Best of Wilmington NC Dining 2021
In addition to Circa’s historic ambiance and stellar happy hour, the shareable snacks at this this Spanish tapas spot are what keep the place bustling. Bring some friends and kick things off with the gooey burrata and oyster mushrooms with smoked olive oil. On the ocean side—the charred octopus with potato crema and tangy tomato confit is a hit.
Ain’t nothing but a good time at this relaxed gastropub. JohnnyLukes dishes out innovative New American cuisine that’s simply on another level. No really—check out the rooftop patio. While you’re at it, get messy with the in-house, slow-roasted North Carolina pulled pork nachos then head to nirvana with Uncle Stan’s Chicken Pot Pie.
There’s plenty of tasty Thai in town, but no place knows noodles like Indochine. Duck under one of their outdoor canopied huts near the lotus pond garden and order up one of their many exotic creations. I’m a sucker for the ethereal surimi crab angels with sweet and sour dipping sauce and the Crispy Bird Nest Noodles featuring a trio of chicken, beef, and pork.
If you only take one thing away from this blurb, it’s to get two orders (not one) of the Langousta Y Coco—Savorez’s lobster ceviche in citrus coconut ginger sauce with thick corn triangles. This bold Latin American North 4th Street gem has been an all-star since its opening day. For a taste of Chef and owner Sam Cahoon’s NC origins, sample the Tres Cochinitos—grilled pork loin over a black bean-bacon purée with warm pork belly salad.
The parmesan-to-patron ratio is just right at this bona fide, family-owned Italian restaurant where the pasta is handmade and the wine list is long. Whether you melt for the melt-in-your-mouth meatballs or the can’t-miss Antipasti like Salsicce e Finocchio Arancini (fried cheesy risotto balls stuffed with fennel and garlicky sausage), Tarantelli’s will fill you with happiness.
Tequila Comida & Cantina
Tacos and tequila are the magic words at this food fiesta. Brothers Ramon and Miguel Villaseñor (who you know from Los Portales) are well-versed in the culinary traditions of their culture. Their cutting-edge kitchen reflects exactly that through impressive items like tender shredded pork smothered in slow cooked pipian mole—a Mexican sauce made from chiles and pumpkin seeds.
Apple Annie's Bakeshop
910-799-9023, 910-256-6585, appleanniesbakeshop.com
It’s impossible not to fall head over heels for everything in the display case at Apple Annie’s. Whether you’ve got your eye on the flaky French pastries or massive amounts of freshly baked bread loaves and rolls, you’ll likely leave with a chocolate-dipped cookie or four. Don’t forget to snag a custom cake for your next special occasion.
It’s not even a question. Primal’s pecan and white oak wood-smoked beef brisket burnt ends are akin to some of the most well-known ‘cue in the Carolinas. This locally-owned and operated smoke shack nails the classics like vinegary pulled pork and sticky St. Louis style ribs that are rockstars by way of rich, deep flavor and a whole lot of love.
It’s rare to find a reliable breakfast joint where the deft execution of each plate is only outdone by the outstanding service. Famous Toastery is a Carolina-based franchise who consistently crushes the breakfast game. You’ll find pancakes, benedicts, and all the usual suspects—but FT also dabbles in eccentricities like a morning pizza loaded with scrambled eggs, black forest ham, caramelized onions, and sausage gravy on a pita crust.
A true between-buns staple in Wilmington, PT’s has redefined what we think of as “fast food.” With speedy, yet made-to-order, counter-style service—this old-fashioned grill has been voted best burger for the last twenty years and it’s easy to see why. Couple your juicy, chargrilled handheld with their zippy fresh squeezed lemonade and hand-cut fries.
A true local landmark for over three decades, Temptations prides themselves on delicacies that are as enticing as the name makes them sound. The soup-and-sandwich café is only the beginning of the shop’s artisanal charm. It’s the humble dessert nook (where you’ll find gift baskets galore chockful of candy, chocolates, and specialty snacks) that makes this place a standout.
Middle of the Island
This flawless food factory could pull off sophisticated southern seafood spreads for bridal showers and casual office caterings of pulled pork and potatoes with their eyes closed. Frequently called back to duty on account of their trusty service and ever-enticing buffets, it’s clear why MOI has a track record of over 200 weddings per year.
Drift Coffee & Kitchen
Drift founders Michael and Ben Powell’s objective was to serve food that they enjoyed, and lucky for them—we’re all equally as enthused with their beach-inspired bites and small-batch coffee. Each of the three bustling cafés in and around town offers holistic drinks like energy-boosting Beet Lattes and fresh-to-order sammies like the Bodega (ham, eggs, cheddar, caramelized onions, and special sauce on brioche).
Cape Fear Seafood Company
Though CFSC is an obvious choice when it comes to top spots for regionally-prepared seafood, it’s their Bald Head Island Crab Cakes (regulars have audaciously dubbed “the best outside of Maryland”) that landed them on our list. Between the abundance of pan-seared backfin lump claw meat to the rich, lemony beurre blanc—it’s no surprise every mouthful is pure bliss.
The Little Dipper
Once you’re past the cheese coma, get your sweet tooth on with Little Dipper’s array of dunkable desserts. Lean on an old faithful like Fluffernutter featuring milk chocolate, marshmallow cream, and peanut butter or raise the bar with one of their “swanky” selections like the boozy Mint Chocolate fondue with Rumplemintz® and crushed peppermint patties.
Rooster & The Crow
Chandler’s Wharf newcomer Rooster & The Crow made a big impression with the Wilmington crowd when they opened two years back, and things haven’t changed a bit. With a fur baby-friendly patio and a staff known for making diners of all age feel right at home—R&C is a no-brainer for bringing the fam. For apps, don’t miss the savory shrimp and alligator cheesecake.
Ruth's Chris Steak House
Our local Ruth’s Chris checks every box of being a fine dining establishment, and the scenic Riverwalk locale certainly doesn’t bring down its five-star status. Gift your taste buds with premium USDA Prime custom-aged meat (delivered on sizzling 500° plates with pats of butter) and classic steakhouse sides at this upscale restaurant.
Cut out of work a tad early and slide into downtown’s most notorious sushi sanctuary between 5 – 7PM daily and 10PM to midnight Fridays and Saturdays to take full advantage of their (dine-in only) happy hour. Outrageous deals on starters like a $4 spicy salmon or tuna roll are only outdone by the luscious coconut milk and lemongrass-scented soup coming in hot at just two dollars.
HEALTH FOOD STORE
Lovey's Natural Food & Café
This independently owned natural foods store may be my cup of tea for a grab-and-go tuna wrap on the way into Wrightsville, but I’m certainly not alone in my love for Lovey’s. Stock up on organic produce, vitamins, beauty products, and more at the market—then hit the attached café’s made-to-order deli and peep the hot and cold bar with vegan and gluten-free options galore for a nutritious meal.
Wes and Kristen Bechtel, masterminds behind this modern sweet tooth safe haven, are praised for churning out superior, homemade ice cream using only dairy from grass-fed North Carolina cows. Artificial flavors and colors are a no-no at the contemporary ice creamery and clever combos like mocha Oreo are a yes-yes. Even Boombalatti’s coconut milk-based vegan varieties make our hearts go boom.
Waterman's Brewing Company
Sunburned shoulders, a bright, bitter, piney IPA, and a fried oyster po boy with tart pickles and remoulade on Waterman’s outdoor patio. Describe a better lunch date. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Whether you’re feeling mid-day greens (like a beet salad with goat cheese and beer berry vinaigrette) or belly-busting Mojo pork nachos—this beachy brewery has all the lunchtime goods.
Quanto Basta Italian
Eatery & Wine Bar
Newly notorious for their superb wine list plus massive portions of freshly made pastas, hand-stretched pizzas, rustic sauces and rotisserie fire-roasted poultry—Quanto Basta is now a locals’ go-to for traditional yet elegant Italian fare. It’s hard to say no to the Spaghetti with mama’s Sunday sauce—that is, until you spy the Fettucine John Angelo with parmesan, pancetta, and truffle essence.
Epic Food Co.
Epic’s namesake formulated nearly ten years ago through the simple concept of serving “the Energetic People in Community.” Needless to say—mission accomplished. Owner James Bain and his team crank out high-quality health fare highlighting locally-grown, organic, non-GMO produce at the café’s Mayfaire location. Top picks include their righteous black bean veggie burger and the Surfer Bowl with organic eggs, black beans, sticky brown rice, and spicy sauce.
Step right up to this bougie balcony where the sunset river views are just as spectacular as the “pies in the sky.” Cloud 9’s tropical cocktails are what lure thirsty explorers up to the open-air rooftop venue, but it’s the gourmet housemade pizzas (namely, the Big Shrimpin’ with blistered tomatoes and velvety pimento cheese sauce) that will convince you to stay another round.
Pizzeria Il Forno
Channel your inner Italian by cozying up inside this Barclay Commons bistro and diving mouth-first into Wilmington’s most magical Margherita pizza. The secret? The double zero flour in the light, thin dough which produces a high, springy crust. On the white-based end of the wood-fired pie spectrum—I flip for the Funghi with buttery, funky taleggio cheese, truffle oil, and wild mushrooms.
It’s all in the name at this shellfish paradise, and from beautifully briny raw oysters to butter-dunked clams and juicy shrimp—there’s plenty to go around. Sharing samplers and steam pots are a great way to accidentally squirt your friends with lemon, and the family style versions come with creamy chilled slaw, corn, and Shuckin’ Shack’s famously airy hushpuppies.
Roko Italian Cuisine
When you’ve planned a meal meant for mingling and lingering, atmosphere is everything, so Roko’s casual-upscale vibe makes it a solid choice for date night. Looking to impress your guest by pulling out all the stops? Squeeze into of the booths, order the sinfully luxurious Flounder Ana (prosciutto-laced fish in a white wine cream sauce), and fight over who gets to lick the plate.
Though celebrated for their impressive made-to-order array of American fare, RJ’s is just as often acknowledge for their take on greens. Little touches like presenting the homemade-crouton-sprinkled house salad in a frozen bowl are why loyal customers can’t get enough. Another big seller: the seared ginger teriyaki tuna atop spring mix, apples, feta, and fried wonton strips.
Avant-garde global twists on seafood are the norm at Keith Rhodes’ coastal hot spot. He opened in 2006 with the hopes that diners would “catch” his dedication to North Carolina seafood, and YES, CHEF! —we have. The crispy skinned salmon over stir-fried drunken noodles is to die for, but don’t deny dynamite classics like the fried seafood platter with jumbo shrimp and local oysters.
Seaview Crab Company
With multiple locations all over the state, this seafood market and to-go deli is clearly doing something right. The owners started from the ground-up as retail fishmongers, so engaging with the customers and staying active in the local, domestic, and international fisheries to be out in front of industry makes them a step above the rest. For special ordering needs, just ask.
True Blue Butcher & Table
For curated spirits, trustworthy cuts of meat, and ridiculous ramen, this butcher shop slash restaurant is certainly the place to be. But Chef and owner Bobby Zimmerman knows it takes more than fine food to win customers over. Put your adventurous appetite in the hands of True Blue’s skillful, well-informed staff and you’ll leave far happier than when you came in.
Port City Chop House
Partner the unpretentious surroundings at this long-time meat monument with their grilled Black & Blue filet blanketed with melted blue cheese and Cajun spices and you’ve got one unforgettable experience. PC Chophouse uses time-tested traditions, along with deluxe cuts of steaks, chops, and seafood to solve the equation behind what it takes to be an extraordinary steakhouse.
Mornings are made better with fried oysters, and Havana’s slings theirs with poached eggs and Tasso ham hollandaise. For a veg-friendly Sunday treat, the quiche flaunts fresh mushrooms, spinach, and smoky provolone. Most entrees are joined by fried plantains and coffee cake so feel free to partake in the Mimosa Party—a bottle of Biltmore sparkling wine and OJ for the table—to wash it all down.
Nori Asian Fusion
& Sushi Bar
919-765-1888, 910-765-1808, norisushinc.com
A new-ish Asian restaurant snuggled into the Pointe at Barclay shopping center, Nori’s tempting sushi lineup is exceptional. The Tuna on Fire is a balanced blend of slivered cucumbers, pinky rare tuna slices crusted in a bold spice mix, and citrusy soy while the Fuji Mountain Roll is a tropical, deep-fried delight starring salmon, crab, pineapple, and cream cheese.
Panacea Brewing Company
910-769 5591, panaceabrewingcompany.com
You’ve spotted Panacea’s fizzy fermentations all across the Port City, but thanks to their new plant-based kitchen—this kombucha hub has secured the title of most loved meat-free eatery. The colorful taproom showcases an entirely vegan, pub grub-inspired menu brimming with visionary bites like chili cheese fries, fried banana blossom “phish tacos,” an Old Bay-infused jackfruit spin on a crab cake sandwich, and a seitan Reuben—to name a few.
The Sailfish at
Marsh Creek Marine
The native folks behind Marsh Creek at Scots Hill Marina have offered access to the local waters since 1986, and now they’re proudly serving up ocean-inspired eats alongside that gorgeous Intracoastal background. Start by swiping the sesame seared tuna wontons through pungent wasabi cream, but leave room for the sumptuous seafood mac and cheese with lump crab, bay scallops, and shrimp.