Board & Barrel
Elevated Southern cuisine on the Cape Fear River
301 N. Water St., Wilmington, NC
By BRIDGET CALLAHAN Photos by ERIN WHITTLE
Locals may not be aware that the Riverside Hilton in downtown Wilmington recently rebranded as the Hotel Ballast, updating their look to keep up with the burgeoning downtown scene. One of these changes was the addition of Board & Barrel, a new restaurant located next to the hotel’s pool and riverwalk area, which offers stunning river views with a more casual, relaxed vibe than the upscale Ruth’s Chris Steak House above.
Executive chef William Roberts has experience with the hotel restaurant world. He came to Wilmington from Vintage 12, adjacent to the Embassy Suites, in Myrtle Beach. A local Carolina man, Roberts started in the Charleston food scene, and says he appreciates the way he sees independent chefs making names for themselves in the growing Wilmington scene, using the much-lauded Pinpoint as an example.
“That’s the thing here,” Roberts says, “There are a lot more chain restaurants than you see in Charleston and it’s a big difference. You want to get people out of the “Every Tuesday night we go here, we eat the same thing, we’ll do this for the next ten years” pattern. For us, I think the job is twice as hard because we’re trying to break a stereotype that people have about hotel restaurants as well.”
“People expect a piece of salmon, a side of vegetables, a side of mash potatoes, some chicken wings. Just your basic run of the mill things, and our menu right now is anything but that,” he adds. “For me it’s really important, for us as a restaurant, to attract just as many local Wilmingtonians rather than to just rely on the people who come to the hotel. There’s enough room for everybody.”
Part of that struggle against the hotel stereotype is convincing hotel guests that they’re not just an omelette buffet to visit in the mornings.
“A lot of times people from out of town, when they’re making hotel reservations, they’re not thinking about the restaurant in the hotel. You’ve got restaurants on your bucket list, and you’re going to forget about the hotel other than for breakfast. So, we’re trying to break that stereotype of ‘We’re going to come for three days, eat breakfast there for three days, and then go off site for lunch and dinner,’” Roberts says.
Board & Barrel is most definitely not just a breakfast place, though breakfast guests will find a much more sophisticated morning menu than the normal hotel offerings, including potato latkes with trout, poached eggs with mint yogurt, and cornmeal pancakes with chantilly cream. Serving until 11pm (because, as Roberts points out, the sun doesn’t even go down till 9pm), their all-day menu is focused on introducing guests to Southern favorites. The move to Wilmington gave Roberts a lot more independence when it came to the menu, and he’s being strategic, trying to reign in his own menu ideas to fit palates that might not know what exactly to do with okra.
“I wanted something that made people feel like they were at home. We try to do a lot of foods that people are familiar with as Southern dishes, grits, shrimp, a lot of seafood, a lot of pork. But, we try to elevate it to a little higher level than your mom or grandmother would serve,” he says. “In my mind there’s a lot of things I would put on the menu that I don’t. The first couple of seasons are about gaining the trust of people and having more familiar items on that menu. Everyone knows what grits are, or what corn looks like. It’s about earning the trust and then taking it to that next level,” he says.
Roberts says the most popular dish on the menu is easily the braised beef short ribs with blue cheese grits and coffee stout demi glace, but his own favorite is the mountain trout, served with pecan meuniere on smoked cheddar johnny cakes. The trout comes from Sunburst Trout Farms in Waynesville, NC, whom Roberts has worked with most of his career. Other highlights include a pork belly appetizer with creamed collards and an orange nehi glaze, and fried tomatoes with pickled melon. And if you’re looking to just sit in the sun and sip some of the bar’s excellent private label “Edgar’s Truth” bourbon, we recommend the pimento cheese fondue or the cheese plate with country pate and blueberry-vanilla jam.
The bar cocktail list is interesting as well, featuring cocktails made with not only their own bourbon, but Mother’s Earth gin from Kinston, and Seventeen Twelve bourbon from Conover, NC. So if you’re looking for an easy spot to hang out and watch the sunset over the battleship, they have you covered.
Board & Barrel will be rolling out their summer menu for July, which will emphasize all the fresh vegetables and seafood of a Carolina summer, including twists on such perennial favorites like a tomato salad with watermelon vinaigrette, and crab cakes served with smoked tomato jus and an Old Bay cracker.
“The summer corn, the heirloom tomatoes that we get, local blackberries, local honey. These are things everyone looks forward to. Spring and summer should be a chef’s favorite time of year. Especially in the South,” Roberts says. He’s also looking to branch into some Southern flavors that may be less familiar to out-of-town guests, like Cheerwine and persimmon.
And in the meantime, he’ll continue to focus on convincing locals and guests alike that a hotel restaurant can be more than just another “hotel restaurant.”
“It’s hard to break that mentality,” Roberts says. “The most rewarding part is finding new people that share the same vision and are looking to change a culture along with you.”