Autumn is an auspicious time of year; the crisp crackle of crunchy leaves beneath your boots, bulky wool sweaters to discreetly warm the muffin-tops, and a natural gravitational pull toward the fuller, darker beers. Yet, autumn can make us feel a bit guilty. Shouldn't we be off on a leaf-peeping weekend? Yes, but there's not enough time or money. How about something cultural, like a visit to a museum or theater? Or, maybe a beautiful hike in a natural area? Sounds good, but once again, we're pressed for time. What if we told you that you can do all these things, and drink good beer, within a half an hour of downtown Norfolk? Crazy? Maybe, but maybe not. We're talking Newport News.
Major stop: Hilton Village, originally built as American's first federal war-housing project back in 1918 when 500 English village-style homes were built to provide much-needed housing for employees at Newport News Shipbuilding. Today, this small pedestrian-friendly section of Warwick Boulevard has a community theater, a few shops and restaurants, and the Hilton Tavern, which earned honorable mentions for "Under the Radar" and "Most Improved Beer Selection " in the first annual Veer Beer awards. They also have garnered a Daily Press Choice Award, "Best Hamburger in Newport News," for their 100% Angus beef hand-patted burgers.
Lee Steveson, a retired engineer from Northrop-Grumman, cashed in his chips and bought Ray's Hilton Country Club, which opened in 1930 and spent many years as a biker bar. Fast forward to November 2010, scrub decades of cigarette smoke off the walls, clean down to the wood, paint everything in bright and cheerful hues, get in an outstanding selection of American craft beers and voila, the rechristened Hilton Tavern is a place where you can drink beer and bring your family. A recent visit on a Friday night found most tables filled with people chatting and eating things like Philly steak sandwiches, steamed shrimp, and pulled pork BBQ from the value-priced menu. You can spot friendly folks at the bar, a couple of families with children enjoying beer and burgers, a guy playing cover tunes on a keyboard, and a few folks playing pool; perhaps the lack of hard liquor enhances the family-friendly atmosphere.
By far, the best thing about the Hilton Tavern is written on the chalkboard as you enter. It's the beer list! Over 100 beers in the bottle, and 10 on tap, most of which are craft beer. A few highlights from a recent visit: Southern Tier Unearthly, a grapefruit hop-bomb from heaven, and their Choklat and Creme Brulee Stouts. These stouts are like alcohol-laced bittersweet chocolate kisses from the beer goddess Ninkasi. UMMMMmmmmm.....You'll also find killer beers from Denver's Great Divide (Old Ruffian Barleywine, Yeti Imperial Stout and the Yeti Chocolate Oak-aged version), Green Flash Hop Head Red, Lagunitas Censored, Rogue Dead Guy and the Chipotle Ale, Weyerbacher Quad, Schlafly's Pumpkin Ale, Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, New Belgium Fat Tire and Hoptober. For those who like their suds Belgian-style, you'll appreciate Allagash White, Duvel, New Belgium Trippel, Ommegang Three Philosophers and the classic Ommegang Abbey. This is just a smattering of our favorites. Oh yes, and for your not-so-adventurous-friends, there is Bud Light on tap. Best of all worlds! Plus live music six nights a week beginning around 8 pm, and Thursday night karaoke. The Hilton Tavern is at 10184 Warwick Blvd., Newport News. Open daily at 11 a.m. until closing (2 a.m. on weekends); call ‘em, 757.599.9888
Hilton Village also has two other restaurants where you can get a decent beer. Circa 1918 is just across the street and a block or two north, in the heart of Hilton Village. Fine dining from the folks who brought you Create Bistro, Circa 1918 has creative American fare and a few well-chosen craft beers. Reservations are needed; this restaurant is small and popular.
Just a few steps of Warwick Boulevard is 99 Main Street. They have an open kitchen, ample seating, and a warm ambiance. Although they put more effort into myriad martinis and fine wines, the beer selection always has a couple of craft or interesting imports to choose from. A recent visit found two different pumpkin ales from Dogfish and Cottonwood, as well as an authentic German lager from Augustinerbrau.
Okay, we promised you more than just beer on this autumnal 'staycation.' Five minutes north on Warwick Boulevard, where it intersects J. Clyde Morris Boulevard's southern terminus, you can oogle art at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, check out the USS Monitor's actual briny turret and walk the deck on a full-sized replica of the “cheesebox-on-a-raft” at the Mariner's Museum, and take the kids to see native animals in a natural-like habitat at the Virginia Living Museum. Finally, close out your sojourn by taking in a show at the acoustically acclaimed Ferguson Center at Christopher Newport University (Chinese acrobats, magical illusionists, Lewis Black, and Paul Anka are all playing there in November).
But what about the leaf peeping? Best kept secret in Tidewater...the Noland Trail. A five-mile hike in the woods around Lake Maury (another well-kept secret), with some of the best leaf color in Hampton Roads during November. At the intersection of Warwick Blvd and J. Clyde South, J. Clyde becomes Avenue of the Arts/University Place where you see the replica of a big ship's blades. Take Avenue of the Arts, then turn left onto Museum Drive. You can park for free in the lot on the right, and find the trail head nearby. Or, take Museum Drive all the way to the far end, and there is a parking lot with a beautiful view of the James River, and lot of ducks. There is a trailhead there as well. We always find the five-mile loop intimidating, so we just go halfway and then turn around and head back. Easy as pie. It's good to know that five minutes down the road we can get back to Hilton Village for sustenance and good beer.