New restaurants and apartments opening in downtown Newport News, thanks to a plan to avoid tunnel traffic

By Jessica Nolte

Daily Press • May 20, 2022 at 8:35 am

Jonathan Provost had a problem: good employees were sometimes late to work at his Norfolk office because of traffic crossing the bridge tunnels from the Peninsula to Norfolk.

His solution: cut the commute and build an office on their side of the water. But a closer office space alone wasn’t enough for the local developer’s “live, work, play” philosophy.

He’s transformed a row of empty warehouses along 23rd Street in Newport News into apartments and restaurants.

“I’m a firm believer in the live, work, play kind of model,” Provost said. “I don’t like working in an office space. I like working at a coffee shop or a brewery, and I like being in close proximity to those places.”

Newport News jumped at the opportunity to have new businesses downtown because it is in the midst of a revitalization effort to draw people to its Yard District. Benny Cantiere’s, a pizza place known for its “Virginia slice” and jumbo pies, opened earlier this month and two more, a gastropub and coffee and wine bar, are slated to open this summer.

“This slice of pizza is as big as your face — if not bigger,” said Kristen Bowen, business development manager for Benny’s.

Chris Brown, a Virginia Beach native and co-founder of Benny’s, opened the chain’s first pizza joint in Blacksburg in 2011. The location in Newport News is the third in the region — a nod to Brown’s Hampton Roads roots.

“It was really important to [Chris] to get Benny’s as many places as he could near his hometown,” Bowen said. “We have just found that the Virginia Beach area loves pizza.”

Bowen said the company prefers to renovate the interior of existing buildings, rather than build from the ground up.

“We love to revitalize areas in cities that used to be all in the hype and all in the mix back in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and maybe the downtown has gotten a little bit below where it used to be,” Bowen said.

Part of the founders’ approach to respecting the work of the business owners who came before them includes installing a small sign inside each restaurant that talks about the history of the building.

Provost said that 28 of the 32 apartment units above the restaurants are already occupied.

This summer, Benny’s will be joined by the coffee and wine bar, which will serve sandwiches during the day, and the gastropub, which will carry American cuisine.

“Newport News is a great place,” Provost said. “I think it’s an untapped market with an ample amount of employees who really just need a place to live and spots to enjoy.”

He previously teamed up with three brewers to open Coastal Fermentory in late 2020 next to Ironclad Distillery.

Provost said he has a few other projects in the works in the city’s downtown and hopes to build about 150 apartment units within the next five years.

He has another piece of land that will allow him to continue expanding down 23rd Street. He’s planning another 30 apartment units and two more retail spaces including a larger full-service restaurant.

The city has been working the past few years to bring people downtown for reasons other than for the municipal buildings or the shipyard. It recently added additional lighting to the area and has opened up the City Hall parking lot for free parking on weekends and after 5 p.m. on weekdays.

Provost and the city are partnering again this summer to host a series of block parties in the area with food trucks, drinks and live music. The first one of the season will be from 3-8 p.m. on Friday, May 27 at 208 23rd Street.

Jessica Nolte, 757-912-1675, [email protected]

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