Best of Wilmington NC Dining 2020
Whether you’ve got a hankering for buttery escargot with bittersweet tarragon on grilled crostini or a southern classic like fried green tomatoes (layered with smoky gouda-white cheddar pimento cheese and summer corn relish), Brent’s will make all of your appetizer dreams come true. This intimate Wrightsville Beach bistro offers a multifarious menu laden with land-and-sea novelties, but you could easily make a meal out of the mouthwatering munchies alone.
This crate-to-plate eatery is far more than an average American restaurant. Though you’ll spot familiar childhood favorites like slow-roasted pot roast and rich meatloaf over silky mashed potatoes, Henry’s elevates each dish with a spark of imagination and a multitude of local sourcing. From seafood straight out of nearby waters to produce plucked from farms just down the road, there’s no question the kitchen’s priority is focused around freshness.
Though it’s hard to deny Indochine’s perfect Pad Thai, this acclaimed kitchen has much more behind its oriental curtain. Do yourself a favor and start by requesting a table in the ornate outdoor garden under one of the canopied huts. Complete your authentic Asian experience by ordering the creamy Thai iced coffee, fiery, fish sauce-loaded papaya salad, and signature Jungle Curry with dried red chilies and bamboo shoots.
Jamaica House Sports Bar & Grill
Situated smack dab on Carolina Beach Road, Jamaica House is pleasing palates left and right with native specialties like oxtail beef, ackee saltfish, and zippy jerk chicken that will leave your tongue tingling. You can satisfy all your spicy Caribbean cravings with a side of socializing as the restaurant’s walls are bordered with TV’s and the dining room showcases live music and weekend DJs. Fall in love with the sweet, airy coco bread and wash down your meal with a Ting (the sparkling citrus cocktail rumored to be made with real Jamaican sunshine).
If you’re one of those people who never says “when” while the waiter patiently dusts your pasta in a mound of fluffy parmesan, Tarantelli’s is your ticket to an Italian getaway via fork. One look at the colossal wine list or the menu that stretches end-to-end with Tuscan treats—and you’ll be belting out your very own aria. The Nodini All’Aglio (charcoal-kissed roasted garlic knots) are a great place to start and chef’s selection of homemade raviolis never disappoints.
Tequila Comida and Cantina
If you’re a loyal Los Portales customer, you’ll jump for joy after one fiesta at their sister restaurant Tequila Comida and Cantina. The Villaseñor siblings and part owner Luis Marez are connoisseurs of all-things Mexican cuisine and their newer Monkey Junction venture is proof of exactly that. The complex moles are magnificent and innovative dishes like banana leaf-wrapped adobo fish are just the beginning. Pair their swordfish tacos with an exotic, tequila-heavy libation for a lunch you’ll never forget. Well, unless you have more than one drink.
Apple Annie’s Bakeshop
910-799-9023, 910-256-6585, appleanniesbakeshop.com
From sinful red velvet cake to ethereal chocolate croissants, Apple Annie’s is regularly recognized for preparing the best baked goods in town. I dare you to not drool over the decadent dessert cases packed with sugary pastries, swirly cheesecakes, and chocolate-dipped cookies. Whether you need crusty seeded Kaiser rolls for your weekend cookout or a custom-built cake for a special occasion, Apple Annie’s is a one-stop shop for your sweet (or savory) tooth.
Jackson’s Big Oak Barbecue
Vinegary, Carolina-style pork parades by on nearly every plate that leaves Jackson’s kitchen, but this barbeque haven is known for so much more. Cheerful patrons, crispy, complimentary hushpuppies, and gooey mac and cheese—to name a few. If banana pudding brings back childhood memories, every lush, vanilla-scented spoonful of Jackson’s version might bring you to tears. Other house favorites include flawlessly fried chicken, fall-off-the-bone ribs, and hearty Brunswick Stew.
Cast Iron Kitchen
“Simply southern, all day long” is the motto at this eccentric morning oasis, and I could certainly spend hours tackling the bacon and fried chicken Dirty South Biscuit submerged in sausage gravy. Cast Iron Kitchen popped onto the Porter’s Neck radar four years ago and has been impressing hungry guests ever since. Their take on red eye gravy and country ham swaps in a pulled pork hash dotted with pickled peppers, and sweet stacks like syrupy pancakes make the little ones smile.
After twenty years of dishing out charbroiled classics and tangy, fresh-squeezed lemonade, it’s no wonder PT’s is routinely dubbed Wilmington’s best burger joint. Thanks to locations stretched all over the region (and the heap of hand-cut seasoned fries that accompany the made-to-order handhelds), this old-fashioned grill is one of the most convenient, most affordable chains around. Juicy cheeseburgers are the center of attention, but equally divine counterparts like smoky grilled chicken sandwiches slathered in mayo and topped with cool shards of iceberg lettuce deserve documented praise.
A delicious Wilmington monument for over 30 years, this artisanal café is best known for their bountiful selection of gourmet goodies of all kinds. Thoughtfully-crafted lunch items like light-as-air shrimp salad with herby dressing and a formidable wine list are the norm here, but the real hidden gem is the dessert shop. Grab a gift basket brimming with chocolates and specialty snacks like sweet red pepper jelly for a friend, but keep the truffles all to yourself.
Middle of the Island
Though Middle of the Island often receives its highest kudos for the vigilant waitstaff, the food is just as wonderful. With a track record of over 200 weddings a year, it’s no surprise this well-oiled machine is our top ranker again in the catering category. The southern seafood spreads are diligently prepared and presented on-site, and MOI’s flexibility and willingness to accommodate special requests are two traits eagerly commended by clients.
Port City Java
PCJ has been the premier outlet for Wilmingtonians to get their caffeine fix since before Britney Spears ever even hit the airwaves (1995, to be exact). The buzzing franchise has a proper array of greatest hits—including breakfast served throughout the day—and everyone has their personal fav. I’ve been known to eat multiple Mediterranean Wraps doused in Texas Pete at a time, and the dreamy fruit smoothies, strong, Japanese-style iced coffees, and bacon, egg, and cheese English muffin sammies have saved many-a-local’s-Sunday.
Cape Fear Seafood
910-799-7077, 910-681-1140, capefearseafoodcompany.com
If you think crab cakes should always be showered in a buttery lemon emulsion, well, we’re definitely on the same page. Also, you’ll want to grab yourself a table ASAP at Cape Fear Seafood. Though the kitchen is applauded for turning out one exceptional plate after the next, most diners would confidently claim that the Bald Head Island Crab Cakes are the best thing on the menu. The ample patties are loaded with pan seared backfin lump claw meat and swimming in a tangy sauce.
The Little Dipper
There’s nothing like conversing over a massive pot of melted cheese, but the sweet side of The Little Dipper is just as satisfactory as the savory. Choose from a pool of timeless classics like turtle crammed with caramel and nuts or set your sights on something “swanky” like the Aztec where dark chocolate meets coffee tequila, cinnamon, and red chilies. Rice crispy squares, pound cake, and cream puffs—oh my! You’ll totally want to splurge on the Supreme Dippers for your dunkers.
If your mini-me’s crave more than frozen fish sticks for a night of eating out, they’ll enjoy every bite at Hops. The gastropub ambiance, substantial craft beer list, and chef-driven cuisine draws in the adults—while it’s the high-quality kid’s menu (sprawling with homemade choices like hand-breaded chicken tenders and succulent burgers) that keeps families coming back time and time again.
Pinpoint could thrive on its exquisite raw oysters alone, but there’s much more regionally-sourced love to spread around at this fine dining eatery. Flaunting a fully seasonal lineup (with clever cocktails and local brews to match), Pinpoint’s offerings are as gracefully plated as they are fresh. The Vegetable Plate is perpetually polished and the Berkshire Porkchop—currently showcasing tart rhubarb-strawberry chutney and ratatouille—is a longstanding crowd pleaser.
Lovey’s Natural Foods and Café
There’s no better stop to rendezvous with a refreshing tuna salad wrap and organic, made-to-order smoothie on the way to Wrightsville Beach than Lovey’s. The health-conscious café is a mecca of nourishing hot and cold prepared foods on one side, and a plentiful grocery store (displaying produce, grass-fed meat, vegan finds, supplements, and hair and skin products) on the other.
The Scoop Ice Cream & Café at Cotton Exchange
What could be more charming than diving spoon-first into a whopping mound of ice cream while sitting among the cobblestones in historic downtown Wilmington? Maybe some gourmet popcorn on the side? On the surface, The Cotton Exchange’s Scoop may appear to be best known for their grilled hot dogs sporting everything from buffalo sauce to pepperoni—but it’s the luscious, locally-made ice cream that keeps lines long on the reg.
Blue Surf Café
At Blue Surf, chef Jon Webb embraces all things tasty. The “good afternoon” goodies are inventive and appealing, yet wildly approachable. People say “don’t fill up on chips,” but the pimento, bacon, and basil Surf Chips are totally worth moving up a belt notch. The roasted chicken wrap with herby buttermilk yogurt sauce is an ambrosial, yet nutritious mouthful. Go big (then go home and take a post-lunch nap) with the full Mojo pork entrée over coconut rice.
Boardwalk Pizza & Subs
Created as a humble homage to childhood memories from vacations to the “Shore,” Boardwalk is Gordon Road’s newest pizza and sub utopia. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting the northeast coast, proverbial favorites like Old Bay-sprinkled “crab” fries, loopy pepperoni roll-ups, and fully-loaded Grand Italian subs will whisk you straight to summertime in Jersey.
Epic Food Co.
The man holding the reins in Epic’s kitchen is chef and owner James Bain, and his coastal-themed café has become synonymous with the words “clean eating.” Bain’s thoughtful assembly of organic fare (like the Thai bowl with spinach, ginger veggies, and peanut sauce) is centered around health-conscious dishes bursting with bold flavors. Lean or vegetarian proteins and most importantly—high fiber, high-quality ingredients—are the pattern on this menu.
Resting right on the water’s edge, Dockside screams straight-out-of-the-water seafood, boozy boat drinks, and unbeatable Intracoastal views. Cheers-ing margaritas waterside with a pile of sunburnt friends in the summer is what this ever-buzzing marina restaurant is known for, but the beachy eats (flame-kissed burgers and ahi tuna nachos, for example) certainly don’t hurt its well-established reputation.
Slice of Life
Other than a handful of locations and a bomb collection of customizable pies slathered in natural tomato sauce—locals’ main criteria for a pizza joint is that its doors are still open when the bars’ doors close. Lucky for us, Slice is well-versed in all three fundaments. The late-night hours are a blessing after one too many brews on Front Street, but the real treats are Slice’s thick, chewy crust, fresh toppings, and reasonable prices.
Painkillers and paper towels line the high-tops at this mellow raw bar. Shuckin’ Shack put down roots all throughout the southeast and our Wilmington hub never disappoints. Throw on a pair of shorts you don’t mind getting drizzled in butter and belly up to the counter for jalapeno-cheddar chargrilled oysters, blackened scallops, and tender clams. Lobster roll is a must. You’ve been warned.
Grand Cru Food & Wine
Grand Cru’s impressive 300+ bottle list and enchanting shareables like goat cheese-stuffed dates make it a shoe-in for a memorably romantic evening on the town. This Lumina Station tapas-focused wine bar is renowned for its ability to manifest enormous, globally-inspired flavors in small bites (see: short rib mac & cheese skillet). Pop over to the stylish parlor area for pre-dinner charcuterie and cocktails, but save room for the flourless chocolate torte.
Rumor around town is that RuckerJohns doles out some of the most delightful greens in the Port City. I’m here to tell you that those rumors are true. This homey Carolina franchise has a knack for classic American cuisine, but they happen to be especially savvy in the salad category. From wholesome combos like juicy grilled salmon, corn salsa, and avocado to southeast staples like BBQ chicken and Jack cheese over mixed greens—there’s plenty of healthful options to balance out those infamously flaky honey-butter croissants.
One of the best features of a restaurant perched on Wrightsville Beach’s Crystal Pier is that if you’re wondering where your meal came from, you can just look down. Oceanic is a south end landmark for seafood straight from the Atlantic, and tourists and locals have been swooning for their clever deployment of ocean fare since 1990. Don’t miss the three cheese Carolina crab dip and diver scallops coated in zesty chipotle butter.
Seaview Crab Company
Take the enormous crab emblem on their sign as the first sign that you’re meant to have fresh fish for dinner. Seaview is a retail seafood market, takeout kitchen and deli, and wholesaler where the staff’s abundant knowledge and willingness to go above and beyond assures you that you’re taking advice from the right people. By people, I mean: commercial fisherman, fishmongers, and dock hands and by above and beyond—I mean: they’ll literally ship you North Carolina soft shell crabs overnight.
The Complex Bean
Far more than a quick-stop shop for an unforgettable cup of joe, The Complex Bean prides itself on being a skills lab where each coffee, espresso, and latte is masterfully crafted. And what goes better with your energy boost than a pumpkin muffin? How about a team of employees who are attentive, welcoming, and expertly trained? The smell of Complex Bean’s superbly brewed Counter Culture Coffee may be what lures in the guests, but it’s the charming baristas that bring them back next time.
Port City Chop House
A proven tradition in Wilmington’s steakhouse scene, Port City Chop House continues to land in the top spot in its division. Nearly thirty years of successful business says it all. Cuddle up with your preferred cut of Certified Angus Beef® (or the glorious garlic butter Australian lamb chops) around their outdoor fireplace, and don’t forget the peppery Caesar and parmesan potato gratin for a well-rounded meal.
Celebrated for its Sunday Brunch social that rocks the island, this Carolina Beach “polished casual” destination is a killer way to wrap up your weekend. You’ll crush the coastally-motivated fried oyster benedict long before your mimosa party (a bottle of Biltmore sparkling wine and an OJ carafe for the table) really gets poppin’. For a drink that comes with its own snacks, the zippy Snow’s Cut Bloody Mary is escorted by a jumbo steamed shrimp.
Bring your appetite with you to this chic Asian fusion hideaway where the specialty rolls are generously stuffed and everyone knows to leave room for the Belgian dark chocolate truffle Thai chili pot stickers. Yes, you read that right. The menu provides phenomenal visuals to help you navigate through Chef Lee’s signature sushi like Wicked Lobstah with spicy Szechuan sauce and the Spider Cucumber with tempura soft shell crab, sriracha cream, and citrusy ponzu.
Though Flaming Amy’s outrageous Churkeychanga was the star of the show on Cooking Channel’s Best Thing I Ever Ate last year, the abundant vegetarian selections at this quirky taco palace are what continue to draw in diversified customers. The meat-free masses adore the Grilled Veggie Dilla—a filling medley of marinated portobellas, eggplant, zucchini, squash, and cheese—and can’t get enough of the mouth-slapping buffalo fried tofu burrito.
Dock your boat at this waterfront post-work paradise, snag a spiked Strawberry Basil Lemonade, and get ready to lay your eyes on one of the best sunsets in Wilmington. As soon as Marina Grill hit the downtown scene, this lively restaurant—particularly its spectacular outdoor patio—became a fast favorite for its river-perched locale, five-dollar happy hour (go for the righteous pimento cheese), and nautical vibe.