Coastal living comes with an array of perks: ocean breezes on hot summer days, fishing off the pier and then stocking the fridge with the catch of the day, and boating to Masonboro and around Bald Head while enjoying the sun. When living in southeastern NC during the spring and summer months, excitement among the community seems to soar—even amongst the packed streets and waterways of tourists. When peak season arrives and businesses are bustling, we all are reminded: Oh, yes, this is a magnificent place we call home!
On that love list is dining. Options abound when combing our four beaches, Topsail, Wrightsville, Pleasure Island and Southport, for satisfying grub. Last week, I had the pleasure of eating my way through each area during a Thursday outing with my lovely better half, Matthew. Though the places we stopped only tipped the iceberg—errr, buoy—of choices on our coastal culinary scene, here are a few ideas worth consideration.
The Bistro at Just Baked
205 S. Topsail Dr.
Surf City • 910-328-2000
Aside from the allure of its name, this quaint bistro, tucked right off Highway 50 on Topsail Drive, maintains its participation in the locavore movement by purchasing their goods from purveyors of the area. This means the produce, meats and fish come straight off local farms and boats. Their breads are hand-made and sandwich many specialty lunches; they also provide cookies, muffins and cakes to sate any sweet tooth. Their dinner menu fancies up Southern coastal cuisine, like shrimp and grits or cornmeal-dusted crab cakes, but not so that diners will question the chef’s creative liberties.
We happened upon Just Baked for lunch and immediately took to the place. The stray sea turtle sculpture oddly standing in the middle of the restaurant is the only “beachy” item of decor here. The modernized walls remain cozy in dark brown, accented by white trim (admittedly, two of my favorite paint choices). Clean and streamlined, seemingly its owners stay clear of tchotchke island fuss.
All would matter none in the end, as the food here speaks volumes by staying simple and plain good. Gourmet sandwiches and wraps, as well as salads and soups, all come with careful attention to fresh ingredients. The mix-and-match combos for lunch allow a dual taste of many an item, all for less than $10. Matthew and I couldn’t resist the deal; I ordered the half chicken salad sandwich and roasted veggie salad, while Matthew chose the quiche of the day with a bowl of Manhattan crab chowder.
While awaiting our meal, we perused the drink menu, noticing many fine wines, along with a specialty martini list and even an interesting twist on the Bloody Mary. Just Baked serves it with a slice of bacon, giving one more reason to love the drink.
Deceiving at first, my chicken came prepared in a way I usually frown upon: diced chunks doused in drippy sauce. However, it was delicious. The sauce had a tang from the buttermilk base, accompanied by fresh herbs and mayo, topped off with moist chunky chicken, mixed greens, Granny Smith apples and havarti cheese. The white bread was light and crusty, obviously homemade, with a perfectly thin yet moist crumb.
It came with an easy but succulent salad: roasted veggies over a spring mix. The onions, green peppers and squash release their natural sweetness when allowed to sweat from fire. Topped with salty feta cheese and tart balsamic, it was delicious. (I plan on recreating it at home, except I want to grill the veggies for that extra char flavor.)
Matthew’s quiche, while beautiful in presentation, wasn’t as stunning on the palate. It was layered on what seemed like frozen crust (a disappointment coming from a bakery), with eggs that were a bit rubbery, topped with cheese, spinach, tomato and bacon. The quiche mixture didn’t incorporate the ingredients, rather separated and stacked them. However, Matthew’s soup was lovely, filled to the gill with sweet shredded crab, potatoes, corn, onions and peppers. It carried a heavy Old Bay flavor topped by cayenne spice. Though it packed the heat, it tasted fresh from the garden.
While we didn’t have a chance to drink the bacon-topped Bloody Mary, we were able to assess Just Baked’s likability enough to come back. It’s a fresh concept for Topsail—going local—and it tastes lively and far better than average fare. And did I mention the absence of “paradise-y” decor? A winner all around.
1410 Airlie Road, Wrightsville Beach
910-256-3693 • www.thefishhousegrill.com
Owned and operated by the folks who run Bridge Tender, Fishhouse Grill is a casual, easy place to choose when looking for stunning views along the Intracoastal Waterway. They have dock seating, where informal plastic tables and chairs rest in the shade from brightly colored umbrellas. It’s near perfection to enjoy a Corona and pretend vacation is in full force (even when it’s not!), as the breeze sweeps across sunkissed cheeks with purposeful intoxication.
What I love about Fishhouse Grill is not only the laze of its mien but its unassuming flavorful menu. First off, food here isn’t dressed up in reductions or demi-glaces. If diners want more gussied-up meals, they should head to its sister restaurant next door. Fishhouse does justice to food, regardless.
During our visit, we only went for a few appetizers and cold beer, and the disappointment was nil. We had mahi-mahi sticks, which were served in a batter aerated with pepper and light breading. “It’s non-offensive fried food,” Matthew said. “It’s tasty and the fish is still moist.” Though fried seafood is a dime a dozen in beach towns, Fishhouse takes care not to mask the savor or texture of the seafood, nor do they serve poor quality. They make the best homemade tartar sauce in town, not too thick and overpowered by mayo; it’s actually zesty from the addition of lemon and fiery thanks to jalapeños.
Other items worth a go include fried grouper nuggets (again, a perfect balance of breading and moist, mild white fish) and jalapeño crab poppers. The poppers come with a citrus dipping sauce, which adds a nice zing to the sweetness of the crab.
The restaurant serves typical fried seafood baskets, like flounder, shrimp and oysters, but also has blackened mahi sandwiches and a flounder po’ boy for lunch. Of course, landlocked diners can go with the burger, pulled chicken nachos or a salad, but when at the beach why not indulge in seafood?
At night, the indoor dining area, colorfully lit and stocked with marine art, remains upscale in caliber, serving entrées like yellowfin grilled tuna and crab cakes. Folks are welcome without pretense; diners dress in Bermuda shorts as much as summer dresses. To put it best, Fishhouse is casual done right, and with a full bar on the dock keeping the beer cold and ready at all times, it’s always vacation time here.
1 N. Lake Park Boulevard, Carolina Beach
I love this location. It truly stands apart from most other restaurants on Pleasure Island, mainly because the historic 1916 cottage evokes memories of a time and place when beach living was simpler than today’s larger-than-life, neon-colored houses which boast their own names. Quaint, homey—perhaps even with grandma churning out Sunday dinners—this structure has stories from yesteryear.
Today, the cottage is churning out its own chapter as a full-fledged restaurant that stands behind its motto, “Fresh Island Seafood,” with a focus on Caribbean flavors. For example, Havana’s Cha Cha Salmon comes blackened and dressed with fruity salsa on top, while their coconut shrimp is hand-battered and served alongside an orange-marmalade dipping sauce.
Again, when Matthew and I visited last week it was for appetizers and wine only. Asking to sit outside on their expansive deck, which overlooks downtown Carolina Beach, the bartender was kind enough to inform us of the specials. All appetizers are $5 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., “as long as you sit at the bar,” she added. Though we had anticipated outdoor leisure, we changed plans immediately. Plus, satellite radio was churning out “Magnet and Steel,” so I surmised it wouldn’t be all bad.
The interior of Havana’s is dim, unlike its outdoor sun-laden, expansive patio. Dark wood and cozy colors of grey and black give it a regal essence—again saving the flamingos and palm trees for cheekier establishments. However, diners shouldn’t be fooled, as Havana’s also has flat-screen TVs at every turn in the bar, making one believe that during sports seasons, the games are on for everyone’s viewing pleasure. It pairs laid-back with fanciful surroundings well.
Havana’s Jamaican Jerk wings offer a smoky spice, as cloves and cinnamon shine through the piquancy of a drop of Worcestershire sauce. All drummettes, the appetizer is quite large and for only $5, it can’t be beat. The wings are meaty, too, if a little on the dry side. The sauce and blue cheese make up for moisture.
That all of Havana’s apps are discounted during the week makes it compelling for afternoon meetings with friends. Naturally, the menu includes homemade crab dip, served with deep-fried pita points. “What’s the purpose of frying the pita?” Matthew asked.
“I don’t mind it,” I responded. In fact, I like the crunch.”
They weren’t dripping in oil either, so when paired with the dip, it matched velevety and crispy textures nicely. The dip was heavily flavored with cheese, a richness more fully realized by the addition of crab. Still, it could have had a bit more dimension (perhaps with the addition of chives or a lemon herb?).
Havana’s has a full wine and beer list, along with specialty cocktails. A Sauvignon Blanc with any seafood dish can’t be beat. Add to it the escape of outdoor beach dining, and Pleasure Island becomes everything its name implies.
Yacht Basin Provision Co.
130 Yacht Basin Drive, Southport
Smack dab on the Intracoastal Waterway and mouth of the Cape Fear River, Provisions (as locals often call it) has been a popular stop in Southport since its opening in 1993. I have been going for 16 years now, and one of the best characteristics of it is that the restaurant doesn’t change. The building looks the same as it did upon my first visit, the menu as limited, the people as friendly and the cold beer still self-served on the honor system.
I have always visited specifically for Provisions, unobstructed sunset views, crab cakes and cold beer. Upon my last venture, I have to say two out of three ain’t bad. The cold beer still awaits in the cooler across from the counter where folks order. Then, they are directed to their table, usually marked with an item from the party (during our visit, it was my sunglasses). The wait staff shares tables here, by bringing diners their food and clearing their plates. They don’t refill drinks (you do) or take the orders.
The crab cakes during my last visit didn’t seem as decadent as I once remembered; although, I am sure it has to do more with my changing tastebuds. Provisions’ crab cakes are deep fried, which I have learned I don’t actually prefer. Yet, they’re still sweet from the red pepper bits and crabby from the shellfish. The breading is more the problem; I’ve grown to like my crab cake more oozy than firm.
However, the peel-n-eat ‘em shrimp are just perfect. Plump and puckery with a fresh squeeze of lemon, they pop with every bite. The conch fritters again are heavy on the breading, and the bits of the sea snails are a little more rubbery than calamari. But the flavor is a perfect cornmeal blend that gets kicked up a notch from a spicy sauce served alongside it.
Potato and cucumber salads are homemade, cool and refreshing—perfect side items to any summer outdoor dining experience. The fans overhead turn in rapid succession, moving the breeze from the water wistfully through the deck where diners munch and laugh over Red Stripes and Pacificos.
The Provisions’ menu is limited but mostly lovely. Grouper salad sandwiches offer an interesting twist to normal tuna or chicken salad, while grilled yellowfin makes an appearance on the menu, too. Land loafers will find burgers, dogs and chicken sandwiches. Naught are the de rigueur baskets of fried seafood.
At checkout, the server asks how many beers and beverages were consumed, and tallies it up according to the ticketed items. She’ll even ring the overhead bell over a good tip, usually sending the crowd into a clapping roar. It’s jolly and engaging.
A trip back to the car at high tide may be problematic if parking in the sandy lot across from the restaurant. The water swooshes in and floods the area ankle deep. Yet, the reminder of that beautiful sunset proves it’s just part of the adoration to waterside dining.
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