Enjoy the journey with our mouthwatering guide to our list of 13 local faves, that are time-tested tried-and-trues
By FANNY SLATER
Hook, line, and dinner. Rock star Chef Keith Rhodes, a Top Chef Competitor and James Beard nominee, dishes out consistently stellar catch at Catch. This restaurant boasts an impressive and eclectic menu that ranges from Cast Iron Blackened Fish to Korean BBQ Baby Back Ribs. Rhodes, a local star and notoriously laidback Wilmington native, is celebrated for his creative fusion of fresh North Carolina seafood and bold Asian flavors. Each dish is thoughtfully prepared and elegantly presented, like the stunning Red Miso Glazed Scottish Salmon with “drunken” noodles, citrusy coriander, and anise-scented Thai basil. But Rhodes isn’t just all about that bass. This diverse culinary mastermind is equally admired for his ingenuity with produce. Raised on a diet of meat-free ingredients, the vegetable dishes at Catch are as charismatic and playful as the chef himself. Don’t miss the North Carolina Sweet Potato Salad with shelled hemp seeds, creamy goat cheese, and seasonal fruit. 910-799-3847, catchwilmington.com
Banks Channel Pub & Grille
An epic Happy Hour, endless games, and exceptional pub-style fare. These are just a few features of Wrightsville Beach hot spot Banks Channel. When it’s time for something to soak up those late night libations, grab a bar stool and belly up. For you wild ones, kick off the meal with their fiery Hot-as-a-Beach wings. Frickles (fried pickles) and tots always spread smiles, and so does this: show up between 5-7pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and dinner menu apps are half price. For a satisfying sandwich served slider-style, check out the Caribbean Jerk Chicken. The zesty mini buns are topped with juicy grilled pineapple and sweet and spicy jicama slaw. For piled-high perfection, the Nachos Banks—layered fried wonton chips, stringy cheese, and fresh pico—hit the spot. Seeing as the beach is down the street, don’t forget the seafood. The Blackened Shrimp and Grits swimming in a rich veal demi-glaze are where it’s at. 910-256-2269, bankschannelpub.com
Cape Fear Seafood Company
Known for dishing up fabulous ocean fare in an unassuming location, CFSC is one of Wilmington’s frontrunners for regional seafood. Their impeccable service and high quality cuisine have kept locals and visitors alike hooked for years. Their extensive New American menu covers everything from beer battered fish and chips to crab-covered crispy risotto cakes to gluten free offerings like hand-cut grilled ribeye. The must-have: their highly renowned, rich-as-can-be shrimp and grits enhanced with smoky Applewood bacon, mushrooms, and a Lowcountry cream sauce. Not full yet? Top off your meal with a chocolate lover’s dream, their Pot de Crème au Chocolat. The sophisticated dishes may give off the vibe of a lavish bistro, but leave the tie at home. CFSC’s charm is in its unfussy atmosphere and extraordinary food.
When it comes to downtown dining landmarks, Circa never fails to top the list. This illustrious gem is known for their expert service, widespread wine list, and so-good-you-won’t-want-to-share-them shared plates. The ambience suggests a historic vibe—thanks to antique décor, exposed brick, and the building’s original overhead beams. Start the meal off right by getting there early. From 5-7pm all bar menu appetizers are just $5. Go for the Thai-inspired Spring Rolls served with nuoc-chom—a vinegary dip that gets a sour kick from fish sauce. For a consistent crowd pleaser, the Beef Carpaccio with Pickled Veggies never disappoints. Try the local foodies’ favorite: Paella—a hearty seafood stew brimming with spicy chorizo and fresh saffron rice. For a more delicate main course, the Slow Cooked Chicken with tart Meyer lemon and sunchoke puree is light and elegant. Thirsty? Ask bartender Josh Giles, famous for his farm-to-bar cocktails, to shake you up something special.
One bite of the Lobster Bake, and you’ll surrender to the extraordinary seafood at Havana’s. With a determination to support local and serve up fresh-from-the-ocean fare, this island themed eatery has made a name for themselves in Carolina Beach. Whether you’re part of the Sunday brunch crowd, armed with an army of kids, or looking for a flip flop feel—Havana’s tropical environment will welcome you in. Pull up a bowl of their award-winning clam chowder or, if you’re not in a seafood mood, dig into the Pulled Pork Nachos with creamy queso and oniony scallions. In entrée land, local favorites include the blackened Cha-Cha Salmon and the curry-spiced Fat Daddy Crab Cakes. For your noodle fix, the French Quarter Pasta: a fettuccini fest tangled with Creole cream sauce and spicy Andouille. Dietary needs? Ask away. All dishes are made and modified from scratch.
Port City Chop House
For a classy steakhouse feel served with a side of crab-stuffed flounder, Chop House is a one-stop shop. This upscale, yet relaxed, American restaurant prides themselves on high quality ingredients and a delightful dining experience. Begin this traditional steakhouse spread with a classic: Oysters Rockefeller—decadently baked with bacon and breadcrumbs. For a chilly night, share an order of the hearty, creamy Crab Dip fireside on the patio. Chop House takes their superior meat cuts seriously, so when it comes to their roster of exclusively selected Stockyards Angus Beef (aged three weeks), you can’t go wrong. House favorites include the melt-in-your-mouth filet—righteously tender thanks to the center cut. Feeling fancy? Garnish with an eight ounce lobster tail smothered in garlic butter. For those with lighter palates, popular seafood options include buttery glazed Atlantic Salmon and Grilled Yellowfin Tuna showered in a sinful sriracha aioli. 910-256-4955, chophousesofnc.com
This cozy American establishment—rooted in tradition and familiar favorites—hits a homerun every time. Thanks to their dedication to fresh, homemade food and competent service, this family-owned business has been thriving for well over two decades. Hits of the house start off with the salads. All dressings are whisked from scratch, and the Buttermilk Ranch is known for being so delicious it’s drinkable. Diners go nuts for the addictive Basket of Croissants—flaky and trickled with honey butter. For a taste of the sea, try the Hickory Seared Tuna dusted with a sticky molasses spice blend. Opt for it rare as RuckerJohns is known for nailing a perfect temp. No one says no to hand cut fries, and they hit the spot alongside The Ultimate Club or any of RJ’s Certified Angus Beef Burgers.
Branded as a locals’ institution, Sawmill dishes out infinite satisfying meals topped off with a smile. Their charming comfort food is sprinkled with the secrets of good old fashioned homestyle cooking—love and butter. This friendly diner is a place where everybody knows your name and the grits are slap-ya-mama good. Southern breakfast specialties include fluffy eggs and sausage stuffed into scratchmade biscuits. The seafood plates, particularly the catfish—which comes lightly battered and fried until golden—is a fan favorite. For lunch, try their made-to-order Barbeque Pork Sandwich, decked with creamy slaw and tangy Eastern NC style sauce. But Sawmill’s forte expands further than traditional country fare. From cheesesteaks to Reubens to homemade tuna salad, there’s a plate to please every palate. To enjoy their outstanding eats outside of the restaurant, check out their top notch catering company for events large and small. 910-350-6909, sawmillgrill.com
After one riverside dinner at The George, even Wilmington natives think they’re on vacation. The picturesque sunset scene brings in the hungry crowds, while the Southern coastal cuisine keeps them coming back for more. With an expansive, kid-friendly menu and a crafty cocktail list (go on, get a martini, you deserve it)—The George pleases patrons of all kinds. Ideal for romantic dinners, birthdays, and plain old Tuesdays—their “dock and dine” fare features expertly prepared, unique seafood items. Front and center is their off-the-charts calamari—which is freshly breaded and lightly fried alongside banana peppers and served with artichoke hearts, black olives, and sundried tomatoes. Top off the breathtaking Cape Fear River view with a perfectly chargrilled sirloin or the bacon-crusted scallops. For brunch: it’s all about the vanilla-scented French Toast Foster topped with sliced bananas.
If you ladies are looking for a piece of home, you’ve come to the right pub. With a warm staff and substantial amount of traditional Irish fare, The Harp will whisk you away from Wilmington and drop you in the land of leprechauns. Expect to find quintessential tavern décor like dark wood and framed prints of Jameson bottles. To help wash down the whiskey: a vast menu of authentic Irish classics. For the early hours, the Full Irish Breakfast with imported sausage and black and white pudding is a must. For lunch, pair a pint with their crispy, ale-battered fish and chips. The Chicken Pot Pie—tender chicken and chunky vegetables bathing in a velvety cream sauce—is a comforting bite any time of day. 910-763-1607, harpwilmington.com
The Little Dipper
After the tableside preparation of hot, melty cheese—expect to linger for hours enjoying every last bite of The Little Dipper’s interactive meal. The vibrant, modern atmosphere is upbeat for a group of gals out on the town for Wednesday’s Ladies Night special. For Friday’s Date Night grab an intimate booth in the back. The menu embraces everything from fresh ocean fare to premium steaks to fresh fruit. For the gourmands, start it off with the Fontina Fondue where this creamy, Italian cheese bubbles up with white wine and garlic. For the mains, Little Dipper offers six different cooking styles from traditional peanut oil to Asian firepot flavored with sake and fresh ginger. The filet with meaty Portobello mushroom served au poivre—coated in cracked peppercorns—is, literally, a slam dunk. Their dark chocolate dessert fondue (don’t forget to request a splash of flavored liqueur) is a decadent finale. 910-251-0433, littledipperfondue.com
The Reel Café
This Front Street staple is known for its rooftop bar, Sunday Funday live music, excellent pub grub, and late night gatherings on the karaoke floor. Reel Café has been serving up good food and a good time for more than fifteen years. Their liquid lineup includes everything from Carolina Crafts to daily drink specials and everything in between. To start, pass around the toasty quesadilla—overflowing with white cheddar and roasted red peppers. To keep for yourself: the Fried Chicken BLT. This tasty treat is nestled into an English muffin and drizzled with chive aioli. Always say yes to the fried egg addition. The Philly Cheese Steak, with sharp provolone and thinly shaved beef, hits the spot every time. For an indulgent vegetarian option, The Reel Grilled Cheese with herb whipped goat cheese and herby pesto on rye has your name all over it. 910-251-1832, reelcafe.net
Watch the locals ramble down Dock Street from this second-story sushi lounge. Yosake is your go-to for people watching, sake sipping, and everything from sashimi to curries. This contemporary Asian-inspired bodega offers a city-like vibe and trendy bar scene. The buzz around town is their Shanghai Firecracker Shrimp doused in a blazing chili sauce. But don’t stop there. The Steamed Beef and Pork Dumplings with lime and scallion have an equally enthutiastic following. Yosake proudly scatters local, organic, sustainable ingredients throughout their massive menu. Another dish getting rave reviews: the Crispy Salmon with miso butter and forbidden rice. As for the sushi, step outside of your spicy tuna comfort zone and try the Tropic Roll. This inventive house specialty features pineapple, cream cheese, and toasted coconut. Can’t roll with it? Sweet, tangy Pad Thai never disappoints. 910-763-3172, yosake.com