Sunday, April 21st, 2019

Freemason Abbey Restaurant and Tavern Story


Inviting, old-world charm meets inspired menu

by Candance Moore

Front row from left: Lori Maddux, Colleen Jowers, and Tammy Cobb. <BR>Back row: Steve Jowers and Chef Zach Johnson.

Front row from left: Lori Maddux, Colleen Jowers, and Tammy Cobb.
Back row: Steve Jowers and Chef Zach Johnson.

To fully experience all that downtown Norfolk has to offer, a meal at Freemason Abbey Restaurant and Tavern is a must. This refined restaurant in a sainted structure has been dazzling tourists and turning locals into regulars for almost 30 years.

It sits in the center of downtown’s modern amenities, steps away from the Chrysler Museum, MacArthur Center, Nauticus and more. Yet it’s also part of Norfolk’s historical sites tour, bringing together the best of old-world charm and contemporary dining. The menu, like the atmosphere, offers time-tested comfort food alongside creative innovation.

That was the vision in 1987 when an investor purchased a forgotten, boarded-up church at the corner of Freemason and Boush. What had started as a gorgeous Presbyterian place of worship had changed hands a few times, losing a bit of its luster with each passing decade, until one of its final occupants – the Independent Order of Odd Fellows – forfeited the large and burdensome building. Without some intervention, the city would likely have torn it down.

The current owner saw the building’s potential as a restaurant. During a major renovation, the church was updated while retaining as much of the original material as possible. Real stained glass from the 19th century now looks down on a full bar, while dramatic wooden beams in a vaulted ceiling watch over diners at quiet second-story tables. With renovations complete, the restaurant opened in 1989.

The unique atmosphere could best be described as casual, yet elegant. The first menu introduced its now-legendary award winning she-crab soup. Each offering was crafted to give guests a posh meal accessible to casual diners.

Lori Maddux joined the restaurant as a manager in 1997. “We hold this structure in very high respect,” Lori conveys. “It represents many great things about Norfolk’s history, and it’s still as beautiful as ever. All our decisions are driven by that respect.”

Freemason Abbey Restaurant

Freemason Abbey Restaurant

Lori’s leadership helped propel the restaurant into becoming a local favorite. Now she serves as Executive General Manager over a team of more than 50. Along the way, she recruited Executive Chef Zach Johnson and General Manager Colleen Jowers, hardworking employees who earned advancement opportunities as management preferred to promote from within.

Today, about 80 percent of the total staff is made up of long-term employees, and almost everyone in leadership started at the bottom. This means the food is consistently prepared and served by an experienced team. Service is genuinely friendly and effortlessly efficient.

“Our culture definitely shows in our people. When we invest in them, they are loyal to us, and it trickles down to how guests are treated,” Lori explains. “We’ve been fortunate to build such a great team.”

That goodwill doesn’t stay within the restaurant’s walls, either. Any place where a group of kind people assemble, charity tends to appear, and Freemason Abbey is no exception. Gift cards pour from the building in support of worthy causes, such as auctions that benefit organizations like St. Matthew’s School, the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater and the Bra-ha-ha. A few other recipients of their philanthropy are the Zoo To Do for the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk and A Taste of Chesapeake, a fund raiser for the Chesapeake Care Free Clinic.

To ensure continued success, Freemason Abbey proactively engages guests to hear their feedback. Every comment from a guest is valued as the leadership team plans for the future. On rare occasions when something goes wrong, the restaurant works to make it right – but Lori is pleased to report that compliments remain the strong majority.

Beautifully appointed dining rooms

Beautifully appointed dining rooms

“We want to be a restaurant that everyone in Norfolk is proud of,” she says. “It’s what drives us. When locals are showing off their city to visitors, we want Freemason Abbey to be part of that conversation.”

In support of so many locals who consistently dine there, the restaurant has unveiled a Dedicated Diner program. It allows regular patrons to earn points for each visit. The points can be spent directly on future meals. Like everything else at Freemason Abbey, the program is generous, transparent, and not weighed down by complications.

Locals are often delighted to find an assortment of Norfolk draft beers – particularly tasty on Tuesday nights when the she-crab soup gets special pricing.  Monday features half-price wines, that would perhaps pair nicely with the seafood fantasia dish, or the melt-in-your-mouth stuffed pork chop.

“When local residents
 are showing off their city to visitors,
we want Freemason Abbey
to be part of that conversation.
We’re here to be as friendly
and accommodating as we can.”

—Lori Maddux, Executive General Manager

Friday nights are when things get really interesting: wild game brings unexpected flavors that can’t be found anywhere else around. Whether it’s alligator, buffalo, kangaroo or rabbit, each dish has been expertly prepared by the chefs at Freemason. Every week is a spontaneous treat as the restaurant searches for new discoveries.

Freemason Abbey is open all day for lunch and dinner. Half-sandwich combos allow for mixing and matching. Club sandwiches piled high with ham and bacon lend themselves to a cool bite of coleslaw. On chilly days, nothing beats a French dip with a steamy cup of soup. Drink options include cocoa, hot apple cider, and refreshing sparkling water.

While casual diners are always welcome, Freemason has come to be the restaurant of choice for rehearsal dinners, anniversaries, promotion celebrations, and small business meetings. Parties of up to 50 are invited to make reservations.

“We’re here to be as friendly and accommodating as we can,” she notes. “That was the spirit behind this building from the start, and we’re happy to keep it that way.”

Freemason Abbey

209 W. Freemason Street
Norfolk, VA 23510