Upscale taste and casual vibes unite for palate pleasure
JohnnyLukes Kitchen Bar
5500 Market Street, Wilmington
By BRIDGET CALLAHAN » Photos by ERIN WHITTLE
There is a very common Wilmington origin story, and it usually starts with the words “my kid was in school here,” or “my family was down here.” In John Jackson’s case, it was both.
“I met my wife in Charlotte,” Jackson says. “She has a great big Greek family, with tons of family in this area. She agreed to move to Philly with me at the time, and she said “Hey, just someday bring me home.” When I got tired of the corporate rush, my son was going to UNCW, and we fell in love with Wilmington.”
Jackson is the co-owner of JohnnyLukes Kitchen Bar, a relatively new addition to Market Street, celebrating its two-year anniversary this past February. Like partners Luke Burke and Nick Parrous, Jackson has years of experience in corporate restaurant management, but when Jackson and his wife decided to move down South, he knew he was done working for other people. He was ready to create, as he calls it, “a nice, little, family-run deal.”
JohnnyLukes is anything but quaint though. With a clean modern downstairs for dining, a chill upstairs bar for beers and cocktails, and an outdoor patio space with live music every Friday, no matter what your mood, you can find a corner to feel comfortable.
“I found this place, and I liked the idea of designing the restaurant around the location. I think Wilmington was ready for a little bit more upscale, but also polished and casual. Something you might find in Raleigh or Charlotte, with funkier, more contemporary decor,” Jackson says.
Despite its proximity to UNCW, this is not a college bar. You will find no dollar shots here. Instead, the clientele leans towards an adult-professional vibe. Happy hour features half off apps, like New Zealand lamb chops or Ahi tuna with a fresh seaweed salad. The bar prides itself on their 19 rotating craft beer taps, along with the fact that they carry at least seven to eight local, Wilmington brews at any time, with flights available. There is also an extensive wine list, curated by Parrous who also owns the well-known Luigi’s in Fayetteville, featuring over thirty wines he paired with the Classic American menu style.
And like all things classically American, JohnnyLukes menu is a scrapbook of recipes collected by family and friends over the years, coming from a hundred different backgrounds, but still somehow making a matched set. There is Luigi’s famous spaghetti and meatballs, a 45 year old recipe donated by Parrous. There is chicken pot pie inspired by a diner in Pennsylvania, and crab cakes made by Burke’s father especially for the restaurant, served with a remoulade that Jackson calls a “Southern tartar sauce.” Kitchen Manager Ed Grittner has created a brunch menu featuring three different kinds of chicken and waffles, giving customers the option of sausage gravy, chicken gravy, or cayenne maple syrup. From the short ribs to the Buffalo Chicken flatbread, it’s a menu collaged out of favorites, specifically, Jackson’s favorites.
“I put items on the menu that I like, that I want to eat,” Jackson says, simple as that.
The family feeling permeates the restaurant. If you come to brunch on Sundays, you might find Burke’s daughter Ella, a precocious third grader, seating tables and talking about specials. If Ella isn’t there one Sunday, customers ask. Both of Jackson’s sons have worked at the restaurant between school terms, and in fact, one of the restaurant’s most popular sandwiches, the Jane’s Addiction, was invented by his son.
“He said, ‘Man, you gotta check this sandwich out,’ when we were trying recipes,” Jackson says. “I didn’t think it would personally be my cup of tea, because it had avocados, baby spinach and goat cheese. But, I tasted it and immediately loved it.” The customers loved it so much, there’s now a version on the brunch menu, called the Jane’s Recovery. It features the same fresh, sliced avocado, goat cheese, baby spinach, melted mozzarella, and JL's homemade pesto sauce as the sandwich, but with bacon, served open face on toasted French bread topped with two sunny side-up eggs. Chase that all down with mimosas, made with prosecco kept on draft. Who knew you could even have prosecco on draft? Indeed, they go through a lot of mimosas.
Besides the popular brunches, JohnnyLukes keeps that neighborhood atmosphere going with several good deals throughout the week. Got a family? Bring them in Mondays, when kids eat free. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, all appetizers are half-priced from 4-6pm. Wednesdays, bottles of wine are half-off. And Thursday, all craft beer drafts are four dollars, making the upstairs bar a go-to spot for Wilmington’s craft beer lovers.
The neighborhood feel is very much on purpose. Jackson is overwhelmingly grateful for his group of loyal regulars, whose word-of-mouth recommendations got them through the dangerous first year waters. Being able to build a community around JohnnyLukes, after a lifetime in the corporate lifestyle, is one of Jackson’s favorite parts of the process.
“It’s great working with people you really like. It’s really rewarding seeing something build from the ground up, seeing it take shape and form. And it’s good seeing people grow. You know it’s only been two years, but families come in, you see their kids grow up and even graduate,” Jackson says. “Down South here, is just more refreshing. People are more laid back. They’re very supportive.”
“Being in the major cities for so long, it’s nice to be out of that,” Jackson adds. “I chuckle when people are like “the traffic is so bad” and I’m like “what traffic?” Now if I go back to the Northeast, I can’t believe I did that for so long.”