text and photographs by Dean McCord
There was a time not so long ago that Wilmington was considered a coastal afterthought by some Triangle residents. It wasn’t a destination like Wrightsville Beach or Carolina Beach, and it lacked the storied history of Southern coastal cities like Charleston or Savannah. Its gastronomy has typically not been as well known, either. That’s about to change. Because this town, surrounded by the Cape Fear River to the west and the Intracoastal Waterway to the east, has become one of the South’s up-and-coming dining destinations.
It’s a culinary culture much like the city itself: There’s the old and the new, the rustic and the upscale. The river side and the beach side, including Wrightsville Beach. In many ways, Wilmington’s story is a tale of two cities.
Turn to the right off of I-40, and you head toward downtown, near the Cape Fear River. People in this historic area enjoy a vital, semi-urban life. Streets, laid out in a traditional grid, are lined with early-20th-century homes. Lots of bars, restaurants, breweries, and more are there for those who love the nightlife, who love to boogie (apologies to Alicia Bridges). Turn to the left from I-40, and you head toward the beach, where life is a bit slower, the houses are newer and larger, and the restaurants and shopping are often found in strip malls. The people on this side of town don’t get downtown all that much, and they like it that way. Same thing goes the other way.
Despite this apparent lack of cohesion, Wilmington has a fierce and unified sense of pride. The residents don’t consider their city a less-worthy cousin of other, more famous coastal towns. Frankly, my dears, they don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks, because the food here is rock solid, and the charm is endless. People want to be here, and they offer no excuses.
And about that food, well, it really is delicious. Let’s start with the downtown spots.
There are a number of places to get coffee downtown, including the ubiquitous Port City Java; but the place that made me the most comfortable on a recent visit was 24 South Coffee House. This hole-in-the wall uses 100-percent fair trade beans that are not over-roasted, resulting in a smooth cup of joe. And they open earlier than the other places, which may never be an issue for late risers, but for me, it was a blessing.
For breakfast, I can certainly vouch for the quiche at a delightful bed-and-breakfast, the Front Street Inn, at the south end of downtown. Run by two of the most charming individuals you’ll ever encounter, Richard and Polly Salinetti, this inn is located in the former home of the Salvation Army. My room included a jacuzzi tub, plush robes, and a semi-private balcony. And they always have cookies available!
A local institution known for its breakfast is The Dixie Grill. Yes, they serve lunch and dinner, too, but if you want a hearty morning meal that varies just a touch from the usual, this is your joint. The Dixie Grill is a Wilmington staple – it’s apparently been around for over 110 years – but it has changed with the times. Today, the waitstaff is usually tatooed, and the music has an indie vibe. The food is rock solid. Dixie Grill’s version of huevos rancheros is unlike anything I’ve had, served with beef tips, peppers, onions, beans, and, of course, eggs and salsa. It’s very filling, but it’s also easy to finish.
Want a burger? One of the best ones I’ve had in quite some time is at Fork ’n’ Cork, a tiny place that started out as a food truck and is now in a 30-seat jewel box on Market Street. I had intelligence that its burgers and smoked brisket were both outstanding, and I was having trouble deciding between the two. What to do? Simple, order a Kyle Style burger, where smoked beef meets ground beef. Yup, brisket on the burger. Paired with some outstanding thick-cut fries, this is one fantastic burger.
If you like brunch, you’re in the right place. Wilmington is a brunch town – nearly every place serves some form of brunch on the weekends. If you want something a bit different, head a few blocks south and east of the main downtown strip to Rx Restaurant & Bar and chef James Doss’ fare. Rx is housed in an old pharmacy and the place fills quickly for brunch. They serve both sweet and savory. On the sweet side, the cinnamon rolls, from Doss’ grandmother’s recipe, are divine. At the other end of the spectrum are the crispy buffalo pig ears – don’t think twice about how that sounds, because they are fabulous and highly addictive.
How about a drink? You have several options. For a cocktail in a dimly-lit room with a speakeasy vibe, head down a spooky alley, up a few stairs, and knock on the door of Blind Elephant. The doorman will open a slot, peer through, and let you in. It’s a private club, like all liquor bars in North Carolina, but membership is free. Cocktails, with an emphasis on bourbon, are first rate. The music is perfect for the setting, and you’ll get so comfortable that you’ll not want to leave. But you should, because beer awaits.
Wilmington has embraced the craft beer scene, and one good choice, just a couple of blocks off the main drag downtown in the Brooklyn Arts District, is Flytrap Brewing, named after the carnivorous plant indigenous to the area. And the place is not a typical dark, cavernous warehouse. The walls are filled with local art, the vibe is lively, and the beer is great. The brewery is small, with only a few taps available each day, but the Rye Pale Ale I tasted on a recent visit will get me back soon.
But hands down, the best libation in town is found at Manna, which is also one of finest restaurants in the area (more on that later). Its bartenders aren’t afraid to tell you that they’re the best, either – they don’t lack confidence or skills. I guess when you’re that good and you’re telling the truth, it ain’t bragging. These guys make their own tinctures, bitters, shrub syrups, and oleo saccharum. If you don’t know what these things are, just understand that they help to make an outstanding cocktail. Head bartender Ian Murray is a mad genius, and I’m not sure whether to emphasize the mad or genius point, but I know this: If I ever want a cocktail in Wilmington, you will find me at Manna.
I sat at the bar at Manna for my dinner. The dining room itself is warm and soothing, but I had developed a rapport with the bartenders the previous night, so what the heck, I thought I’d let them take care of me again. Good choice. The food was exemplary, beginning with lobster mousse-filled pasta with a bouillabaisse broth. But the true star of the meal was a beef dish – something I rarely order at restaurants – this time in the form of a hunk of pan-roasted tenderloin served on a bed of white beans with charred broccolini and a wild mushroom sauce. I was stuffed when I started to dig into this dish, and, yes, I can’t believe I ate the whole thing. Oh, and those bartenders? They had perfect wine pairings for every dish (and the owner of the place even treated me with a glass of Chateau d’Yquem!).
The new kid on the dining block is PinPoint, and if there were to be one restaurant where I’d return week after week, this would be it. First, the room is spacious, comfortable, and filled with local art. More importantly, the chef, Dean Neff, has mad skills. He’s worked with some of the top chefs in the South, and he decided to open his first restaurant in Wilmington after years at Hugh Acheson’s 5&10 in Athens, Ga. Neff is a guy who is committed to the locavore movement, but not to the detriment of the menu when local goods aren’t available (try the brandade; it’s amazing). He makes his own charcuterie and pickles, gets all of his greens and seafood from local sources, and really has a delicate touch with Southern food. Plus, his pastry chef, Lydia Clopton (who just happens to be his fiancée), puts together as pretty and tasty a dessert plate as I’ve had.
Another great thing about Dean Neff and Lydia Clopton is that they are great hosts: They took us to my favorite beer bar in Wilmington, the Satellite Bar and Lounge. Live music, lots of craft beer, and great indoor and outdoor space make for a bar where you can have the type of night you want to have. You can chill in a chair, warm up by an outside heater, play cornhole, and, of course, drink beer. And dogs are welcome, too!
The beach side
The east side of Wilmington is just a little sleepier and a little bit more casual. OK, maybe a lot more casual. But there’s plenty of good food to be had. Like donuts. Yes, I’m always on the lookout for great donuts, and there’s a little place in a business park that’s worth a visit: Donut Inn. It specializes in old-school donuts, particularly of the cake variety. Crunchy on the outside with a light and tender interior. Perfect for dunking.
There are two breakfast places that typically have a line out the door. The Causeway Cafe is actually in the town of Wrightsville Beach, but I consider this popular place to be the Greek diner of the area. And I don’t mean that they serve Greek food – they serve nearly everything under the sun for breakfast and lunch, with great daily specials. It’s a bit of a dive, but come on, who wants an upscale diner?
The other place for your morning meal is the Sweet n Savory Cafe. Sure, they serve lunch and dinner – I’m sure those meals are outstanding, because the breakfast is top-notch. Fresh-baked breads and pastries, eggs benedict, breakfast bowls, and omelettes are available – not a wimpy three-egg omelette; they use four. I particularly like the breakfast sandwiches, including the California Dixie: country ham, avocado, scrambled eggs, Havarti, and pico de gallo on grilled three-cheese bread.
This part of town also has a couple of solid lunch options. I had some of the best sandwiches in the state at Chops Deli, a small chain with three locations in the Wilmington area. The Constantinople is a Dagwood of a sandwich, with corned beef, pastrami, turkey, Swiss, cheddar, onion, roasted red peppers, remoulade, and cranberry relish. The Plymouth is simpler, but equally delicious: smoked turkey, Havarti, Granny Smith apples, and cranberry relish.
All this heavy eating makes one yearn for something lighter. Like a salad, made exactly the way you want it. You can do that at Brasserie du Soleil, located in the Lumina Station shopping center. You get to choose your greens and 30 different toppings. I had them make a Nicoise salad and paired it with a glass of Sancerre. It wouldn’t have been any tastier had I been in France.
Finally, there’s Lagerheads Tavern. It’s in Wrightsville Beach, and it is the quintessential beach bar. Populated mostly by locals, Lagerheads is the type of place to hang out with a cheap beer, talking to the guy next to you while a classic rock song plays on the jukebox. It’s dark. It’s a bit raunchy. And it’s absolutely perfect.
To me, Wilmington (and yes, with apologies to those from Wrightsville Beach, I’m including your town as part of Wilmington) is a strolling town. You can idly saunter along the river, watching the sun set over the USS North Carolina battleship, slowly making your way to a great bar or restaurant. Or you can walk on the beach, listen to the waves, perhaps going nowhere, knowing that there’s no rush at all. Sure, it may be two entirely different experiences; but in the end, it’s really the same, because in Wilmington, folks know how to relax.
24 South Coffee House
24 S. Front St., Wilmington
Front Street Inn
215 S. Front St., Wilmington
The Dixie Grill
116 Market St., Wilmington
Fork ’n’ Cork
122 Market St., Wilmington
Rx Restaurant & Bar
421 Castle St., Wilmington
21 N. Front St., Wilmington
319 Walnut St., Wilmington
123 Princess St., Wilmington
114 Market St., Wilmington
Satellite Bar and Lounge
120 Greenfield St., Wilmington
1427 Military Cutoff Road, Wilmington
114 Causeway Drive, Wrightsville Beach
Sweet n Savory Café
1611 Pavilion Place, Wilmington
130 N. Front St., Suite 101, Wilmington
Brasserie du Soleil
1908 Eastwood Road, Wilmington
35 N. Lumina Ave., Wrightsville Beach