by Greg Larson
Norfolk’s 30,000 square-foot Waterside District is open for business. The mixed-use restaurant and concert space has been four years in the making, made possible by collaboration between the city of Norfolk and the Cordish Companies. Originally built in 1983, the Waterside area went from being a crown jewel on the water to a forgotten relic, housing little more than a few restaurants and suffering in disrepair.
The new Waterside District is poised to return to its former glory for boaters and locals alike.
The Waterside Marina, located on the Elizabeth River directly behind the Waterside District, accommodates overnight boaters, day-trippers, and even landlubbers looking for a short outing on the water.
The Marina provides dockage for yachts up to 270 feet, for overnight and temporary dockage up to three hours.The American Rover, a 135-foot, three-masted schooner, gives two-hour harbor and sunset cruises.
After docking your boat, you can walk the 500 feet to the Elizabeth River entrance of the Waterside District, passing its permanent ping pong tables, bocce ball courts and outdoor patio seating on the way.
The Cordish Companies, the developer that revitalized Norfolk’s Waterside, invested $40 million into this space. Chairman David Cordish says that he wanted to keep the Waterside name despite the way the place has suffered prior to the revitilization. “Waterside does ring in the hearts of a lot of people here, so we kept the name.”
Cordish promises that history will not repeat itself. “When we come into a city,” he says, “we’re not going to leave. We come in to stay.”
According to Norfolk mayor, Kenneth Cooper Alexander, the Cordish Companies’ promises are genuine. “Cordish hired over 1,000 people,” says Alexander, “and 63 percent are from Norfolk. They brought in more than 20 business to the Waterside District. Eight are local. Over the next three decades, 91 million dollars will be paid to Norfolk in new tax revenue thanks to the Waterside District.”
It’s easy to see why those revenue estimates are so high—the space is beautiful and vibrant.
Inside, the long stretch of glass windows yield an inviting natural light from the sky. With metal and light wood trimming throughout, along with globe lights dangling from dark metal chandeliers, there is a modern and forward-moving atmosphere.
There are restaurants all along the edges of the building. The nucleus is a circular bar at the center. A metal column rises up from the middle like a fountain springing forth from the circle of bottles and taps along its bottom ledge. This is the Starr Hill Brewery bar, a Charlottesville-based craft beer company. It is the center of action for most indoor Waterside activities, surrounded by open seating for patrons of all restaurants and shuffleboard tables.
Take extra care if you enter or exit from the downtown side of the building: the sweet smell of the Fudgery will draw you in and dominate your senses with its sweet, nutty aromas. Known for its handmade fudge and singing fudge makers, The Fudgery opened in Norfolk’s first Waterside in 1983.
Upstairs is the Harbor Club, a stylish nautical restaurant with high-end cocktails and small seafood plates like coconut shrimp, spicy lobster street tacos, and crispy calamari. From there you can admire the beautiful view across the Elizabeth River to Portsmouth, with your boat in the short foreground docked in the marina.
Almost every restaurant in the Waterside District offers happy hour specials. Moreover, the Rocky Mountain Grill, which features a large outdoor bar and patio on the first level, has a full-service waitstaff and access to all menus from every restaurant in Waterside. This means you can look out over the water and enjoy a slice from local favorite Cogan’s pizza, an 18-hour smoked brisket platter from Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse, or a meatball sub from the Local. (Hopefully you brought a friend to share it with.)
During the week, the Waterside District may become little more than a destination for the lunch and happy hour crowds, but it’s not difficult to imagine pulling up your boat for a few hours in the summer, grabbing dinner and a few drinks, catching an outdoor concert, and jetting off into the sunset past the red #36 buoy just beyond the marina at Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway mile marker zero.
You might come across the Waterside District at the beginning or end of a journey, whether you’re just going a few miles or 1,090 of them. Either way, you can rest assured that on Norfolk’s Elizabeth River you’ll find a new favorite stopping point, standing in the place of a long lost facsimile many people thought might never return.
The Waterside District is open year round and offers a 20 percent military discount (alcohol excepted). For dockage information, go to WatersideMarina.com. For information on sailing cruises on American Rover, go to AmericanRover.com. For menus, hours and directions for the Waterside District and its restaurants, go to WatersideDistrict.com.