Classic Norfolk Diners and Retro Theatres

By: Peggy Sijswerda

January 21, 2014

There’s something about vintage Americana that’s undeniably cool. From the architecture of 1950s drive-throughs to retro diners, there’s a classy and classic elegance that mixes kitsch with chic. Norfolk has a few great buldings that seem to have been frozen in the mid-20th Century and are icons of a different time, where hair was big and TVs were small.


Doumars | Classic Diners and Vintage Theatres

Doumar’s Drive-In, Home of the World’s 1st Ice Cream Cone © ms.akr




Doumar’s has been a family-owned business for over 100 years and today displays either design classic, or classic kitsch – the jury’s still out. Both a restaurant and a drive-through that could have been pulled from “Happy Days” the interior’s eye-popping orange walls and cosy booths take you back to days gone by. In the front corner is the ice-cream cone machine that started in all. Invented by Abe Doumar in 1904, the piano-sized contraption smells of vanilla and sugary sweetness and produces as many as 800 cones on a busy summer day. Besides tasty cones, you’ll find home-cooked, Carolina-style BBQ, burgers and fries, and creamy milkshakes.


Naro | Classic Diners and Vintage Theatres

Naro Expanded Ciema’s marquee © Fuzzy Gerdes


The Naro Expanded Cinema


Colley Avenue in Norfolk’s Ghent is a hip neighbourhood where you can chill out at sidewalk cafés or catch a film at the Naro Expanded Cinema, Norfolk’s artsy picture house. Built in 1936, the theatre has seen its ups and downs, but since 1977, the Naro has consistently brought the finest movies to Norfolk. Its red velvet curtains and old-school décor reminds moviegoers of the glamorous heyday of movie houses and keeps Norfolk residents and visitors coming back for more.


Donut | Classic Diners and Vintage Theatres

The Do-Nut Dinette © Fuzzy Gerdes


The Original Do-Nut Dinette


Vintage Coca-Cola signs decorate the front of the Original Do-Nut Dinette, an institution in Norfolk’s Ghent neighbourhood, where taking a spin around the vinyl red bar stools is part of the fun! Hungry for breakfast? You can get your eggs scrambled, over easy, or sunny side up. Doughnuts fresh from the fryer, a cool cast of characters, and bottomless cups of coffee are all you need to turn an ordinary breakfast into a blast from the past.


1917 Colley Avenue in Norfolk, 757-625-0661



Wells Theatre


Just across the street from Macarthur Center, Norfolk’s upscale shopping mall, the Wells Theatre has been welcoming theatre-goers for nearly 100 years. During its heyday, a Ben Hur production complete with a team of horses on treadmills thrilled audiences. Other performances featured the Ziegfeld Follies, Fred Astaire, Will Rogers, and John Philip Sousa. During the 1940s, the theatre became a movie house, and in the 1960s live burlesque shows appeared on stage while a gin mill and brothel operated behind the scenes. In 1980 after a $35 million restoration, the Wells reopened and has been the home of the Virginia Stage Company ever since. Its stunning architecture and décor inside and out is well worth checking out.


Header photo: Retro Norfolk bus station © Boston Public Library


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Have you visited Norfolk? What other retro buildings have you enjoyed? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.


Written by Peggy Sijswerda


Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda lives in Virginia Beach and edits and publishes two regional magazines: Tidewater Women and Tidewater Family. She freelances on the side, combining her passion for travel, her love of writing, and her insatiable curiosity about everything from architecture to zydeco. Currently she’s planning a trip to Andalusia, where she will follow the brandy route and try not to get lost. Her Dutch husband, Peter, and their three sons sometimes accompany Peggy on her adventures, but she also loves traveling solo. She recently completed a memoir, Still Life with Sierra, which follows Peggy and her family as they lose themselves in Europe for six months, trying to find home.

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