There are a select few places in Virginia that, when mentioned in conversation with another Virginian, will result in the telling of a personal story or anecdotal experience. Most of these are historical sites or landmarks, but, occasionally, a community gem will stand out for another reason.
One such place is Waterman’s Surfside Grille, a landmark in its own right to the coastal city of Virginia Beach. The current iteration of the restaurant has graced the Boardwalk since 1981, but the site has been in owner Mike Standing’s family since the 1940s, when swinging big band performances were fading and World War II loomed over the military zones of coastal Virginia.
“The beach used to erode away in front of the Boardwalk, storms would wash away the sand. My grandfather bought the land and sunk a barge off the beach over there and built the beach up so he had land solid to put a business on,” Mike explained. This innovative creativity and solution-oriented thinking must be an inherited trait, as Mike’s family has continued to defy the notoriously unstable conditions of the restaurant industry over a span of eight full decades.
With every challenge that arose, the Standings’ coastal culinary legacy grew to new heights. In 1979, Mike’s grandfather considered selling the original restaurant, a walk-up burger joint and souvenir shop called the Shake N’ Burger, as his son was a builder married to a schoolteacher and neither had planned a career involving restaurant ownership. But Mike’s parents stepped in to take the helm, reimagining the beachfront burger spot into Fogg’s Seafood Company, a more formal seafood dining establishment.
Waterman’s Surfside Grille Offers Free Valet Parking for Patrons
Current owner Mike Standing Jr. joined the family business full-time in 1992, starting the third generation’s management with the addition of “The Attic”, a bustling nightclub, and the conversion of Fogg’s Seafood Co. into Waterman’s Beachwood Grill. The final name change to Waterman’s Surfside Grille happened in 1996 when the family expanded the footprint of the oceanfront staple and fine-tuned the menu to feature seafood sourced locally from the converging waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay.
The Signature Drink, Waterman’s Fresh-Squeezed Orange Crush
But while the restaurant’s grand history is important, it is not what has led to its cult-classic standing with Virginia residents. While they are truly a stand out in a sea of coastal seafood restaurants, they are famous for the inception of “Virginia’s Original Orange Crush”, a refreshing cocktail made with the signature crushed iced, freshly-squeezed orange juice, orange vodka, orange liqueur, and a splash of lemon-lime soda. And like the restaurant’s nearly 100-year history, this mainstay beverage has a story.
The Waterman’s Story: A Chat with the Standings
On a deceptively sunny but chilly day in March 2023, a few of us from the “Virginia is for Lovers” team sat with Mike and his wife Mariah to hear about the history of Waterman’s and how the Orange Crush has made such an impact in the collective memory of Virginia. I myself had several anecdotes to share– the first time I visited Waterman’s in my twenties with friends and sampled the Orange Crush (in fact, I enjoyed the drink so much I ordered 3-4 of the way-too-easy-to-drink cocktails and purchased half the items at the gift shop, the Beach Nut), and the most recent visit with my husband and our one-year-old daughter, who waved at other tables and shared her appreciation for the experience quite vocally (the staff and other patrons graciously responded with their own smiles and waves).
Sipping a fresh-squeezed Orange Crush during our Visit
Mike and Mariah light up as I share these memories; their love for the venue is evident. As the third generation running Waterman’s, the couple manned the helm through the COVID pandemic, and, while many restaurants struggled to retain staff, Mike made it a goal to keep employees on no matter what: “When it comes to staff, we do everything we can to make sure they have a long career here. If they want to leave and go into another industry, I get that, but if they are leaving for another restaurant, we went wrong somewhere, and I want to know why. And then I want to fix it.”
The Patio of Waterman’s Surfside Grille
It’s clear that family-owned means more than just immediate family to Mike, as Eric Emerson, the restaurant’s General Manager, walks into the patio space to join the conversation. He chimes in occasionally to correct some numbers and dates and to share Crush-related fun facts (“If you took a year’s worth of Orange Crushes and lined them up side by side, they would cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel!”), and he, Mike, and Mariah fall comfortably into a light-hearted rhythm of banter.
Mike begins to recount the story of the famed Orange Crush–the details reflect a lot of the personality that makes Mike so easy to talk to. Back in 2001, a friend of a friend wanted to buy his boat, so Mike grabbed seats at the bar and suggested ordering drinks while they discussed the sale. The boat purchaser, Captain Jimmy Gray, remarked, “You should serve an Orange Crush here,” to which Mike responded that they did, and pointed out the cocktail on the menu. “I know, I ordered one and it sucks. You need to do them fresh-squeezed.”
Intrigued and open to constructive criticism, as well as an impromptu road trip, Mike and Mariah joined him the next day on a drive up to coastal Maryland, where he claimed they would try a fresh-squeezed Orange Crush that would blow the current Waterman’s cocktail made with store-bought juice away.
Fresh-Squeezed Orange Crushes at the Patio Bar
And the man was right–Mike immediately mapped out a plan for how this cocktail was going to change his restaurant, purchasing dozens of orange juicers and researching the best possible vodkas and liqueurs to use in the Virginia Beach version of this well-known summer drink. “We were very strict on doing it right,” remembers Mike when he talks about the introduction of the new-and-improved Orange Crush.
That stringency paid off almost immediately; in the first year after changing the recipe and rebranding the drink, Waterman’s served over 10,000 Orange Crushes; to date, they have served well over two million in Waterman’s. To celebrate the success of Waterman’s and “Virginia’s Original Orange Crush”, the restaurant threw a party that drew nearly 500 attendees, and that success led to the bash becoming an annual event, with the party growing larger each year.
Mariah recalls how, in 2013, the line to get into the event went as far as the eye could see down the Boardwalk. When patrons realized that they might be in for a bit of a wait to join the party, they stopped at other oceanfront eateries to grab a drink. “The party was so big, the crowd literally drank the oceanfront dry of vodka that day,” Mariah tells me. “Every restaurant along the oceanfront was making Orange Crushes.”
The offhand comment leads to another interesting discovery; rather than keep the recipe a closely guarded secret, Mike follows the expression “a rising tide floats all boats” when it comes to his place in the Virginia Beach restaurant community. He freely shares the recipe with anyone who asks, and, in fact, you’ll even find the recipe on merch like tea towels at the restaurant gift shop, the Beach Nut.
This mentality is another reason why the Standing family is so beloved in the community, something I discover whenever mentioning our stop at Waterman’s to another Virginia Beach business owner (I soon learn that everyone knows everyone else in Virginia Beach’s restaurant scene, and they all have opinions to share). Instead of dishing out juicy gossip about the couple, the fellow business owner raves about Mike and Mariah’s contributions to the local community.
One such example is the Crush N’ Run, an annual 5K race hosted by Waterman’s Surfside Grille, Chix on the Beach, and The Shack on 8th, otherwise known as the Trifecta (all owned by the Standings). To date, the Trifecta has donated over a million dollars to the local community, including a nonprofit close to their heart, Camp Grom, a local day retreat developed for wounded veterans and their families, as well as children and adults with differing abilities. In 2018, the restaurants reached their goal of donating an astounding $500,000 to the camp.
The Crush N’ Run may be the most inspiring, but it’s far from the most record-breaking party that Waterman’s has thrown. Mike, Mariah, and Eric all begin recounting the details of their biggest bash–a party so big that they had to move it to the local waterfront campground instead of hosting it at the restaurant.
“That’s the year we built the Octo-Crush,” Mike recalls, and the response to my obvious follow-up question, “What is the Octo-Crush?” makes my jaw drop. Mike and his team invented a massive contraption to serve fresh-squeezed Orange Crushes to a large crowd of 10,000 people, with eight “arms” leading out to pouring stations and scaffolding holding the customized kegs and barrels needed to hold the cocktail ingredients. Everything was timed to the second–from how long it takes to unscrew the caps to how much time it takes to empty a bottle, the team thought through every moment of the beverage-making process, eventually managing an astounding three drinks per second.
In addition to building this one-of-a-kind apparatus, Waterman’s had to figure out how to supply the party with the ingredients for the drinks, so tractor-trailers were brought in to deliver full loads of oranges, vodka, and ice. 15 charter buses ran back and forth on the day of the event from Waterman’s, transporting people to the campgrounds. “We served 50,000 freshly-squeezed Orange Crushes that day,” Mike continues.
The Waterman’s Legacy, in Spirit Form
Waterman Spirits, located on atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach
As the legend of “Virginia’s Original Orange Crush” spread, Mariah Standing realized that there was a problem. With such large volumes needed of high-quality orange vodka and orange liqueur, Waterman’s was running into flavor consistency issues with the vodka they were using at the time. And while the Standings were happy to share their recipe with other Virginia Beach restaurants, the bartenders at these other establishments did not always follow the vodka-to-liqueur ratio strictly adhered to at Waterman’s.
Mariah found a solution to these problems with the idea to start her own spirits company–a daunting undertaking in any environment–but the timing could not have been worse; the pandemic brought the world to a stop, and restaurants were hit especially hard. Rather than scrapping the idea and buckling down to weather the economic storm brought by COVID-19, Mariah doubled down on the distillery idea.
“I just thought, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna do it.’”, Mariah tells me as she talks about the newly-opened distillery. The conversation moves from the history of Waterman’s to the future, and how Waterman Spirits fits into the picture.
“I wanted to do something very natural and clean, I was obsessed with having the spirits line organic. In my heart and soul I feel like everything is better for you and for the environment when it is kept as natural as possible, as it comes from the earth. Think about it, when you have this beautiful orange that you are freshly squeezing, why wouldn’t you use a natural flavored vodka to pair with it? Honestly, the Organic Vodka is so smooth because we filter it with coral which raises the PH. All you really need is a squeeze of your favorite citrus and a little soda water.”
Mariah has done her research, so I trust her when she says she is 99% sure that Waterman Spirits is the only coral-filtered organic vodka in the world. The resulting products are smooth and sippable, which we discover when we decide to move our conversation from the restaurant and head down to the distillery, just a few blocks from Waterman’s Surfside Grille.
The stunning tasting room at Waterman Spirits
Located right beside the Shack on 8th, Waterman’s Distillery exudes Mariah’s elegantly understated coastal taste. An old wooden dinghy hangs from the ceiling, and wild greenery cascades from the tilted vessel. Clean white walls and limestone floors inlaid with coral set the backdrop for solid wood furniture. Overall, the decor is much more muted and refined than the restaurant, but you’d expect that from a place that caters to only adults rather than entire families.
Making My First Waterman’s Orange Crush
After perusing the merch section (and picking out a sublimely scented candle to take home), we sidle up to the bar as Mariah tells us about the five staple products–organic vodka, orange vodka, orange liqueur, grapefruit vodka, and the “Perfect Crush”, a blend of half orange vodka and half orange liqueur that results in the perfect pour for the namesake Orange Crush.
Current Infused Spirits on Display at Waterman Spirits
She’s also experimenting with seasonal infusions crafted right behind the bar. Currently, local strawberries float inside a large glass cylinder filled with vodka, lending a sweet but balanced flavor to the beverage. Past iterations include cinnamon and pineapple vodkas, and Mariah is planning many more infusion experiments as fresh local produce comes into season.
Our experience at both the restaurant and the distillery has so far been wonderful, but the day gets even better when Mariah invites me to make my own Crush. After walking me through the steps, Mariah hands me a freshly cut orange half to slip into the juicer. I mimic her movements, albeit in a much clumsier fashion, and after pouring my third beverage, I’ve got the hang of it.
Waterman Spirits Can be Purchased at the Tasting Room or ABC Stores
Before saying our goodbyes and leaving the distillery, I grab a handle of the “Perfect Crush” to take home. Now that I’ve learned the recipe and practiced my bartending skills, I see many leisurely Saturday brunches with Orange Crushes in my future.