It was a moment that Gary McIntyre won’t soon forget.
Shortly after opening his new restaurant in Newport News, in the husk of the former 99 Main, an elderly gentleman approached him with a smile and an outstretched hand.
“You will be accepting resah-vations,” he said in that charming, endangered Tidewater drawl. The man, a 99 Main regular, held McIntyre’s gaze and continued shaking his hand, intent on getting the answer he wanted.
McIntyre had no intention of taking reservations. This was a bistro, after all, where people are supposed to sit at the bar, sip an aperitif and chat up strangers while they wait for tables.
No. Despite the polite but firm insistence, McIntyre held his ground. Or tried.
And that’s how it’s been at Kismet, a busy little place in the heart of Hilton Village that’s working hard to turn both hipsters and the old guard into regulars.
The restaurant opened in 2016, replacing one billed as the city’s first fine-dining establishment when it opened in 1999.
“In hindsight, I kind of came into this with rose-colored glasses,” McIntyre said one Friday afternoon, sitting on one of the high-backed booths in the bar just before opening.
The specials board proffered rockfish with sunchokes and a double burger with smoked pork belly and pimento cheese. Vested barkeeps polished glasses. Cooks buzzed around the open European-style kitchen with its arched brick oven.
For McIntyre and his partners, Sean Pepe and Joe Illes, Kismet has been a new sort of venture. Their first Peninsula restaurant, the Barking Dog, sits off Sunset Creek in Hampton. Billed as an “encased meat paradise,” the hot-dog eatery is wildly popular. Customers can arrive by boat.
McIntyre calls himself “restaurant guy of the three-headed monster.” The group also owns The Deadrise and the just-opened El Diablo Loco Cantina & Tequila Bar, with plans to open a second Barking Dog in Norfolk.
When the 99 Main site became available, it gave McIntyre the chance to dip into his shoebox of restaurant concepts, most of which were collected during 25 years in the business. (His chops stretch as far back as Crawdaddy’s in Virginia Beach, where he learned that cheap forks are OK on the table if Chef Todd Jurich sends out mind-blowing dishes.)
Out of the box came the name, and the concept.
“Kismet” is a word that has long intrigued McIntyre. It means “fate,” or “destiny.” The restaurant he imagined would be the kind of place “where you go on a date and hope something happens, and it does.”
The bistro concept seemed a perfect fit for the name, but he wasn’t thinking the mass-produced American version with faux kitsch and antiques. Instead, he envisioned a true European-style bistro, a neighborhood gathering spot, perhaps with mismatched glasses and a “simple, but delicious” menu that ran the gamut from pizzas and burgers to exquisitely prepared entrees. Like something out of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence.
“It was a little rocky at first,” McIntyre said. “The challenge is to give customers more options, but not going crazy.”
Longtime 99 Main regulars, he said, were surprised – and sometimes put off – to see burgers and artisanal pizzas served where they once dined on braised lamb shanks and pumpkin-duck-curry soup.
Sometimes the going could be tough.
Early on, McIntyre recalled, he stopped by a table to ask an older gentleman if he wanted another glass of wine. The man used his fingertips to push his stem across the table by its base, as if it were toxic, and requested that he never be served wine in that (obviously inferior) glass again.
Meanwhile, Executive Chef Kent Johnson – most recently from Steinhilber’s Restaurant in Virginia Beach and Café Nordstrom at Norfolk’s MacArthur Center – crafted a menu that featured deviled eggs topped with arugula and buttermilk dressing and six types of pizzas augmented with specials such as hanger steak.
A frisée salad with lardons and poached eggs didn’t take off. But meatloaf, “a safe bet,” remains on the regular menu. It’s wrapped in bacon and served with mashers, broccolini and bordelaise sauce.
By 5 p.m. on this Friday, customers were already mingling around the hostess station. A couple middle-aged ladies took a booth in the bar. Another older couple took stools at the bar, and immediately began discussing recent travels. A family arrived with a hipster-looking dad and two small children, and the hostess directed elderly couples – the men in jacket and tie – to a table in the back dining room covered with white and orange tablecloths.
A bartender shook up a custom sweet-and-slushy martini for a regular, while another poured generous samples of craft brew for a young couple.
A low clatter came from the open kitchen, where white-coated chefs sent out $9 bowls of smoked seafood chowder, plates of $30 rockfish and $10 burgers.
By 6 the bar was filled and the place was abuzz.
“I think,” McIntyre said, “that we’ve really gotten back to what a bistro really is.”
He does, however, now accept reservations.