Eating out for me is about more than just the food. Restaurants offer an escape from the humdrum world, an adventure in a new environment—one that excites all of my senses and emphasizes the pleasure of the moment.
When I think back to my most memorable restaurant meals, the food isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind. Rather I remember the ambiance, the mood, the energy of a place. I remember the way the restaurant looked, the lighting and color scheme, the paintings on the walls. I think back to how the cutlery felt in my hands, the sensuous stemware, the comfortable seating. I recall the ambient noise: the voices of those around me, the thrumming music, the whir of a blender, and the sizzling sounds coming from the kitchen.
Yard House, a trendy new restaurant, delivers a stimulating sensory experience in Virginia Beach’s Town Center. Excellent food, terrific music, great service, and a very cool vibe combined to create a delicious escape for my husband and me on a recent Thursday evening. We weren’t the only ones enjoying Yard House’s ambiance. The restaurant was packed with a young-ish crowd, whose energy was palpable and contagious.
One of the first things you’ll notice upon entering is the enormous bar in the center of the restaurant, behind which more than a hundred taps pour forth a selection of 129 beers from around the globe. Each tap connects to stainless steel pipelines that rise up to the ceiling, joining together like an avant-garde pipe organ before curving off toward a glass-walled space that houses silver kegs, each containing its own captivating brew.
Beer aficianados will be blown away by the choices: ambers, reds, stouts, porters, brown ales, pub cream ales, India pale ales, Bavarian Hefeweizens, American wheat, Belgian strong ales. Their names read like poetry: Lost Coast Great White, Flying Dog Classic Pale, Big Sky Moose Drool—okay, maybe not poetry but they certainly reflect creative vision. Even the adjectives will make you thirsty: roasted, nutty, rich, floral, aromatic, creamy, subtle, hearty, piney, zesty. You can spend days sipping brews here, and still not reach the bottom of the menu.
The second thing you’ll notice about Yard House is the amazing music. It’s old-school rock, but not the same monotonous sets you hear on the local classic station. I heard Traffic, the Doors, the Dead, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello—a playlist after my own heart. In fact, the music is personally chosen by the company’s founder, Steele Platt, described as the “music mastermind” on the restaurant’s website. Platt opened the first Yard House in Long Beach, California, in 1996, and since then the company has grown to include 35 restaurants from coast to coast. Platt’s formula of combining an extensive selection of beer with American fusion cuisine in a lively environment seems to be a hit.
As Peter and I sat down at a booth, I looked around at the stylish color scheme—think dark, dreamy paneling and cocoa accents—accented by warm lighting. The thick menu opened to reveal a wide variety of food choices. I’d looked at the menu online before our visit, yet I still had trouble making a selection. While we were perusing the menu, I ordered a glass of DeLoach California Merlot, and Peter opted for the Speakeasy Prohibition Ale. We decided to try the seared ahi sashimi for a starter.
The tuna arrived within minutes: perfect rectangles of rare tuna with lightly blackened edges fanned out on a plate accompanied by a sprinkling of cabbage to provide crunch and texture. The dressing—a soy vinaigrette with wasabi and ginger—added a lovely sweet-sour balance to the clean, briny taste of the tuna. Aaron, our server said the same dressing is used on the Ahi Crunchy Salad, a popular menu item and one I will definitely try on my next visit.
We asked Aaron about the exhaustive menu, and he told us it’s changed a lot since the original restaurant unveiled its offerings 15 years ago in Long Beach. In fact, only one item remains, and that’s the clam chowder. Peter and I decided we had to try it and found it exceptional. The new England-style chowder featured huge hunks of clams as well as the standard potatoes and corn. It was creamy but not cloying, and we detected a peppery hint that added depth and flavor. The clam chowder is a perfect choice, especially on a cold winter’s day.
After changing my mind a half dozen times, I settled on the jerk chicken and shrimp stack, appealing perhaps because of the mixture of flavors and ingredients. Nestled on a bed of colorful zucchini and mango strips, the entrée was a work of art. To the left a large breast of chicken offered Caribbean flavors, and to the right a stack of corn tortillas revealed a dozen or so medium shrimp bathed in a red chili sauce. Melted jack cheese and a dollop of sour cream provided the perfect accents, and I was completely satisfied with my selection.
Peter ordered the porcini-encrusted halibut served with parmesan mashed potatoes and a medley of bok choy and asparagus. Cooked perfectly, the halibut tasted like the sea, its porcini crust adding only a hint of mushroom flavor. The buttery cream sauce was oh-so-rich enhanced by the addition of white truffle oil. Peter was quite pleased with his entrée although he felt the porcini didn’t add much overall to the dish. We also munched on a side order of truffle fries, dusted with parmesan cheese and fresh herbs. And please hold the catsup! You definitely want to enjoy these delicate flavors in their unadorned state.
Dessert for me was mango sorbet served with a sprig of mint, perfect for cleansing my palate. Peter opted for a rich crème brulee, a unique presentation with a lovely shell of rich, dark chocolate underneath the creamy custard. As we finished our desserts, we chatted with our server, who was part of a training team helping ensure quality control following the restaurant’s opening. Even though Aaron missed his wife and daughter back in California, he loved working for Yard House and touted the company’s ethical business philosophy and its emphasis on family values and balance between work and home.
Balance seems to be the operative word at Yard House, where diners can expect a perfectly balanced evening. Flavorful food and libations skillfully served in a stimulating environment add up to an experience that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Yard House, 4529 Commerce St., next to the Westin Virginia Beach Town Center. Phone 757-490-9273 www.yardhouse.com Entrees: $14.95-31.25. Happy Hour with a selection of half-price appetizers and drink specials Mon.-Fri. from 3-6 p.m.