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 this edition of encore, and go online to see every winner we’ve been announcing and writing about over the last four weeks.

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

Goods & Services

HEALTH FOOD STORE

TIDAL CREEK COOPERATIVE was founded by a group of Wilmington residents who wanted access to healthier, organic foods in the ‘70s. From the small, community buying club it once was to the central locally run grocer it has become, their focus remains the same: delivering high-quality natural products to southeastern NC.

Bethany Delaney, outreach coordinator for the co-op, says, “Tidal Creek is more than a grocery store—we are a community and that’s what sets us apart.”

Like its name informs, the cooperative is owned by its collection of members. The people who live and work in Wilmington pay dues annually to buy all-natural and organic products at always discounted prices.

They not only work with local farmers and fisheries on produce and seafood, but they have a vast selection of health and wellness products not found elsehwere. Their famed hot and cold bar allows for a perfect make-it-yourself lunch or dinner. They also have a fully functional kitchen, wherein folks can order in their cafe, and enjoy freshly made sandwiches, smoothies and juices, vegan-inspired baked goods, and even grab-and-go items.

“Our smoothie bar uses all freshly frozen fruit, no mixes,” Delaney explains, “making it, in my opinion, the best smoothies in town!”

Delaney says the team members constantly ask: “How can we make a difference?” They respond by holding various classes and workshops to inform their members and the community at large about the benefits of shopping for goods that are fair-trade, free-range and made with non-GMO ingredients. “This motto guides our team in day-to-day activities and with our big-picture decisions as well,” Delaney states.

On March 20th they’ll have “Hippocrates Health Educator” Pat Delair speaking on “Cannabis: Nutrition, Medicine, and Politics,” from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The discussion will center around hemp and marijuana, and its health and medical benefits and drawbacks. Of course, all the political hubub surrounding the legalization of pot will be touched on as well.

2014 will bring more growth to the co-op as they expand community events and their kitchen department’s easy, quick, and nutritious meals. Winning their 12th Best Of clearly means the folks at Tidal Creek do not sit on their laurels. They continue keeping their green thumbs centered on what’s trending and on the standard in healthy living.

“The Paleo diet is very popular currently,” Delaney says. “Its core items have long been staples on our shelves, but we are happy to see healthy foods getting more mainstream attention, and love the focus it brings to our local farms and farmers. Also, anything coconut is big right now: water, milk, yogurt, ice cream, flour—it provides a great alternative for people with dietary restrictions.”

Other health food store nominees include Lovey’s Market and Whole Foods.

SHOE STORE

At 1900 Eastwood Road, Suite 22, MONKEE’S OF WILMINGTON beckons fashionistas through their doors for a taste of the high life in footwear. Boots, sandals, heels, flats, whatever the desire, owner Deedee Shaw and her staff make sure all of the hottest styles and latest brand names are available.

“I used to live and work in New York, and when I moved here I saw a need for a particular style in Wilmington,” Shaw discloses.

Having run Monkee’s now for over a decade, 2013 alone saw the sell of 4,086 shoes. She says spring 2014 will have an emphasis on booties, esepcially worn with dresses. Yet, one of her own fave looks will be sexy high-heeled, strappy pumps.

Monkee’s carries designers like Alice + Olivia, Chanel, Shoshanna, Stuart Weitzman, Diane von Furstenberg, Kate Spade, and many more. They receive new inventory daily; in fact, they’ve added a new designer Shaw is particularly excited to see as part of her store’s offerings. “Aquazzura is new for us and edgy for spring,” she promises.

Shaw continues evolving with the Monkee’s clientele. Of course that means embracing the digital age as much as possible. “In recent years we have seen a switch to social media and website sales,” she explains, “so we have placed a bigger emphasis on Facebook, Instagram, and our website.”

Monkee’s will be hosting more trunk shows and after-hour events throughout the coming year, too. So, folks should be on the lookout for their upcoming announcements.

“If you enjoy what you do, you never go to work,” Shaw adds, noting that winning makes it a confirmation that she and her staff are making customers happy.

Other shoe stores sashaying onto the poll are Coastal Kicks and Rack Room.

MASSAGE THERAPIST

As a child MARY BETH REDMAN enjoyed gymnastics, and thus received therapeutic massages frequently from sore muscles and aches and pains. When she became a teenager, the unfortune of suffering migraines became unbrearable after doctor-approved treatements didn’t work. So, her parents took Redban to the family massage therapist.

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MASQUERADING MASSEUSE: Mary Beth Redman (left) took home the award for Best Massage Therapist and stunned in her get-up at the masquerade ball and fund-raiser for Kids Making It on Feb. 8th at Brooklyn Arts Center. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

“The massage therapist incorporated craniosacral therapy into my sessions,” Redman remembers, “and over time my migraines became less frequent and painful.”

Amazed by the alleviation from massage therapy, Redman took to the alternative healing method. She wanted to help people in the same fashion they helped her.

“I have worked as a massage and bodywork therapist in upscale spas and salons around the Wilmington area for seven years,” Redman tells.

However, today, she owns a private practice, Mary Beth Redman Massage Therapy, in downtown Wilmington. She focuses on a range of holistic health benefits, from increasing energy to improving mental clarity and concentration, to relieving muscle tensions and stress. All of the added benefits of improving posture and sleep, while removing toxins from the body and increasing circulation, mobility and flexibility keep patients happily returning.

“I am passionate about massage because I can sincerely help people overcome and deal with the stresses that come along with everyday life,” Redman notes. “It’s hard to stop and take a breath sometimes; we get lost in life and forget to take care of ourselves.”

Redman tailors her service to each individual’s need and avoids “cookie-cutter massages.” Whether doing deep tissue or sports massage, prenatal or hot stone, aroma therapy or reflexology, each client’s intake is thoughtful and unique. “I take a therapeutic approach toward every massage to ensure that each client is getting the maximum benefit,” Redman says. “I also incorporate the use of a few hot stones, hot towels, and aroma therapy into each massage session for no extra charge for pure relaxation.”

With a B.S. in biology and minor in psychology from UNCW, in her spare time, Redman is a local actress. Actually, she was nominated as one of the top three Best Thespians in encore’s 2014 poll. While her talents multiply across numerous platforms, she’s happily finding a pace which ensures pride.

“One can define success and happiness in many different ways,” Redman notes. “I think it is important to focus not so much on becoming ‘successful’ but rather becoming a ‘person of value.’ If you are passionate and find true value in yourself, and what you do, then achievement and happiness will follow.”

Other massage therapists ranking our polls include Josh Lentz (Massage by Josh) and Joni Scott (Relax!).

FLORIST

Ask Dana Cook about how many flowers JULIA’S FLORIST orders annually and she will answer: “I know we ordered 5,600 stems for Valentine’s Day alone.”

Ask the shop owner about her favorite flower and the answer is Gloriosa Lily (or Flame Lily). Hailing from Africa, it’s leaves’ juices have been used for poisoned arrows by some of the tribes.

“It is a beautiful upside down orange, red or pink lily, with delicate petals that look like the flames from a fire,” Cook explains. “The lilies are harvested for homemade medicinal potions in India and Africa. These flowers are dangerously toxic if ingested. Traditional healers understand its toxic nature and use the plant to heal. The ground roots provide a cure for snake bites and scorpion stings, but in the wrong hands this plant is very dangerous. Beautiful, healing properties, and used to make poison tipped arrows … what is there not to like?”

Cook and ger artist arrangers work boldly and with careful attention to brighten people’s day. They have been watching smiles and tears across the faces of their recepients for years. In fact, one of the sweetest memories comes from their quite impressive degree of customer service; they delivered a roomful of Birds of Paradise to a Chapel Hill hospital.

“After his daughter survived a double lung transplant, a father asked us to fill her room with her favorite flower,” Cook explains. “We made several arrangements and drove them up. With the entire room full of Birds of Paradise, her smiles made every bit of the two-and-a-half hour trip worth our while. We refer to that order as ‘Operation Birds.’”

Their most popular arrangement—and perhaps their favorite to fulfill—comes from the “Bright and Cheery Designer’s Choice.” Here, their flower designers can showcase their skills and express freedom in doing so.

“They’re artists, and each arrangement is painted by their fingertips,” Cook says. “Every stem in the vase is placed with care and intention. We make sure that each arrangement is delivered with a ‘designed by’ signature, because these talented artists deserve recognition for their work.”

Yet, Julia’s also appeals to gift-giving beyond flowers. They focus on cards, bath products, like lotions and perfumes from Tokyo Milk, as well as Rob Ryan wedding plates and garden mugs, and Bethan Lowe’s vintage ornament line. But DZI Tibet Collection’s birdhouses also impress, as they’re made by hand from a woman-based and family-owned, fair-trade production center in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Whether customers want their gifts acknowledged by the sender or not, Julia’s always promises to keep their secret safe. “The ‘Guess Who’ signature [often has] recipients calling and asking for help,” Cook says. “Occasionally, the sender requests that we don’t release their name, so we don’t. Just call it: ‘Flower Confidential.’”

Verzaal’s Florist and Fiore Fine Flowers rank second and third. —Shea Carver

WOMEN’S CLOTHING STORE

What started as a T-shirt and souvenir store on Bald Head Island in 1985 evolved over 25 years later into Wilmington’s top-notch women’s boutique. Now it features the latest designs from Ya, Esley, French Connection, and more, while catering to shoppers in five different stores, including downtown Wilmington and Lumina Station.

“Over the years ISLAND PASSAGE has changed in many ways except one: We strive for the best in customer service,” Kristyn Prentice, buyer for Island Passage, explains. “We realize that our customers have many options when shopping in Wilmington. We want them to know that every time they come into any IP location that they will be given the best customer service around. Many of our local customers have a favorite location because they have personal relationships with our managers and associates. We also strive to provide fashion at accessible prices and quality merchandise. Fashion doesn’t have to break the bank unless you want it to!”

A few years ago Island Passage began a VIP program for local customers. Benefits include weekly specials, VIP-only events and sales, and a birthday coupon

The buyers make it a personal challenge to find new lines and designers continually, Prentice says. She’s devoted to her job and eager to share that fervor with Island Passage’s shoppers. “My favorite part of fashion is its infinite ability to evolve and, with it, evolves the wearer,” she describes. “Fashion is a way for people to express their creativity, passions and feelings. It can change every day as often as you choose.”

Other top shops include Edge of Urge and Hallelu. —Bethany Turner

DENTIST

The idea of a trip to the dentist reverts many back to childhood, when balloons and the promise of a reward from the treasure trunk for being well-behaved was the only way to be coaxed into the chair. However, at Wilmington’s Best Dentist, BOZART FAMILY DENTISTRY, a teeth cleaning isn’t anything like, well, pulling teeth.

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SMILES FOR MILES: The staff of Bozart Denistry once again nail the Best Dentist category and don’t disappoint in their attire at our masquerade ball. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

Established eight years ago, Dr. Albert Bozart thrives due to his passion for orthodontics. Aiding people of all walks of life proves a priority for the dentist. “Dr. Bozart’s willingness to help those that may need financier payment plans, discounts, and his participation with several insurance companies allows us to accommodate more patient needs,” office manager Jenny Gurganus describes.

Ensuring that prices are affordable allows healthy smiles to populate the Wilmington area. As well, his comforting demeanor ensures repeat visits for an experience normally deemed unpleasant.

“His relaxed bedside manner puts patients at ease, even those who typically have high anxiety with dental procedures,” Gurganus elaborates. “He is eager to meet new patients and stay connected with existing patrons.”

Dr. Lauren Francis, Dr. William Carmichael, and the newest addition Dr. Michael Williams—specially selected by Bozart—all share the same zest for dentistry. Patients gravitate toward the sincerity in their efforts to provide oral health.

In order to further facilitate their practice, Bozart Family Dentistry anticipates an expansion of the office in 2014.

Creating pearly smiles in second and third place are Sailing & Tate General Dentistry and Marshall Dental Excellence.

GYM

While Popeye the Sailor Man advices eating spinach as a means of amassing strength, for two years now locals have turned to Wilmington’s Best Gym, Planet Fitness, to keep their muscles brazen. Catering to port city residents who wish to buff-up or slim-down their waist line, the gym takes fitness seriously.

“We have been in business for seven years now. I love the health and fitness industry [and] hearing people tell me how much weight they have lost and how great they feel is a huge benefit to working in this service,” manager of the South Kerr Planet Fitness, Reid Wolfe, says.

Bodies of all shapes and sizes can rest assured that judgement and intimidation are not services provided by PLANET FITNESS. “Not only do we have amazing success stories, but we also hear horror stories of other gyms and how the staff made [people] feel not wanted and under appreciated,” Wolfe discusses.

Friendliness and a desire to help residents reach their potential serves as the motivator for the gym. The customer always comes first and Planet Fitness strives to accommodate any desire they may have. In order to cultivate smiling faces and healthy results, expansion is always vital.

“We have added more amenities such as hydro-massage beds and red-light therapy,” Wolfe describes. “Both are amazing tools to use other than card machines that will benefit your body. We have also restructured our free and unlimited fitness training with our trainer, Terrance. He now has over 1,000 appointments available.”

This coming year, Planet Fitness will unveil another great renovation. They hope to generate a lobby for their club and add benefits to create more room to house members. As well, they will continue their Black Card which comes at a mere $19.99 a month and allows holders to bring a guest. Card-holders also receive unlimited access to the tanning beds, hydro-massage beds, red-light therapy, fitness trainers, and massage chairs.

Pumping iron in second and third place are O2 Fitness and Gold’s Gym.

DOG GROOMER

For pet owners getting a dog washed and lathered can prove just as stressful as getting their own hair done. Port City residents chose PUPS PLAY AND STAY as the hot-spot to get their four-legged friend pampered. Barks of joy emit from satisfied Wilmington pups. Local dogs give wagging tails and paws of approval for the fresh new cuts procured from the facility.

The pet boarding business specializes in giving precisely the right treatment to animals on an individual basis. Pups Play and Stay offers a free initial consultation so customers can ensure the groomers are a right fit for their pet. Once the appointment is set, one can choose the bath & brush, perfect for short- and medium-haired dogs, or the bath, brush, and light trim for dogs of a longer, denser coat. As well, a complete styling, embodying a skilled trim, clipping, and finishing for a distinctive look, can be arranged. Puppy owners can opt for a gentler option for first-timers. The selection comes complete with a bath, brushing, nail and ear trimming, and play time.

Open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., dog parents can rejoice in flexibility. The dog coat stylists also offer free between-appointment nail clippings and a 10-minute brush-out for customers with already established sessions separated by six weeks or less. For smaller breeds (40 pounds or less), one can take advantage of their 90-minute or less express service appointment. Prices for their services are based on pet size, coat condition, and temperament.

Tending to the coats of Wilmington dogs in second and third place are Atlantic Animal Hospital and Pet Care Resort and Von Barkee’s Dog Spa and Bakery.

AUTO MECHANIC

Established in 1929 in Cerro Gordo, NC, amidst the Great Depression, Wilmington’s Best Auto Mechanic, BLACK’S TIRE, aimed to keep people mobile. At the time, tires were difficult to procure. But thanks to Black’s Tire, the good roads state kept people on the road.

Serving drivers of the Carolinas for over nine decades now, the auto mechanics have garnered the trust of locals with their vehicles.Current owner Ryan Benton partnered with Mr. Black around 1980. Since taking over, he’s ensured the reputable name evolves with the times.

Whether one needs tire service, oil changes, inspections, or repairs, Black’s Tire has you covered. Their website divulges car care tips that keep drivers informed on how to properly preserve vehicles. As of 2013, the business boasted 32 highly renowned locations.

Always anticipating the desires of customers, the majority of Black’s Tire waiting areas host Wi-Fi, minimizing boredom as people wait. The Oleander Drive location also features a private work station, so that people don’t have to disrupt their day to get their car serviced. Similar modifications were made at the Carolina Beach Road location this past year.

Keeping vehicles running in the second and third spot for Best Auto Mechanic are Pat’s Auto Service Center and Mobile Tech.

VETERINARIAN

Whether it be a four-legged friend or a slithering reptile, locals take pet care seriously. Trusting one with a companion, that despite a difference in species becomes family, is often a tough decision—especially when it comes to health and life-longevity. In Wilmington people turn to Wilmington’s Best Veterinarian, PORT CITY ANIMAL HOSPITAL, to ensure their pet’s well-being.

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ANIMALISTIC CHARM: Port City Animal Hospital accepted the award for Best Veterinarian. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

Veternarian Dr. Chris Coble derived his career from his love for animals. Endlessly soaking up knowledge, he’s versed himself with the ins-and-outs of pet health care over his 16 plus year career. Gratification comes from animal owners who know Dr. Coble values the life of their pets as much as they do.

Keeping inline with hot-button issues in animal health care, Dr. Coble provides low-price spays and neuters. With the amount of strays and the looming presence of kill-shelters, keeping the pet population down remains key. Furthering his efforts, he also maintains affordable medical services. Open dialogues with pet owners enhances the special care one will receive at Port City Animal Hospital. He always explains exactly what test or procedures need to be done and is forthcoming with the price in a no-pressure discourse.

Trusted arms await furry friends at Wilmington Animal Healthcare and A Country Vet coming in for second and third place.

TATTOO PARLOR

Even the biggest proponents of body decoration caution rash decisions when it comes to getting a tattoo. Whether it be a quote close to one’s heart, an image that encapsulates one’s spirit, or a cross-bow through a heart highlighting one’s love for mom, people want special treatment when turning their skin into the ultimate canvas. Once a person’s mind is set, the next difficult choice to make is who to trust to do it. Wilmingtonians turn to Wilmington’s Best Tattoo Parlor, ARTFUEL INC., for all of their body modification needs.

Headed by Sarah Peacock, clients never leave unhappy with their newly acquired ink. Artfuel strives to give each customer a unique experience and ensures that the permanent fixture on their body meets their desires. As well, Artfuels’ website proclaims that walk-ins are always welcome.

However, the body artist goes above and beyond what’s expected. Artfuel routinely works with non-profit Surfer’s Healing, an organization that runs summer surf camps for autistic children. As well, Peacock works with breast-cancer survivors, creating nipples for women post-mastectomy.

Further cultivating local artistry, even the kind not brandished on one’s skin, Artfuel showcases the works of Wilmington artists. Ranging from paintings to pottery and beyond, locals can always keep their eyes peeled for the next exhibit at the tattoo parlor.

Second and third place go to Jade Monkey Tattoo Studio and Family First Tattoo.

HAIR SALON

From the Farrah-do of the ‘70s to the Rachel cut of the ‘90s, hair plays an integral part in society. It’s one of the first things people notice about a person and it shapes one’s face. Whether going for a classic style or trying something edgy and chic, trusting someone to mold one’s hair can be make or break. Luckily, Wilmington residents can always turn to BANGZ HAIR SALON.

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‘mane’ event: The staff and hairstylists from Bangz relish their 2014 win yet again as Best Hair Salon. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

Specializing in men, women, and children, no port city resident’s hair proves too much of a challenge for the experts behind the chair at Bangz. The salon offers relaxers, perms, keratin treatments, updos, and extensions. When it comes to Bangz, no style is too difficult and no demand will be unmet.

Patrons of the pinnacle of Wilmington hair care can also relax with a massage, facial, body treatment, manicure, or pedicure. Bangz prioritizes the peace-of-mind of their customers and aim to provide a sanctuary. Located at 1203 43rd Street, one can escape reality and rest assured their hair is in good hands.

Shearing locks in second and third place for Best Hair Salon are Tanglez Salon and Spa and The Rockin’ Roller Salon and Boutique.

SPA

“Calgon take me away!” urges the familiar voice of yesteryear. However, sometimes an intimate bubble bath at home just doesn’t cut it. When locals’ patience is spent and they feel they’ve had too much, they can look no further than Head to Toe Day Spa for the perfect retreat to regroup. For 17 years now, the spa has been serving up the ultimate indulgence.

HEAD TO TOE whisks customers away to a world where troubles seem far away and skin feels rejuvenated and beautiful. Their complete packages permit relaxation-seekers anything from a facial to a mud wrap and everything in-between. They offer the best in “manis and pedis” and provide a perfect destination for a girls’ day outing. As well, the pampering purveyors give cuts and styles or even make-up consultations.

The spa’s expansive list of services also includes waxing, sunless airbrush tanning, teeth whitening, chemical peels, nail enhancements, and an infared spa. For frequenters hoping to take a taste of paradise home with them, Head to Toe even offers a product line. Items from blinc, Biofreeze, Bio Iconic, and Boresha line their shelves.

To set up an appointment one can go to http://headtotoedayspa.com and prepare to experience pure bliss.

Dolling out white robes and clay masks in second and third place are Ki Spa and I Am Salon and Day Spa. —Christian Podgaysky

HOTEL

Just ask Karen Morganti, assistant general manager of HILTON WILMINGTON RIVERSIDE, why she believes it’s the best hotel in Wilmington, and she’ll say their qualification has a lot to do with training and tradition. Lodging has become a landmark in the downtown area—a part of its northern skyline, really. As well, the managing company, MHI/Chesapeake Hospitality, harbors virtues to mark any business. Founded in 1957 when Edgar Sims, Jr. bought his first hotel, the company is now operated by his sons, who have owned Hilton Wilmington Riverside since 1971.

“Fairness, integrity, respect, community involvement—our company was founded on these core values, and I believe they are still the cornerstones of our successes,” Morganti asserts. “I believe as a hotel we are good stewards of the community of Wilmington, and to our industry in general. We strive to provide each person that walks through our doors an exceptional guest experience.”

Overlooking the scenic Cape Fear River, it doesn’t hurt that the hotel possesses one of the most recognized names in the business. Hilton is known for being top of the class in service and amenities.

Morganti explains, “Our staff has done an exceptional job by taking on more responsibility and going above and beyond; we truly have a fantastic team. To know people still appreciate and value us is the highest honor we could receive.”

Other hotels making the list are Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort and Blockade Runner.

—Bethany Turner

Arts, Media & Entertainment

LOCAL TOUR

Plaques and signs can be found all over Wilmington announcing historical sites or facts about the humble city by the sea. Seeing them all on foot proves difficult; luckily, one can saddle up on the Best Tour of Wilmington, SPRINGBROOK’S HORSE DRAWN CARRIAGE TOURS.

Spurred by the reaction of family and friends when they incorporated a horse and carriage in their wedding, John and Janet Pucci discovered a means to combine two of their passions: serving people and animals. Having manned a horse and carriage in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, the two never looked back. The couple set up shop in Wilmington 27 years ago and have been cultivating memories ever since.

“In searching for horses, I found a way to save some of them from the processors,” John Pucci elaborates on the added bonus of their services. “People want to know they are doing some good. Letting our customers know that their patronage is helping save horses does that.”

With Springbrook every journey through history becomes an adventure. Each tour is led by a costumed driver who energetically narrates as one meanders downtown’s cobblestone streets. With a continuous flow of tours, each lasting about a half an hour, a host of tourists and locals are served daily.

“The biggest trend today is the lack of good, affordable family activities,” Pucci states. “Locally, we hope we are providing our customers with some great memories of their visit to the Cape Fear area.”

The year 2014 will see new staff members and a new route to showcase historic Wilmington. Most of Springbrook’s patronage consists of returning customers. So, keeping things fresh remains a vital part of the Puccis’ business model. Ultimately, the tour hopes to address the profound lack of quality, inexpensive family fun.

“I feel the fact that locals appreciate our hard work is a great compliment that we value very much,” Pucci says. “People have become more aware of our efforts.”

Runnersup are the Ghost Walk and the Haunted Pub Crawl.

NEWS STATION

Celebrating 60 years delivering quality news to southeastern NC, WECT once again channels the votes for Best News Station in 2014. Year after year, the experience of winning remains humbling for Scott Saxton, news director.

“Our team works each day to give our viewers and readers what we believe they want,” he says, “and to be acknowledged as their first choice for news is something we appreciate and never want to take for granted. We continue to try to earn their respect each day.”

While reporting up-to-date daily news breaks and happenings, in recent years the team has embraced the digital world and all it entails. Whether interacting with readers via social media or making sure alerts and traffic updates are sent from their mobile app, Raycom Media evolves day by day, hour by hour.

“It’s a very exciting time for us,” Saxton says. “That helps keep the passion level high for those who work here. . . . we are adjusting our work flow to make sure we give people what they want on their phones. It’s a different product than television.”

In fact, when the Winter Olympics pushed their normal news hour back later at night, WECT did a special web and mobile newscast for viewers who wanted the consistency of the 11 o’clock news. “Our mobile live streams keep expanding,” Saxton admits. “We continue to find news events to bring to viewers’ phones, including political debates, significant news conferences and other events. We want to bring the news to people wherever they are and whenever they want it!”

Other news stations tuning into our poll are WWAY and WSFX.

PLACE TO PROPOSE

Southeastern NC is rife with beauty, thanks to numerous beaches, a gorgeous downtown Riverwalk, and the most stunning historic places around. Among them: AIRLIE GARDENS, off Wrighstville Avenue. Known for its centuries-old Airlie Oak and phenomenally beautiful landscaping, the gardens continue to be a hotspot for folks to pop the age-old important question: Will you marry me?

Dating back to 1886, the gardens are now run by the city of Wilmington. All 67 acres feaure wildlife, historic structures, walking trails, sculptures, views of Bradley Creek, 10-acres of freshwater lakes, and more than 100,000 azaleas. It’s also become quite the backdrop for numerous weddings annually. So, in essence it’s the one-stop shop to propose, marry, celebrate anniversaries, and even bring the kids to their numerous events throughout the year. From their summer concert series, to their Christmas sparkle fest, also known as Enchanted Airlie, to daily tours, there is always a reason to visit the space multiple times throughout the year.

Other proposal spots turning lovebird readers into soulmates include Wrightsville Beach and The Wilmington Riverwalk.

MORNING RADIO SHOW

It’s year eight for Z107.5’s Jason Fosdick, aka “Foz,” turning tunes and keeping people happily perky every weekday morning from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. With his copilot, Laura, onboard, they deliver weekly celeb gossip, give us a bunch of random facts and trivia to enlighten our morning drives, and talk about life in general—like about Foz’s adorable toddler, Maxim, or his smokin’ wife, whom Foz endearingly stamps “Sugarbowl” onair.

foz and laura

HOST WITH THE MOST: FZ107.5’s Foz of the Foz and Laura Morning Show—and his smokin’ wife, whom he endearingly calls “Sugarbowl”—takes home Best Morning Show. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

Having just joined the show within the past year, Laura is an alum of UNCW, with a BA in communication studies and a minor in broadcast journalism. She runs triathlons, loves dogs, and clearly is a workaholic, as she also anchors the midday show from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Z107.5.

Together, FOZ AND LAURA IN THE MORNING churn out the hottest pop music on the charts, from One Direction to Jason Derulo to DJ Khales to Beyonce to Kid Ink. And when they’re not in the studio, folks can catch them hosting numerous charity events and soirees around town.

Other morning shows waking up our readers include Sheila Brothers on 104.5, and the now-defunct Morning Disaster with Bryan and Jim on 103.7 The Bone.

BLOG

Once again Wilmingtonians trust their grub news to come from one place: PORT CITY FOODIES, a StarNews Media blog (www.portcityfoodies.com). Whether reporting on the latest restaurant closings, giving insight on how to make the most of cooking with spices, or simply interviewing chefs about what’s happening in their restaurants, Paul Stephen, photographer and food writer for the blog, and his crew deliver the tasty bits tenfold.

“I get paid to be fully immersed in the world of Wilmington’s consumables,” Paul Stephen told encore in 2013 after their first win. “What’s not to love about that?”

Their weekly budget bites with Judy Royal keep folks eating and drinking on a dime. Local celebrations and specials can often be found written by Alison Arnold. Stephen keeps his eyes peeled for small supper clubs or reader-generated questions to connect with the public.

“The enthusiasm, inventiveness, and seemingly insatiable appetite of the non-professional foodies in this city is enthralling,” he said. “All the creative wonders coming out of area restaurants clearly inspires our legion of dedicated home cooks, and it seems to foster an exciting dynamic that goes both ways.”

Others log onto Girls Gone Gluten Free and The Wilmywood Daily, focused on all-things film.

PLACE TO BRING VISITORS

Our very own USS BATTLESHIP NC was one of the first of 10 ships to go into World War II. In April of ‘41, she was considered a stealth in sea weaponry, armed with nine 16-inch/45-caliber guns in three turrets, and 20 5-inch/38-caliber guns in 10 twin mounts. In 1947 she was decommissioned and stood in reserve in New Jersey for 14 years before her arrival in Wilmington in 1961, where she was commissioned in ‘62.

Since, the Battleship has remained one of the driving attractions in Wilmington, NC. Her history serves as a perfect complement to the history of our town. And like all historic structures, a lot of upkeep is involved in ensuring it remains the Best Place to Bring Visitors. It’s quite a reward for Governor Pat McCrory’s announcement of granting $500,000 from the Office of State Budget and Management’s Repair and Renovation Contingency Reserve to repair its hull.

Reparations are important in order to continue maintaining the legacy of the ship and its vast history. Captain Terry A. Bragg, USN (Ret.), executive director for the Battleship, says “This is especially important to continue to honor the memory of the 10,000 North Carolinians who served and died during World War II.”

The monies alloted will go toward geotechnical investigation and diagnostic boring from 50 to 75 feet below the ship’s surface level. “Findings from the research will predicate the structure of a proposed cofferdam that will allow the Battleship’s hull to be repaired on site,” Bragg says. “We would like to thank the continued support of the state in the efforts to preserve this national landmark for future generations.”

Around 211,724 paid visitors toured through the ship in 2013. They generated around $3,000,000 in revenue. Their outreach and marketing efforts mean locals are listening. “We greatly appreciate their continued support,” Heather Loftin, promotional director, says. “It is a big deal when you recommend a place to visit and we are at the top of the list; it is truly humbling.”

The ship allows visitors to see how sailors lived, whether visiting the chow room, barracks, or captain’s quarters. Its numerous programs throughout the year, including Hidden Battleship, even offers tours to areas otherwise not seen, like the boatswain locker and third deck.

“With most everything hands on, it is good opportunity to truly see what it was like to live on a living city at sea during WWII,” Loftin notes. “It’s not computer-generated or replicated—it’s the real thing.”

Other favorite places to bring visitors include Wilmington Riverwalk and Wrightsville Beach.

—Shea Carver

LOCAL TOURIST ATTRACTION

A beach lined with quaint vacation rentals and a downtown boasting a plethora of historic inns and hotels, house the hoards of visitors that come to the port city each year. Though out-of-towners enjoy taking historic tours or soaking up the sun, Best Local Tourist Attraction goes to the NORTH CAROLINA AQUARIUM AT FORT FISHER. Finding its footing in 1976 as a Marine Science Center, the aquarium has evolved to host nearly 450,000 visitors a year.

“Our staff works passionately to connect guests with nature, inspiring appreciation and conservation of North Carolina aquatic environments,” public relations coordinator Robin Nalepa explains.

Though specializing in informing on aquatic life, creating memories constitutes a priority for the establishment. Whether frequenting for a day-visit or a special occurrence, the experience garnered will certainly remain for years to come.

“Where else can [one] safely get eye-to-eye with an alligator, watch rays and eels swim with a sea turtle, or touch a live shark?” Nalepa muses.

The aquarium also keeps spectacles fresh by constantly adding new exhibits. The sea turtle domain debuted an expansion last month. This year, too, will see the installation of the butterfly bungalow and garden, which opens April 5th. The exhibit will run through October. As well, a juvenile bald eagle will soon take up residence at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.

“Recognition by our friends and neighbors as Best Local Tourist Attraction is a badge of honor for the aquarium’s dedicated staff,” Nalepa concedes.

Entertaining visitors in second and third place for Best Local Tourist Attraction are the USS North Carolina Battleship and Airlie Gardens.

COMEDY TROUPE

It’s said that laughter can lengthen lives and aid the body and mind. If that’s true, then anyone who’s seen the NUTT HOUSE IMPROV TROUPE can certainly count themselves as having a good bill of health. Comprised of Colton DeMonte, Dave DiMuro, Steve Marcinowski, Caylan McKay, Cari Moskow, and Jon Ripley, the group continues to tickle Wilmingtonians’ funny bones.

Until last year, the comedic clan took over the basement of Soapbox every Wednesday night at 9 p.m., providing enough laughs to land them in the number one spot for 2013. Despite a move to the second floor of The Reel Cafe, following the Soapbox’s close, the barrels of laughter keep on rolling for the troupe in 2014. Admission for their show is always free, the only request is that attendees come ready to throw suggestions for scenes at the comedians. Each night consists of long and short form interactive improv games.

A quick wit and an aptitude for comedic timing ensures each show is top-notch. Each member holds a niche—such as Jon Ripley’s specialty as foreign accent master—which, when combined, culminate in uproarious entertainment.

Not just limited to the stage at the Reel Cafe, several members of the troupe recently took the stage for the Cape Fear Wine and Chocolate Festival held last month. The year 2014 will see the troupe making similar appearances throughout the port city. For those keeping tabs on the improv group check out their website, http://nutthouseimprov.com.

Splitting sides in second and third place are Best of Awards hosts Pineapple Shaped Lamps and Comically Impaired.

POOL HALL

Billiards and beer go together like peanut butter and jelly. Nights spent at the low-key, hole-in-the-alley, Mecca of hipster-dom that is BLUE POST BILLIARDS are typically spent chalking pool cues between swigs of beer. Patrons line-up shots, hoping the copious amounts of reasonably priced ale they’ve imbibed won’t affect their ability to assess spatial relationships too much. If the shot goes awry that’s OK, Blue Post is in the business of creating good nights of friendly competition.

Serving as testimony for Blue Post’s superiority in pool, the establishment plays host to one of the oldest continuing pool leagues in the city. A laid-back vibe that encourages patrons to take a load off after a hard day at work or let loose on the weekend keeps customers coming back for more.

For those not interested in pool their arcade room in the back sends bar frequenters back to their youth, with an alcohol infused twist. The bar boasts everything from air hokey to skee ball. As well, drink specials and a welcoming atmosphere are just two of the many ways Blue Post keep regulars feeling that special connection to the establishment.

Racking up in second and third place are Orton’s Pool Hall and Break Time Billiards.

LIVE MUSIC VENUE

Having recently opened in July of 2013, Wilmington’s Best Local Live Music Venue, ZIGGY’S BY THE SEA, has already made an impact locally. Opening as an expansion of an already renowned sister venue, Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem, NC, it’s hosted everyone from The Misfits to Cracker to Jason Isbell and Holly Williams.

Ziggy’s by the Sea spans over two floors, offering ample standing room and a large open space to amplify sound. As well, two fully-stocked bars, one upstairs and one downstairs, provide drinks to accentuate one’s concert experience. Located on the corner of Second Street and Market, it populates downtown Wilmington with concert-goers all throughout the week.

Not only does Ziggy’s keep ears perked with talented performers, but the venue also became an integral component for our long-standing film festival, Cuclaorus, in the fall of 2013. Visual soundwalls came alive on screens hung throughout the establishment. Their spacious first floor dance or listening area facilitated a parachute game. As well, Ziggy’s housed the festival’s midnight brunch.

Further broadening its horizons, the downtown fixture held a watching party for local independent filmmaker Brannigan Carter’s two short films, “Get Up” and “Southern Iron,” this past October.

Ziggy’s will host California band The Mowgli’s at the end of this month and “Crazy Bitch” rockers Buckcherry in April. The experiences the nightlife visionaries have already brought Wilmington even garnered a nod in the Best Thing To Happen To Wilmington in 2013 category.

Rocking into second and third place are Brooklyn Arts Center and Greenfield Lake Amphitheater.

KARAOKE

Belting out “Don’t Stop Believing,” “I Will Survive,” or a top-40 hit with no regard for being in the right key or even singing the right lyrics shines as an American pastime. In operation for 31 years, KATY’S GRILL AND BAR affords patrons a weekly opportunity to belt out tunes on Friday nights from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m., and hit (or not) whatever note they choose.

Finding its footing in a time when chain restaurants were less of a strong arm than they are today, Katy’s introduced karaoke nights as a way to keep customers interested. Their grub and 40-plus craft beers maintain loyal patronage. The bar and grill serves up everything from seafood to wings to fried pickles and okra. However, karaoke night proves itself to be a strong pull for locals.

The locals revel in a familiar atmosphere wherein every customer is treated like family. Regulars see familiar faces in bar-keeps and other returning regulars. Their patio and bar areas allow people to freely mingle while performers take the stage.

Second and third are Bank’s Channel Pub and Grille and Browncoat Pub and Theatre.

ARCADE ROOOM

The sound of a pinball blasting off into a maze of trickery gets the heart racing and the blood pumping. No matter how old you are, the allure of an old-fashioned arcade can’t be denied. Wilmingtonians turn to JUNGLE RAPIDS when appeasing their inner-child.

The arcade rounds out the fun to be had at the water park, which also includes go-kart racing, laser tag, miniature golf, and a rock-climbing wall. Offering over 100 arcade and redemption games, the arcade prioritizes size and variety. Whether one’s poison be the classics, shooters, racing, skill games, or pinball, countless hours of fun will surely come to any customer of the game room. Be forewarned, some games come with the risk of addiction.

Arcade manager Doug Bryant stays well versed in the evolution of games. He ensures that the best games in the country find their way to Wilmington residents. Open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays through Thursdays, and until midnight over the weekend. Gamers can pick and choose the time that’s most convenient for them—or their children, so they claim.

Dispensing redeemable tickets in second and third place are Blue Post Billiards and Ten Pin Alley.

DANCE CLUB

Happy feet walk the streets of Wilmington, knowing that they can tap their toes with a rooftop view at LEVEL 5 AT CITY STAGE. Every Friday and Saturday night locals can rip up the dance floor to the beats dropped by Wilmington’s Best DJ, DJ Battle.

Located on the fifth floor of the former Masonic temple, theatre-goers catching a show at City Stage can keep the good vibes flowing with libations and pulsating dance music. DJ Battle possesses a passion for music—if you can name it he’ll spin it. Everything from hip-hop (old and new school), EDM, reggae, funk, or R&B can be heard permeating the dance floor over the weekend.

Populating dance floors in second and third place are Ibiza and Pravda/Sputnik.

—Christian Podgaysky

Food & Beverage

RESTAURANT OVERALL * THAI * ATMOSPHERE

For 13 years, Solange Thompson has packed her family-owned restaurant INDOCHINE to the gills with local foodies just vying for a nibble of their famed soups at lunch (the build-your-own is pure magic on a cool day) or a huge helping of their delightful pork panang curry for dinner. The menu runs vast in Vietnamese and Thai cuisine, Thompson’s homeland. Wilmington, NC, is her adopted home—but one she is grateful for finding—especially considering the connections she’s made to her customers, whom she considers royalty quite literally.

“I always tell my staff, ‘The customer is king,’” she notes. “It’s a saying that I really believe in and philosophy that I use to drive my business.”

Seemingly, it works. Indochine’s parking lot is always in overflow mode, especially during dinner hours. Folks find the eclectic and beautifully decorated restaurant at 7 Wayne Drive an escape from the norm of Wilmington’s culinary scene. Thompson’s numerous travels back home have allotted her an amazingly colorful collection of Vitenamese and Thai artifacts, which drape every corner of the dining area. And the outdoor garden literally is pure magic, landscaped with the most regal tropical flora, a pond, bridges, and hand-crafted cabanas to elevate outdoor dining to new levels of comfort.

“The garden is our most popular attraction,” Thompson admits, “and its popularity makes it difficult to accommodate the growing demand for seating, so we would like to expand.”

Indochine has won well over a decade now in Best Thai, Best Restaurant Overall, Atmosphere. Yet, annually, during Best Of time, she never takes the awards for granted. “It thrills me to know that we are still relevent in our community,” she notes. “I use these awards to make Indochine better so that we are worthy of such acknowledgment from the public.”

2014 will see a few menu updates as well. Thompson promises to keep with the buy local trend, something she says her diners are growing more concerned with. “Much of our produce is grown here in NC and bought from local vendors,” she explains. As well, she will continue adapting to specialty diets, to reach out to various clientele. “We put a lot of effort in trying to understand food source and healthful options for our customers,” she says. “We work hard to ensure we are very knowledgeable in current food trends such as gluten free and vegan diets.”

Other restaurants ranking among Best Atmosphere include Dockside and The Little Dipper; Best Restaurant Overall nominees include Manna and Port Lane Grille; while Best Thai goes to Thai Spice and Big Thai.

FRENCH RESTAURANT

For the first time in more than a decade, we have a new winner for Best French Restaurant on our annual encore reader’s poll. Having ranked in the top three for quite some time now, BRASSERIE DU SOLEIL whisks its way to the top in the 2014 Best Of.

Situated in Lumina Station, off Eastwood Road, near Wrightsville Beach, the quaint and cozy spot makes for the perfect date night, a meetup with friends, or even a lunch gathering. In fact, Brasserie has been hailed for their “build your own” salads, which come with a multitude of toppings to choose from. Paired with their onion soup gratinée, it becomes a delightful midday feast.

Whether dining on their spinach-and-brie crêpe or mussels mariniere and frites or country pâté (made fresh daily and served with cornichons, mustard and baguette), the outcome always sates the appetite. The restaurant also offers a slew of side dishes not to pass on, from carrot confit to haricot verts to boulangère potatoes.

Their daily specials can bring comfort, too. For instance, Monday nights serve up a hearty cassoulet, filled with beans, sausage, and duck confit. Saturday takes on beefier appetites with côte de bœuf, an Angus prime rib served with potato gratin and seasonal vegetables.

The Brasserie’s raw bar will appeal to pescatarians galore. Oysters, clams, mussels, and shrimp beckon diners for a taste of the fresh sea. And their appetizers shant be passed up either. The escargot is rich in decadence, while their charcuterie and fromage plates will make every night feel especially grand. A part of Ash Aziz’s Circa Restaurant Group, which includes Circa 1922 and Osteria Cicchetti (each winners on on our poll, too), Towne Tap and Grille and Boca Bay, Brasserie knows how to keep customers returning.

Other French restaurants ranking on our poll are Caprice Bistro and Our Crepes and More!

NEW RESTAURANT

Downtown’s famed Caffe Phoenix spot, at 9 N. Front Street, got a makeover in 2013 when it opened its doors as 9 BAKERY AND LOUNGE. Known for their freshly baked donuts, as well as breads and other sweets, they’ve become a hit on the dining circuit. For restaurants looking to serve the decadence from their bakery, they do wholesale orders, too. Yet, there’s more to 9 than a baker’s dozen.

9 bakery

NEW AND WINNING: Owner Matthew Schuler accepts his first win for 9 Bakery and Lounge as Best New Restaurant. Courtesy Sean Carr Photography

For breakfast, they serve hearty delights such as lump-crab benedict or stacks of whiskey French toast, made with their fresh cinammon-swirl bread. Lunch can be as wonderfully filling thanks to homemade bread bowls of soup or their banh mi, made with crispy pork belly, cilnatro pesto, pickled carrots and sriracha mayo.

Dinner makes any ordinary evening an inviting affair. Their dining room’s dark wood, light paintings, and cozy bar offer a romantic getaway. Their mixologists can churn out a slew of delightful imbibes, and their dinner menu will not disappoint. Their appetizer of fried oyster taste like heaven thanks to a lime-zest cilantro and sriracha remoulade. They have cold tapas plates to enjoy among friends, including cheese and charcuterie, plus they do larger entrées for heartier appetites.

Pembroke’s (Rx’s sister restaurant at the Forum), as well as Niche rank second and third respectively.

ITALIAN RESTAURANT

Now with two locations serving Wilmington—at the Forum off Military Cutoff and in front of the Walmart shopping plaza in Monkey Junction off S. College Road—OSTERIA CICCHETTI spreads their brand to feed even greater masses. The customers dig in on fresh made pizzas, topped with gourmet cheeses (fontinella, parmigiana and fresh mozzerella) and a host of different flavors, like tomato, arugula and prosciutto on their Parma. Lunch offers a bounty of sandwiches (the chicken pesto panini remains a personal favorite), as well as combinations of soup and salad, or salad and pizza or soup and sandwich.

Dinnertime is as much of a wonderful affair at the OC. Number one, the prices here are so reasonable for the quality and service. Attentive waiters and waitresses stay resolute to help but not hover. While folks can order pizzas again, the pasta selections will tempt otherwise. Their rigate melanzane comes overflowing with shell-shaped pasta, eggplant, fontina, mozzerella, and pomodoro. Their piccata, whether chicken, veal, or fish, will perk up the cheeks with its butter, lemon, and caper sauce. Diners would be smart to always ask about the fish of the day here, too, as its preparation usually satisfies beyond measure.

However, passing up on their antipastis would be a grave mistake. Their bruschette of fontina and fig hits the perfect spot, as do their beets and ricotta salad, and their white bean spread. Of course, formaggi boards and salumi plates take the Italian experience to its greatest heights, especially when paired with a bottle or caraffe of OC’s large selection of reasonably priced wines. Just leave room for dessert. Their bread pudding will be stuck in your taste memory for days on end.

Other Italian spots delighting our readers include Roko and Taste of Italy.

OYSTERS

“Oysters, oysters, oysters—you can have our oysters raw, steamed, Southwest, Rockefellar, Imperial, Scampi, Oscar and the list goes on and on,” Louise Forbes-Simpson, owner of DOCK STREET OYSTER BAR with partner Steve Maillard, says.

Since 1999 the duo has made the downtown dining establishment a seasonal hit. They focus on fresh and local, as well as simplicity and innovation in the preparation of their seafood. It’s no wonder they’ve taken home the Best of for 14 years in a row now. “When oysters are not in season, we work with local purveyors to ensure quality of product brought in from other areas,” Forbes-Simpson ensures. “We taste-test every batch to ensure quality.”

The restaurant offers a boatload of other seafood items as well, such as appetizers of sesame-ginger calamari and crab-r-roni, which is the classic mac ‘n’ cheese doused with tons of fresh crab meat, topped off with bacon and horseradish. They also feature salads, like their chef’s blend of greens with raspberry-marinated shrimp, scallops, and calamari. And they have steamers galore, featuring shrimp, snow crab legs, mussels, clams, and clams.

Of course, the oysters are what shine. But don’t expect to indulge in them fried; Forbes and Mallard focus on grilled and steamed seafood for healthier options.

“I like my oysters chilled and freshly shucked with a mist of lemon, a dot of our own Dock Street Peri Peri hot sauce and an ice-cold beer!” Forbes-Simpson notes. “Life is good when you think outside the shell!”

Others shucking into the nominations are Shuckin’ Shack and Hieronymus.

HOT DOGS

July may be National Hot Dog eating month in the states but in Wilmington every month deserves its celebration thanks to THE TROLLY STOP, which continues its run as Best Hot Dog on encore’s reader’s poll for over a decade now. Around 150 million hot dogs get consumed annually by Americans; locally folks can top their Trolly dogs in over 1,000 ways. The shop sells all-beef, pork, vegetarian, gluten-free, and even fat-free varieties, along with 13 toppings.

Their specialty menu always makes it easy for folks to order who may have a hard time deciding how to build the perfect dog. The NC version remains a classic staple, with deli mustard, chili, and slaw, the latter two toppings all made in-house daily. The Wrightsville Beach also garners a large following with jalapenos, melted cheese and deli mustard, while Old Baldy will offer tang in every bite thanks to deli mustard, Trolly Stop’s own special (spicy) sauce, onions, and diced tomatoes.

If folks aren’t in a dog kinda mood when visiting one of their four local stores (Wrightsville Beach, downtown, Fountain Drive, or Southport), they can choose from two hamburger selections, along with nachos, grilled pimiento cheese sandwiches, or classic ham and cheese. They serve sides of homemade baked beans, french fries, bagged chips, as well as cookies, ice cream, and shakes to round out the perfect all-American meal.

Other hot dog joints recognized for their attention to deliciousness include PT’s Olde Fashioned Grille and Paul’s Place.

STEAK

THE PORT CITY CHOP HOUSE is a NC chain of steak restaurants, which have locations in Raleigh, High Point, and Wilmington. Locally, it’s reigned the prime cut in encore’s Best Steak for numerous years. 2014 holds no exception.

Located at 1981 Eastwood Road, Port City Chop House welcomes diners for lunch and dinner. Their restaurant offers indoor seating as well as al fresco dining on their patio with an outdoor fireplace.

Their corporate chef, Matthew Kahrs, a Greensboro native, oversees the quality and excellence over every dish served among the trifecta of eateries. This means only the best in seafood, chops, and steaks is delivered, whether ordering their well-known blue crab bisque and bistro salad at lunch or a cowboy ribeye for dinner.

Each steak at Port City Chop House comes center cut from Stockyards Anghus Beef, each aged to develop its specific flavor at maximum tenderness. Among popular steak dishes is the filet mignon and T-bone, served a la carte and with the options of add-ons, such as their Oscar rendition, served with steamed crabmeat, asparagus and bearnaise sauce.

Wilmington’s location comes prized for its seafood, as well. Lobster tail, Chilean sea bass, salmon and crab cakes are only a few items titillating diners’ palates daily. While rack of lamb, pork loin chops, duck breast, and other poultry items also round out the menu, among a slew of side dishes expectant of the most classic steak houses, including creamed spinach, potato gratin, cabernet mushrooms and more.

Other steak houses chopping onto the block are Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Outback.

WINE LIST

With over 50 glasses offered and 350 hand-selected bottles, wine is the mainstay at THE FORTUNATE GLASS. For three years now, the downtown wine bar and eatery has scored encore’s Best Wine List, thanks to oenophiles who trust the custom selection made by owners Celeste Glass and Denise Fortuna.

After extensive travels and tasting food and wines worldwide, the two opened The Fortunate Glass in 2010. Since they’ve earned Wine Spectactor Awards of Excellence but continue pouring the best thanks to offering a distinctive selection across all price ranges. They offer tasting and full pours, whether craving a rose from Cotes de Provence, and Oregon pinot noir, or a fume blanc from Napa Valley.

“We thought it would be nice to own a bar that reflects our tastes,” Glass told encore in 2011.

Their wine is stored in a state-of-the-art wine preservation system, the N2Vin, as its none, so it’s always kept at the best temperature to serve, no matter the flavor.

The hideaway, decorated with dark wood and nooks to make any outing more intimate, embarks on free wine tastings every Tuesday night from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. They feature sparkling wine specials and discounts on bottles every Wednesday and Thursday, plus they also hold monthly food and wine pairing events. In fact, their kitchen menu will make the perfect night of bites and sips complete, whether ordering from their small plates featuring prosciutto and mellon or the seasonal soup du jour, as well as from over a dozen global cheeses and Italian cured meats.

Folks who wish to diverge from the wine menu can enjoy a selection from 30 craft beers.

Other wine lists our readers enjoy to drink from include Circa 1922 and Manna.

FINE DINING

When CIRCA 1922 opened over a decade ago, folks were flocking to its upscale and inviting historic space in droves. Fast-forward to today: Nothing’s changed.

The space is lush in luxury, from exposed bricks offering historic appeal, and the metal bank vault and overhead beams still in place from the building’s days of yore. Dark wood, ornate gold mirrors, and artwork of turn-of-the-century life strikes a cozy chord with diners.

Owner Ash Aziz transformed the restaurant and continues mandating high expectations by keeping its menu creatively changing and making sure his staff pays the utmost care toward excellence in service and knowledge of food and wine. The menu explores small plates from around the world, made to eradicate the idea that quantity equals greatness. In fact, at Circa quality takes precedence. Tapas mandates folks eat free from rules, ordering a little bit of everything to share and indulge upon.

From starters of beef carpaccio or fresh local oysters, to cheese and charcuterie, to grilled and quail or duck, sushi and sashimi, and even paella, the offerings run the gamut of flavor and country. Circa’s large platters suit parties perfectly and their weekly prix-fixe menu offers a first, second and third course for only $22 a person. Plus, they offer a steal of a bar menu Monday through Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. for $5 on select offerings. Their wine list takes no shortcut either. Buy by the glass, carafe or bottle accordingly, with over 25 selections, and over 75 choices worldwide by the bottle.

Other fine dining eateries topping our poll include Manna and Portland Grille, while wine lists diners love to indulge upon also include The Fortunate Glass and Wilmington Wine.

BAKERY

With two locations serving Wilmington (one off 837 S. Kerr Avenue and the other at 1121-1 Military Cutoff Road), APPLE ANNIE’S BAKE SHOP remains a local institution in all things bread, cake, cookies, and pastries.

The store has been serving locals for over two decades now, hailing as the neighborhood bakery where every birthday or anniversary comes with decadent bites of flavor. Whether searching for 3-D cakes, digital imaging, cupcakes, or wedding creations, as well as seasonal pies and more, Apple Annie’s ups the ante on the proverbial sweet tooth. Plus, their breads transform normal sandwiches into bliss, which is why many local restaurants turn to them to fulfill wholesale orders.

With today’s specialty diets trending, Apple Annie’s also manages gluten-free varieties in bread and sweets. Likewise, they customize any order to one’s specific needs.

Other bakeries rising on our poll include Sweet ‘n’ Savory and 9 Bakery and Lounge.

CATERING

MIDDLE OF THE ISLAND is a name recognizable among Wilmingtonians mainly from the restaurant it used to be, housed right over the bridge at Wrightsville Beach. Once it closed its doors, it kept its catering business alive, as to not bleed the locals of their cravings for country cooking and more.

Noted on its website as “the largest catering company, specializing in seafood and Southern buffets,” just last year MOI, as they’ve become favorably coined, did more than 2,000 caterings. They fill the bellies of attendees at church dinners, company picnics, corporate functions, weddings, and fund-raisers, and even large events. In fact, one that stands out in owner C.M. Rogers’ mind actually was an out-of-state gig.

“It took place in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin,” Roger notes. “It wasn’t easy to work out the logistics of feeding 14,000 so far from home base.”

Their menus vary so every palate is covered. Folks can enjoy a a full-on Southern buffet with pulled pork, fried chicken, chicken pot pie, mac ‘n’ cheese, biscuits, and more; or they can go with a showcase of prime rib, pork tenderloin, tilapia, panang curry chicken, tons of veggies, and desserts. They have packages set up for folks to choose from, or they can help custom create orders, too.

“We treat every event we do, from super casual to high end, the same, as all functions are important,” Rogers says.

Plus, MOI staff will travel within a 400-mile radius to get the job done. Whereas they have drop-off service for smaller group functions—office lunches, rehearsal dinners, etc.—they go full out for larger groups with state-of-the-art equipment which keeps the dedicated to quality control.

Oh, and did I mention they also to a Backyard Burger Shack? Yep, that can turn any spring- or summertime barbecue, as well as birthday party or anniversary celebration, into a memorable soiree. Folks interested in finding out more can log on to their website at www.middleoftheisland.com.

Other caterers supplying the best off-premise food to our community include Pine Valley Market and Bon Appetit. —Shea Carver

MEXICAN RESTAURANT

Mexican restaurants whisk Wilmingtonians away to tropical locales as they chow down on a taco or burrito and imbibe tasty margaritas. Topping the list for their inaugural win in Best Mexican food is K38 BAJA GRILL. Located on Oleander Dr. and cut from the same cloth as Wrightsville Beach eateries, Tower 7, Las Olas, and Cafe Del Mar, K38 offers the freshest ingredients and the perfect in-town getaway.

Established since 1993, the taco purveyors were inspired during a surf trip in Mexico. The surfers indulged in some of the finest fish tacos they had ever eaten, solidifying the birth of K38. Ever since the tastes of down south have been tantalizing the taste-buds of locals.

The Baja grill offers savory selections galore. The tacos in a blanket comes in the form of one chicken and one beef hard-shelled taco, topped with salsa verde, and served in a grilled flour tortilla complete with refried pinto beans, lettuce, cheese, salsa fresco, and sour cream. Remaining true to the fish tacos that began the endeavor, Mahi, tuna, and shrimp can also be found on the menu. As well, the fried goodness of the sizzling fajitas entice palates. The expansive menu also boasts a host of vegetarian options.

Satiating appetites for the second and third are El Cerro Grande and La Costa.

WINGS * WAITSTAFF

Port City residents retain the luxury of having so many unique, innovative restaurants from which to choose. One such eatery comes in the form of THE COPPER PENNY, which holds the honors of Wilmington’s Best Waitstaff and Wilmington’s Best Wings.

The Olde English themed pub and food spot comes complete with dated-wood tables and atmospheric lighting that makes diners feel as though they’ve stepped into a yester-century—with modern conveniences, of course. However, their wings manage to stand out as a favorite for locals.

The wing recipe has been a family tradition for years and we’re always exploring new ways to make our sauces stand out,” owner Andrew Devoid explains.

One can order their wings with buffalo, spicy garlic, habanero, honey chipotle, or BBQ sauce. The savory sauces moisten the already tender pieces of chicken and will perfectly complement the beer of one’s choosing. As with all of their selections, the wings and sauces are made from the best ingredients. Offered as a starter, the wings are the perfect item to share amongst friends.

As well, the appetizer will be served by some of Wilmington’s friendliest faces. Service with a smile can be a rarity in the restaurant industry, so to garner notoriety for consistently top-notch employees comes as no easy feat.

“We really strive to hire friendly people who can relax and enjoy themselves at work,” Devoid says. “Our atmosphere promotes teamwork and we want our employees to be comfortable conversing with their tables.”

The Copper Penny’s staff is never short on smiles or enthusiasm when taking orders. They routinely check in with restaurant frequenters throughout their dining experience, ensuring no request goes unattended.

On the platter for second and third for Best Wings are Wild Wing Cafe and Buffalo Wild Wings. The Basics and Ruth’s Chris Steak House duke it out for second and third in Best Waitstaff.

VEGETARIAN * SUSHI * JAPANESE

From their plethora of sushi rolls to their tempura options, Best Vegetarian, Japanese, and Sushi goes to NIKKI’S GOURMET AND SUSHI.

Owned and operated by Andy and Johnny Chen, the first location opened up over 10 years ago in 2003. The duo ventured into the restaurant business after years of versing themselves with the art of sushi. Learning of the high demand for their craft the two opened up shop and have since expanded to open a location at Independence Mall, Carolina Beach, and Racine Drive. As well, they’ve established a Hibachi Steakhouse under the same name on Military Cutoff.

The freshest seafood and ingredients enhance the menu, transcending the traditional dining experience. Nikki’s selections includes a plethora of vegetarian options, ranging from their veggie burger, black bean burger, or tofu burger, to the tempeh gyro, to the falafel hummus wrap. For people looking for a more traditional Japanese option, the grilled tofu mixed with vegetables and teriyaki sauce constitutes the perfect option.

As well, sushi comes in rolls boasting avocado, asparagus, sweet potato, or zucchini—each embodying a rich, crunchy texture. Nikki’s sushi menu includes a variety of specialty rolls, too. The Vanilla Gorilla Roll comes thick and spicy, featuring cream cheese and jalapeno. Sweetened with mango, but grounded in crab, fish roe, and scallions is the So Far So Goooood roll. Each roll comes with its own distinctive flavor—one hasn’t truly experienced Nikki’s until trying them all.

Nikki’s also offers a teriyaki and tempura menu. Those with bigger appetites can choose between a number of bento box dinners. Ranging from chicken to salmon to shrimp, to name a few, the boxes come with a four piece California roll, three pork dumplings, an edamame pea pod, and white rice.

Coming in at second and third for Best Vegetarian are Lovey’s Market and Epic Food Company. On the hibachi in second and third for best Japanese are Hiro and YoSake. Rolling into second and third for best Sushi are Bento Box and YoSake.

ICE CREAM/FROZEN DESSERT

A scoop of homemade ice cream and a leisurely stroll along the riverfront during warmer months comes easy with Wilmington’s Best Ice Cream/ Frozen Dessert, KILWIN’S. The aroma from their heated waffle cones dares passerbys to enter their Market Street location and satisfy their sweet-tooth.

Established in 1947, the creamery has been dolling out scoops of their original-recipe ice cream. Locals can revel in sugary bliss at the Wilmington location by indulging in one of Kilwins’ signature ice creams and topping it with rich, smooth fudge or carmel. Eating one’s selection before it melts is made easy by the explosion of flavor held in each spoonful or lick.

Heated in a copper kettle, sweet corns and brittles are made on site. As well, patrons can see the Mackinac Island fudge paddled on marble tables. Their flavors skyrocket one back to simpler times with the familiar tastes of childhood.

Scooped into the second and third spot are last year’s winner Fuzzy Peach and Boombalatti’s.

INDIAN RESTAURANT

Locals can nom on naan bread or chow down on a spicy curry dish at TANDOORI BITES, located opposite Hugh MacRae Park. With a vast menu showcasing 74 dishes from which to choose, Wilmington’s Best Indian food purveyor has it all.

Selections consist of chicken, lamb, goat, or seafood. As well, a full vegetarian menu can also be found in the menu. Each option is authentic and radiates flavor with each bite. A stand-out option for vegetarians comes in the Bhindi Masala—freshly cooked okra combined with onions, ginger, tomatoes, and spices. Each bite leaves the taste buds salivating for more.

Tandoori’s curry options also constitute a detectible treat to write home about. Besides the well-known curry variety, diners can also feast on styles, such as masala, jalfrezi, saag, and vindaloo. Tandoori Bites is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with their lunch buffet—which even got a Best Of nod—and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner. On Saturday and Sunday lunch begins at 11:30 a.m., and lasts until 5 p.m. Affordable prices and consistent excellence keep customers coming back time and time again.

Other local haunts offering quality Indian cuisine are India Mahal and Indochine.

—Christian Podgaysky

Humanitarian & Environmental

ENVIRONMENTAL GROUP

Kemp Burdette is quick to say he has the best job in the world. At his hands is the upkeep of our treasured Cape Fear River. The Riverkeeper leads encore’s Best Environmental Group, CAPE FEAR RIVER WATCH, for the second year running. And, boy, are Burdette’s hands busier than ever these days.

“Recently, there has been a lot of public attention on coal ash, but we’ve been working on this issue for years,” Burdette informs.

The organization has pressured Duke Energy to clean the ponds, and even sued them last year for contaminating groundwater and Sutton Lake. “We will continue to push for clean-up of these hazardous waste-filled pits that sit right on the Cape Fear River,” Burdette notes.

In fact, up and down the river, industrial-scale factory-farms continue polluting with animal waste regularly released into our waterways. Burdette works closely with the county’s zoning ordinance. “We will be working to make sure [it] stays strong and allows the public to have a voice in decisions to bring heavy, and highly polluting, industry to our densely populated county.”

Likewise, the Cape Fear River Watch fights for restoring migratory fishing populations. They’ve just completed a half-acre spawning habitat for American shad on the Cape Fear River, just below Elizabethtown. All of it focuses toward one goal: that a healthy river and environment fuels a healthy economy.

“In fact our economy depends on the river and the environment,” Burdette says. “If we don’t do a better job of protecting and improving the river, we will kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Short-term economic gains at the expense of clean water will lead to long-term and permanent economic ruin for our community.”

The river watch leads programs galore throughout the community annually. They host an educational seminar and breakfast at their headquarters at 617 Surry Street every first Saturday of the month. They even cook a free pancake breakfast for attendess. On the second Saturday, they do an open clean-up, wherein community members gather to help collect trash at a set destination. On the third Saturday through November they host paddles on a local waterway.

“Each one is different and each one explores a unique part of the river,” Burdette says. “We rely on our community in many ways. Much of the work we do is only possible because of volunteers.’

Memberships are $25 annually. CFRW also depends on eyes of the public to help spot problematic areas throughout the year. “Most of the incidents that we respond to are first reported by citizens who see something that just doesn’t look right—and they call to report it,” Burdette says. “We stopped a sewer spill not long ago this way.”

Other environmental groups marching onto our poll include the Stop Titan Action Network and the Surfrider Foundation.

NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION

THE GOOD SHEPHERD CENTER focuses on feeding the hungry and providing shelter to the homeless. In 2013, they served 743 unique individuals, all of whom include a majority of males (65 percent), 43 percent of which are veterans and 39 percent of which are persons with disabilities. Of that number 80 percent are over the age of 25. The programs Good Shepherd offers remain vital to seeing people aren’t only cared for with basic necessities but that they’re given hope even when all the chips seem to be down.

They run a soup kitchen, a day shelter (which offers clothing, address and phone access), a night shelter that sleeps 118 men, women and families, a medical clinic serving 100 people a month and provide medications to around 50, as well as their “Second Helpings” program which collects and redistrubutes over 400 tons of food per year.

“There are two social workers on staff who work with the guests to help with employment and rehousing,” Janet Knott, associate development director, says. “The Ashley Center provides an 18-month program of transitional support and housing for veterans with substance abuse issues, in addition to permanent supportive housing for up to six graduates of the program.”

The Good Shepherd naturally depends on volunteers (2,240 hours, to be specific), food contributions, and monetary donations to keep them afloat. They’re the beneficiary of a number of fund-raisers throughout the year, too, including their biggest coming up on April 7th, the Landfall Golf Tournament. “We hold three fund-raisers each year,” Knott say. “We love ‘third-party’ events where individuals or groups hold events to benefit us—such as the recent Bowling for Backpacks event.”

They also receive a small amount of government funding. Yet, the community give-back really strikes the strongest chord on Knott’s heart strings. “We have staff who work closely—step by step—with those in need,” she says. “I am so proud to live in a community that is so generous with their time, talents, and of course donations to support those in our community who are fragile and need assistance. Being recognized by voters means we are touching lives in a way that works, and again, that is thanks to so many people.”

Other nonprofits doing good and taking notice from our voters are C.A.R.E. and Nourish NC.

READ LAST WEEK’S WRITE-UPS HERE

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