Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

Freemason Abbey Restaurant and Tavern Story


FREEMASON ABBEY RESTAURANT AND TAVERN

Distinctive casual elegance and unique menu

by Angela Slevin


From left: General Manager Colleen Jowers, Executive Chef Robert Norfleet <BR>and  Executive General Manager Lori Maddux

From left: General Manager Colleen Jowers, Executive Chef Robert Norfleet
and Executive General Manager Lori Maddux

A trip to Freemason Abbey is more than a night out at a great restaurant—it’s an event to be remembered. The historic exposed-brick landmark on the corner of West Freemason and Boush Streets has been dazzling tourists and turning locals into regulars for almost 30 years. It sits in the center of downtown Norfolk’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.

Built as the Second Presbyterian Church in 1873 with vaulted ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows, the Abbey went through several incarnations before becoming one of Norfolk’s most famous eateries. In 1902 it was transformed into the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and then at mid-century became home to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows—a spiritual group proclaiming the virtues of friendship, love, and trust, and the belief that all of humanity was created as a single harmonious structure. They eventually forfeited the building. Without some intervention, the city would likely have torn it down.

In early 1988, the next evolution of Freemason Abbey began, as skilled craftsmen took a year to transform the 145-year-old house of worship into an unforgettable meet-and-eat, 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 the vaulted ceiling watch over diners at quiet second-story tables. With renovations complete, the restaurant opened in 1989.

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. The unique atmosphere could best be described as casual, yet elegant.


Beautifully appointed dining rooms

Beautifully appointed dining rooms


Lori Maddux joined the restaurant as the general manager in 1997. “We hold this structure in very high respect,” Lori says. “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.” 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 General Manager Colleen Jowers and Executive Chef Robert Norfleet, hardworking employees who earned advancement opportunities as management prefers to promote from within.

Today, about 80 percent of the total staff is made up of long-term employees. 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 manifests itself in giving back to the community. Gift cards pour from the restaurant 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 A Taste of Chesapeake, a fund raiser for the Chesapeake Care Clinic, and different community charities in the area.


“We have high standards
when it comes to food and service,
and our employees are really proud of that fact.
They really enjoy working here!
Their devotion shows
 in the way they treat our guests.”

—Lori Maddux, Executive General Manager


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.

“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 simple.


Freemason Abbey Restaurant

Freemason Abbey Restaurant

Ken and Judy Fischer of Chesapeake are regulars at Freemason Abbey, and have been dining at the restaurant since it opened. “Freemason has the best salads.” Judy says. “I usually order the salmon or shrimp salad and they are cooked to perfection. The she-crab soup is wonderful too.” For his part, Ken loves the specials of the day and the desserts. They always recommend Freemason Abbey to their friends because of the broad range of excellent choices on the menu.

“We have high standards when it comes to food and service,” Lori notes. “And our employees are really proud of that fact. They really enjoy working here! Their devotion shows in the way they treat our guests, and in how long they’ve been at Freemason. It’s really a fun place to work.”

Monday features half-price wines, that would perhaps pair nicely with the seafood fantasia dish, or the melt-in-your-mouth stuffed pork chop. On Tuesday nights, the she-crab soup gets special pricing.

Scott Hitter is another regular. “I come here all the time,” he says. “I’ve been treated like family since the first time I walked in, so I come back for stellar service. The wild game specials on Friday nights are always creative and delicious,” he adds. Whether it’s alligator, buffalo, kangaroo or rabbit, each dish has been expertly prepared. Every week is a spontaneous treat as the restaurant searches for new discoveries.

Locals are often delighted to find an assortment of Norfolk draft beers to enjoy. 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.

While casual diners are always welcome, Freemason has come to be the restaurant of choice for rehearsal dinners, anniversaries, promotion celebrations, holiday parties 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,” Lori smiles. “That was the spirit behind this building from the start, and we’re happy to keep it that way.”

With its delicious food and friendly service, Freemason Abbey has always been a gathering place of fellowship and friendship in one form or another, and that tradition continues today for all who cross its threshold.




Freemason Abbey

209 W. Freemason Street
Norfolk, VA 23510

757-622-3966
http://www.freemasonabbey.com