“Shut up liver, you’re fine.”
As I saw these words scrawled across a friend’s T-shirt one Sunday Funday at Anne Bonny’s—the barge bar on the Cape Fear River—I realized it was a pretty accurate description of Wilmington’s feelings toward Water Street’s newest hot spot.
With the downtown riverfront being one of the most popular destinations for tourists and locals alike, we’ve all breezed by the two cylinders holding up the “Welcome to The Barge” banner. As someone who loves being as close to the water as possible—even though the former River Grill on the Barge wasn’t necessarily a social hub—I still appreciated being able to grab a cold canned beer, crinkle-cut fries and hot dog smack dab on the river. No, really—forget waterfront dining; the River Grill was literally a bar floating on the river. Ultimately, though, it needed a makeover.
When I jogged by one early June afternoon and caught a glimpse of the tiki hut décor, draft system, and Jamaican-esque color scheme slathered onto the restaurant’s exterior, I knew we were in for something good. When I learned several of the hands helping the project along belonged to those behind the success of Second Street’s Tavern Law, I planned on camping out until opening day.
First things first: fruity drinks. Don’t worry, we’ll chat all about items on the non-liquid menu, but I believe in always starting with a cocktail. There’s a typical range of libations at Anne Bonny’s and since this is a prime drinking location, here’s a rundown:
For folks that don’t like to taste the liquor in their drinks, the frozen concoctions are the ticket. Remember those Fred Flintstone orange push-pops? Welp, try a Dreamsicle: an orange-vodka-vanilla-ice-cream combo—totally a worthwhile brain freeze. The Frozen Rosé is also a frothy delight.
Beer-wise, AB carries a little bit of everything: ice-cold Modelo cans (which are occasionally a Sunday special); rotating Waterline and Bill’s taps for local flavors; and Wicked Weed for hop-loving-IPA nerds like myself. As far as the ratio for standard mixed drinks, I can say from personal experience one Tito’s and soda will quickly course-correct a hangover. God bless the heavy-handed bartenders of the world.
Obviously, the tropical oasis (with the addition of frequent live music) makes for an idyllic watering hole any day of the week. Since AB stepped up a notch from the short lineup of burgers and ice cream River Grill offered, where does it stand as a restaurant?
Let’s talk food.
If anyone actually has ever stepped onto the dock at Anne Bonny’s, they’ve likely spied their most popular menu item: soft pretzel that’s bigger than the human head. The Ship’s Wheel Pretzel—which arrives in a pizza box—is without a doubt AB’s top-selling app. Freshly baked and generously dusted with crunchy sea salt, the warm, yeasty treat is an epic pairing with a frosty brew. Two words of advice: First, find friends to help conquer it; don’t be a hero. Two, order double cheese. Pretzels and mustard are a matchmade in heaven, so don’t opt out of the spicy Dijon sauce—but the small cup of gloriously melty queso will disappear faster than anyone’s ability to make good choices.
Although I’ve admittedly become quite the regular, when I came in undercover, I chose to expand my food order to get a feel for AB’s full spectrum. Fried pickle chips were a newer addition but unfortunately a miss. The one-note texture led me to believe they weren’t freshly fried, but potentially frozen and out of a bag. Also, I’m a sucker for homemade ranch, and AB’s isn’t up to that challenge yet. (Go for the pretzel instead.)
Entrée-wise I had tasted the burger and hot dog (get it with the cheese sauce). Both were solid for bar food—especially the well-seasoned crinkle fries—but I can’t give an honest review without referencing the following experience. On a Sunday lunch date with some friends, we placed an order for the cheeseburger. Not only did it come out nearly 45 minutes late, it was piled with the wrong toppings and our server was less than apologetic. I’m fairly certain she just forgot to put in the burger and then proceeded to not handle it well. But I’ll stamp this a one-off, as every other occasion (usually while seated at the bar) has been stellar. The bartenders are consistently friendly, quick and flawlessly remember the drinks that go along with each face.
The baskets are on the pricey side, but customers get a good amount of bang for their buck. Being able to order the shrimp grilled and blackened instead of fried was a smart move—and they were jumbo, tender and super flavorful. I spotted another newbie (ahoy, crab cakes!) and couldn’t turn them down. Inside the newspaper-lined basket were two generously sized round cakes, stuffed with loads of juicy crab and swirled with a spicy remoulade. Alongside, crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy in the middle fries, coleslaw, and a bright yellow half-cob of corn. The slaw was creamy, light and refreshing, and the corn was buttery and well-salted.
Folks solely dining, not drinking, will find Anne Bonny’s food is definitely decent, but not lifechanging. That being said, any small misses from the kitchen are easily forgiven, thanks to the vacation-like ambience, live background tunes, and epic pretzels with cheese. Even past tourist season, the pirate b-arrrrrrrg (sorry, I had to) is always-bustling and guarantees a damn good time.