Dashing and dining through 25 Wilmington restaurants, cafes & pubs, and the dishes we love to eat and share. While some of the locations on this list are fairly new to the scene, others have been dining staples for years and continue to flourish. The eateries described in the following pages were chosen partially for their ambience and service, but also for their food and consistently earning the highest praise from the local foodie community. Go ahead. Dig in.
By LIZ BIRO » Photos by JAMES STEFIUK
When Wilmington chefs dine out, many venture no farther than Caprice Bistro for French country-style Pate Maison. Rustic yet velvety, the dish embodies chef Thierry Moity’s classic French culinary training. Apprenticed as a teenager in France, Moity went on to work with some of the world’s top chefs in New York City. The cozy bistro’s French/Belgian menu also lists delectable duck confit, meltingly tender braised pork cheeks in brown sauce and creamy, seafood-loaded Waterzooi stew. Sip perfect martinis with house-made macarons in a swanky sofa lounge upstairs.
Best bargain: The nightly, three-course, $25 prix fixe menu.
Insider tip: Caprice stages celebrations for both Bastille Day and Belgian Independence Day a week later.
Did you know: On Thursday nights, martinis cost just $5 and each one comes with a free house-made macaron.
10 Market St., (910) 815-0810, capricebistro.com
Eating with your fingers is not only allowed, it’s de rigueur for Aubriana’s Lamb Lollipops. Mint-infused salt seasons tender, baby chops; a dip in orange jalapeno gastrique provides zip. The no-forks-required dish speaks to the restaurant’s casual, upscale feel. Set in a historic building’s exposed brick interior, with downtown lights twinkling through plate glass windows, Aubriana’s is one of Wilmington’s most beautiful ― and romantic ― restaurants. Chef Tyson Amick’s new American menu has European flair and a touch of Southern hospitality. Creamed corn waffles and spicy local honey accompany fried organic chicken. Lobster enriches crab cakes crowning warm Caprese salad. Roasted Georgia peanut mousse, house-made berry preserves and pomegranate molasses make up the foie gras “PB&J.”
What to drink: Aubriana’s is a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner. Around 100 labels populate the list.
Save room for: Double chocolate peanut butter pie with a chocolate cookie crust and dark chocolate ganache topping.
Don't miss: The patio furnished with umbrella tables, potted herbs and a bubbling fountain.
Inside tip: In fall and winter, Aubriana’s stages multi-course wine pairing dinners.
115 S. Front St., (910) 763-7773, aubrianas.com
Their presentation is never the same, but seared sea scallops are always delectable at this stylish downtown restaurant. Crisp, caramelly brown outside, the scallops might land on Chef Jameson Chavez’s jalapeno-spiked spring pea puree or be vanilla-seasoned and served with pecans and cauliflower. Manna cooks put their delicious imaginations to work on local ingredients and make everything from scratch (they even churn the butter). Themed Thursday Night Tapas bring more inspired delights, like pan-roasted duck with cherry/red wine sauce and creamed local arugula or butternut squash gnocchi with radish greens pistou, crushed almonds and sherry gastrique.
While you wait: Sit on the French Provencal-style, floral velvet sectional by the window and sip one of the bar’s fine bourbons. Rare Pappy Van Winkle has shown up here.
Save room for: Pastry chef Rebeca Alvarado Paredes desserts. She’s one of Wilmington's best dessert makers. Consider chocolate and pumpkin mousse with a gingersnap crust, whipped maple cream cheese and rum anglaise.
Inside tip: Manna’s bartenders love a challenge. Pick a wacky spirits combination and dare them to make something delicious.
Did you know: Manna is a celebrity downtown favorite. Jennifer Aniston, Colin Firth, Gwyneth Paltrow and Emma Roberts all have dined here.
123 Princess St., (910) 763-5252, mannaavenue.com
Asian Fusion Noodle House
Meaty, hearty, rich yellow curry goodness full of tender egg noodles and topped with a mound of thin, crunchy noodles, the Kai-Soi beef or chicken soup here is total Thai comfort. Lettuce and bean sprouts freshen the warm bowl prepared by chef/owner Ann Veber. A Thai restaurant pioneer in Wilmington, Veber’s experience shows up across the Pan-Asian menu. Coconut soup has a light tang. Crispy, deep-fried basil leaves garnish red curry duck. Gentle asparagus sauce accents fried soft-shell crabs. Sunset colors in the quiet, simple dining room encourage guests to linger.
Save room for: Coconut Cake. Vanilla layers that practically melt on the tongue are stacked with whipped cream and sweet, grated coconut.
Inside tip: Spicy food lovers speak up. Veber will season dishes to your liking. In the mood for an Asian specialty not on the menu. Ask and you may receive.
Did you know: Homey and true Vietnamese pho is on the menu.
4724 New Centre Dr., (910) 859-8242, asianfnoodle.com
Taste of Italy
More than one Italian-American has swooned after his or her first bite of Eggplant Parmesan at this busy deli and Italian market. The next thing many of them say is “This tastes just like my grandmother’s.” That’s because cooks prepare the eggplant according to brothers/owners Tommy and Chris Guarino’s Italian family recipe. Fresh, thinly sliced eggplant is breaded and fried. The crisp rounds are layered with mozzarella cheese and slow-cooked tomato sauce then baked in. Slabs are served atop pasta or stuffed inside Italian bread for sandwiches. The eggplant is one of many Southern Italian favorites, but the kitchen is capable of more than spaghetti and meatballs. Pesto, savory Easter holiday pies, tiramisu and pasta dishes to order are available, too.
When to go: Weekday lunch hours are extra busy. Arrive before noon or after 1 p.m.
Did you know: Mozzarella cheese is made in house.
Don't miss: Christmastime when the deli stocks all manner of Italian delights including dried salt cod known as bacala, huge blocks of almond nougat and lots of cookies and candies.
1101 S. College Road, (910) 392-7529, ncatasteofitaly.com
1900 Restaurant & Lounge
Chef Kirsten Mitchell started cooking French food at age 4, alongside her father focused on French cuisine. Using that background, she fills the seasonally changing tapas menu at this sexy red lounge/restaurant with Nouvelle-ish noshes such as tuna tartare with wasabi peas and miso aioli; Cuban spare ribs with fried plantains and cilantro gremolata; and crab cakes with Brussels sprouts slaw. Yet, the one mainstay is Mitchell’s Mac & Cheese. Andouille sausage and poblano peppers spike the silky, three-cheese sauced elbow macaroni served in its own little baking dish.
What to drink: A classic Screwdriver with fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Inside tip: Chef Mitchell likes to play with exotic meats. Rattlesnake and kangaroo have both been on the list.
When to go: For a quiet meal on Friday and Saturday nights arrive before 10 p.m., when a DJ usually starts spinning dance tunes. Hear live jazz some weeknights.
Best bargain: Get 1900’s famous Mac & Cheese as well as other popular tapas for just $5 on Tuesday nights.
1900 Eastwood Rd., (910) 509-2026, 1900lounge.com
Black Sea Grill
Forget struggling to get a fork through the stale layers of store-bought baklava. Loaded with nuts and dripping with just enough sweet syrup, their house-made baklava is so light and crisp it seems to explode at a fork’s touch. Walnuts are the usual filling, but sliced almonds or other nuts occasionally show up. The narrow dining room’s handsome blond and honey wood interior features fish motifs, a hint about seafood specialties such as whole, grilled snapper and branzino. Kebabs, falafel and some of the city’s best hummus is here, too, along with Turkish wines.
Inside tip: Ask chef Cem Aktas about the history of baklava. He’ll tell you why some is made with walnuts, others with pistachios or hazelnuts and why some cooks use honey instead of sugar syrup.
What to drink: Turkish coffee with Chef Aktas’ fun anecdotes about coffee etiquette in Turkey.
Did you know: Every now and then an Italian opera singer shows up to entertain diners.
118 S. Front St., (910) 254-9990, blackseagrill.com
Pork worshippers find their church at this cozy, earth-toned, farm-to-table restaurant. Pork chops, pork ribs, charcuterie, crispy pork skins and crunchy, Buffalo-sauced, fried pig ears come from all-natural, free-range hogs usually raised nearby. No selection inspires the devoted like Rx’s pork belly. Meltingly tender alongside a poached egg, the pair sit atop creamy smoked cheddar grits. Warm little biscuits round out the Sunday brunch favorite, although its lands on evening menus, too. With an ever changing menu, Chef James Doss might feature okra fries with Texas Pete buttermilk dressing, field pea and butterbean hummus or N.C. duck with butternut squash risotto ― all in season, of course.
Did you know: Rx hosts a rooftop garden and window pots to supply the kitchen with herbs and baby vegetables.
While you wait: Consider Rx’s name. The old-fashioned Hall’s Drug Store sat on this corner for most of the 1900s.
Come for: Pork dishes, but don’t forget to ask “Where’s the all-natural beef?” Freshly ground and hand-patted burgers, dry-aged rib-eyes and classic sirloin steak and eggs make appearances.
Don’t miss: Fried chicken. The kitchen cooks it to-order in a cast-iron kettle of bubbling lard.
421 Castle St., (910) 399-3080, rxwilmington.com
If actress Gwyneth Paltrow says something tastes good, people listen. But Wilmington locals knew that about chef Keith Rhodes’ shrimp ceviche long before Paltrow in summer 2012 asked him to teach her how to make the dish. Rhodes obliged with a lesson in the kitchen at his sky blue, modern seafood restaurant. Paltrow featured the session on her lifestyle blog GOOP. The ceviche is not classic in that the jumbo shrimp are blanched, but fans are nonetheless smitten with its zesty fresh citrus and tomato pop. Rhodes has a way with lively flavors and unexpected combinations for fresh, local seafood. Ginger might season his award-winning crab cakes, blue cheese slaw cushions fried N.C. oysters, chorizo and shiitake mushrooms land in shrimp and grits. For landlubbers, black truffled fried rice and grape salsa accompany crispy duck legs.
While you wait: Sip one of barman Richard Watson’s inventive cocktails. Muddled cucumber brightens a margarita Paltrow called “the most refreshing cucumber margaritas.”
Did you know: Chef Rhodes was nominated for a James Beard Award.
Don't skip: Firecracker Shrimp, a Catch specialty in spicy cognac cream sauce. When to go: Reservations are advised on Friday and Saturday nights. Weeknights are more relaxed.
6623 Market St., (910) 799-3847, catchwilmington.com
Port Land Grille
Not Your Ordinary Coconut Cake is an understatement. Stacked five vanilla layers high, each sandwiched with mango coulis, the iced cake comes coated in toasted coconut and drizzled with caramel. It’s worth considering a salad for dinner, but there’s so much more at this laid-back New American standard known for steaks and seafood. Chef Shawn Wellersdick was doing local ingredients 10 years before the farm-to-table trend. Think grilled smoked bourbon bison sausage, blue crab claws with citrus Dijon sauce and sweet potato “tater tots” with chipotle honey ketchup.
Best bargain: Simple Grille Menu features a fish or meat and two sides for $20.95.
Insider tip: Port Land Grille is the place for star gazing. Check the “wall of fame” near the front door.
What to drink: The Cosmopolitan with house-made sour mix.
1908 Eastwood Road, (910)256-6056, portlandgrille.com
Brasserie du Soleil
Sometimes it’s the simple things, as evidenced by the Brasserie Salad. Chef Tripp Engel scours local fields and farmers markets for the freshest produce, then lets diners create custom salads from 39 selections of vegetables, fruit, cheeses, meats, seafood and dressings ― usual and unusual. Shaved fennel with crispy potatoes, bacon, candied pecans and blue cheese dressing perhaps? Engel’s self-described style is “full-on French but with a lighter touch” at this upscale casual French outpost. Preserved-lemon risotto accompanies local steamed clams. Roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions and Gruyere cap the ground brisket burger.
Best bargain: Nightly Les Plats Du Jour bring classic French $18-$28 specials.
Did you know: Local consider “the Brasserie” one of Wilmington’s most solid restaurants.
Don’t skip: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Saffron mussels with frites or braised beef short rib sliders make the noon meal extra special.
1908 Eastwood Road, 910-256-2226, brasseriedusoleil.com
Utter one word to chef Lee Grossman when sitting at this minimalist chic Pan-Asian restaurant’s sushi bar: “omakase.” It means “I leave it up to you.” Bento loyalists agree that Grossman is a fine judge. Using the freshest seafood, including king crab, he’ll fashion unparalleled Custom Sushi and Sashimi. That’s not to say skip the regular menu. Soups are comforting, stir-fried dishes spot-on. Every now and then Peking duck appears.
What to drink: Lemongrass or lychee martini made with house-infused vodka.
Don’t miss: The Pu Pu Platter for Two with house-made items such as hoisin-glazed barbecue ribs, sweet and sour shrimp tempura and Chinese egg rolls
Save room for: Chocolate Potstickers. House-made premium dark Belgian chocolate truffles are wrapped in wontons and deep-fried. Flavors vary.
1121 Military Cutoff Rd., (910) 509-0774, bentoboxsushi.com
Port City Chop House
Filet Mignon is tops at this American steakhouse, but smothered in spicy Cajun tomato sauce with onions, peppers and andouille sausage, the cut becomes a spicy, new American classic. Chef Matthew Kahrs has won his share of accolades, including a 2009 Wilmington Top Chef title. Tradition dictates the menu, but Kahrs adds a few international touches, namely Chateaubriand for Two, chicken marsala and white chocolate crème brulee.
Inside tip: Chef Kahrs’ favorite things to cook are scallops and soup, including blue crab bisque with cayenne and sherry.
Save room for: Mile-high Chocolate Cake’s three towering chocolate layers, fudge icing and a homemade cappuccino pecan ice cream truffle on the side. Whew!
Did you know: You may order most menu items to-go.
1981 Eastwood Rd., (910) 256-4955, chophousesofnc.com/portcitych.htm
Where there’s football, there’s wings, and Copper Penny has both. Philadelphia Eagles fans are most welcome here, but whatever team one roots for, wings rule the roost at this casual all-American pub. Battered and fried crisp as you want them, the tasty morsels are doused in assorted sauces, including honey chipotle. Copper Penny is known for quality pub food at great prices. Fresh-ground, short-rib burgers, hand-cut fries and some of the city’s friendliest servers are more reasons to visit.
Best bargain: Specialty burgers are just $8.99 on Monday nights after 5 p.m.
Don’t miss: The 109 Chestnut Chicken Sandwich with thinly sliced chicken, provolone cheese, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions and chipotle mayonnaise.
Did you know: All of Copper Penny’s wing sauces are made in house.
109 Chestnut St., (910) 762-1373, copperpennync.com
Hot chocolate and the beach didn’t seem to go together until Surf House came along. Made with French Valrhona chocolate bars, blended with unexpected flavors like gingerbread or Guinness stout beer and finished with “bruleed” marshmallows, the cocoas help summertime beach lovers appreciate winter’s chill. Lately, this honest, organic and good-for-you food haven has been showing off oysters, coq au vin with free-range chicken and braised brisket with bourbon sweet potato mash, all served in a beach bungalow-styled dining room.
Come for: Brunch. The Redneck Benedict features two poached eggs, catfish, ham and Comeback Sauce on a warm, fresh biscuit.
Don’t miss: The surf shop for apparel and water sports gear from small companies.
Did you know: Surf House host yoga camps and paddleboard classes.
604 N. Lake Park Blvd., (910) 707-0422, surfhousenc.com
Delicate East meets meaty American West in the signature Tamashii Roll. Sweet lump crab meat and tender asparagus are wrapped in rice and nori. A slice of sea salt-seasoned, medium-rare beef dotted with Sriracha is the bow on top. Chef/owner Mark Scharaga sources the freshest local ingredients and sustainable seafood for traditional and continental rolls at this eclectic Asian restaurant. Luscious noshes arrive on spoons and small plates.
Did you know: Four ceviches are on the menu, including the Demarisco with spicy citrus marinated scallops and shrimp with roasted corn, Manzano pepper, shallots and cilantro.
Insider tip: Diners get food points for investing in Tamashii’s environmental causes. Check the website and Facebook for information.
Save room for: Locally made ice creams like maple wasabi.
4039 Masonboro Loop Rd., (910) 228-5576, sushiandspoons.com
The Dixie Grill
Public online polls regularly award The Dixie Grill the best Wilmington breakfast award. Freshly baked biscuits have a lot to do with that, especially the open-faced ones sporting fried green tomatoes, scrambled eggs and Vidalia onion gravy. It’s called The Dixie Benedict and worth every early morning bite for those who know to arrive before weekend brunch crowds swarm the classic diner.
Did you know: Dixie Grill has a full bar. Enjoy a mimosa with breakfast.
Insider tip: The legendary Jacob’s Run tunnel snakes below Dixie Grill. Legend claims Patriot soldiers escaped the British via the passage.
Don’t miss: Shrimp and grits. Plump shrimp, crisp bacon, tomatoes, scallions and an egg top cheesy grits with, of course, a biscuit on the side.
116 Market St., (910) 762-7280, thedixiegrillwilmington.wordpress.com
Mayonnaise and cheddar make pimento cheese sinfully rich, but Jester’s goes way over the top with its Newcastle Pimento Cheese Deluxe. House-made pimento cheese, caramelized onions, ripe tomato and bacon get all melty on toasted rye. The snug house-turned-restaurant is loved for its quiches, daily soup and the friendly jester himself, owner Jamie Thomasson.
When to go: Breakfast, brunch and lunch.
Did you know: Jester’s serves brunch all day on Saturday and Sunday.
Insider tip: Vegetarians love Jester’s Black Bean Benedict. Baked eggs top house-made black bean patties. Avocado, diced tomatoes and chipotle hollandaise finish the dish.
607 Castle St., (910) 763-6555, jesterscafe.com
P.T.’s Olde Fashioned Grille
Selecting any city’s best Burger is highly subjective, but most locals agree P.T.’s deserves the award in Wilmington. Freshly ground 8- and 4-ounce, certified Angus burgers are never frozen and made to order in a wide open kitchen. The burgers only rival? P.T.’s fresh-cut-daily, perfectly seasoned french fries.
When to go: Anytime. The counter-ordering system is fast and efficient.
Did you know: P.T.’s also has a black bean burger for vegetarians.
What to drink: Lemonade. Each serving is individually fresh-squeezed.
Various locations throughout Wilmington. ptsgrille.com
South College Deli
Beef on Weck could be this deli’s AKA. Say the sandwich’s name and Wilmington fans will answer “South College Deli.” Thinly sliced, slow-roasted Angus beef towers inside a kosher salted and caraway seeded roll, along with horseradish and au jus. The warm sandwich is just juicy enough. The friendly deli known for fine service has various grilled and chilled sandwiches as well as salads.
Did you know: Weck is short for “kummelweck”, a German word meaning caraway (kummel) and roll (weck). Historians believe a German baker who lived in Buffalo, N.Y., created the roll, and a nearby pub owner the sandwich.
Don’t miss: Lightly breaded, fried haddock available as an entree.
When to go: Lunchtime is exceptionally lively and fun, with a mix of workers, shoppers and university students.
332 S. College Rd., (910) 392-0002, facebook.com/SouthCollegeD
Cape Fear Seafood Company
Hardly noticeable in an unremarkable shopping strip perpendicular to busy College Road, this restaurant might be overlooked if it were not for the excellent local seafood menu, specifically Grouper Saltimbocca. The fish is wrapped in prosciutto and served atop sautéed spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and goat cheese. Demi-glace and lemon beurre blanc nap the whole. Imaginative creations join traditional seafood preparations and steaks in a dining room evoking a sleek yacht cabin.
What to drink: Gran’s Favorite Bloody Mary with Absolut Peppar and house Bloody Mary mix in an Old Bay-rimmed glass
Best bargain: Two Can Dine fall and winter, Sunday and Monday night specials offer three courses with beverages, including wine, for two people, starting at $49.99.
When to go: Sunday, when Gran’s Favorite Bloody Mary costs just $5.
5226 S. College Rd., (910) 799-7077, capefearseafoodcompany.com
When Nick’s cooks make Crème Brulee, they tap real vanilla beans and fun flavor combinations. Like the eye candy art on the walls, each portion is a creation, maybe Grand Marnier, banana peanut butter or layered mocha layers of chocolate and coffee. The caramelized sugar-crusted portions are huge, but few people want to share. No matter the edge, from-scratch home-style cooking is the rule at sassy Nick’s.
Did you know: Nick’s serves a large vegan and vegetarian menu, including breakfast all day.
Insider tip: The back wall hosts one of Kurt Cobain’s famous sweaters and the bar is built in the shape of a Beatles guitar.
Don’t miss: Iron Skillet Mac and Cheese with house-made Gruyere cheese and truffle oil béchamel sauce and savory top loads such as prime rib, sautéed vegetables, sometimes a whole steamed lobster.
127 N. Front St., (910) 341-7655, facebook.com/nicks.dinerwilmingtonnc
Epic Food Co.
Fried Chicken that’s good for you? Yes! And not only that, it’s gluten-free. Epic chef/owner James Bain, sources organic chickens fed a wheat-free diet. Dusted with cornstarch, the chicken is a crispy healthy surprise. Bain, long recognized as one of the city’s top chefs, puts his skills to work on wholesome food that tastes good. Organic ingredients and from-scratch fare, including house-smoked salmon, dictate the menu at this sunny, window-walled cafe.
Inside tip: Chef Bain offers his own line of Surf Salt seasonings and Surf Snack munchies.
What to drink: Fruit- and vegetable-infused waters like Star Fruit Lime.
Did you know: Epic offers family-style, heat-and-eat casseroles to-go.
1113 Military Cutoff Rd., (910) 679-4216, epicfoodco.com
K38 Baja Grill
House-made grilled corn tortillas, oh-so-thinly shaved cabbage and Dos Equis beer-battered cod make for an unforgettable Fish Taco. Yogurt Ranch-style dressing and spirited salsa that fans say is the best in Wilmington raise the taco bar even higher. K38 and its Baja-inspired sister restaurants, Tower 7 and Las Olas, each have their own identity, but all of them are known for fresh Cal-Mex fare.
Inside tip: K-Bueno Kitchen, next door to K38 at 5410 Oleander Dr., sells fresh tortillas, just-fried chips, salsa, guacamole, tacos and other to-go items.
What to drink: Sangrita, a frozen Suaza Gold margarita splashed with red sangria.
Did you know: Americans ate 4.5 billon tacos in 2012.
Various locations in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach. liveeatsurf.com
San Juan Cafe
As if bone-in, Double-cut Pork Chops weren’t delicious enough, chef/owner Danny Keegan one-ups the meat in regular pork chop specials. One night might bring espresso demi-glace, another coriander demi-glace, yet another chipotle riesling reduction. The regular menu stops all over Latin America at this colorful restaurant.
Inside tip: San Juan has some of the city’s most inspired seafood dishes, say shrimp sautéed with country ham, scallions and jalapenos then finished with a thyme rum butter.
What to drink: House-made sangria, which costs just $3 on Thursdays.
Best bargain: $3 enchiladas on Tuesdays.
3314 Wrightsville Ave., (910) 790-8661, sanjuancafenc.com
Shanghai Firecracker Shrimp gets things popping at this up-high Asian fusion enchanter. Sea-fresh nuggets donning near-crunchy coats get tossed in spicy, bright orange sauce that begs for the bar’s icy, signature Pomegranate Ginger Mojito. All sorts of sushi, little bites, street food and full entrees with unexpected twists and fresh, local ingredients are hidden behind a red sidewalk door that leads up the stairs.
Did you know: Chef Joshua Woo is considered among his peers as one of the city’s top chefs.
Don’t miss: Pork chop specials when they’re available. YoSake sources all-natural, free-range pork that might come with Thai-spiced eggplant and butterscotch fondue.
Best bargain: Tuesday Locals Night features 20 percent off entrees and half-priced bottles of wine.
33 S. Front St., 2nd floor, (910) 763-3172, yosake.com.