by MICHELLE WASHINGTON
photography by TODD WRIGHT
Cheerful lettering on the door extends the artful vibe of Zeke’s Beans and Bowls into the outside world.
“Take care and create stuff!” says the slogan, applied around eye level to ensure the hearty farewell goes noticed.
“I’d like to think the restaurant itself has a soul,” says co-owner Nick Vitale. “It’s more than a place to eat. It’s a creative hub.”
Vitale – he pronounces it Vih-TAHL-ee, and emphasizes that although his whole name looks as if it could rhyme with that of sportscaster Dick Vitale, it doesn’t – crafted that vibe. Zeke’s opened in Shadowlawn in June 2013, behind a purple door crowned with a giant coffee cup. The furniture evokes “your grandmother’s living room,” Vitale says. “It’s vintage, well-kept pieces” like a sturdy couch with a floral pattern in the avocado green of a bygone time. “Not a stinky college-town frat couch.” He added other pieces that lend a feel of anachronism, like a typewriter – “kids have never seen a typewriter!” – a turntable, a rotary dial phone. Then Vitale infused the space with his own personality. Big photographs pay tribute to his father’s career as a photographer. A copy of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay for Pulp Fiction joins coffee table books, a reflection of Vitale’s love of movies.
“Basically I wanted a space that was comfortable and cozy,” Vitale says, so folks who came to eat at the Beach could “maybe get inspired.” When he was younger, he says, dreaming of one day working as a film director, he never saw a screenplay. Tarantino’s work was a revelation. “Maybe it will inspire someone else,” he says.
Inspiration for the menu came straight from memories shared with co-owner Mike Schirmer. They have known each other since they were kids surfing together at Virginia Beach in the mid-’90s. Surfing took them to other spots with fine waves, and introduced them to the foods other surfers ate for sustenance: in Puerto Rico, fruit salads loaded with acai berries. In Hawaii, poke – raw tuna mixed with rice and fiery seasonings. In the Pacific Northwest, coffee beans ground to order and brewed slowly in single servings.
At Zeke’s, the beans equal coffee, and the bowls equal hearty portions of nutritious, flavorful victuals to sustain surfers, whether of waves or corporations.
The North Pole acai bowl features a luscious sauce with plenty of cinnamon, mixed with blueberries, bananas and mangos. Almonds and granola contrast with crunch. It’s a bit like eating a yogurt parfait – perhaps a dessert Grandma might have made – but more decadent, more filling.
“And instead of feeling all fat like a bacon, egg and cheese, you feel light,” Schirmer says.
Poke bowls, packed in plastic to-go containers, evoke another touch of retro, bearing resemblance to those ’70s school art projects that filled baby food jars with layers of colored sand. A base of white or brown rice, a vibrant stripe of green seaweed salad and onion, then a glistening coral topper of firm, fresh tuna mixed with sriracha, mayo, panko and searing hot peppers. It, too, offers balance in a bowl. Cool parries spice; chewy, crispy salad plays against creamy tuna; lean, healthy protein earns favored status through tons of flavor.
Organic, fair trade, single-origin coffees from Intelligentsia and the Beach’s Three Ships Coffee provide perk. Juices made from vegetables or fruits – Zeke’s Facebook page touts watermelon juice as “nature’s Viagra” – and lightly sweetened smoothies complete the drink options.
A serendipitous reunion sparked the creation of Zeke’s. Vitale had been in Los Angeles, “in a big pond with a lot of fish,” trying to work in film but supporting himself by tending bar and waiting
tables. He came home to Virginia Beach for a visit last year and bumped into Schirmer, who owns The Boxx near 22nd Street, as well as Beach Cruiser Taxi. In addition to surfing, the two had tended bar together at Virginia Beach restaurants.
On that visit, they talked about starting a place together.
“We came up with the idea on a Tuesday. On Wednesday we had a place,” Schirmer says.
To find its soul, both men turned again to the past. The name of their place, Zeke’s, honors their friend Zeke Sanders, one of Virginia Beach’s best-known and most successful surfers. He died by suicide in 2006, when he was 29.
Sanders had already changed their lives.
“When he was 22 and I was 16 he took me to California for a month and a half,” Schirmer says. “We’d go out every day, walk a couple miles.” Sanders was already well regarded by then, even worked for some of the big surf companies, Schirmer says. He could have been a real jerk to a teenage kid. Instead, he was the most friendly, easy-to-approach person Schirmer had ever met.
To Vitale, too, Sanders offered unconditional support.
“When I told him I wanted to go to New York City, he said ‘Do it!’ ” Vitale says. “We looked up to him.”
Vitale and Schirmer have tried to incorporate Sanders’ goodwill and inspiration into their place. They host artists and showings during First Friday events. Surfboards stand just inside the door. The two planned a kids’ surf competition in Zeke’s memory this summer.
Vitale this year took Zeke’s advice for a second time, and moved to New York City again to pursue his dream of working as a filmmaker. One of his first film projects: a commercial for Zeke’s.
Schirmer lives just a few blocks from Zeke’s, and they trained their chef – born in Hawaii, and creator of the poke recipes – as general manager. Vitale continues to update Zeke’s Facebook page.
And so a partnership from two friends who paid tribute to a third helped Zeke’s establish its own beat.
“I like to think this would be a place he would come to,” Vitale says. “We’re going to do right by the name.”