Any parent who has ever tried to get their children to agree upon what they’d like to have for dinner knows they are fighting a losing battle. Typically, though, the average parent isn’t trying to feed two dozen teenagers in an unfamiliar city. Every so often, the job of an educator presents these challenges that make me feel a bit like a life ninja navigating a gauntlet of twists, turns, and obstacles that would cripple or destroy a less astute competitor.
I love my job; I do. My primary function as a educator is to build thinkers. I get to help young people realize and actualize their potential. It’s pretty great, and one of the more awesome experiences I have doing my job happens every October when I am responsible for organizing an event which helps high school students secure opportunities for their futures. Each year, the Virginia Theatre Association holds an annual conference at which students, professionals, and educators alike come together to celebrate their love for all things theatre. There are workshops, panel discussions, and performances. At this conference, I organize the audition process for high school seniors to be seen by dozens of colleges and higher learning institutions in the hopes that they may find the perfect fit to help them pursue their dreams.
With this project, and thirty-five of my own students in tow, I came to Norfolk, Virginia for another year of Virginia Theatre and educational advocacy.
Norfolk is not a traditional tourist location. Most people who have been there have a connection to the military (it is home to the Naval Base), or are interested in one of the two colleges in the immediate area. When our conference first relocated from the business-oriented location of Reston, Virginia to Norfolk, the city was definitely in transition. It was a little unloved, with loads of empty storefronts. Streets were less than safe for pedestrians due to traffic, and became completely unsafe at night. A higher incidence of violent crime in the Waterside area made me reluctant to allow my students much freedom to explore. Finding dining options was pretty challenging, so were limited to the Food Court at the MacArthur Center, an indoor shopping mall located a few blocks from the hotels and conference area. But even taking students to the MacArthur Center was troublesome. Due to the circumstances in the neighboring area, security there was extremely leery of groups of teenagers traveling together; even heavily chaperoned groups of teenagers, wearing name tags, and deeply afraid to disappoint their teacher or be sent home.
The change in downtown Norfolk has been slow, but oh, so welcome. Over the past few years, those empty storefronts have started to fill with interesting cafes, bars, and restaurants. The influence of the colleges has shifted the general atmosphere from seedy to hipster. And while the traffic still threatens one’s safety, it’s worth crossing the street to find an option more exciting than the food court.
Last October, after an exhausting day of facilitating nearly two hundred college auditions, I headed out to find one thing: a burger. I was grumpy and hungry. The thirty-five students, trailing me like ducklings, and two other chaperones seemed to simply accept that I knew where I was going. I didn’t. I scoured window menus, looking for a burger and considering prices. Kids pay for their own meals on these trips; no $10 burgers, please.
A few blocks down Granby Street, I came upon a window that stood out. It wasn’t the menu that spoke to me; it was the rainbow pride sticker and pink triangle displayed proudly. The evening before, at dinner, one of my LGBTQ students had been denied service in a local restaurant. Still righteously angry from the unjust treatment he’d received, I decided this establishment was getting my money. That is how I ended up taking twenty students to Norfolk’s Brick Anchor Brew House.
Brew House? With high school students? Yes, and it was the best dining decision we made the entire trip. Several students in our group headed to a diner across the street with one chaperone, while the rest of us, a group of twenty-two, packed ourselves into the alcove entrance at Brick and Anchor.
It was happy hour at Brick Anchor and the place was definitely doing business. The hostess, though, didn’t seem the least bit daunted by our numbers, nor did she react negatively to the age of most of my group, which was extremely important to me. When I explained that we would happily be seated in smaller groups, we were all seated immediately.
The menu at Brick Anchor is extensive and includes a variety of vegan options. I could have eaten there for weeks and still not have tried everything. I had intended to have a burger, of which they had delicious looking options, but I became distracted by the happy hour menu. No, not the drinks, I was working. The happy hour food menu read like something I dreamt into existence. Fried Mac and Cheese bites served atop spicy queso. Street Tacos. I wanted everything. And each item was $6 or less. I settled--no, not settled, that seems to suggest disappointment. I forced myself to select the Braised Beef Grilled Cheese and an order of Hand-cut Fries.
When my plate arrived, I was starving. It didn’t take long for my service; it was just an exceptionally long day. The sandwich itself looked like it had been fabricated for a magazine photo shoot. The Texas toast was grilled to a crisp golden, and bistro sauce spilled lazily out onto the plate. Both cheddar and provolone melted beautifully into the braised beef, and a grilled tomato (my favorite flavor) taunted me from under its hood of Texas toast. I ordered my sandwich without bacon, due to my own dietary restrictions, but it is generally served with a little extra slice of heaven.
I’ve tried to verbalize the sense of pure joy I experienced when tasting this sandwich, but words actually fail me. It wasn’t that it tasted amazing, it felt amazing. At the time I wondered if I was exaggerating the glory of this sandwich in my head because I was so hungry; I’ve had it since then, and the answer is no.
I ate my sandwich like an inmate afraid someone might steal a bite: guarding my plate, and sloppily using my perfectly-seasoned fries to rescue any discarded bistro sauce. And then, with no real understanding of the irony here, I began to pirate bites from the plates of my students under the guise that I was checking on them. “How are you folks? What did you order?” Invariably, they would enthusiastically tell me that I had to try the fried mac and cheese. Well, if you insist.
All told, I probably sampled the entire Brick Anchor Happy Hour food menu. The service was exceptional, and once I stopped eating long enough to notice it, I was really impressed with the beautiful steampunk decor. Brick and Anchor has a tagline that suggests “You’ll come for the beer and stay for the food.” I never had a beer at Brick Anchor Brew House, but all twenty-two of us who ate dinner there that evening did return the next morning for brunch.