Balancing Trend and Tradition at Steinhilber’s
On a late summer evening, just before the sun sets behind Buchanan Creek, an elderly couple settles into a prime seat at Steinhilber’s Restaurant in Virginia Beach.
Outside the picture window, an expanse of manicured lawn slopes past an old magnolia and angles down toward a spired boathouse and dock. Water goblets are filled, menus presented, and before long a waiter in a white waistcoat and bowtie arrives with a ramekin of swirled butter and two white plates, each containing a pair of miniature toasts.
The couple has no notion that those thin, house-made pieces of bread – crisper than soda crackers, brown as bags – embody the history of one of Tidewater’s oldest, most gracious restaurants and the owners’ struggle to balance trend and tradition. The couple knows only that dinner at Steiny’s wouldn’t be dinner at Steiny’s without them.
Steinhilber’s Restaurant took root on a landscape parched by Prohibition. By 1924, the nationwide ban against alcohol had emptied cocktail shakers across the country. Fine dining was on the wane. Shuttered restaurants that couldn’t make up for lost revenue from spirits were being replaced by simple cafeterias and diners.
Robert Steinhilber, one of seven sons of German immigrants, was on trend when he took over the lunch counter at the McCrory’s five-and-dime on Main Street in downtown Norfolk.
Robert left the luncheonette to open a diner across the street. And when the Depression forced him to close it, he pressed on, opening a small sandwich shop inside his brother’s cigar shop.
Jeanne Steinhilber, Robert’s daughter and the proprietress of Steinhilber’s Restaurant, recalls stories about her father’s earliest eateries. Norfolk’s judges and politicians frequented them, lunching on simple dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs. Her dad would stand sentry at the cash register, making friends … and making sure customers didn’t linger.
“He would say, ‘You’ve been sitting there too long. I don’t serve food in your courtroom, so don’t hold court in my restaurant,’ ” she says.
But after one of his brothers died unexpectedly of a heart attack, Robert decided to leave the city and bought a 100-plus acre tract of land in rural Princess Anne County, the former site of the Lynnhaven Golf and Country Club in the Thalia section just east of Town Center.
He offered guests a few cabins and kept horses for riding through the woods. In 1939, the day he and his bride, Marion, returned from their Florida honeymoon, they opened a low-slung restaurant on the foundation of the former country club clubhouse, which had been destroyed by fire.
From the start, Robert was a fixture, a gracious host who opened the front door and greeted customers by name, remembering whether they preferred flounder broiled or fried and making sure each got served a few slices of Melba toast, which he directed his cooks to make as a way to salvage stale bread.
Then came World War II.
By 1944, the Thalia woods around his fledgling restaurant were ringed in barbed wire. The Tidewater Victory Memorial Hospital for tuberculosis patients (now Willis Furniture) became the headquarters for Camp Ashby, a German POW camp, and Steinhilber’s Thalia Acres Inn was conscripted into service as the officers club.
Between 1944 and 1946, about 6,000 German captives, most fighters from Hitler’s elite Afrika Korps, filed through the camp. Robert Steinhilber managed to keep business going by opening the restaurant on days when the officers club was closed, calling loyal customers and inviting them to eat, sometimes for free.
Years later, he told a newspaper reporter how difficult it was to gain access to his property during the war, and how one night after curfew, a guard held him at gunpoint until an officer could be roused to vouch for him.
After the war, Camp Ashby’s POWs were repatriated to Germany, the barracks disappeared, suburbia sprouted in Thalia and Robert got his restaurant back.
Business bloomed. Local politicians and state legislators held rallies on the lawn, roasting wild Lynnhaven River oysters and smacking golf balls across the creek. The restaurant, hidden a mile off Virginia Beach Boulevard, became the place for old Tidewater families to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries.
Even as the crowds grew, Robert continued greeting each customer at the door by name. He developed his famous shrimp sauce – a sort of garlicky-vinegary Thousand Island. And along with his signature jumbo butterflied fried shrimp – still the restaurant’s most iconic dish – his cooks turned out perfectly prepared Tidewater standards such as crab imperial and seafood platters and casseroles.
By 1980, it had become one of those rare establishments where the owner and the restaurant had merged into one. Regulars expected to see “Steiny” at the door as much as they expected to dine on the dishes that they’d come to love.
“We’ve had the same waiters, the same cooks, for years,” Robert told a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in 1980. “That means when a recipe is set up in the kitchen, it is carried out the same way forever.”
Four years after Robert’s death, when Jeanne and her brother, Steve, had taken over the restaurant, a 1989 headline proclaimed, “Family tradition is specialty of the house.”
That’s cringe-worthy praise in the 21st century’s food renaissance, a time when chefs turn out ice cream tinged with basil, top fishes with smoked tomatoes and parse the delicate flavors of microgreens.
As Steinhilber’s nears its 80th year, Jeanne and her son, Brady Viccellio, who together run the restaurant, worry that the elements that built success could make the restaurant seem obsolete.
Consider the twice-baked potato.
It is not the side Steinhilber’s is most proud of; they’ve been trying to get away from it for years. But it’s a favorite of regulars, people who have been dining at Steinhilber’s for decades, like the couple at the table near the window, who are celebrating their 56th anniversary. Take it off the menu, and customers would bristle.
Still, there have been major changes.
The wood-paneled main dining room, with its exposed beams and portrait of Robert Steinhilber hanging over the fireplace, remains unchanged. A modest bar now sits where Lynnhaven Country Club members once pushed discs across a shuffleboard court. Jeanne, an avid gardener, transformed the club’s dance floor into the area’s most stunning al fresco dining room, a lush Shangri-La ringed by so many flowering planters and vines that it takes two hours each day to water them. An adjacent line of stone fire pits warms customers through late fall, and a stash of blankets is always at the ready. A refurbished dock with dredged slips and an outdoor oyster bar are in the works.
Before the farm-to-fork movement went mainstream, Jeanne cultivated a farmette in the land between the restaurant and her home, raising a cornucopia of vegetables, figs, herbs and microgreens. Her hens supply the restaurant’s eggs. Recently, beehives were added, and Steiny’s now roasts its own coffee and house-cures every bit of bacon.
The kitchen shows its age, but a big-screen TV and computer system above the cook line displays exactly how long each table has been seated, down to the second, to ensure that diners don’t linger too long between courses.
Perhaps the most daring addition is that of the position of professional executive chef. Steinhilber’s first was the late Bobby Huber, a local A-lister who added dishes such as etouffee to his menu.
Executive Chef Paul Syms took over this past summer. He relocated from Florida, where he worked for 25 years for Wolfgang Puck in Orlando. More recently, Syms helmed Dulcet in New Port Richey. Six months after opening, it was honored as a “best new restaurant” by Florida Trend, which praised dishes such as duck-and-waffles and grouper Wellington.
A Brit by birth, Syms says he felt an instant connection when he arrived in Tidewater; place names such as Pembroke, Norfolk and Portsmouth remind him of home. The venerable old restaurant, with its farmette, al fresco dining room and view of the Lynnhaven River, instantly charmed him.
“I mean, we’re serving oysters right out of that river,” he says with a slight English accent. “It’s a chef’s dream, that’s for sure.”
But he’s acutely aware of his delicate mission: to add spark to the menu while not alienating longtime clientele and to make Steinhilber’s a top dining destination.
“It’s hard with a clientele so steeped in tradition,” Syms says. “I’m not egotistical. If people want something – crab imperial, plain flounder on a plate – I will bend over backward to make it for them.”
He started making changes as soon as he arrived. Every diner receives an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre that changes daily. One day it might be a gin-cured gravlax rosti; on another, a taste of smoked heirloom tomato gazpacho.
He’s featured dishes such as fresh sardines and porcini risotto with beurre noisette and preserved Meyer lemon salad. This winter he plans to debut Peking duck and spare ribs.
Other items he hasn’t tweaked. Yet. Like the Melba toast.
Syms is astonished at the manpower that goes into making Steinhilber’s Melba toast, a multi-step process that takes one of the cooks, Santiago Soto, most of the day to make. Eventually, he’d like to phase it out.
That’s a tough one.
“Melba toast,” Brady says, shaking his head. “That will be the most difficult thing to change, the most pushback. But the fried shrimp, that’s not going anywhere.”