BEST OF WILMINGTON NC 2017
By Emily Gorman Fancy and FANNY SLATER
This relaxed, farm-to-table eatery screams ‘Merica! with classics like Hearty Pot Roast, “Hank’s Mom’s Meatloaf,” and sweet and savory Stuffed Pork Loin. Henry’s sources menu items straight from local purveyors and picks all produce partners meticulously. Even this town’s most treasured delight—seafood—comes fresh out of the water for southern specialties like Shrimp & Gilford Country Grits in prosciutto cream sauce.
San Juan Café
San Juan is a Wilmington staple when it comes to the exotic tastes of the Caribbean. Familiar flavors like Fried Green Plantains are taken to another level with additions like cilantro-lime crema, caviar, and tuna tartar. Classics like Mofongo (stuffed with steak, shrimp, or sautéed veggies) make San Juan one-of-a-kind. Expect to find the best Cuban Sandwich in town and authentic sides like red beans, rice, and sweet Maduros.
In addition to the consistently gratifying Asian fare and topnotch service, Indochine offers guests a unique alfresco experience with their baroque garden. But whether you dine inside or out, portion sizes are abundant and exotic flavors run wild. The sweet and savory Yellow Coconut Curry is creamy, mild, and satisfying—while specialty items like Thundering Dragon in a Cloud (shrimp in a fiery tamarind sauce) pack a punch.
Tarantelli's Ristorante Italiano
With a wine list that wows, an interactive opera experience, and made from scratch sauces that whisk diners to Tuscany—Tarantelli’s is the new local leader when it comes to mangia! Light lemony preparations like Picatta and Scampi will leave you licking the plate, while more robust, creamier creations like the Rigatoni Alla Bechamel (a gooey, glorified mac and with prosciutto baked in a velvety béchamel sauce) will have you requesting to spend the night.
El Cerro Grande
Pass the queso. If you’re on the hunt for traditional Mexican cuisine (like expertly folded quesadillas or tacos loaded with cilantro and raw onions), grab a table at one of El Cerro’s convenient locations. With an enormous menu—and endless chips and fresh salsa to go around—there’s something for everybody. If you’re craving a classic pepper chili sauce, try this restaurant’s reliable version of Mole Ranchero served with pulled chicken, guacamole salad, and tortillas.
Apple Annie's Bake Shop
Apple Annie’s is a Wilmington tradition known for being the bakery where customers eat with their eyes. Gorgeous pastries, Danishes, and cakes line the shelves of their dessert cases making it hard to pick out just one item from this neighborhood shop. When it comes to celebrating special occasions with edible art, Apple Annie’s is a dependable no-brainer as their dedicated customer service matches their superior products.
Jackson's Big Oak
Jackson’s has been slow cooking and shredding BBQ for well over thirty years. If that doesn’t convince you they’re pork geniuses—just take a look at the Wall of Fame’s impressive roster of sports figures, celebrities, and locals who love their southern specialties. If the occasional dine-in or catering experience just isn’t enough, take home of a bottle of their Eastern NC vinegar-style sauce to slurp on anytime you like.
Cast Iron Kitchen
This hipster-heavy morning joint has been heating up our restaurant scene. Although the Porters Neck location puts Cast Iron a touch off the grid, with former Sweet N Savory head chef Josh Petty at the helm, no distance is too far. All menu items are audaciously packed with personality, and dishes like the Deep-Fried Cheese Grit Bites with Sweet Onion Aioli and Chicken & Waffles (accompanied by fig-bacon jam and boozy bourbon syrup) are known to cause cartwheels.
What’s better than the chargrilled aroma of flat-top seared burgers and dogs? The taste. PT’s is a local legend when it comes to cookout-style cuisine and lemonade so good it will make your eyes water. This low-key spot is as famed for curing college hangovers as it is for pleasing a family of five. No gourmet grub here—it’s all about beautifully browned beef griddled with love and loaded with a side of salty hand-cut fries.
Candy and Chocolate
You won’t find a single shortcut at this dessert factory where the fudge is hand-stirred and made from scratch. Sold exclusively in Blue Moon Gift Shops, Moonkissed produces some of the most spectacular fudge around (which is always available in at least thirty flavors). Their gourmet creations are fashioned from high quality ingredients like Ghirardelli chocolate, and packaged as elegantly as the desserts themselves. The signature boxes can be individually decorated or customized for special occasions.
Middle of the Island
From tremendously prepared southern seafood buffets for brides to casual caterings of pulled pork and potatoes for office parties—there’s nothing MOI can’t do. They may be the largest of their kind in town, but they’re frequently called back for duty on account of their trusty service and always enticing spreads. Wherever you spot the purple and white truck, you know people are well-fed.
Bitty & Beau's
Nowhere else in town does an iced chai come with an unlimited supply of smiles. Owners Ben and Amy Wright have soared to the top of the local (and beyond) coffee industry with their mission that advocates jobs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Bitty & Beau’s is widely celebrated for filling their customers with a fabulous queue of coffeehouse beverages, but most importantly, with hope and joy.
The force of N’awlins is strong with this one. It’s hard to miss Bourbon Street’s bumping corner spot that’s always overflowing with beaded bar flies sipping strong drinks. But it’s not just the booze and colorful atmosphere that the locals line up for. Cajun comfort food specialties like fried crab cakes—crispy on the outside, packed with fluffy crab in the middle, and topped with a tangy Louisiana remoulade sauce— are a top seller at this lively joint.
Sweet N Savory
Sweet N Savory is equally as popular for its pub environment as it is for its decadent baked goods. No standard dessert menu here as SNS bears a full-service bakery handmaking everything daily from cookies to New York style cheesecakes to seasonal pies and cobblers. The Truffle Cake and Key Lime Pie will do your sweet tooth good, as well as anything in the form of a S’more.
Grab the children and get your chitlin and fried chicken on. Casey’s is the definition of southern, family-style soul food at its finest. This celebrated BBQ spot sprang up on the scene in 2005 and Larry Casey (and kin) have been delivering tradition, quality, and great prices ever since. Loosen a notch in your belt for the buffet, call in for takeout, or bring a taste of the south to your next event with Casey’s catering.
Ruth's Chris Steak House
We may be partial to mom and pop shops in a small town, but when it comes to fine dining and high-caliber customer service—Ruth’s Chris (chain or not) takes the cake. Or steak, in this case. Housed in the downtown Riverwalk’s Hilton, this sophisticated steakhouse provides an elaborate dining experience that makes guests feel as noteworthy as the grass-fed ribeye and Sweet Potato Casserole.
Pine Valley Market
You’ve likely heard two hums coming from Pine Valley Market. One: from their white box truck that regularly scoots along Wilmington’s streets, and the other—a satisfied “mmm” from in-house customers who have just enjoyed some of their sit-down café’s nutritiously prepared foods. Through the owners’ ardent attention to detail and exceptional commitment to quality, Pine Valley has become one of Wilmington’s most recognizable food meccas.
Boombalatti's Ice Cream
Pull up a scoop and a rocking chair and enjoy every moment at this modern ice creamery. When owners Wes and Kristen Bechtel took over and renovated Boombalatti’s, their story was nothing short of the American dream. The charming couple and their family are just the beginning of all that is amazing. The ridiculously smooth, high-end flavors (vegan variety included) taste like it’s out of a fairytale. Go for the Salted Almond Toffee for the best of both worlds.
Blue Surf Café
When lunchtime rolls around in this vacation town, tourists and natives alike pine for cuisine that embodies the surf’s up attitude. It doesn’t get much better than ice-cold beer and locally-sourced tacos. Easy-going eatery Blue Surf Café knows how to satisfy everyone’s midafternoon cravings. Pop open a cold one and pair it with their Mahi Baja Tacos topped with grassy cilantro, cabbage, and creamy swell sauce.
Platypus & Gnome
This Front Street location has a bad rap for constantly changing hands, but thanks to a nod for best new restaurant—Platypus & Gnome has proved they’re not playing around. The creatively named eatery features a trendy bar scene that sports local crafts and a kitchen that puts out international dishes with a bang. Namely, the Candied Bacon appetizer and the golden, buttery cornbread are to die for.
Lovey’s Natural Foods & Cafe
Often regarded as a local, less overwhelming version of Whole Foods—Loveys has everything your organically-motivated brain can imagine. If it’s supermarket items you’re after, browse the aisles for dry goods and hit the back for fresh produce. For a beach snack, collect a creamy tuna wrap from the cold case, hit the salad bar, or order fresh falafel. Restock your essential oils and supplement collection at the front before checking out.
The George Restaurant
At The George you can belly up to Wilmington’s best view of the Cape Fear River while chowing down al fresco-style. This riverwalk hot spot is notorious for their southern cuisine, glorious open-air setting, and dock and dine patio service. Give your tongue a tour of the coast by starting out with the Tuscan Calamari—a lightly breaded and fried fusion delicacy served with salty black olives and tangy banana peppers. On an afternoon when you just can’t deny that wonderful Wilmington weather, take a long lunch hour and treat yourself to the Lobster & Shrimp Tacos with citrus slaw and fresh cilantro.
Slice of Life
There’s not much that pepperoni pizza can’t cure, so when it comes to that 2 AM calling—it’s no wonder hangry patrons bombard Slice’s downtown location shouting “extra ranch” as their war cry. But it’s not just that this laidback pizzeria keeps their kitchen (and a late-night menu) available way into the wee hours of the morning. The thick and chewy crust, freshly sliced toppings, and reasonable prices, keep customers coming back for more.
Shuckin' Shack Oyster Bar
Stellar seafood isn’t hard to find in a waterfront town, but if you’re looking for the true locals’ experience—it’s steam pots or bust. One step through Shuckin’ Shack’s front door and you’ll forget you’re actually not on vacation. Watch the bartender plop a raw oyster in your Bloody Bivalve shot and wash it down with butter-dunked clams and a buttery, life-changing lobster roll.
The District Kitchen & Cocktails
North 4th Street accelerated to the top of the dining scene when it welcomed The District to its quiet ‘hood. In addition to claiming the category “New American Steakhouse,” this refined restaurant has become known as the ideal spot for couples to wine and dine. From the smooth, balanced cocktails to the epic calamari—topped with Daikon radish and sweet pickled red onions—District offers date nights to remember.
Salads are typically known as the red-headed stepchild of the meal. Unless you’re eating at RuckerJohns, that is. Thanks to glorified handmade dressings like Hot Bacon or Buttermilk Ranch, the greens at this family-friendly American restaurant are the stars of the show. Fan favorites include the teriyaki-tinged Seared Tuna Salad and the Grilled Cajun Chicken Salad doused in spicy Cajun Catalina Vinaigrette.
Cape Fear Seafood Company
There’s a reason CFSC unfailingly tops charts for having some of the most sublimely prepared cuisine in the regional seafood game. Chef and owner Evans Trawick’s modern take on the land-and-sea grill elevated the local culinary culture when it hit shore in 2008. The broad, approachable selection covers everything from beer battered fish and chips to the Fresh Catch Saltimbocca to the highly renowned, uber decadent shrimp and grits enriched with smoky Applewood bacon, mushrooms, and Lowcountry cream sauce.
Motts Channel Seafood
Mott’s has been the king of Wrightsville Beach seafood for over 25 years, so it’s no surprise so many restaurants score their catch from this unfussy market. Watch the fishermen unload their right-off-the-boat goodies while you select which piece of swordfish to throw on the grill for dinner. Need a nudge when it comes to preparation? Mott’s keeps a few ingredients in-store (citrus, seasonings, breading, etc.) to give you a helping hand.
The Pilot House
In the restaurant industry, it’s not just the food that brings loyal diners in time and time again. The Pilot House—a longtime pro when it comes to downtown dining—is admired for their servers’ kindness and attention to detail. It doesn’t matter to them if you’re an unfamiliar face stopping through for Azalea Fest or a weekly regular they know by name. The staff goes out of their way to make every guest feel right at home.
Port City Chop House
If you’re looking to impress the meat enthusiasts in your life, you’ve come to the right place. PC Chop House abstains from the “short cuts” and focuses instead on cuts of three week aged, carefully selected, Stockyards Angus Beef. You can’t go wrong here, but the buttery filet will blow your mind. Kick off the meal with a classic steakhouse app like baked and bacon-loaded Oysters Rockefeller.
Enjoy fiery Shanghai firecracker shrimp and people watching on Front Street from above at this hip second-story sushi lounge. Chefs put their inventive twist on specialty rolls with combinations like lobster, spicy tuna, pineapple, and hot peppers. Yosake proudly scatters local, organic, sustainable ingredients throughout their massive menu. Step outside of your California Roll comfort zone and try something new (like the Tropic Roll with pineapple, cream cheese, and toasted coconut).
Hanging out with a picky crowd for Sunday brunch? Haul your troops over to the tropical haven of Havana’s, where everyone will find something on the menu to love. For a seafood-centric morning meal (which is how we do it in Wilmington), steer visitors towards the sautéed shrimp and Tasso ham over the fried lobster grit cake. For the traditionalists at the table, the three egg omelets never disappoint.
Epic Food Co.
The name speaks for itself. Epic doles out organic, natural, thoughtfully prepared dishes designed for the surfer lifestyle (which suggests lean or vegetarian proteins, high fiber, and plenty of attention paid to specialty diets). House favorite meat-free items include the crunchy fried chickpeas and everything on the impressive salad line like fluffy sprouts, tangy pickled radishes, charred green onions, and vibrant Scallion Ginger Dressing.
Water View Dining
Smoke on the Water
For those of us who have countlessly explored and feasted at Wilmington’s “food with a view” staples, Smoke on the Water—the second lovechild of Fork N Cork’s James Smith and Allan Middleton—is a breath of fresh air. Literally. Located in the offset RiverLights community, this inspired waterfront restaurant offers charmingly adorned outdoor dining, a deck full of fire pits, and unexpected treats like Po Boys served on an authentic Louisiana Leidenheimer bread.