By Marisa Marsey

You stroll past a rustic-chic restaurant whose founder cooked at the legendary James Beard House. Turn the corner, there’s a sushi bar whose chef-owner trained under Iron Chef Morimoto. Take several steps down the street and chili-spiked watermelon and pineapple spears in fiesta-colored Mexican fresh fruit cups dazzle you. Are you in hip Santa Monica? A cool Brooklyn enclave? Hon, you’re in Downtown Suffolk, where quaint Southern charm meet top-tier culinarians and international flavors.

Though not the oldest, Harper’s Table, established 2012, is the keystone of Downtown’s esteemed eateries, bridging a reverence for local sourcing and tradition with refined technique. The haute Southern cuisine chef-owner Harper Bradshaw showcased at the James Beard House in New York as one of the hand-picked chefs for a menu billed as “Small Towns, Big Flavors” shines in pork belly biscuits, Chesapeake Bay flounder with stone-ground grits, baby back ribs and sweet onion hushpuppies.

downtown Suffolk-Harper's Table
Photo courtesy of Harper’s Table

Down-home sophistication can also be found at Michael Hart’s Sushi Aka. Hart’s years at Morimoto’s acclaimed flagship restaurant validated his decade plus of sushi experience and opened his eyes to what he calls “a whole under-the-ocean world of fish I’d never seen before.” That awakening led him to create a most distinctive sushi bar, far beyond run-of-the-mill rolls. He might offer flying fish, inada, and other specialties from Japan and Hawaii, plus the best bluefin from Spain and Mexico alongside fresh fruit and vegetables he picks at a farm practically a cucumber’s toss away.

downtown Suffolk-Sushi AKA
Photo courtesy of Sushi Aka

Not far away, the Delgado and Herrera families transport you to their homeland on Mexico’s Pacific Coast—Riviera Nayarit—via ceviches, caldo mixto (seafood stew), and platters of whole fried tilapia at two-year old El Korita. Canopied booths recreate the beachside shelters of Puerto Vallarta while home recipes undergird sopas and tamales and thirst-quenching aguas frescas. You’d be hard-pressed to find better authentic Mexican.

At General Public, open a little over a year, an eclectic menu takes the fine dining background of its chef-co-owner General Lewis and transposes it onto elevated pub fare with mass appeal. Baskets of Buffalo chicken tenders skew retro, salmon bowls lean forward, and everything else from Cobb salads to burgers and waffle fries aims to offer “something for everyone.”

Nansemond Brewing Station, adjacent to The General Public, lets folks take their orders of triple decker clubs and hot wings next door to pair with craft beers. Nearby at Uncork’d, Emily Brewer hosts Friday night wine tastings. Occasional pop-ups and food trucks complement her dizzying array of wines and craft beers that you can sip on the patio presided over by a statue of a dapper Mr. Peanut (in case you forgot where you are).

“If you got plopped down in Downtown Suffolk, you’d be astonished at the caliber and the offerings,” says Ed Beardsley, who’s seen the rise of superlative independent restaurants since he opened his popular, curiously named café, Plaid Turnip, a decade ago. “We complement each other.”

Plaid Turnip is now located in the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts while Beardsley’s brand-new Mod Olive on Main Street “has a Mad Men, dressed-up ’60s feel,” with plans to serve lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Olive’s fun, affordable dinner menu will suit its mid-century milieu—ambrosia salad, beef stroganoff, deviled crab. Classic sandwiches such as Dagwoods will carry over from lunch.

downtown Suffolk-Plaid Turnip
Photo courtesy of Glenn Jodun Photography

“You know, I love it when someone walks into one of our unique restaurants and goes: ‘Oh, I can’t believe this is in Suffolk’,” Beardsley says. His reply: “This is Suffolk. This is what we are now.”

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