All Aboard the Pink Dinghy

This playful Virginia Beach restaurant brings a world of flavor.

It’s hard to miss the Pink Dinghy in Virginia Beach’s hip ViBe District. Just look for the vibrant mural or the (literal) pink dinghy on the roof. Wes Anderson meets Miami Beach in this small restaurant that’s both playful and authentic. The place feels effortlessly cool, with an eclectic menu that reflects owner Stephanie Dietz’ global palate along with the changing seasons.  

“I like options,” Dietz explains. “I don’t often eat the same thing twice at home, so I wanted that to be embedded in my professional life, too.”

The lunch menu recalls the Pink Dinghy’s origins as the Dominican pop-up known as la Alma, launched by Dietz and her husband, fellow chef Jonathan Urena, in 2018. Seasonal empanadas, a constant on the ever-changing menu, allow Dietz to showcase her creativity. Within these flaky pockets, you might find plantains and shredded pork in a pepper-forward red sauce or a zippy Soyrizo® and bean filling. It all depends on the season.

Two ample bean and cheese pupusas (a stuffed, griddled masa cake of Salvadoran origin) come dressed in curtido, a spicy cabbage slaw, plus day-glo pink pickled onions, and a tangy ají verde (the Dinghy’s version of a mother sauce includes pickled jalapeños, cilantro, and mayo) liberally drizzled on top. Each bite delivers the right balance of earthy masa and beans to piquant toppings. And, in a kind of torta al pastor, meltingly tender braised pork cozies up to pineapple and jalapeño, with an ever-so-slightly spiced chipotle mayo that brings the whole sandwich together, bite after meaty bite.

There’s something about visiting the Beach and scanning The Pink Dinghy’s clever selection of cocktails that inspires lunchtime drinking. Bar director Cole Sweeney’s offerings range from Pink Drink No. 2, an Aperol Spritz-esque libation made with Topo Chico, to a Prickly Pear Margarita that delivers the Dinghy’s signature rosy hue. It’s quintessential patio drinking where, during the warmer months, you’ll find the best seats in (or, rather, outside of) the house.

Inside, an open kitchen overlooks a thoughtfully-curated selection of wine and snacks, ideal for tucking away for a beach picnic. A single shelf offers an impressive assortment of natural wine, selected by Evan Slagle, who directs The Pink Dinghy’s wine program and handily covers their graphic design and event planning.

Slagle works with distributors to call dibs on highly coveted bottles, like a Susucaru rosato, a punchy summer sipper that can be difficult to track down. “We want to be a place where people know to go for a new wave of winemaking,” says Slagle, who selects wines for the market, the menu, and for the Dinghy’s wine club, which offers a hand-picked trio of natural wines each month.

Both Slagle and Dietz describe The Pink Dinghy staff as a family and, like every family, this crew has weathered their share of challenges. A car fender adorns the prep kitchen door, a souvenir from the day in 2019 when a motorist crashed through the building while it was still under renovation. A slew of setbacks followed. When their final health inspection was stalled, leaving Dietz unable to open in 2020, it took a local reporter calling attention to the issue to summon an inspector. Within days, their doors were open.

By far, the sudden loss of co-owner Chase Pittman, who died in his sleep in October 2020 at 35, bonded The Pink Dinghy team. “Chase had so many creative, wild ideas,” says Dietz, “and he knew how to make them a reality.” It was Pittman who suggested that Dietz turn la Alma into a restaurant. His untimely death caused a ripple of heartache throughout Virginia Beach and beyond. The trials proved galvanizing and now, Dietz calls her Pink Dinghy family her “ride-or-dies.”

It’s no surprise then, that the Dinghy has a familial feel. Over the course of dinner, assistant general manager Taylor Clark came to feel like a friend. As we talked about the corn and goat’s milk caramel (cajeta) ice creams on the dessert menu, the Virginia Beach native confided that she isn’t an adventurous eater. Despite their novel flavors, both desserts were exceptionally creamy and subtle.

By evening, the setting sun transforms the patio into a cactus-ringed courtyard. And while Latin flavors inspire the dinner selections, they don’t define it. Shellfish is abundant on this menu, organized by portion size. Among the medium-sized choices: four perfectly seared fat scallops rest on a purée of elote-style corn, drizzled with ají verde, and garnished with cilantro and pickled onions.

On one summer night, the kitchen celebrates Eastern Shore oysters from Lambert Shellfish by preparing them three ways: first, as simple Loving Cups, with a petite but meaty oyster on the half shell paired with a zesty cocktail sauce; then Oysters Dinghafeller, a giggle-inducing riff on Oysters Rockefeller with green chorizo, white cheddar, and pickled onions; and finally, a fried oyster, dusted with Tajín, a spice blend of chili peppers, lime, and salt, and teamed with a tartar sauce that uses the Dinghy’s signature ají verde as a base. 

The star of my visit is a skyscraper of fried fish with a crispy beer batter, served with warm tortillas and taco accoutrements. It’s exactly the kind of dish you want to eat at the beach—interactive, expertly seasoned, and meant to be shared.

The Pink Dinghy’s indoor seating—about ten tables—provides a cozy year-round spot for guests to enjoy Dietz’s “gut bombs” like sofrito-braised lamb shanks or a half-roasted chicken with plantains. 

Like its nautical namesake, The Pink Dinghy is a small but mighty neighborhood spot, with a resilient spirit and an inspired menu. It’s a place for friends and strangers to bond over delicious food and drink—and a perfect complement to the ever-expanding culinary culture in Virginia Beach.

Cooking School at The Pink Dinghy 

Pink Dinghy owner Stephanie Dietz now offers intimate, hands-on cooking classes, cheekily titled Cooking for Dingh Dongs. The relaxed group sessions, which include “Fancy Date Night!” and “Tacos!,” tap Dietz’ experience as a culinary instructor for cooks looking to have fun in the kitchen.

From fresh pasta to tortillas to soups, Dietz guides her students through an intuitive cooking process, saving the printed recipe until they’re tasting the finished dish. “We want to instill that confidence in people. You can do this without a recipe,” Dietz says. “I’m going to show you how—and give you the tools to succeed.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue.

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