From their famous crab nachos to the easy-going vacation vibe, South Beach Grill has been a Wrightsville Beach staple for over two decades. The sunlit patio gathers a medley of hungry hordes, including bros in body suits and executives in three-piece suits alike. Lumina Avenue just wouldn’t be the same without the signature blue awning hovering over flocks of cheerful, sandy-toed customers. When Hurricane Florence rocked the restaurant from the inside out last September, owners John and Elaine Andrews saw those visions flash before their eyes.
Though the task of rebuilding seemed daunting, the Andrews took the challenge as an opportunity to transform. Five months later and finally post-hiatus (much in thanks to hands-on help pouring in from the community), the eatery is back up and running with their arms and doors wide open.
encore spoke with John to explore the South Beach journey through their grueling repairs to the moment the first plate of nachos hit the table post-hurricane.
encore (e): I saw a photo on Facebook of your dining room just before opening night and it still looked like chaos! Did everyone work through the night to put everything back in place?
John Andrews (JA): Almost! That was certainly the longest five months of my life. We really were hands-on 24/7 for the last couple of days before opening, but once it reached a certain point everything just came together. We did a lot of the unskilled labor ourselves while our general contractor did everything else. The whole process was incredibly hands-on.
e: Did you lose a lot of staff between September and your re-opening date of February 24?
JA: We did, unfortunately. We weren’t able to retain all the staff but about 80 percent came back. We also have a phenomenal new chef on board with us now!
e: Tell us about him.
JA: Dwayne Hickman has excellent credentials and came from the DC area. He’s worked with Wolfgang Puck and has cooked for three presidents. [He] and his family have moved to the Wilmington area now, and he absolutely loves the quality of life.
e: What was the feeling when that first customer stepped back through the doors?
JA: Aside from a financial or business aspect, we’re in the hospitality industry and that interaction disappears when those customers aren’t there. Without the people, there’s a big hole in your heart. Our passion is to entertain people, so without that, it’s a tangible feeling of loss.
My wife and I have run South Beach Grill for 22 years, so this place is in our DNA. In the service industry, if you love what you do, you want to do what you love and do it well. When those doors flew open the first night and people from the community gathered to support us, we couldn’t have been happier. They even came in when we were renovating.
e: Did any of your regulars pitch in during the renovation?
JA: An older woman, who’s part of the community, called us when the construction began and said she wanted to come in with a broom. She wanted to sweep the floors so she could be part of our cleaning process. True story!
e: I read you decided to make some big changes—like a new bar top made out of a 300-year-old fallen tree from Greenfield Lake. What else was updated?
JA: Our builder found that red oak in someone’s garage and now—thanks to many coats of oil—it’s an exposed-edge wood bar (with no polyurethane). I took it upon myself to create a project for the area behind the bar, and my signature was welding halved gas pipes for the shelving. I guess that one welding class at Cape Fear all those years ago finally paid off!
e: The restaurant itself is a landmark, and the menu follows suit. How much of the menu did you decide to overhaul with the reopen? Or did you keep it exactly the same so staple items wouldn’t be missed by regulars?
JA: We opened with the same menu under the advisement of the health department. In the future though, we are going to be making some changes. We promoted our former head chef to general manager, and that’s when our new chef, Dwayne Hickman, came into the picture.
Our style is putting our spin on Southern-inspired, locally sourced fare, and we’re going to keep our tried-and-true items while featuring Dwayne’s cuisine.
e: What were some of the first orders that came through the kitchen? Staples like the crab nachos?
JA: Of course. And the grouper Linda and the Southern fried pickles, and so on. Our chef jokingly said, “Is this all we’re going to sell tonight?!”
e: What would the crowd typically look like around this time of year since it’s not even tourist season yet?
JA: Our customers are a tapestry of people, and when it’s warm outside, the patio will get busy. We feed everyone from surfers in board shorts to lawyers in ties.
e: Once summer hits, do you expect to be twice as busy since loyal vacationers who visit Wrightsville Beach every year likely read about (or saw on the news) that you were out of business for nearly six months?
JA: We hope so! We swing a big wide door open for everyone and it’s always our pleasure. Tourists are what make Wrightsville Beach what it is, but it’s a social place for the locals and we have a special place in our hearts for them. Like the farmer says, you have to make hay while the sun shines!
e: Tell me about those bomb crab nachos. What’s the secret?
JA: Those nachos were one of the first things we put on our menu. In the southeast, you’re judged by your crab dip, so we wanted to do something with a twist. Like I said—that’s us! We take something standard and give it a little flair. It’s a secret recipe, but I can tell you we’ll never take it off the menu.