A revamped Southern fare menu with an Asian twist breathes new life into The George
By Judy Royal » Photos by G. Frank Hart
Edson Munekata can’t seem to get away from the restaurant business, no matter how hard he tries.
Take The George on the Riverwalk, for instance. When the original owners of this longtime downtown Wilmington eatery decided to sell in 2021, Munekata was mostly interested in the real estate value of the prime location. In fact, he was strongly considering retirement. His business partner Freddy Lee, however, had a lifelong dream of having a waterfront restaurant.
“Freddy owns other concepts with casual upscale menus,” says Munekata. “He brought his dishes from the other locations and adapted, leaning a little more toward seafood. We felt like a little change of pace would help with new ownership, although we decided to keep the same name.”
Munekata and Lee took over in early 2022, and their efforts quickly paid off.
“We went from doing close to nothing in January, and then by March we were probably doing five times what we did in the beginning,” says Munekata. “It was kind of incredible to see. I think the season has a lot to do with the increase in business, but our goal was basically to try to cater more toward the locals because we knew the tourists were a given, but if we didn’t please the locals we’re going to struggle through the winter months. I think it worked. Even comparing this January to January of last year, we did so much better this year, and we’re very thankful for the local support that we have.”
The George is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday. Head Chef Aaron Rinere, who has worked his way up at the restaurant over the past seven years, describes the revamped menu as “Southern American Asian cuisine.” He and Lee, who is based in Winston-Salem, collaborated to create something fresh and new that would appeal to Port City patrons. The result is a new spin on classic fare, including the Seared Rare Ahi Tuna appetizer with pickled vegetables, bok choy, sesame soba noodles and wasabi. There is also a Black Bass entrée with coconut rice, spinach, red curry and pineapple relish. Those who like to stick with the staples can enjoy favorites such as Fried Oysters “Rockefeller,” Shrimp & Grits, Blackened Angus Ribeye and Surf & Turf. The lunch lineup includes a Smoked Bacon & Pimento Cheeseburger, Crab Cake Sandwich, Blackened Chicken Caesar Wrap and Crumb Fried Catfish, and among the brunch offerings are Crab Benedict, Fried Pickled Chicken & Waffles and several omelets.
“It’s a whole new beast,” says Rinere, who is married to General Manager Kerra Rinere. “Give it a try if you haven’t been here in a while. It may have the same name, but it is a completely different restaurant than it was two years ago. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback.”
He credits teamwork for the recent success.
“I’m one person,” says Rinere. “It’s all the other chefs that work the line. They’re the ones cooking the dish. I’m just making sure it comes out right.”
Munekata, who lives in Ocean Isle Beach and also owns multiple locations of Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse, agrees that a restaurant is only as good as the staff that handles day-to-day operations.
“You can’t micromanage everything because you’re gonna get paranoid, so you just hope and pray that you hire good people and they’re doing their fair share,” he says. “It’s 100 percent who is elbow to elbow with you. If you don’t have a good staff, you can’t do it all by yourself.”
A luxury among downtown businesses, The George offers free parking for its patrons in the lot directly across the street, which can be accessed via Market House Alley off Front Street. Customers must ask for validation when they arrive. There’s a dock if you want to come by boat, and the large outdoor patio overlooking the Cape Fear River is dog-friendly. Reservations may be made on the restaurant’s website or via Open Table.
Munekata says while much of the recent focus at The George has been on the food, customer service is always a top priority.
“It’s a destination type of place, and we’re very thankful for that,” he adds. “But we can’t take it for granted and not take care of the guests, so we try to do our best. Hopefully, we’re doing our best to please the customer. I don’t want them to pay for something they’re unhappy with. I’m a customer as well, so I just want to be as fair as possible to my clientele.”