Best of Wilmington NC 2019 - Dining
Smoke on Water
Cornmeal-battered North Carolina shrimp and tasso ham corndogs served waterside? What kind of savage would say no to that? If you’re in the mood to stack up on starters, Smoke on the Water is the spot for you. From coastal staples like steamed Peel n Eat Shrimp and chilled local oysters with Bloody Mary granita to inventive shared dippers like the highly addictive hickory Smoked-Trout Jalapeno Dip with shallots and dill—this scenic paradise is the perfect place to get your app on.
Boathouse has been rewarding ravenous locals and visitors alike with its Calabash-style specialties for close to ten years. With an emphasis on seafood, this American restaurant serves up a dynamite classic breakfast, solid meal deals for lunch like lightly-breaded oysters for under ten bucks, and a plethora of dinner options. Don’t miss the jumbo crab cakes known for their ample meat or the dry-rubbed baby back ribs for those of you not enticed by the words “fresh catch.”
Ever hear the daily cheer that rings out through Wilmington at 11 AM? It’s the sound of noodle lovers rejoicing as Indochine opens their doors. Aside from the oriental dining experience—see: elaborate outdoor garden with canopied dining huts—the authenticity of Wilmington’s most acclaimed Asian kitchen is what keeps regulars coming back for more (and not minding the wait). It’s hard to beat familiar favorites like peanut and tamarind-infused Pad Thai, but for a real mouthful of what this far east café has to offer, try the Jungle Curry with dried red chilies and bamboo shoots.
A prime example of what Panamanian cuisine should taste like, Ceviche’s is Wrightsville Beach’s top spot for making a tropical tornado of flavors appear in your mouth. Just ask Guy Fieri of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-in’s, and Dives. He crushed Caribbean favorites in his “Lights-Out Latin” episode like the Ropa Vieja (tomatoey braised flank steak over coconut rice) and Sancocho—Panama's national hangover soup made with yucca, sweet potatoes, and corn in a garlicky cilantro base.
If red sauce makes your heart skip a beat, step right up to some of the most legit Italian fare in town. Thanks to an extensive wine list and a kitchen that whips up scratchmade Tuscan delights—Tarantelli’s has become the place to be for pasta perfection. Pamper yourself with a hearty antipasto such as Salsa Di Spinach e Carciofi (creamy baked spinach artichoke dip laced with roasted garlic and three cheeses), then lighten up with lemony Spaghetti Alle Vongole—luscious clams, shallots, garlic, and white wine over noods.
Tequila Comida & Cantina
Marked for their certified Mexican treasures at Los Portales, brothers Ramon and Miguel Villaseñor knew a thing or two when they swung open their doors at Tequila Comida & Cantina. This cutting-edge kitchen offers impressively unconventional dishes like Villaseñor’s Pato en Salsa de Jamaica (duck breast in a tart hibiscus and apple-celery sauce) and Adobo Marinated Fish cooked in banana leaves. Expect bold bursts of flavor from the intricate sauces like the rich Mole Poblano deepened by chilies and chocolate.
Apple Annie’s Bakeshop
910-799-9023, 910-256-6585, appleanniesbakeshop.com
Good luck controlling yourself in Wilmington’s most breathtaking baked goods shop. If sweets are your weakness, Apple Annie’s decadent dessert cases lined with turnovers, cupcakes, and cookies will make all of your dessert dreams comes true. Whether it’s a random weekday pastry craving (regulars dig the airy coconut macaroons and fudgy mudslide brownies) or a special weekend occasion that calls for a raspberry swirl cheesecake—Apple Annie’s won’t let your sweet tooth down.
Jacksons Big Oak Barbecue
A fixture of the Wilmington ‘cue scene, Jackson’s is no stranger to receiving praise for its unapologetically crunchy fried chicken, vinegar-doused pork, and life-changing banana pudding. The welcoming country dining room is rarely without a crowd of regulars blissfully chowing down on complimentary hushpuppies while waiting for their favorite southern plate to arrive. Simple pleasures like stacked pulled pork sandwiches with tangy slaw are a must, but fall-off-the-bone ribs and peppery Brunswick Stew are equally as treasured. Can’t get enough of the sauce? Grab a bottle for the road.
Cast Iron Kitchen
Sweet tea in mason jars, memorable red eye gravy, and grits galore are the standard at this rustic Porters Neck brunch house. It takes one foot in the door to be charmed by Cast Iron Kitchen’s funky charisma, and one bite of the outrageous Dirty South Biscuit (Guy Fieri-approved) with muenster and sausage gravy to fall in love. If pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes aren’t your thing—farm fresh, lighter bites like the chopped salad and seasonal veggie sandwich might be.
When it comes to Wilmington’s best old-fashioned burger and fries, PT’s raised the bar twenty years ago and we’ve been bellying up to it ever since. With locations scattered all across town, this affordable local chain is always a convenient option when that craving for chargrilled beef strikes. The juicy, smoky handhelds are made-to-order and the crispy fries are hand-cut and impeccably seasoned. Tack on a freshly squeezed lemonade or an ice-cold pitcher of beer, and I’ll meet you there.
Candy / Chocolate
Let yourself fall into a frenzy of fudge inside Blue Moon Gift Shop where Moonkissed turns out every ounce of their homemade product by hand-stirring each batch and using unparalleled ingredients. No packaged mixes in Moonkissed’s world. Just superior Ghirardelli chocolate and a whole lot of love. Searching for a gift for your favorite dessert fanatic? Moonkissed’s thoughtful, ornate packaging is just as lovely as their extensive flavor variety—vanilla pecan, coffee, and butterscotch to name a few.
Middle of the Island
Knocking out over 200 weddings annually, Middle of the Island has indisputably earned their ranking once again as Wilmington’s top caterer. Their purple and yellow mobile kitchen is constantly cruising down the road loaded with heaps of their beloved mac and cheese. Not only are their services reliable, but they can practically cover any size function with their eyes closed (from corporate picnics to offices lunches to private fundraisers and beyond). MOI specializes in seafood and southern buffets cooked on-site, though always end up with the highest marks for their friendly, attentive waitstaff.
Bespoke Coffee & Dry Goods
No matter how you pronounce it, there’s no denying that Bespoke is one of Wilmington’s most posh coffee houses. The earthy rows of succulents, elegant dry goods, and urban bohemian apparel adorning the walls give the bistro a city-like feel—but the yummy local pastries and North Carolina-based beans bring you right back to Wilmington. The baristas brew the Counter Culture Coffee with care, but also pour craft brews for the other kind of buzz.
Michael’s Seafood Restaurant
If gloriously meaty, heroically creamy crab cakes make your mouth water, Michael’s Seafood Restaurant should be your next meal. Faithful fans have been reveling in the freshness of this Carolina Beach hot spot for the past twenty years, and nothing seems to be changing anytime soon. The steamer pots and chowders are first-rate, but it’s the golden, plump crab cakes with smoky roasted red pepper aioli that earned this coastal eatery its win.
With a full spread of Mediterranean delicacies for dinner, it might seem impossible to save room for dessert. But take one look at Kornerstone’s enticing lineup—and you’ll be begging for a to-go box for your lobster mac and a spoon for your Crème Brulee. The savory side of the menu is laden with lush Italian specialties and the sweets are just the same. The tart Torta Della Nonna is a light and lemony treat, and the espresso-infused Tiramisu is a piece of cake to devour. Speaking of—ask your server for the daily selection of Sugar Island Bakery slices.
Wine on tap for the adults and crunchy, hand-breaded chicken tenders for the little ones? What’s not to like? Hops may be known for its extensive brew selection and gastropub vibe—but the thoughtful, yet familiar, American cuisine makes it an ideal landing zone for hungry families. The kid’s menu is plentiful, but people of all ages are drawn to the fruitfully-topped burgers, colorful nachos, and delicately spiced mac and cheese.
With standouts from barramundi and four cheese truffle-spiked local grits to North Carolina duck with honey-anise glaze—it’s no wonder Portland Grille landed in our top spot for fine dining. Chef Shawn Wellersdick is a prodigy of progressive regional American cuisine, and it comes through on every plate. PG’s sophisticated ambiance mimics that of a classic supper club, and the undoubtedly ambrosial eats are some of Wilmington’s finest fare.
Lovey’s Natural Foods and Café
Lovey’s is Wilmington’s one-stop shop for all things wellness. On the prepared foods front, this health-conscious café has plenty to delight in. Visit the hot and cold bars to build your own bounty of fresh, natural goodies (I’m a fan of the garlicky spinach Caesar) or grab a pre-made dilled tuna salad wrap with crunchy sprouts to take on the sand. If you’re there to stock up, take your time browsing their colorful produce section, grass-fed meat and poultry options, vegan offerings, hair and skin products, and more.
When Peño Mediterranean grill owners Reema and Bassam Monsour realized that the adjacent donut shop was out for the count—they took the sweet matter into their own hands. Their new ice cream and sweets café, Heavenly Sweet, is now one of the Pointe at Barclay’s premiere places to get your sugar fix. But it’s not all cliché sundaes and banana splits. Heavenly Sweet doles out entirely house-made ice cream using local grass-fed dairy milk, vegan options with a coconut milk base, several varietals of acai and smoothie bowls, baked goods, and flaky, homemade baklava.
Blue Surf Café
Consistently noted for his homegrown cooking, chef Jon Webb has made it his mission to provide eclectic food served in a laidback, modern setting. His locally-motivated lunch menu (available counter-service style for efficiency) tempts diners with inventive sandwiches like mahi with mango salsa and the sriracha mayo-slathered meatloaf with house ketchup on brioche. Wash down Cali-style veg-friendly black bean burgers with one of Blue Surf’s seasonal summer floats or infused lemonades.
Formerly Osteria Ciccheti, Junction 421 is Monkey Junction’s newest neighborhood grill. Between the comfy booths, rustic brick walls, and chic blue-plate specials (pork shank and Boursin cheese risotto, anybody?)–421 screams steakhouse vibe with a hint of southern flair. The North Carolina beer selection is plentiful and your food coma awaits once you’ve taken down the Short Rib Mac & Cheese with crispy bacon and fried onions. For a memorable starter, the Fried Pimento Cheese with tabasco syrup has a wonderfully fiery kick.
(910) 839-6384, earthfare.com/wilmington
When it comes to organic foods at an affordable price, Earth Fare is unmatched. The new specialty supermarket (situated on Military Cutoff Road across from Mayfaire) is much more than a simple grocery chain. It’s an educational mecca for how to live a healthier, more balanced lifestyle. Their pledge: food that’s free of added hormones, artificial preservatives, antibiotics, and more. Scope out the hot bar for lunch and hit the coffee café when you need a pick-me-up.
Fish House Grill
The name says it all. This intracoastal seafood hub is complete with unrivaled waterfront views and the freshest catch around. Tucked onto Airlie Road (at the foot of WB’s drawbridge), this summery spot has been an outdoor dining destination for decades. Stretch out on the breezy deck with a “Money Island" Shipwreck (NC whiskey, pineapple, and a Grand Marnier floater) and indulge in a buttery Crab Melt while the boats zip by on the waterway.
Pizzeria II Forno
Relish the bona fide taste of true Neapolitan-style pizza at Il Forno in Barclay Commons. Sip a chilled glass of vino on the sunny courtyard and dig into one of their crackly wood-fired pies. Their double zero flour dough—exquisitely thin, chewy, and soft—creates an airy, elastic crust. The Gorgonzola & Apple with figs is a sharp, sweet treat, and the classic Margherita with fragrant basil and gooey mozzarella will whisk you straight to Italy.
Dote on a dozen oysters at this beachy raw bar where the rum cocktails are stout and the lemon-scented steam pots require several paper towels. Shuckin’ Shack’s downtown location recently moved a few blocks over, and the spacious new digs give patrons twice as much room to clink Corona’s and dunk juicy clams and tender snow crabs in melted butter. The airy hushpuppies are a no-brainer and the signature lobster roll with spicy mustard remoulade is the number one selling sandwich.
For an intimate date night, set your sights on this quaint Italian eatery where the sauces simmer for hours and red-checkered tablecloths decorate the humble dining room tables. Freddie’s (a Kure Beach gem since ‘95) is famed for their Irish pub-like atmosphere, flawless martinis and enormous center cut pork chops. Start with the golden-fried calamari and then twirl your way through the succulent Shrimp Scampi over lemony pasta.
This Carolina chain may be a whiz when it comes to chargrilled baby back ribs and Angus beef burgers, but they’re just as often praised for their dynamic healthful combos. RJ’s refreshing salad medleys (like the seared ginger teriyaki tuna over mixed greens with apples, feta, and wonton strips or the crisp Cajun chicken with crunchy croutons) exceed all expectations—and the flaky, honey-butter croissants are worth every calorie.
Widely acclaimed for being a “feast for the senses,” Catch unveils contemporary southern seafood in a whole new light. Chef and owner Keith Rhodes is a master of the surrounding sea and land (his hometown, after all), and he treats each dish like a work of art. To share, his take on firecracker shrimp is a fearless blend of sesame-coconut, sriracha-cream and woody maple syrup. To keep for yourself: the Cast Iron Blackened Swordfish with smoked white cheddar grits and truffled eggs is a force to be reckoned with.
Seaview Crab Company
Immerse yourself in the abundance that the North Carolina ocean has to offer at Seaview Crab Company. More than just a grab-and-go market, this convenient retail shop is led by commercial fisherman, fishmongers, and dock hands who are beyond well-versed in the seafood industry. Branded by their friendly spirit and infinite knowledge, the staff at Seaview prides themselves on engaging and listening to the specific needs of each unique customer. Come cooler-ready, and they’ll load you up with whatever you need to make your dinner a hit.
The only thing better than the Seafood Pasta at Siena Trattoria—shrimp, clams, mussels, and salmon tangled with salty feta and artichokes in a white wine lemon broth—is the elite staff fluent in the restaurant’s ins and outs. Regular guests loyally line up for the brick oven pizzas (The Chicagoan is a feast of sausage, ‘shrooms, and extra cheese) and wafer-thin dessert crêpes—but are equally as impressed with the seasoned staff and insightful servers who always know just what to suggest.
Port City Chop House
If a classic steak dinner is right up your alley, you’ll understand why PC Chop House is a time-tested tradition that continues to reigns supreme. This upscale steakhouse has all the right moves from the outdoor fireplace to the award-winning staff and—of course—the superior Certified Angus Beef and topnotch chops. Not sure where to begin? Let the experts help you choose your cut—like the thick Manhattan strip or bone-in ribeye. Classic sides and fresh seafood starters are also on point.
Wrap up your weekend with a hollandaise-coated blue crab benedict and a side of live tunes at one of Carolina Beach’s best brunch havens. Havana’s Sunday Funday is an accurate portrayal of what life is like on a tropical island: zesty Bloody Mary’s garnished with jumbo shrimp, fried oysters over poached eggs, and Hot Rum Bananas Foster for Two. Be sure to try the fluffy omelets like the Summertime—popular among veggie lovers.
Umaii Thai Cuisine Sushi Bar
On a mission to provide diners with a global eating experience, Umaii only serves uniquely diverse noodle dishes, traditional Thai, and uncompromisingly fresh seafood. This Asian eatery (planted in Porter’s Neck) has a menu that’s rich with exotic dishes and vibrant, generously-portioned sushi. You’ll be hard-pressed to choose between all of the specialty rolls, but the Big Monkey with red snapper, crab, and creamy sauce and the blazing hot Scorpion King with soft shell crab and fireball topping are always a party in your mouth.
Epic Food Co.
With a name like “epic food,” you expect to be blown away—and head chef and owner James Bain doesn’t disappoint. Epic’s lineup is a thoughtful array of healthy dishes centered around lean or vegetarian proteins over high fiber, high-quality ingredients. In the meat-free category, fan favorites include the Brussels with Hustle (greens, beets, goat cheese, and shaved sprouts with tart cranberries and white balsamic) and the spiced Black Bean Veggie Burger with BBQ sauce and vinegary slaw.
The Sailfish at Marsh Creek Marine
Set against the stunning intracoastal waterway, The Sailfish invites you to pull up a chair (or boat), a crock of spiced shrimp dip, and enjoy the views that they’ve been gazing at since the 80’s. This casual waterview restaurant—located at the picturesque Marsh Creek at Scotts Hill Marina—is run by locals and loved by all. Nothing says vacation like fresh poke, and Sailfish transforms their version into ahi lettuce wraps with sesame oil, garlic, and ginger.