Circa 1918 – Newport News’ New Dawn (Grade: A)

UPDATE:  Oh, Circa 1918, why have you forsaken me?  Was I too inattentive?  Not lavish enough in my praise?  Did I noticeably wince the last time the bill was more than $200 for two people at a wine tasting event?

While still mostly very tasty, Circa 1918 has inexplicably lost quite a bit of its shine.  The menu doesn’t appear to have changed in months, the staff has largely eschewed its enthusiastic service for a blase been-there-done-that attitude, and the faded scrawl on the chalkboard still sadly notes that Create Bistro will be open “soon.”

Maybe Circa 1918 has been so focused on the interminable run-up to Create’s re-debut that they’ve forgotten they’re running an actual open restaurant.  On my last visit, service was generally inattentive, and the cocktails were sweet to the point of being cloying.  The fried chicken liver appetizer was a huge disappointment, with the overcooked livers looking more like dark-brown miniature falafel nuggets than any sort of chicken liver I’ve ever seen (go try the ones at Taphouse for an example of how they can be done right).  The remainder of the meal was competent but forgettable, and by the time the waiter asked about dessert (I had been seated a full 80 minutes prior to this point), I just wanted to leave.

Maybe it was just an off evening for the restaurant, but I kind of doubt it.  Calls for reservations the prior weekend went unanswered (and messages were not returned), and the next weekend resulted in the restaurant not honoring my Opentable reservation.  Pathetically, the staff tried to blame Opentable, but — having used the service all over the country without even the hint of a snag — I am inclined to fault Circa 1918.  That they never even feigned to offer an apology says a lot.

The food is still very good at Circa 1918, but because of this last visit, I stripped them of their A+.  They still think very highly of themselves there, but I, for one, have grown less impressed.

* * *

Look.  This restaurant almost sounded the death-knell for my crummy little blog.


Why?  You ask?  Because visit after visit, I couldn’t find a solitary thing to complain about.  After multiple meals at Circa 1918, all I have is one crappily scrawled note about how there was this one time where the appetizer took a little too long time to show up, then the entrée came out a little too soon.  Oh, there was also one time where I got overbilled, but they fixed it so fast and so graciously that I felt bad about even bringing it up in the first place.

Yeah, it’s kind of like going to the Bass Pro Shop and trying to take issue with the fact there’s so much camouflage.

Circa 1918 quietly stepped onto the Hampton Roads dining scene sometime in the middle of 2010 with no noticeable fanfare.  The place is run by Chad Martin, whose Create Bistro was immolated after an explosion in “a closet.”  Right.  Naturally, our local junior-high-journalism-club newspaper, the Daily Press, forgot to cover said fire, so I guess we’ll have to go with the whole closet-explosion thing.  I’m sure that sort of thing happens all the time.  All.  The.  Time.

But who really cares how it all went down, because a meal at Circa 1918 yields the most effusive cast of adjectives:  delicious, intriguing, expert, unfussy, inviting, enthralling, comforting and relaxing.  To put it another way, I can have the worst day ever at work, but walk out of Circa feeling on top of the world.  And that’s worth something, right?

First off, Circa 1918 is not in a strip mall.  It’s part of a pleasant stretch of boutiquey shops in the commercial “district” of the historic Hilton Village neighborhood.  It’s the kind of area you would like to go and stroll down the street and leisurely window shop … if the area was bigger than two blocks (a visit engenders the same response as going to downtown Hampton:  “What?  That’s it?”).  Interestingly, the neighborhood is actually “historic” – it’s even listed on the National Register of Historic Places on account of being the United States’ first Federal war-housing project.  The neighborhood was built by the feds in World War I in order to house all the shipbuilders who had moved to the area to support the war effort.  So basically welfare (run and tell your screechy teabagger neighbor:  Eek!  Socialism!  Very Scary!).

Small as it is, the street is sort of quaint with a kind of Colonial Williamsburg, smalltown USA vibe.  In line with that sensibility, Circa 1918 occupies a narrow shotgun space, making it compact and cozy.  You basically have a cluster of tables up front, with the bar stretching back to the kitchen.  I keep forgetting to count the tables, but it’s probably around ten or so at the most.  This is why you’ll see some reviewers on less-enlightened sites kvetching about being too close to other diners.  You’ll also run across a few people whining about it being “too loud.”  Yes, you do have to sit close to some people you may have never met before, and they may be different from you (the horror, the horror).  From my experience there, it’s led to meeting some interesting folks who live in the neighborhood, none of whom I would’ve met otherwise.  On a couple of occasions, I was able to figure out what I should order after conferring with the people at the table next to me – a couple diners similarly engaged me on a later visit.  So, if this sort of interaction with other members of the human race freaks you out, you should probably dine elsewhere.  Like in your mom’s basement.

I also have never really understood the whole “too loud” issue, because the place doesn’t sound loud to me – it sounds alive.  It’s a very happy place, and, yes, you will probably have to talk louder than a whisper.  But it’s hardly raucous.  It’s the kind of place where people are having a good time eating a great meal with people whose company they enjoy.  I tend to think that’s a good thing, but I suppose your mileage may vary.  I do want to point out that the concerns over the volume have apparently been noted by the management, since I saw sound-absorbing panels on the ceiling last time I was there.  If it still seems like too much to you, then I recommend swinging by at lunchtime when things are somewhat more sedate.

As I’ve intimated above, the food at Circa 1918 is pretty much off the charts.  Every dish I’ve had at Circa 1918, and every dish I’ve seen pass by my table, has been painstakingly arranged, like an edible artwork.  And for as good as it looks, it tastes even better.  An appetizer billed as “lobster strudel” was a cube of flaky dough layered with swiss chard, topped with lobster in decadent cream sauce.  Mustard seed-crusted pork loin arrived perfectly cooked to a light-pink center on top of an impossibly awesome smoked-gouda and sweet potato gratin that took the concept of sweet-salty to a whole new level.

A Cubano you’re not likely to find in Havana.

Architectural presentations are de rigueur at Circa 1918 with scallops somehow being wrapped around flounder, ahi tuna was presented in a small column with yet more tuna fanned out across the top.  A smoked kingfish appetizer is mounted on top of ribbons of chard and carrots, then topped with julienned jicama and fennel.  One lunch-time pillar of a cubano sandwiched listed much like the Pisa tower under the weight of its thick, rustic bread, homemade pickles and in-house-cured (!) ham.

Those dishes with less altitude fare just as well.  Beautifully seared halibut was laid across spot-on risotto shot through with fresh peas and saffron and then topped with a goat-cheese-stuffed fried squash blossom.  Fork-tender spareribs with deep, dark hoisin glaze played perfectly against a dense fried wheel of polenta and sautéed “mirepoix” (Circa 1918’s is a better-seasoned and larger-chop version of the typical surgically small dice).  A crab cake sandwich, which was spectacular in its own right, was served with canIpleasehaveabucketofthistogo pickled-Brussels-sprouts-bok-choy slaw.

Like I said:  off the charts.  And not in a, “wow, this is kinda good for Hampton Roads,” kind of way.  More in a “ohmigod, I love this place,” kind of way.  You know?  Far, far beyond just technically adept cooking skills, the flavors of Circa 1918 are the sort that tell you the kitchen staff is not just working on your dinner – they’re working hard to knock the whole affair out of the park.  And as far as I’m concerned, they’re batting something like .900.

Sadly, the place is on the darker side, so I don’t have as many pictures to share, which is

An appetizer of epic proportions.

kind of a shame, considering the amount of work they put into arranging the dishes.  Guess you’ll just have to go for yourself, hmm?

In case you need more prodding, let me throw out there that the waitstaff is pretty fantastic.  Not only are they friendly and they make you feel like they’re happy you’re there, they’re also very knowledgeable about the food.  On pretty much every occasion I’ve been there, they’ve been able to discuss the dishes and the ingredients in depth.  On one visit, I asked a waiter about some “bacon powder” on a dish – he proceeded to rattle off the entire process the kitchen used to reduce bacon drippings to a (ridiculously tasty) powder.

The barkeep at Circa 1918 is no slouch, either, and deserves a visit or ten.  The “Sweet Georgia Brown” cocktail I had on one trip featured a brilliant collaboration of bourbon and peach that was neither too sweet nor too heavy.  “Lady Sings the Blues” is a cocktail that actually tastes like real blueberries (unlike the chemical-spill off-the-shelf vodkas) with just the right amount of lavender (too much will turn any drink into a medicinal tincture).  The wines are typically interesting and well priced – go on Tuesday nights for the killer deal of glasses for five bucks a pop.

Since the restaurant is so small, I highly recommend you get reservations.  For whatever reason, they seem to shut off reservations by Friday, so make yours earlier in the week.  Fortunately, Circa 1918 uses OpenTable, so you can make reservations easily enough from your computer/phone.

Rumor has it that Mr. Martin is about to re-open Create, and I’m looking forward to trying it out.  I do have one bit of advice, though:

Don’t screw with Circa 1918.

Grade:  A+
Address:  10367 Warwick Boulevard, Newport News
Phone:  (757) 599-1918
Website:  None, but you can find them on Facebook

Here’s what the Urbanspoon folks have to say:
Circa 1918 on Urbanspoon

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