BEST OF WILMINGTON: RECOGNIZING THE GREATS ACROSS OUR SOUTHEASTERN LOCALE

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It’s the time of year when Wilmington starts singing the praises of its locals. Businesses, theatre companies, artists, thespians, musicians, humanitarians, volunteers, media, bloggers … they’re all recognized as the crème de la crème in encore’s annual reader’s poll—a poll which has been taking place well over 25 years in Wilmington. We hold the official Best Of moniker.

 

In 2014, between nominations and final votes, we culminated over 20,000 voices to crown the winners. Nominations opened in mid-November 2013 and closed in early December, before final voting opened mid-December and closed mid-January 2014. All voting was done by encore readers through our online voting system, featuring 136 categories. We try to be as fair as possible, and while we encourage local businesses and groups to campaign so their patrons/fans to vote for them, we do lay a few ground rules in campaigning practices:

 

1) No stuffing the ballot box! That means you can’t vote under multiple email addresses or encourage customers and employees to do so.

2) No voting on someone else’s behalf. If you have a list of email addresses that don’t belong to you, please, don’t fill out ballots in their names.

3) Do not entice patrons/fans into voting for you by offering specials, discounts or prizes in exchange for votes.

 

After voting closes, we throw our annual Best Of Party and Fund-raiser. This year’s event was held at Brooklyn Arts Center on February 8th. The masquearde ball benefitted Kids Making It—a wonderful local nonprofit, which teaches woodworking skills to at-risk youth (see our cover story from encore’s February 12th edition for full info on KMI). Thanks to 600 tickets sold, numerous raffles, T-shirt, hoodie, and masquerade-mask sales, as well as monies raised during our Best Of Battle of the Bands, KMI raised $7,223 and took home $5,000 after expenses.

 

Our Best Of hosts, comedy troupe Pineapple-Shaped Lamps, entertained with a plethora of sketches across every category of award-winners. Their impeccable organization and outstanding massive team of members ensured audiences were never bored—especially with the Phantom of the Opera lurking about and haunting the room throughout the night.

 

We laughed a ton, but we ate even more, thanks to a monster-load of food passed throughout the evening—and provided from our numerous nominees in food and beverage (thank you, all!). And we danced to music from DJ Magic Marker and our Best Of band nominees.

 

Speaking of which: 2014 saw a six-way tie for Best Band! No Dollar Shoes, L-Shaped Lot, Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine, Mike Blair and the Stonewalls, the Bibis Ellison Band and Machine Gun all received equal votes. Because of previous engagements, only three bands were able to play the ceremony. No Dollar Shoes, Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine, and Mike Blair and the Stonewalls churned out a lovely mix of Americana, bluegrass and indie-rock. They each played two songs and allowed the audience to vote on the winner with dollars donated to KMI. No Dollar Shoes came out on top!

 

Just so you can see the fabulosity of the attendees who dressed to the nines, as well as the run-down of winners and a whole lotta pictures of the evening (thanks to Sean Carr Photography and Holland Dotts Photography), flip through edition of encore, and go online to see the last two, wherein we’ve been announcing and writing about every winner.

 

Welcome the Best Of Wilmington class of 2014—winning looks great on them!

 

BEST OF

 

Goods & Services

PRINTING SHOP

Cindy Meyers, co-owner of downtown’s DOCK STREET PRINTING, along with Bill Goodwyn, bought the shop in 2001 after being long-time employees. Founded in 1973 by Charlie and Nelda Illick, the current owners continue providing localized, attentive products to the greater Wilmington community. Whether churning out business cards, invitations, flyers, menus, or pens, desk supplies, vinyl products and the like, the variety of jobs the printing field presents keeps everyone on their toes.

 

“Every day is different and has its challenges,” Meyers says. “There is satisfaction of being a part of the entire process, from conception to completion.”

 

Their staff gets to know customers one-on-one to build lasting relationships which aren’t relegated by automated phone systems or online templates taking customer care out of the business equation.

 

“The biggest thing trending right now is a real, live, and unrecorded person!” Meyers states emphatically. “There has been more interest in companies wanting to buy local. Online printers seem like a good idea, but with jobs not being delivered on time and quality issues, the value they may have anticipated is not always met.”

 

By knowing the people who are processing the products, deadlines are met more efficiantly, artwork can be corrected better, and the quality will be guaranteed top-notch.

 

“When the opportunity presents itself, we can make recommendations to improve your job and your budget,

 

Meyers notes. “Just spending the few extra minutes with a customer means not just producing one job, but building an ongoing relationship.”

 

The folks at Dock Street also work efficiently in today’s tech-crazed market. They accep files electronically which deters a lot of time spent at the shop, except for pick-up. However, Dock Street works with clients in that regard, too, if need be.

 

“If they are able to plan accordingly and time allows, for most jobs we offer free delivery to the greater Wilmington area every Friday,” Meyers informs.

 

Like a lot of Wilmington businesses, the print shop remains pet-friendly as well as people-friendly. In fact, their annual pet calendar has become a staple on the scene, plus they donate to local nonprofits which serve our stray pet population above and beyond measure.

 

“We donate posters, flyers, and sometimes raffle tickets to advertise events the pet rescue groups may have,” Meyers says. “We also have a donation jar at the counter for those who want to donate. We try to keep the money on a local level.”

 

They’ve worked with Friends of Felines, Adopt an Angel, Sunburst Foundation, Carolina Canines for Service, SOAR, Basset Rescue and Paws 4 People, just to name a few. Plus, they will make copies of lost pet flyers for free for locals. “It is so rewarding to see pets reunited with their owners,” Meyers notes. “We had one last week and the story ended well.”

 

The company also donates to area families. Posters and flyers can be made for folks going through a medical crisis and in need of raising funds.

 

“Winning encore’s ‘Best of Wilmington’ is a special honor,” the nine-time winner announces. “It also holds us to a higher standard. Customers will come in with a time challenge or interesting project and say, ‘I know you can do it because you were voted ‘Best Print Shop.’”

 

Runners-up in the category include Copycat Print Shop and All Ways Graphics.

 

PLACE TO BUY A USED CAR

Pat Koballa tops our poll with 14—yes, 14!—best-of wins throughout the years for his Stevenson brand. His dealerships began as part of the Stevenson family tradition, which planted its feet in the car business in the early ‘50s. Folks will find Mazda, Kia, and Acura under his moniker. But the one that keeps him circling the encore victory lap over again is with STEVENSON HONDA.

stevenson honda

ZOOMING INTO FIRST: Carrie Patterson from Stevenson Honda accepts the award for the dealership for Best Place to Buy a Used Car. This is Stevenson’s 14th award from an encore’s annual reader’s poll. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

 

“We try to exceed our client’s expectations,” marketing director Peggy Roberts says. “We stand behind [Pat’s slogan]: ‘If it has our name on it, you have our word on it.’”

 

At Stevenson they value the customer. More so, they’re never numb to the fact that if they’re not putting their best foot forward, clients always can choose to take their business elsewhere. “The best and least expensive advertising is word of mouth,” Roberts notes. Thus, they strive to ensure words of kindness flow from shoppers after undergoing a Stevenson Honda-buying experience.

 

They also make car-buying as painless as possible, and without extraneous time taken away from the customer. Not only are their sales teams extremely knowledgeable but as concerned for fielding all questions efficiently.

 

“Customers want their concerns answered honestly and with professionalism,” Roberts notes. “Know your product, know your clients, and deliver an experience to be remembered!”

 

They yearn not only to provide memorable experiences to one buyer at a time; they want to be the dealership for families, generation after generation. By constantly offering better models, year in, year out, and with superb pricing, it’s becoming easier to reach that goal.

 

“Our new vehicles for this model year are better than ever,” Roberts promises. “One example is the 2014 Acura MDX; we can’t keep them on the lot!”

 

In a day and age of rising (and barely falling) fuel prices, and obligations which keep people on the road more hours of the day, Roberts promises the best value from a Stevenson-stamped car. Safety and affordability are top-of-mind always.

 

“Driver’s want dependability, good gas mileage, and a comfortable ‘techno savvy ride,’” she says. “We have every basis covered, and offer a very large selection of preowned vehicles.”

 

Other dealerships parking onto our reader’s poll include Auto Wholesale and Hendrick Toyota Scion.

 

CHIROPRACTOR

Focusing on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system, and providing the best services to improve general health, Wilmington’s Best Chiropractor once again gets awarded to BACK IN MOTION. Having practiced alternative medicine for 15 years now, co-owner Gina Policari and staff work to make everyone’s body function at a higher, healthier level. Their wins from 2013 and 2014 say clients continue happily returning, too.

back in motion

SNAP AND POP! Dr. Gina Policari and Dr. Michael Rosenh happily accept the award for Best Chiropractor and their Oleander Drive practice, Back in Motion. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

 

“Each treatment is specific to each person,” Dr. Policari states. “We care about our patients, listen to their needs, and reaclimate our services as their needs change.”

 

Whether undergoing treatments, and adjustments once or twice a month or weekly, patients at the 6303 Oleander Drive office find relief. From working with jaw pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow or back problems, all new patients receive X-rays and a full examination to help assist with their areas of discomfort. Their chiropractic care also works in other elements of health: basic colds, environmental allergies, sinus issues, and headaches. The local office accepts patients of all ages, even kids, plus offers pre-natal care and help with sciatica. Regular visits not only help relieve symptoms but they can be preventative.

 

“Our business grows by patients coming to us to continue to feel good, then expressing chiropractic care to everyone,” Dr. Policari says. “We appreciate all the votes from the locals who have been appreciating our services through the years. It makes us proud to be a part of this community.”

 

Despite the onslaught of changes from the Affordable Healthcare Act, Back in Motion accepts most plans under the new law. “Whether you have insurance or not, we keep our fees reasonable,” she continues.

 

Other chiropractors aligning the category include Sito Chiropractic and Russ Chiropractic and Wellness Center.

 

SURF SHOP

Living in a beach community means swimming with the sharks—sometimes quite literally. Ask any local surfer how many times he or she has ridden a wave with Jaws and almost everyone has a story. Ask them where they prefer to shop for all their surfing needs, and they’re likely to answer SWEETWATER SURF SHOP.

 

Established in 1976, the Bourgeouis family bought the store in 1994 after running a New Jersey sporting business for years.

 

“Surfing has always been a big part of our family’s life,” managing partner Shana Bourgeouis says. “It’s very exciting and fun to work in this industry—we work and live at the beach!”

 

Located at 10 N. Lumina Avenue on Wrightsville Beach, folks can buy a new board or bathing suit, sandals and sunglasses, wet suits and more for all of their beach-going needs. Currently, they’re seeing big sales in shades, in all colors and brands.

 

“Our swimwear selection is one of the largest in the area,” Bourgeouis continues. “Surfers, boaters and beach-goers all want top of the line in clothing, swim, and accessories.”

 

They also service their loyal shoppers with a customary smile and ease indicative of beach life. Sweetwater has become a hub of sorts for folks to congregate and swap stories.

 

“It’s a great environment to meet new people and hang out with the locals as well,” Bourgeouis says. “Service is our priority! If we don’t have an item in the store that our customer is looking for, we always offer to special order that item.”

 

More so, the family continues to love their job running the shop—and they have fun while doing it. They stay on top of current surfer trends and items, plus can match any budget, as they offer a variety of price ranges.

 

“We’ve been designated a Hurley ‘Icon’ store,” Bourgeouis says—“one of only four on the East Coast. We will have access to designs, styles and products that are reserved only for ‘Icon’ stores.”

 

Riding into second is Bert’s Surf Shop and third goes to Hot Wax Surf Shop.

 

TANNING SALON

In 1988 Wilmington got its first tanning salon, thanks to the owner of TROPICAL TANS, Fred Knopp. He saw the opportunity of a growing business and brought it here so Wrightsville and Carolina beach babes could keep that summer glow all year long. Since, he’s grown to two locations (5003 Wrightsville Avenue and 402 Carl Street) and kept up with the latest and greatest products of the industry.

 

The Tropical Tans locations offer 15- and 30-minute beds, as well as stand-up beds, and the Mystic HD Sunless Tanning booth. The spray-tan apparatus adds heat to condition the skin for maximum absorption (and doesn’t it feel better?) and provides a full-body drying feature. Both locations run on identical systems to keep track of and honor each guest’s package, no matter which store they visit.

 

Speaking of packages, Tropical Tans has quite a deal with their VIP membership: unlimited access to 30-minute beds, reduced upgrade fees, automatic monthly pay systems, and 20 percent discounts on lotions and products. What truly sets them apart, however, is a friendly and knowledgeable staff who can recommend an individualized tanning schedule.

 

Folks also soak up the sun at Timeless Tans and Sun Tan City.

 

MORTGAGE COMPANY

For a decade, ALPHA MORTGAGE has reigned the king of Best Mortgage Company in encore’s annual reader’s poll. Actually, though, the only locally owned mortgage banker in town has been churning out award-worthy services since their founding in 1983.Joey Milam, marketing director, says, “[Our] goal [is to help] clients achieve the American Dream of home ownership.”

 

They focus on finding the right loan program to suit each buyer’s needs. Plus, they offer in-house origination, processing, underwriting, and funding. By offering a multitude of services, Alpha Mortgage controls their client’s loans from beginning to end.

 

Perhaps this is why their customers stay loyal and return with questions and inquiries about their mortgage needs. “Clients for life are better than clients for a day,” Milam notes. Despite an upswing in government regulations since the recession started in 2008, Alpha remains on top of working within boundaries but best suited to their clients.

 

“We have added extra staff and became a paperless company with all information handled digitally,” Milam explains. “With our client and referral partners’ busy lives, this saves time and money for everyone involved.”

 

In the upcoming year, Alpha also looks to expand and maximize their efforts. They promise instant response times to clients and realtors, thanks to the technology of intsant messaging, text-messaging, and email. They’ll also present new loan programs and options.

 

“Technology is of course paramount to most any industry these days,” Milam admits. “We are incredibly humbled and grateful for the support our friends, referral partners and clients have shown us.”

 

Coastline Mortgage and Envision Mortgage Corporation top the nominees in the category as well.

 

PET-FRIENDLY ESTABLISHMENT

Two things Wilmingtonians love: their coffee and their pets. Paul Brown’s downtown shop, JAVA DOG, at the Cotton Exchange, tops our Best Of list for the second time as one among the most pet-friendly establishments in town. Maybe it has something to do with his chocolate lab, Meg, who’s always lazing about outside, greeting customers and their pets.

java dog

Downtown’s coffee shop, Java Dog, takes home the award for Best Pet-Friendly Establishment; their crew happily accepted (l. to r.), Hillary Prevost, Ashley Cunningham, Ashley Clark, Kristin Fairfax and Emily Rieves. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

 

Brown assures Java Dog caters to the coffee and specialty drink crowds. They have a menu full of delights, whether going for the normal cup of Joe or one of their Mango Jet Teas—which is actually a smoothie packed with a zap to wake you up so you can enjoy your day on a healthy note. They also serve muffins, bagels, cookies, and more, and even offer Fido a treat from the dog biscuits jar. Bowls of water always align the sidewalk for passersby taking their pets for a stroll. Located at 303 N. Front Street, Java Dog is locally owned and operated, making its appeal even more inviting to folks in search of community-owned and operated shops.

 

Others digging some votes in the category are Duck and Dive and Goat and Compass, each of which welcomes well-behaved pooches to mingle while their owners grab a pint! —Shea Carver

 

GIFT SHOP * ART GALLERY

“What you give comes back to you,” BLUE MOON GIFT SHOP owner Mary Ann Masucci muses. Her philosophy governs her treatment of customers, which largely accounts for her Best of wins for Best Gift Shop, Blue Moon Gift Shops, and Best Art Gallery, Eclipse at Blue Moon.

blue moon

ARTISTIC MAGIC: Jill Stewart (Blue Moon manager) and Stephanie Martins (design director of Eclipse) accept two awards for Blue Moon and their newest art gallery, Eclipse. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

 

Blue Moon Gift Shop came into existence 14 years ago with the goal of showcasing the work of local artisans and entrepreneurs. At the time, there was no precedence for this niche market in Wilmington; however, Blue Moon quickly cemented a strong presence, and has won Best Gift Shop for the past six years. With 8,500 square feet of space filled to the brim with anything from jewelry to furniture, Masucci has cultivated an atmosphere that revels in local artistry. Coasts Boutique, Marlene McDonald Jewelry, Sinead’s Cottage, and Old School Wood Works are just a few of the purveyors exhibited at the shop. As well, custom ordering and complimentary gift-wrapping exemplify a few of the many ways the gift shop keenly addresses the needs of its customers.

 

“We pride ourselves on customer service,” Masucci states. “We listen to our customers needs and wants and strive to accommodate those demands.”

 

As well, Masucci heads Eclipse at Blue Moon, which has only been open for three months. Thriving due to the momentum built from the gift shop, Eclipse has already found its way onto the radar of local art enthusiasts. Honing in on a live local ideology, the gallery routinely spotlights eclectic Wilmington-made goods. Sculptures inhabit a garden area that customers can peruse, while paintings, pottery, and everything in-between are housed inside. Given the short time span Eclipse has been open, the garnered support humbles Masucci.

 

“It lets us know that we are on the right track in providing what locals are looking for,” she says.

 

Looking ahead, Blue Moon and Eclipse Gift Shops intend to further diversify the pieces they host. As well, they will strive to hold more events pertaining to artists.

 

Second and third place for Best Gift Shop go to Crabby Chic and Planet. On display for second and third for Best Art gallery are Art Fuel, Inc. and Bottega Art Gallery and Wine Bar. —Christian Podgaysky

 

PAUL STATEN

jester’s circle: Paul and Marci Staten impress in their masquerade getup at the annual Best Of awards ceremony, which was also a masquerade ball and fund-raiser for Kids Making It! Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

Arts, Media, & Entertianment

WEBSITE

In 2012 the launch of PORTCITYDAILY.COM changed the way news was viewed and delivered to the Cape Fear region. The online news source is owned about operated by Local Voice out of Williamsburg, Virginia—which also operates Hometown Wilmington radio stations The Penguin (98.3), The Dude (106.3 and 93.7), and Port City Radio (95.9, 103.7 FM and 1180 AM), the latter of which offers a great Saturday program called Hometown Solutions, hosted by Bo Dean (Best Humanitarian, Best Volunteer). PortCityDaily.com seeks to report news without the traditional paper arriving on one’s doorstep. In its first year alone, they’ve garnered quite a following, averaging 100,000 visitors to the site a month, with 95 percent of them residing in zip codes around the Cape Fear region.

 

“In 2008 our president, Tom Davis, noticed a lack of trust in the local newspaper [in Virginia,]” managing editor Caroline Curran says. “One of the main reasons for the distrust, he believed, was because the newspaper’s editorial stance influenced the news content.”

 

As part of the PortCityDaily.com model, they refrain from running editorials. A hired a staff of seasoned journalists from various newspapers, including four news reporters, a sports reporter and a sports stringer, and an obituaries writer, keep the pace and voice even-keeled and unbiased.

 

“Between myself and three senior reporters, we have about 80 editorial awards, including national journalism awards,” Curran notes, “so there’s real quality and experience in our stories. There’s no newsroom quite like it.”

 

Curran and staff cover everything from county and city meetings, to elections and human interest stories, to school news, and even entertainment pieces. When they report on anything in the film industry, they notice an influx of traffic as well.

 

“I believe we’ve locked in the local voice, but that’s through our model, which is online newspapers powered by radio,” Curran notes. “It’s not just PortCityDaily.com; it’s the combination of PortCityDaily.com and our radio stations, especially Port City Radio, our all-news radio station.”

 

Plus, it’s completely free—always—and accessible. Whether reading from a laptop, work computer, tablet or phone, at home or at the beach, PortCityDaily.com keeps readers in the know 24/7.

 

“We focus on the important news of the day,” Curran says, “news that matters to people in the Cape Fear region. If it’s important to you, if it affects the community, we’re covering it.”

 

Shortly following their one-year anniversary in October, PortCityDaily.com added free obituaries to their round-up. Folks can post the obits completely free. “We chose to do this as a public service, so that our community can remember their loved ones without paying to do so,” Curran ssays.

 

Other websites loading into the category include g3free.com and encorebestof.com.

 

BOWLING ALLEY

With over 30,000 square feet of space maximizing fun in every way, BREAK TIME BILLIARDS AND TEN PIN ALLEY BOWLING CENTER have games in the bag. Winning yet again Best Bowling Alley, the complex can entertain all ages, whether going for a game of billiards on one of 29 pool tables, watching the weekly games on one of 20 TVs (they’re even the founders of the original Steelers and Penn State fan clubs in Wilmington), playing in their arcade, or doing what encore readers love most: bowling in one of 24 lanes.

 

On Friday and Saturday nights, Ten Pin offers Cosmic Bowling from 10 p.m. to close (starting May 2nd). Almost every night of the week welcomes league bowling, and they’re also well-known for their group and party pricing. For the best rates, folks can head over to the alley before 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and pay only $2 a game and $3 for shoes. Discounts and deals exist for children ages 5 and under and 6 to 12, as well as for college students, who can play for only $2.50 a game any day of the week. All-You-Can-Bowl taps out for $8 for adults and $4 for children on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

 

Rolling into second and third are Cardinal Lanes and Beach Bowl. —Shea Carver

 

ARTIST

From the Cameron Art Museum to the Art Factory to the newly opened Best Of winner Eclipse at Blue Moon, Wilmington showcases a number of local artists throughout the year. With a heterogeneous landscape and an established cultural scene downtown, artists have no trouble drawing inspiration or finding a market. Wilmington’s Best Local Artist, ROBBIE KASS, forgoes the traditional canva—instead utilizing anything from a motorcycle to someone’s skin.

robbie kass

HIP AND WINNING: Robbie Kass scores Best Artist 2014 at encore’s Best Of Awards, held at Brooklyn Arts Center as a fund-raiser for Kids Making It on Feburary 8th . Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

 

Kass began tattooing 13 years ago in order to achieve the impossible: Earning a living through artistic expression. “It is very rewarding as an artist to be commissioned to permanently install your work on someone who will showcase it on their skin for the rest of their life,” he notes.

 

Since Kass has expanded his skill set, taking up airbrushing a few years ago. He utilized automotives and motorcycles as a canvas, which left traditional painting mediums seeming unappealing. Thirsting for more innovative surfaces to display his creativity, his imagination was sparked by a mundane trip to a hardware store in which he saw the potential of a toilet seat.

 

“I find their round cameo shape complements the pop-culture portraits I became known for, and I think the unique surface is what helped them go viral on Reddit and BuzzFeed in 2013,” Kass explains.

 

His collection of vintage pop-culture figures juxtaposed with a toilet seat culminates in something akin to Andy Warhol’s popism infused with a tattoo artist’s flair. This year he will integrate his signature style with color realism to blend two divergent styles into one piece.

 

“With so many amazing artists here in Wilmington it is an honor to know enough people love the different types of artwork I do to vote me best local artist,” he humbly expresses. “Especially since a lot of Encore’s focus is on arts and entertainment.”

 

Filling the canvas for second and third place for Best Local Artist are Carleigh Sion and Gabriel Lehman. —Christian Podgaysky

 

Food & Beverage

BARBECUE

For eight years, JACKSON’S BIG OAK BARBECUE has been smokin’ the South’s most favorite category (and ongoing debate) of Best Barbecue. Owner Hunter Davis, a veteran in the restaurant industry, bought the Jackson family business three years ago. He continues their long-lasting tradition of serving the most delectable southeastern-style North Carolina barbecue.

 

“Holding that tradition keeps me going every day,” Davis, who also runs the Sawmill restaurants locally, says. “We offer a distinctive barbecue known only to our region. [It] creates an opportunity for us to represent it the way it should be.”

 

Since Davis has taken over, he’s transformed the dining area and mandated updates to their kitchen equipment so the pork keeps getting cooked to near perfection. They slow-roast and hickory-smoke the meat nightly and use mild seasonings for that classic southeastern NC taste.

 

They’ve also began bottling their famed red, vinegar-based sauce which tops the ‘cue. ”People really pay attention to what makes a restaurant stand out in the Best Of Wilmington,” Davis notes. “We are launching the online sale of our sauce made in house.”

 

Davis says it will happen this summer and will be available online at www.JacksonsbigoakBBQ.com.

 

But if pork isn’t a diner’s choice, then the country cookin’ served at Jackson’s will also keep them sated. From sides like mac ‘n’ cheese, collards, and fried okra, Jackson’s also serves tasty fried chicken.

 

“Not only do we offer this, but our customers claim is the best in town,” Davis says. “New category 2015?”

 

Not a lip-smackin’ bad idea.

 

Other barbecue contenders include Casey’s Buffet, Barbecue, and Home Cookin’, as well as Smithfield’s Chicken ‘n’ Barbecue.

 

SALADS

It takes more than a little iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes to make a fantastic salad. In fact, salads have become works of art in their own right in recent years. Locally, folks head over to the extravagant salad bar at Whole Foods on Oleander Drive to concoct a healthful plate of treats.

whole foods

wholesome grub: Whole Foods scores for their extremely large and varied salad bar, wherein encore readers agree they’re deserving of the Best Salads crown! Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

 

“When WHOLE FOODS MARKET first opened its doors in 1980, we set out on a simple mission: To provide a natural alternative to the conventional grocery options available at that time,” Erin McNally, marketing team leader, states. They’re doing such by offering prepared foods—like that of a restaurant inside the grocer.

 

They serve seasonal, chef-driven cuisine, made with natural and organic ingredients. More so, they ensure customers see the convenience and added value.

 

“Our organic salad bar features Health Starts Here™ salads, such as the sweet and spicy kale Pad Thai, as well as avocado egg salad—developed and made right here in our kitchen by [prepared foods team member and team mentor] Janice High.”

 

They also do a multitude of home-cooked favorites, like sandwiches and sweet treats, too. Plus, their gluten-free, vegan, non-dairy, and vegetarian options adhere to special diets. New items made in-house will be on the roster for 2014, including pimento cheese, sausages and more salads.

 

“It feels wonderful to receive this award,” McNally states. “Our team works hard to invent and create fresh flavorful dishes, and we are passionate about celebrating the sheer love and joy of food!”

 

SEAFOOD RESTAURANT * CHEF

CHEF KEITH RHODES—best known as Wilmington’s “Top Chef,” thanks to his appearance on the Bravo TV’s famed show, season 9 in Texas—enjoyed cooking with his family in youth. He was inspired by his grandparents’ desire to always source local foods, from fish to vegetables and beyond. As he grew up and began working under professionals in the culinary field, a natural fondness to learn the ins and outs of the industry began.

catch

NOM, NOM, NOM: Jessie Williams and Ramsey Boyd accept Best Chef and Best Seafood Restaurant for Wilmington’s Catch and its chef/owner Keith Rhodes. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

 

“We wanted to start a restaurant business to develop ideas, thoughts, and discussions about locally prepared seafood,” Rhodes says, speaking of his wife Angela in the collection “we.” Together, they’ve built the Catch brand, which takes home Best Seafood again in 2014, along with Rhodes as Best Chef.

 

Since Catch’s opening eight years ago, Angela and Keith have opened Phun Seafood Bar (a noodle bar downtown, in the original Catch space; Catch is now located in north Wilmington at 6623 Market St.). They also launched Catch the Food Truck and Wing Star truck, which focuses on land rather than sea fare.

 

“We feel that our unique passion, integrity, and since of commitment makes our business stand out,” Rhodes notes. “We have had strong customer feedback, and being a local business means we can implement necessary changes.”

 

Rhodes says 2014 will add another restaurant to his already few. He also sees the food-truck growing, as customers constantly ask for him to customize and bring his culinary creations to them.

 

“Winning acknowledgement from our locals really makes us feel good that we are still relevant and people still value, our ideology,” he says. “I am a self-taught chef that has been nationally recognized, and awarded for our efforts in elevating and integrating local products. We have to be creative, using all sorts of social media, and enlisting more community involvement.”

 

Other notable seafood restaurants in the category are Cape Fear Seafood Company and Hieronymus Seafood. Best Chef nods also go to Tyson Amick of Aubriana’s and James Doss of Rx Restaurant.

 

BARTENDER

Serving Wilmington for over 11 years, CAPE FEAR WINE AND BEER has become the standard for barflies to flock to daily. Among their slew of knowledgeable bartenders stands MEGAN LOUX, who has won Best Bartender for two years now.

 

“I’ve been fortunate enough to bar tend for the past three-and-half years at Cape Fear,” she says. “There is so much more to the liquid in your can, bottle, or glass—from the history of the style to the ingredients that impart the countless flavor combinations. To me its fascinating; beer is never boring.”

 

Loux’s love for the brew comes with the influx of inventory served at Cape Fear. They have a selection of 300 brews, as well as wine and mead, to attract any bar-goer.

 

“I love being able to offer something for each person that steps into our bar,” Loux says, “whether it’s placing the beer a regular always enjoys or a rare release I know they’ll love, to seeing a first time visitor be surprised by something they were unsure of.”

 

Because sampling and drinking beer is part of their “research,” Loux says being an overachiever is easy. She shares passion with the numerous craft brewers worldwide, thanks to their products she serves nightly.

 

“Cask ales have definitely been on the rise and rightfully so,” Loux states. “With the benefit of having great connections to some outstanding breweries making strides in this particular genre, we’ll be getting some uniquely crafted memorable casks.”

 

She’s also privy to the honor of receiving this nod from encore readers, especially when considering the vast talented pool of bartenders in the area. The gratification never tires.

 

“This town is full of some amazing bars and remarkable bartenders who all deserved to be recognized,” she notes. “When I’m not drinking at Cape Fear, I’m so impressed with the caliber of cocktails and the banter of my bartenders in this town.”

 

Other folks garnering recognition in the category include Aaron Parker of The Sidebar and Scott Wagner of Goat and Compass. —Shea Carver

 

APPETIZERS

Since opening in 1995, FRONT STREET BREWERY’s validation as a quality beer provider has manifested in the awards for their locally brewed beer lining their walls. A brewery first, the downtown fixture adds to their reputation with quality cuisine. Front Street Brewery’s culinary pursuits have landed them the Best of moniker for Wilmington’s Best Appetizers for two years running now.

front street brewery

TAPPING MORE THAN BEER: Ellie Craig and Josh Cranford take home Best Appetizers for downtown’s famed Front Street Brewery. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

 

“One thing that makes Front Street Brewery appetizers so consistently delicious is that they are made fresh, daily, [and] in-house with our own recipes–like our famous pulled-chicken nachos,” marketing manager Ellie Craig says. Also included in their satiating selections are the buttermilk breaded onions, mug of bacon, buffalo fried shrimp and fried green tomatoes. Vending a host of fried goodness and toothsome dips, their appetizers epitomize the Mecca of pub food.

 

Offered at half-price daily from 4 to 6 p.m. and after 10 p.m., their starter-dishes are perfect to split with friends while enjoying a signature brew. Spurred by the looming presence of the 2008 recession, the establishment began offering the now distinguishing appetizer happy-hour.

 

“Although the economic climate has improved over the past few years, we have maintained that economical mindset in order to ensure that our regulars keep coming back for more of what they love,”Craig elaborates.

 

Staying in-line with what customers want and delivering quick, friendly service keeps Front Street Brewery a step above the rest. They will premier some new half-priced appetizers this month. As well, they will foster their specialty ales, focusing on the current trend of oak-aged beer. Utilizing barrels procured from their wide selection of bourbons (one of the largest selections in the state), they anticipate the addition of a few more plaques for their wall.

 

“Experimenting with wild yeast and sours during the fermentation process is exciting, too,” Craig illuminates. “The chemistry behind it is all very interesting and at the forefront of our brewmaster (Kevin Kozak)’s attention.”

 

Additionally, they continue to cultivate their catering department, Beam Room Catering and Events.

 

On the platter for second and third for Best Appetizers are Circa 1922 and Bonefish Grill.

 

PIZZA * LATE-NIGHT EATERY

When you’re perusing Wilmington’s nightlife and the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, Best Pizza and Best Late Night Eatery SLICE OF LIFE has you covered. The folks at Slice have been slinging drinks and tossing pies for 15 years now.

 

Current owner Ray Worrell took over 10 years ago. “I love the restaurant business, it’s been my life,” he proclaims. Taking home Best Ofs since 2005, the restaurant has become a Wilmington fixture. Its the perfect place to take out-of-towners and provides locals with an bookend for nights out.

 

They boast locales in downtown Wilmington, at Military Cutoff, at Wirghtsville Beach, and near Monkey Junction. “Location, location, location,” Worrell attributes to the pizzeria and pubs’ success. As well, quality ingredients and an awesome staff contribute to their notoriety.

 

Known for their pizza—customizable with an array of toppings and served by the pie or by the slice—their menu diversifies with quesadillas, tacos, and nachos. Soups and salads round out their selection for waist-watching patrons. Choices abound solidify their spot as Best Late Night Eatery.

 

Passion drives the restauranteur. “When you get in your car and go to work, you [should] enjoy going–otherwise find something else,” Worrell advises. He demonstrates zeal for pizza through his annual visit to the Pizza Show in Vegas.

 

As well, Slice cultivates a presence in the community, routinely giving to local charities. Philanthropy becomes especially sweet given the validation Wilmington continues to give. “[It] makes me feel good that the locals enjoy Slice of Life,” Worrell humbly states.

 

This year Slice’s downtown location will move to Masonic Hall, supplying a larger space at 125 Market Street.

 

Serving up slices for second and third place for Best Pizza are Brooklyn Pizza and Pizzetta’s Pizzeria. Midnight diners can sink their cuspids in the food of Nick’s Diner and Jimbo’s coming in second and third for Best Late Night Eatery.

 

justin lacy

soundscaping: Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine played two songs among the two other bands, No Dollar $hoes and Mike Blair and the Stonewalls, in our annual Best Of Battle of the Bands. Courtesy Holland Dotts Photography

SPORTS BAR

Imbibing in an ice-cold brew while watching the game constitutes an American pastime—whether it be a Sunday afternoon or Monday night. In operation in Wilmington since November of 2009, Wilmington’s Best Sports Bar, CAROLINA ALE HOUSE, serves as the perfect place to bring one’s fandom.

 

The idea came into fruition ten years priors; however, owner Lou Moshakos saw College Road location as the perfect place to expand. The establishment’s walls boast local sports memorabilia, making each location feel personalized and comfortable.

 

“The activity at the bar, the upbeat tunes of the music, and the camaraderie shared by guests during a big game make Carolina Ale House the ultimate place for food, sports, and fun,” corporate communication manager of LM restaurants Mindy Stroupe explains.

 

Perpetuating a reputation through social media via routine Facebook posts, keeps locals informed. The eatery and bar has cultivated notoriety not only for its well-stocked bar, but also through pub food.

 

“Many people to do not realize that Carolina Ale House is primarily a scratch kitchen,” Stroupe informs. “The corn chips for the spinach dip are made in-house, the pizza dough is rolled and topped to order and all the chicken, and burgers and buns are fresh—never frozen. Even the chef-inspired daily specials are made from scratch daily, like Papa Lou’s lasagna and Yankee pot roast.”

 

All selections come at affordable prices and are the perfect indulgence to complement a pint. As well, quality service and passion round out the attributes that maintain Carolina Ale House’s success. Constantly looking for innovative ways to provide patrons with something special, they’ve inaugurated a 99 bottles of beer program and offer 22 oz. mugs. In the coming year, more community involvement will top their priority list.

 

On the score board for second and third place are Buffalo Wild Wings and Kickback Jack’s.

 

OUTDOOR DINING

The sunshine and sea breeze of Wilmington summers prompt many locals to enjoy local cuisines outdoors. A waterfront patio lands BLUEWATER GRILL in the number-one spot for Wilmington’s Best Outside Dining. President and owner Lou Moshakos saw the potential for the location the moment he laid eyes on it. He purchased the establishment in 2008.

 

“We [have] invested a lot of time and resources into making the BlueWater patio a prime spot for outside, waterfront dining,” corporate communications manager for LM Restaurants Mindy Stroupe explains. “Large patio fans and shades make the space comfortable for diners during the hot summer months.”

 

As well, the restaurant offers a dock for boaters to tie-up on after a relaxing cruise and enjoy a great dining experience. Upscale dining combined with a casual, beach-bum atmosphere cultivate the perfect dining experience for Wilmington’s sun-soaked months. The atmosphere comes perfectly accentuated by top-notch service.

 

“The view may bring people back to the restaurant, but its our attentive and gracious staff that keep people coming back,” Stroupe adds. “We go above and beyond to make sure guests have the best experience possible—even when we’re at our busiest and pushing two hour waits.”

 

BlueWater staff also concentrates on the menu. Spending off-season tweaking and perfecting an expansive menu, the restauranteurs demonstrate pride in their offerings. The restaurant has also renovated their second floor private event space to provide an ideal spot for locals to host events. Community involvement through their facilitation of the Fire on the Dock series and a Sunday waterfront music series round out their efforts to give locals a unique experience.

 

“Winning this award year after year reinforces our commitment to the local community to make BlueWater a phenomenal place to dine and enjoy coastal life,” Stroupe humbly states.

 

Enjoying the Wilmington climate at second and third for Best Outdoor Dining are Indochine and Dockside.

 

BUFFET * SOUL FOOD

Navigating the food industry proves tough; however, finding a niche that people respond to separates the persevering from the bygone. Wilmington’s Best Buffet and Best Soul Food, CASEY’S BUFFET, BARBECUE AND HOME COOKIN’, has prevailed since opening June 4th, 2005.

 

Working in the restaurant industry for 20 plus years, Casey’s owner, Larry Casey, has been living the American dream since opening. The lessons he learned along the way typify Wilmington’s answer to “just like mom used to make” cuisine.

 

“Casey’s goes the extra mile,” Casey states. “The customer is king at Casey’s—every customer is treated equally. We are grateful for each and every [diner].”

 

Exceeding the conventional buffet archetype, Casey’s accommodates the desires of all patrons. If one makes a special request, it’s likely they’ll receive it. As well, dishes that date back to the 1800s pervade their bountiful spread. Frequenters can pile their plates with pulled-pork, chitterlings (chitlins), chicken gizzards, pot roast, meatloaf, and every conceivable Southern cuisine inbetwixt.

 

“We are the only restaurant in Wilmington who serves whole, on the bone, farm raised catfish,” Casey says. Locally sourced in North Carolina, 21,000 pounds of catfish made its way to customers last year.

 

Cooked vegetables and hearty mac n’ cheese are also supplied in heaping portions. A Casey’s meal simply requires second stomach or a second visit—no menu fixin’ should go un-sampled. “It’s always an amazing feeling to be recognized by our customers,” Casey admits. No matter how long a restaurateur remains in business, diners’ appreciation always validates.

 

Never settling, Casey’s will expand this year with a banquet room, more catering, and a food truck.

 

Cooking up smorgasbords in second and third place for Best Buffet are Golden Corral and Tandoori Bites. The Basics and Rx Restaurant and Bar satisfy appetites for second and third in Best Soul Food.

—Christian Podgaysky

 

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