bageldashery. I see ads for culinary festivals and guided food tours. In Norfolk, gluttony is not a sin. Like that bike rack fork, it’s an art form.