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Best Of Wilmington

FOOD AND BEVERAGE: Best Of 2018 winners

beachbagels

EVERYTHING FOR THE WIN! The crew at Beach Bagels smile for their second win as Best Bagels on the encore poll. Photo courtesy of Beach Bagels

BEST BAGELS:

Beach Bagels – 57% votes

Best Bagels won the write-in category on last year’s readers’ poll with Beach Bagels taking home the inaugural accolade. They kept the title for Best Bagels in 2018, too.

“It is really an honor to have even been nominated two years in a row,” owner Tony Di Norcia says, “but to win both years is so wonderful. We attribute our success to never settling as a business. We won the Best Bagels award last year, but we didn’t stop working as hard after the win; we worked even harder. If we’ve made this much progress in just a few years, imagine what we can accomplish in three more.”

Already for 2018, they’ll be opening a third Beach Bagels in Monkey Junction. They’ve secured their permits and are in early stages of construction. They’ll also introduce a catering menu down the road in 2018 for customers looking to munch on signatures sandwiches at the office or special evens.

“On top of those two major things, we’re always looking for different charities to work with and are excited to team up with new groups,” Di Norcia adds. “We are currently updating our menu and will be adding ‘The Ultimate’ and ‘The Green Goddess.’ Both sandwiches were originally specials, but once we saw they were doing exceptionally well, we decided to add them to the menu.”

The Ultimate is a breakfast-inspired BLT with bacon, eggs over-easy, and cheese, while The Green Goddess comes with a hard-boiled egg, fresh mozzarella, pesto, lettuce, cucumbers, and avocado. Beach Bagels will continue to incorporate items normally not seen in a bagel shop as well. Not to mention each month will feature its own specials, with March’s being both “tasty and charitable.”

“We definitely like to go for bold and flavorful sandwiches,” Di Norcia promises. “This month we have our Bad to Bo Ne, which is essentially steak and eggs; the Stand Bahn Mi; and a tropical pineapple and mango cream cheese. All of the specials are Vietnamese themed, and for every special purchased, Beach Bagels will donate $1 to our local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in honor of National Vietnam War Veterans Day which is recognized on March 29.”

In an effort to perfect their menu, Beach Bagels switched produce vendors three times in the last year. They only will accept premium ingredients. However, it’s their baking process which make their rounds stand out. Carefully labor-intensive, it takes two to three hours daily for nearly 20 flavors—which other shops may forgo in order to produce much larger batches. Beach Bagels also doesn’t inject steam into the oven while the bagels are baking.

“While this efficiently cuts the production time down, it breaks away from custom and results in a non-traditional bagel,” Di Norcia explains. “Our bakers kettle-boil our bagels before baking them, which requires we bake in small batches. . . . The kettle-boiling then baking process allows us to produce a softer, puffier bagel. It truly is an artisan approach to making bagels.”

While Beach Bagels’ second win justifies their award-winning approach, Di Norcia is looking for different ways to make business better. He says it starts with listening to customers’ needs and wants.

“Everyone wants our customers to leave knowing their bagels and sandwiches were made keeping their satisfaction in mind,” he adds. “We love what we do and we are glad to know that people love it, too.”

Also baking up premium bagels on encore’s readers’ poll are Empire Deli and Bagel (30%) and Round (13%).

appleannies

HOW SWEET: Kristen Broome and Daniel Eiler accept the awards for Apple Annie’s. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

DESSERTS, BAKERY:

Apple Annie’s Bake Shop – 49% votes, 52% votes

Every year, readers pack on the poll with their favorite votes on sweets—because, really, who doesn’t have an opinion on sugar, flour, eggs, and butter (modified of course to suit whatever dietary needs one has), all blended to make the most perfect treat ever? Cookies. Cakes. Pies. Canolis. Cupcakes. Apple Annie’s Bake Shop has them all. More so, they have the winning recipes, as year after year, they take home both Best Desserts and Best Bakery categories.

“It such an honor for us,” marketing director Krissy Mingia says. “We are so lucky to be a part of our customers happiest life moments. Weddings, birthdays, baby showers, it means the world to us that we are chosen to help celebrate those occasions.”

And even when there isn’t a special occasion, AA has Wilmingtonians covered (in icing, hopefully), too. They offer a cupcake of the month, so anytime that stressful week comes to a head, a parking spot at their Kerr Avenue or Forum locations will be open.

“In February it was a chocolate-covered strawberry cupcake, in honor of Valentine’s Day,” Mingia tells. “It was a chocolate cake with a strawberry buttercream icing, that was dipped in chocolate ganache. For March we had a chocolate stout cupcake with an Irish cream icing. The batter has stout beer in it, which gives the cake an extra chocolatey taste.”

The family-owned and -operated business is also run by veterans. Therefore, Annie’s works annually with charities that benefit veterans. Currently, they pride their work with the Mispo Project. “[It’s] an organization dedicated to empowering military spouses to become entrepreneurs and leaders in their community,” Mingia notes.  “We also deliver bags of goodies to every fire house and police headquarters each September to thank them for what they do. “

In business now for 33 years, they work with the finest ingredients for every order. We have been in business for over 33 years now. “We try to exceed the customers expectations every time they walk through the door,” Mingia tells. And they are now including quadrupeds into the mix.

“Our new handcrafted peanut-butter dog treats have been incredibly popular!” Mingia says. “But we have so many popular items; our eclairs are always a crowd favorite!  Our themed cookies are always popular, too. Right now we have shamrock cookies, big and small, for St. Patricks day.”

Other bakeries mixing in votes are One Belle Bakery (20%) and Sweet n Savory (28%), with dessert votes also going to The Little Dipper (23%) and Sweet n Savory Cafe (28%).

sliceoflife

TWO SLICES OF A WIN: The ladies from Slice of LIfe, Katy Joyner, Danielle Waller and Jacy Collins,accept two more wins in 2018 to add to the eatery’s already hefty collection. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

PIZZA, LATE-NIGHT EATERY:

Slice Of Life – 42% votes, 55% votes

When it comes to tequila, Ray Worrell, owner of Slice of Life, knows his agave nectar. In fact, while most folks find Slice of Life to be revered for its pizza, its tequila selection is vast, not to mention another section of its menu.

“Tequila for a long time has been my favorite,” Worrell tells. “It is almost like wine, with many different complexities. I guess one of the reasons why we have one of the largest tequila selections is half our menu serves Mexican items, such as quesadillas nachos and tacos.”

Though he’s not racking up Best Latin/Mexican, Slice is taking home Best Pizza and Best Late-Night Eatery for 2018. And they’ll be able to serve more people far and wide, as Worrell breaks ground on his Porters Neck location this year.

“It will stand alone but will have four other businesses next to it,” he tells. “In between the two buildings will be a really cool covered outdoor area.”

In other words, by 2019 (the restaurants 20-year anniversary nonetheless), Worrell’s eateries will surpass the 100,000 pounds of cheese they served in 2017. Whether heading to their flagship store downtown, their Monkey Junction shop or their Wrightsville Beach-area restaurant, the pie keeps diners happy, always—topped one of 20 ways from their long list of fresh ingredients. They’re open 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. every night of the week, too, and have special late-night menus.

“We use the best ingredients the best way we can,” Worrell says. They also have a loyalty card program which allows diners all sort of deals tracked on a points system. “It’s pretty simple,” Worrell tells, “for every $100 you spend with me, you get $10 back. It is built into our point-of-sale system to keep track of your purchases.”

A UNCW graduate who took over Slice in 2004, Worrell has grown and expanded his eateries while also giving back to the community. Today he focuses a lot of energy on ensuring area students are fed beyond mere school lunches, by serving on the board of Nourish NC. The nonprofit stuffs backpacks with food for kids who live in food deserts or don’t have access to nutritious meals outside of school hours. The end goal is to help kids feel empowered and succeed in the classroom and community at large.

Other pizza joints topping the list are Elizabeth’s Pizza (32%) and Brooklyn Pizza Company (26%), while late-night eateries taking votes are Jimbo’s (22%) and Front St. Brewery (23%)

WINGS:

Hell’s Kitchen – 37% votes

“The best part of my job is watching people have fun while enjoying great food, drinks and sports,” Hell’s Kitchen owner Eric Laut says. “I like to walk the tables and talk to our customers. You find out a lot about your business by talking to customers.”

However, Laut doesn’t need anyone to tell him his hot wings are on fire. Once again Hell’s Kitchen wings have flown to the top of our readers’ poll. The secret? Nothing has changed with their recipe, which includes a special outer coating. There is a touch of magic in the sauce, though.

“Paz, our prep lady, makes all of our sauces in house and has her personal touch of taking each hot sauce up a notch from Tame to hot, to fire and even to inferno!” Laut details. His personal favorite is to mix HK’s Buffalo garlic and teriyaki before his wings take a dip in house-made bleu cheese dressing.

“We have added some new [coatings] over the years, such as our award-winning savory dry rub,” he adds. “We plan on adding a few more when we come out with our spring menu.”

HK updated their menu recently to feature more of an upscale-burger selection and even Calabash seafood and vegan options. They now have vegan wings, burger, reuben, nachos, and more. Besides their award-winning wings and more expansive collection of burgers, Laut is partial to the HK Great Balls of Fryer (panko-breaded fritters made in house and offered in two ways: Philly cheesesteak or chicken jalapeno popper fritters).

“Also a huge favorite is our New York-style reuben,” he continues. “We take pride in slow cooking our Angus brisket in Guinness and fresh herbs for seven hours!”

Laut plans to debut a spring cocktail menu along with even more new food items, which folks can find on their website (www.hellskitchenbar.com) and Facebook page. It’s perfect timing as he prepares for a bit of “spring cleaning” of sorts. Inspired by Hell’s Kitchen garnering the first Wilmington Downtown Incorporated grant for façade repair, they’ll make improvements to their iconic space—often used for live music, comedy, open mics, and more—in March.

“It will still maintain the look it had during the filming of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and ‘One Tree Hill,’” Laut assures, “but restored to its original luster. We are adding wood to the stage and better sound dampening for the bands that play at Hell’s Kitchen.”

What won’t change, Laut says, is their major sports package offering patrons a chance to catch all their favorite teams and games. Not to mention they will continue their commitment to local charities and the community they call home. They worked with 26 charities in 2017 and look for sponsorship opportunities every year.

Also blazing the trail in Best Wings are Wild Wing Cafe (27%) and Buffalo Wild Wings (37%).

FINE DINING:

RX Restaurant – 36% votes

Castle Street in downtown Wilmington may be known as the Arts and Antique District, but one shouldn’t forget the award-winning dining that’s been parked on the corner of 5th and Castle and takes high praise for its Southern-inspired fare. Since opening in 2012, Rx Restaurant and Bar (421 Castle St.) and owner/head chef James Doss has collected a Best Of win in one category or another. This year Rx took home the accolade for Best Fine Dining. “We’re grateful encore readers voted for us and would like to thank our loyal customers and wonderful staff,” Doss tells us.

Rx embodies a great deal of what Castle Street is. Gourmet farm-to-table dinner menus, Sunday brunch, craft cocktails, beer and fine wines are among the main attractions, but the Rx experience is filled with local artist exhibitions. With each season change, community partnerships and working with family farms change, too.

“Rx has been environmentally conscious and responsible by focusing on using local, organic products and we are hoping to expand our efforts this year,” Doss explains. “Last year Sarah Rushing [who won Best Artist 2018 on our poll; more on that next week] organized a water-themed art show to benefit Cape Fear River Watch. We will be expanding on that this year with our local restaurant group, 40 EATS, and will hold a benefit dinner on April 8 with the other restaurants for Cape Fear River Watch as well.”

While Doss and company’s efforts help bring more awareness to issues and concerns, he wants to be a part of solutions even more so. Rx skips disposable straws to reduce the amount of plastics in our waterways and oceans.

With spring on the horizon, it is Doss’ favorite time to be a chef.  He is excited to feature Brussels sprouts from Cottle Organics right now on his menu. “There are new ingredients popping up every week so there will be several new favorites in the coming months,” he hints. “We’re always excited about spring and summer. Peas, strawberries, asparagus and even tomatoes are just around the corner. Also, we’re incorporating preserved ingredients, such as apple shrub and scuppernong vinegar,into our menu and cocktail list.”

Doss works closely with local farmers (Humble Roots, Black River and Red Beard to name a few) to plan his seasonal, weekly and even daily menus. In fact, weekly talks with farmers and producers, making orders, finding out what’s growing and what’s going on in their lives are the parts of his job. It’s less work when many partnerships are more like family and friends.

“We have some great food producers in the area but will be saying goodbye to the two we’ve known the longest,” Doss divulges. “It’s bittersweet, but Bill and Tina Moller have sold Nature’s Way Farm and Seafood and are retiring to Utah. We wish them a long and happy retirement but miss them already. We’re looking forward to working with the new owner, and lucky the Mollers passed their knowledge and farm on to the next generation.”

Rx Restaurant and Bar is open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday brunch from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., reservations can be made and updated menus found at www.rxwilmington.com.

Also serving exceptional fine-dining experiences in Wilmington are downtown’s Manna (34%) and PinPoint Restaurant (30%).

HOMEMADE SOUPS, LUNCH, SUB/SANDWICH SHOP:

Chops Deli – 56% votes, 45% votes, 54% votes

A chorus of “wow” is usually the response Chops Deli co-owner Brad Corpening hears when diners notice his local sammie shop’s collection of “e” awards. After continuously sweeping categories in Best Homemade Soups, Lunch and Sub/Sandwich Shop year after year—including 2018—a little shock and awe is well deserved.

“We’ve been very fortunate over the years to receive so much love and support from Wilmington,” Corpening says. “I also hope there’s an unspoken response, a comfort, when a customer comes in looking for a sandwich for lunch, or a soup, and sees those awards—like, ‘I’m in the right place.’”

“I share them with my staff this time every year,” he continues. “We celebrate the receipt of the awards and the confidence our customers have in us, which the awards represent. However, winning doesn’t mean we get to relax now and take it easy. Winning means we have a responsibility to prove we deserve the honor that we earned these accolades. So we’re gonna do just that everyday at Chops, making sandwiches and friends!”

Each year seems to bring something new for Chops, too—whether opening a new grill (Wrightsville Avenue) or diner (Castle Hayne), or simply adding new flavors to their Boar’s Head-based deli menus at their sandwich shops in downtown, Monkey Junction and Wrightsville Avenue. Aside from rapid expansion in recent years, Corpening and co-owner Chris Graham switched from counter to table service at their downtown locale in 2016. Their goal is always to keep up with quality products and service.

“As far as new things coming, I don’t want to let anything out of the bag right now,” Corpening says, “but we always have something cooking at Chops!”

His daily specials of sandwiches and soups change, so do Corpening’s favorites. In fact, he’ll make himself two lunches—“one for now and one for later”—when he can’t decide exactly what he wants.  Like a giddy and hungry customer, should he go with the Malmo (homemade pimiento cheese, Black Forest ham, maple-glazed chicken, tomato, red onions, and homemade Cajun remoulade on multigrain)? Or the Chicago (rare roast beef, French brie, spring mix, red onions, and homemade peppercorn mayo on sourdough kaiser)?

“As for ingredients, I’m all over the place too,” he tells. “Sometimes I make crazy Franken-wiches that defy comprehension. . . . My favorite soup is a turkey/chicken corn chowder. We make it with a light but creamy base with chunks of veggies and potatoes and simply spiced. I can eat that all year round in any weather!”

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of lunch combinations—from one of a dozen signature or favorite sandwiches, alongisde daily mac-n-cheeses, sides of soups, or spring salads, deli salads, and even bags of chips. Corpening prefers pairing his sammies with mac-n-cheese (or soup) and chips, for scooping final cheesy bites.

The best part of any meal at Chops, whether Corpening is eating or serving it, is spending his day with fans who continue to share their love at the polls. “We wouldn’t be anything without the people who love us,” he iterates, “and it’s things like the encore awards that remind us of how much we are loved. That’s the payoff.”

Folks can find full menus and daily specials for each Chops location on Facebook.

Serving up dishes for Best Lunch on encore’s readers poll are Cousins Italian Deli (16%) and Fork N Cork (39%). Stacking Best Sub/Sandwiches are A Taste of Italy (30%) and Cousins Italian Deli (16%). Stirring Best Homemade Soups are Tazy’s Burgers and Grill (26%) and Priddyboy’s Sandwich Grill (18%).

christi

WINNING GOURMAND: Christi Ferretti, owner of Pine Valley Market, scored two wins in 2018 for Best Catering Service and Best Gourmet Store. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

CATERING SERVICE, GOURMET STORE:

Pine Valley Market – 55% votes, 50% votes

When it comes to best catering and best gourmet goods, Pine Valley Market on College Road scores two more wins for the 2018 poll. They’re going into year 21 in business in the Wilmington area, and remain focused on making the next 21 year even more successful and inclusive across the great port city.

Their market serves lunch daily, with popular offerings like their Philly cheesesteak, made with certified Angus beef from their in-house butcher shop. Their daily specials remain a hit with taco Tuesday and other offerings to provide different culinary experiences. “We’re always on the lookout for local and regional boutique family made products to feature in our market,” owner Christi Ferretti says. They provide made-in-NC products like sweet and spicy banana peppers and Fred’s Breads, and they offer frozen take-home meals or fresh-from-their-deli-case offerings for folks on the run.

More so, their caterings, whether large weddings, small business lunches, baby showers, or other special events, keep the dates packed. “We have events in the books for 2019 already,” Ferretti tells. “We prepare our events using all fresh ingredients and make everything from scratch.  We pride ourselves in attention to detail and delivering the best product available, and we’re always on the lookout for local and regional boutique family made products to feature in our market.”

While popular items, like the candied bacon, savory mango and cheddar or blue cheese and fig cheesecakes, and ham biscuits remain staples people love, new to their catering menu this year are new appetizers they launched at Courtyards and Cobblestones, including pimento cheese wontons and Hoppin’ John lumpias—the latter of which are a Filipino eggroll, tucked with collards, black-eyed peas and pork. “People think that they can’t afford our catering for weddings and large events, but we can actually meet any budget needs  that a client brings to us,” Ferretti says. “We fully customize menus to meet each prospective client where they are for both budget and taste.”

The market offers in-house chef services, with Paul Smith and BJ Laverdiere leading the helm, and corporate lunch packages for offices, and strives to continue producing the best of the best, with every order, big and small.

“We are so honored and humbled to receive this award from the Wilmington community,” Ferretti tells. “We take great pride in knowing our customers names and being a small family run business in a sea of corporate chains.”

Other catering services tipping the poll are Middle of the Island (38%) and Front St. Brewery’s Beam Room (7%), while gourmet store votes also go to Taste the Olive (22%) and The Seasoned Gourmet (28%).

cheesesteak

FEELING CHEESY:  J. Michael’s Philly Deli takes the win for the newly added category Best Cheesesteak. Photo by  J. Michael’s Philly Deli

PHILLY CHEESESTEAK:

J. Michael’s Philly Deli – 45% votes

The Philly cheesesteak is a quintessential American classic that can cause quite a few uproars and battles when debating who has the best. Though we aren’t on “Cheesesteak Row” in South Philly, where half the neighborhood goes to Geno’s and the other half to Pat’s, we do have three eateries battling for the title Best Cheesesteak on the encore readers’ poll: The Copper Penny, Port City Cheesesteak and J. Michael’s Philly Deli. The latter takes home the inaugural category win for its almost 40-year run on Wilmington’s restaurant scene.

We are excited to be a part of this as we are an old Wilmington company,” J. Michael Huston says. “I was checking on the longevity of some of our employees and we have over 600 years of experience—some of our staff has been with us for over 37 years. That’s pretty amazing!”

“The Philly Deli,” as it’s known to locals in ILM, has been in business since 1979, with its first store opening in Wilmington’s oldest shopping center, New Hanover Center. The flagship store still serves folks daily, with Monkey Junction and Porter’s Neck locations being added over the years. “We are honored Wilmington has recognized our restaurant for the best cheesesteak,” Huston says. “We take great pride in our products.”

In fact, J. Michael’s orders rolls directly from a 114-year-old business outside of Philadelphia, the Amoroso Baking Co. They’re well-known and respected for their bread that cuddles the custom-sliced steaks, like the ones J. Michael’s uses

“Our meat is from the highest grades of beef,” Huston adds. And while folks up north may prefer the fermented Cheese Wiz on their steaks, in ILM, J. Michael’s custom blends and creates his own sauce. “We use a special blend of block white cheeses shredded and melted to a creamy texture so that can be then poured over each sandwich.”

Folks who don’t eat red meat can opt for thinly sliced chicken or even go for a “veggie steak” version of the Philly. Plus, J. Michael’s has added to their menu over the years so folks of all appetites can enjoy something. They have hoagies and grinders, combined with a variety of meats and cheeses, and loaded with lettuce, tomato and onions, oil and vinegar and spices.

“Hoagies are served cool and grinders are bake in the oven,” Huston explains. “We also have wonderful salads—chef salad, chicken salad,  tuna salad and egg salad, all made in house.”

For carb-watchers, J. Michael’s does any of their Phillies on a salad, so the bread can be sidelined for a thinner waistline.

They do soups, like French onion, broccoli and cheese, potato and bacon, and chicken noodle. And, of course, they have a Philly chili. “We plan on running weekly specials on Monday Tuesday and Wednesday with some fantastic deals for lunch combos, saving our customers much money for a limited time beginning next month,” he says.

Aside from serving lunch and dinner seven days a week, and overseeing three restaurants, Huston makes time to give back to his community at large any chance he can. He works closely with PTAs in the NHC school system and does promo nights to raise money for their activities.

“We also help at the public school level with the program called ‘occupational course of study,” he explains, “where students from local schools come in and work in our restaurant to develop tools to help them when they graduate from school and go to the workplace. It has been very successful and we have actually hired several of these fine students.”

Huston has served on the board of the Domestic Violence Shelter and Services for over 28 years, and at Philly Deli they recognize veterans with discounts, as well as first responders, Boomers and nonprofits organizations.

The Copper Penny (41%) piled onto the poll  alongside Port City Cheesesteak (14%).

indochine

17 YEARS OF WINNING: The crew at Indochine are 17 years strong on the Best Of poll and continue their run in 2018. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

THAI, RESTAURANT OVERALL, ATMOSPHERE:

Indochine – 71% votes, 55% votes, 48% votes

What could possibly be added to the menu of Indochine Thai and Vietnamese that doesn’t tantalize already? Well, Korean dishes, for one.

“I love experimenting with both traditional and trendy entrees from all over the world,” Indochine owner Solange Thompson says. “We recently added Japchae, a Korean stir-fry dish, to our lunch specials menu.”

Thompson’s attention to every detail at Indochine is what keeps it topping the encore polls year in, year out. For 17 years now, they’ve won the Best Thai Cuisine and for 12 Best Atmosphere and Best Restaurant Overall. Their full parking lot of diners, day and night, every day of the week, is indication enough their popularity is beyond a mere poll of voters; its citywide.

“We have added a new deck in our garden for guests to enjoy cocktails while waiting for a table,” Thompson says.

Born in Vietnam, Thompson has been a Wilmington restaurateur for numerous decades now, operating smaller eateries in the ‘80s and ‘90s before opening Indochine at 7 Wayne Drive in 2000. She has evolved the restaurant over many years of honing the menu to perfection, training a staff in the most professional manner, and expanding the dining area into an outdoor oasis.

“I do research during my travels to find what is trending in both Vietnam and Thailand, so I can bring that aesthetic back to Wilmington,” she tells.

It shows in the restaurant, which looks like more like a history or art museum. They have artifacts from around the world, plus hand-painted murals in the garden, all accompanied by traditional Asian music constantly on rotation throughout the restaurant’s numerous indoor and outdoor eating areas.

“I constantly rotate my huge collection of paintings by well-known artists and I am always on the hunt for new and interesting statues to bring from Vietnam,” she details. “I was blessed to have the life experience of being raised in both Saigon and France. I was always fascinated with the local interior design and with food styling. That fascination has been translated into what you experience when you walk through the doors of Indochine. I love to fine-tune the design of our dining rooms, garden and dishes.”

While the restaurant itself is beholden of beauty and serenity, the food keeps diners happily sated and returning. Naturally, Thompson orders only the highest quality ingredients that her chefs from all over the world utilize to cull appetizing curries, noodle dishes, soups, sushi, and specialty creations.

“Our Thai curry continues to be one of the most popular items on our menu,” Thompson tells. “The roasted duck with red curry features marinated duck, pineapple, lychee and tomato, and pairs beautifully with the medium spice of the coconut curry to create a dynamite dish. This is a staff favorite. Of course, our Pad Thai is a fan favorite and our Vietnamese pork meatballs continue to impress.”

Indochine is a family affair as well, wherein every staff member becomes an extension of the love Thompson and her daughter, manager Marie Bartsch, have for the business. Just the same, Thompson’s sister, niece and nephew work at the establishment to, with family members often coming by for tea. It’s a hub for family, in fact, and it extends to their customers.

“This familiarity with our guests and our staff contributes to them being very loyal to us in return,” Thompson praises. “We try to keep our finger on the pulse of Wilmington and what our customers want and need and then give that to them.”

As well, they go beyond the norm of viewing Indochine as merely a restaurant. It’s home. And they nourish it as such, which means they aren’t looking to expanding into more than one location any time soon.

“We do not want to ever spread ourselves too thin,” Thompson divulges. “We just want to do our best at this one location and provide a beautiful and unique experience for our guests. It has evolved over the years to become a one-of-a-kind atmosphere. It has developed organically with the help of many creative and talented employees . . . At times the restaurant industry can be high stress and thankless. They stick with me long term. And that is the highest compliment. I try to reward their hard work and loyalty as often as possible. I am thankful for them.”

Other eateries taking votes in Thai category are Southern Thai (14%) and Thai Spice (15%), with Restaurant Overall votes going to Rx (23%) and Cast Iron Kitchen (22%), and Atmosphere going to Smoke on the Water (27%) and Bluewater Waterfront Grill (25%).

BISCUITS, DINER:

Dixie Grill – 45votes, 36% votes

Dixie Gril has been a staple of Wilmington’s dining scene for many decades now, and its popularity continues to soar for its diner vibe and its hot breakfast items, including their homemade biscuits. It makes sense it continues to get numerous hits on encore’s readers’ poll, year in, year out. 2018 welcomes two wins for the downtown Market Street eatery: Best Diner and Best Biscuits.

With its laid back atmosphere, it’s no wonder waiting lines pour onto the cobblestone streets on weekends, as diners look to nosh on their famed items, like Louisiana hash and bacon-cheddar scramble. However, one’s mistaken not to try their cheesy shrimp and grits,topped with crispy bacon, shrimp, Roma tomatoes, and scallions served with an eggs and a biscuit. The buttermilk fluff of their crumb tastes lip-smacking good, gobbed with butter nonetheless. And their banana-pecan French toast will leave mouths watering with honey-roasted pecans and bananas layered between maple syrup.

While breakfast and biscuits top the Southern vibe of the menu, their lunch menu also keeps diners happily sated. A Dixie Burger tempts every tastebud, grilled on the flat top and served a variety of ways, whether traditionally topped with lettuce, tomato and onion, or packed to the nine in their Stafford Burger, made with apple-sage pork, sausage, and ground sirloin. And did we mention they have a bar? They offer $5 mimosas and Bloody Marys, as well as beer and wine to take the diner experience to new levels of enjoyment.

Led by chef and owner Brian Mayberry (who also just opened Roadhouse on Wrightsville Avenue and Capricho taco stand in downtown Wilmington), every order comes with careful attention and lots of savory scrumptiousness.

Other diners on the poll include Jimbo’s (41%) and White Front (14%), while other biscuit contenders are Rise (30%) and Spoonfed Kitchen and Bake Shop (34%).

BEST SEAFOOD:

Cape Fear Seafood Company – 60% votes

We all know living near the coast has its perks. There’s the weather, the watersports and, of course, fresh seafood. Essentially, we can get tuna and mahi that was swimming in our ocean just hours earlier at the flit of a wrist. According to our readers, the best place in town to take advantage of the freshest fish and seafood, made in a variety of ways, is at one of three local Cape Fear Seafood Companies.

Founded in 2008 by husband-and-wife team Evans and Nikki Trawick, with a single location in Monkey Junction, Cape Fear Seafood Company can now be found in Waterford and Porters Neck, too. According to Evans, each location has its own unique twist as a result of their talented head chefs.

Chef Christopher Estelle in Monkey Junction has an Asian/Cajun background and comes up with top-notch specials in the company, while Jeremy Black in Waterford “can cook a piece of fish like nobody’s business,” according to Trawick. Black just sold out two back-to-back Italian-themed wine dinners, which the restaurant occasionally hosts at its locations.

“Chef Bret Chamberlain in Porters Neck is the newest addition to our culinary team,” Trawick adds. “He brings with him an affinity for knives and a little Southwest flair to our Southern style.”

One of the best ways to find out what to order on a first visit to a Cape Fear Seafood Company is to ask the owner. Trawick says his go-tos are the shrimp and grits and the fresh catch. “If I am feeling adventurous, I will choose one of the wonderful specials from any of our kitchens.”

In coming months, Trawick says each of his locations will be offering seasonal specials, and this includes the cocktail list, too. They will be adding watermelon martinis with fresh fruits, and the food will always come with the freshest ingredients from land and sea. Trawick invites customers to check out their new menu, which just was put into effect in December.

“We’ve added house-smoked salmon cakes over fettuccine with a lemon-dill sauce, and a lobster and shrimp risotto dish that is out of this world,” he tells.

Trawick’s company also gives back to the community by working with various charities throughout the year,  such as the American Heart Association. “My daughter Ande was born with HLHS 3 1/2 years ago,” he reveals, “and it has changed not only the way my family looks at life but my also the views of my extended CSFC family as well.”

As for his restaurant’s multiple awards, including the past three accolades for Best Seafood on our poll, Trawick is full of gratitude and support from over the past decade. “People like to see the awards when they’re dining with us,” he says. “I think it reinforces what they already know: CFSC is best place for seafood in southeastern NC.”

Other seafood restaurants hooking votes come from Catch Modern Seafood (30%) and The Boathouse (10%).

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20-PLUS YEAR WIN: P.T.’s keeps topping our poll for Best Burger and Best Fries, as accepted by Aaron Biermann, Brandon Cheek and Zack Biermann. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

BURGERS, FRENCH FRIES:

P.T.’s Olde-Fashioned Grille – 55% votes, 58% votes

When I arrived for the first time in Wilmington in 1998, it was part of a recruiting trip. The UNCW Swim Team wanted to bring me to the coast. While I was staying with the team in the dorms, they said they were taking me to P.T.’s—a burger place. They also said I was going to like it enough to enroll at UNCW the following year.

The team talked about P.T.’s as if it was the only restaurant in town serving up burgers, dogs, turkey, roast beef and grilled chicken sandwiches, even grilled cheeses. It was a simple but effective menu—and the team seemed offended I hadn’t heard about it from my hometown of Atlanta.

We traveled the short distance from campus to the flagship location on Fountain Drive. They purchased a pitcher of beer (I was not allowed to drink since I was 17 and under the careful supervision of college athletes who always followed the rules), and then they pointed to pads of paper menus strewn along the counter. I picked up the pencil and began circling menu items and toppings and sides for my burger. The atmosphere was casual, the restaurant was packed, and the staff was working the grill with precision.

I was impressed  with the scene, but not as impressed as I was with the food. The burger was perfectly greasy in the best possible way, and the toppings were crisp and cold to contrast the beefy heat. The hand-cut fries were dusted with what’s become P.T.’s famed lemon-pepper seasoning, something I had not tasted before on a fried spud.

Since then, P.T.’s has grown to seven location and even has a food truck that goes to UNCW, which is making many a student, once like myself, happy to have found such a gem. Based off Raleigh’s famed walkup window, Char-grill, P.T.’s burger many be a mainstay, but so is their hotdog. They’re butterflied, grilled crispy, and served on a hoagie bun.

Perhaps the reason they’ve only been beat out on encore’s poll once over the last 20 years is because they keep everything consistent. Little has changed on the menu since they opened 27 years ago, aside from the addition of vegetarian items to meet the growing dietary needs of its customers. Now when I visit P.T.’s, the experience is exactly the same as it was when I was a teen: a Wilmington institution.

Other burger joints flipping a vote on the poll come from Winnie’s Tavern (34%) and Tazy’s Burger and Grill (11%), while fries’ votes go to The Copper Penny (30%) and Brasserie du Soleil (12%).

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WINNER, WINNER, CHICKEN DINNER: encore’s Best Breakfast has a new winner in town: Cast Iron Kitchen, whose staff above, with owners Josh and Drea Petty (far left), celebrating at the annual Best Of party on Feb. 24 at Brooklyn Arts Center. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

BREAKFAST:

Cast Iron Kitchen – 49% votes

As the saying goes, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day…”

Cast Iron Kitchen took home Best New Restaurant in 2017, and they’re continuing their winning pace to serve Wilmingtonians the absolute Best Breakfast, according to encore readers. In fact, breakfast is what they’re best known for, as they serve it from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sundays.

They source almost all their food from NC famers, fisherman and regional/local businesses to ensure they’re getting the freshest home-grown and cultivated items delivered straight to their customers’ tables. Actually, chef Josh Petty just unveiled his new menu three weeks ago and will continue to change it up around the end of spring, while keeping his favorites from the original menu and doling out seasonal dishes. The grub is so praised, they got a visit from one Guy Fieri at the end of January, when the Food Network star visited while doing charity fundraisers for GLOW.

“We are looking forward to the airing of that show,” Petty says (dates for CIK have yet to be announced as of press time). “It showcases two of our menu favorites, The Dirty South Biscuit (served with Southern fried chicken tenderloin, bacon, runny egg, Muenster and pepper Jack cheeses, topped with sausage gravy) and Not My Momma’s Meatloaf Sandwich.”

Other customer faves come with the Southern staple shrimp and grits, as well as a red-eye pulled pork hash, served with eggs, pickled sweet peppers and Texas Pete hollandaise, and of course chicken and waffles. Petty, who is seeped in the tradition of Southern cuisine but inspired by creatively updating it, will introduce a spin on Southern fried chicken, “using duck confit and deep frying it crispy, with local honey and fried cheese grits,” he explains.

Not a breakfast person? No problem, CIK offers so much more.

“Ironically, breakfast is my least favorite meal of the day and I rarely eat eggs,” Petty confesses. “That is why you can get breakfast, brunch and lunch anytime you are dining with us. My breakfast of champions would be a bacon cheeseburger with pimiento cheese, red onion, arugula and sweet and smokey BBQ sauce (egg maybe, just depends on the day).”

Lines often trail out of the Porters Neck restaurant, especially on weekends. To help man them and the wait time, CIK has installed a new guest manager system that will alert customers of the wait time and their place on the waiting list.

“Also we are working on unveiling a new area for our customers to wait on the weekends,”  he tells. “We are toying with the idea of a super micro market that features maybe one or two local artists, craftsmen, farmers, or a beverage company. We hope this will make the wait even more worth it and easier on our guests.”

Their appeal to a broad audience of all ages—whether tourists, locals or foodies—really inspires the CIK crew to up the ante with every diner’s experience. Petty says a quick compliment goes a long way in the food industry, which is always mired by a lot of moving parts.

“One of the best things about being the chef and owner of CIK is when I see a guest looking all around and admiring the time and effort it took to create a dining room with character and a menu that has food to match that look and feel,” he tells. “The times a guest comes to the window or the kitchen door to thank us for a good experience [makes it worth it.] My family and staff at CIK makes me feel very privileged to do what I do. . . . Also, watch out next year we are going back to back Best Breakfast and sights set on Best Brunch, too.

Other breakfast houses racking up the numbers include Dixie Grill (35%) and Bon Appetite (16%).

FRENCH RESTAURANT:

Caprice Bistro – 41% votes

Nothing says délicieux better than fresh mussels in white wine and butter, thyme and lemon, or handmade pâté and salmon rilletes, served with a bold French wine and a basket of pomme frites. It can all be found at Wilmington’s Best French Restaurant, Caprice Bistro.

Located in the heart of downtown at the foot of Market Street, Thierry and Patricia  Moity opened Caprice a few decades ago after running famed eateries like Patou Bistro in Charlotte, NC, and Cafe de Bruxelles in New York City.

With Patrician from the northern part of France near Belgium and Thierry from its central provinces, they strive to make cuisine that’s delectable without being intimidating. “Cooking is what I love most,” Chef Thierry tells us. It’s evident in every bite of their menu, whether enjoying a plate of fine cheeses and charcuterie, or sopping French baguette in their classic Waterzooi, an old standby, filled with an assortment of fish and seafood in a herb cream broth.

“People look at our awards and realize we have been here a long time, and it gives them confidence to dine with us,” Chef Thierry tells of the numerous “e’s” they’ve collected over the years. Adding to their accolades is 2018’s Top 100 Most Romantic Restaurants in the country, according to OpenTable. Whether dining downstairs in a cozy area, decorated with traditional white table cloths, or upstairs in their wine bar and lounge, punctuated by changing art on the walls and funky, metal tables and velvet, deep-hued couches, every seat in the house will be accompanied by unmatched cuisine and fine service.

While classic French cuisine always can be expected from the Moities, they source local produce whenever possible to make sure whatever diners order, it’s of the best ingredients. Special dinner menus prevail during Valentine’s, Bastille Day, and even Halloween. And their cocktail program will always impress, thanks to the mixologists behind the pine who pair just as many interesting flavors in a rocks glass as what’s delivered on every plate.

Other French eateries grabbing votes include Brasserie du Soleil (33%) and Our Crepes and More (26%)

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MAN OF THE HOUR: Sweet n Savory owner Rob Shapiro proudly accepts the award for Best Brunch. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

BRUNCH:

Sweet N Savory – 46% votes

Nestled on Pavilion Place, just off Eastwood, stands a little café that packs a brunch.

And breakfast, lunch, dinner, catering, and an onsite bakery.

Sweet n Savory is a jack-of-all-trades American eatery. A purveyor of creative regional cuisine, its morning menu boasts everything from Wrightsville Beach French toast, featuring house-made cinnamon raisin bread, to Sweet n Savory Eggs Benedict, with house-made Cuban bread, Canadian bacon and Hollandaise sauce.

Those are crowd favorites, but the SNS team looks forward to rolling out a new dinner menu March 22. The theme? Southern coastal cuisine.

“We have kept our most popular dishes from our old dinner menu and added on a truly inspired section created by our Executive Chef Pete Merriam,” Shapiro says. “Every attention to the finest detail—ingredients, preparation, and presentation—has been taken to provide our guests with the consummate dining experience.

Sweet n Savory also rolled out their weekend brunch menu in December 2017. Brunch, which runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, features the entire lunch menu, plus breakfast entrees and eggs Benedicts. Lunch is served 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., and dinner 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

In 2017 Sweet n Savory closed The Pub portion of its business to focus its attention on the café and menu. Part of that shift meant bringing on Steve Kohlstedt, long-time owner of Roy’s Riverboat Landing, to the team as executive creator of dinner. “Steve’s focus is to work closely in conjunction with our executive chef to provide unique, memorable, enjoyable, perfectly done and affordable dinners to all of our guests,” Shapiro says.

In 2018 SNS expects to serve over 225,000 guests. Modern foodies, Shapiro  observes, are becoming more interested in the origins of their meals: going back to basics, using the finest ingredients, and paying attention to the small details of a meal. “The differences may be subtle,” he continues, “but they elevate the way the guest experiences the dish to a completely different level.”

Chef Merriam applies the principles in his favorite brunch item: Breakfast Pulled Pork Enchiladas. They feature pulled pork (house-made, of course) inside a tortilla with cheese, pico de gallo, and chipotle rancheros sauce. It is topped with more cheese, more chipotle rancheros sauce, sour cream, and two over-easy eggs. “The flavors and textures in this dish are otherworldly,” Shapiro confirms.

The restaurant industry is ultimately an unpredictable beast, and the best any establishment can do is its best—in food, service and atmosphere. With its 2018 Best Brunch win, Sweet n Savory is proving hard work and attention to detail go far.

“Restaurants really come down to people, [who] are a riddle that will never truly be solved,” Shapiro says. “Therefore, one must learn to enjoy the journey.”

Other brunch spots flipping onto the poll are Bon Appetit (16%) and Boca Bay (38%).

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VINO VIRTUOSOS: The crew at Fortunate Glass know their wines—so well they’ve scored Best Wine List again in 2018. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

WINE LIST:

The Fortunate Glass – 43% votes

For seven years now, Front Street’s Fortunate Glass has been the go-to wine bar and eatery for folks to enjoy bites and sips of bliss. They change their wine menu every season to reflect the best of the grapes worldwide, so it’s no wonder they continue to score Best Wine List on our poll again.

“For example, heavier reds are better in the winter and lighter reds perform better in the summer,” owner Celeste Glass says. “We spend a lot of time hand-selecting each bottle. I have personally tasted every wine on the list. We try to select wines that are varietally correct and that are a true representation of the region.”

They have price points for every budget, too, so folks shouldn’t be turned off by the misrepresentation that the best also means the most expensive. However, they do carry one-of-a-kind gems not everyone can get at other wine shops in town.

“I have many ‘unicorn’ wines of the list, such as Harlan, 100 Acre, Shafer Hillside and Joseph Phelps Insignia,” Glass tells. “These are allocated wines that have a cult following, which are jewels to have on the list. I get most excited about our esoteric wines. It is fun to find unusual varietals and small production wines that people aren’t exposed to everyday.”

Paired with Chef Ryan O’Janpa’s specially crafted tapas menu, the flavors reach far and wide. In fact, they’ll be expanding into the South Front Street district rather soon, as Glass prepares to open The Second Glass. “We will have more seats and a much larger kitchen, which will allow us to do more wine dinners and events,” she promises.

And they’re events already many happenings taking place as it is. They do free weekly wine tastings every Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. They also host wine and food pairings, like the one coming up on Mar. 28 with Korbin Kameron Winery. They will pair four Moon Mountain Wines with four small bites: a rose with a watermelon gazpacho, with pickled rind and rosemary crema; a Sauvignon Blanc with endive, goat cheese, tarragon, macerated pineapple, and honey; a merlot with bruschetta, melted brie, caramalized onions, and sliced grapes; and cuvée Kristin red blend with Moorish meatballs with pine nuts, raisins, and espagnole sauce.

Glass shares her passion with a knowledgable staff who knows everything about varietals, regions, winemakers, and vintages. “We taste weekly with wine representatives,” she says, “and the staff is very involved in the wine buying decisions. Because of this, they are able to educate the patrons and provide a personalized experience.”

Other wine lists pouring votes on the poll include Circa 1922 (30%) and Fermental (27%).

WAITSTAFF, SPORTS BAR:

The Copper Penny – 63% votes, 50% votes

It’s the time of year, with March Madness in full swing, when sports bars are busy places to visit. Seats are packed and beers are flowing. Patrons are yelling at televisions, some of happy and others dejected. Things are spilling. All of this means a good sports bar needs a good crew to take orders and run food throughout the chaos.

So it’s probably not a coincidence this year’s winner for Best Sports Bar also won for Best Waitstaff. The Copper Penny knows the importance of having the right people representing their brand.

“Attitude and work ethic means everything to us,” General Manager Andrew DeVoid says. “Experience takes a back seat to those who come in with a team-oriented mindset and positive approach to life and work. We consistently try to surround ourselves and staff with good people and let the rest comes naturally.”

Being a great sports bar also comes naturally. The Copper Penny focuses on serving great food, with a good attitude, in a comfortable atmosphere. Easy peasy.

“Being such a small room, TVs can be seen from every table so it’s been a natural melding of people’s love for food and sports,” DeVoid adds.

Known as a Philadelphia Eagles bar, the 2017-18 NFL season meant there were a lot of happy people at The Copper Penny. In fact, anyone who hasn’t experience the cumulative roar from its patron upon any touchdown … well, two words: ear plus.

“It has been a long time coming for our regulars,” DeVoid says of the Eagles’ Super Bowl win. “We have a dedicated group of people who have been coming in for every game since we opened our doors years back. It’s loud and energetic and everyone enjoys the fellowship. Fortunately, this season there was plenty of joy to revel in!”

Of course, The Copper Penny isn’t just for Eagles football. They cater to all sports. “But I’d have to say the ACC brings the best turnout during the college football and NCAA Basketball seasons,” he admits.

To help fill cravings while watching hoops, batters or pig skins, The Copper Penny offer a wide range of sophisticated pub food, whether wanting something light, like a salad, to something hearty from their hometown, a la cheesesteaks. Their always-popular 109 Chestnut chicken sandwich never disappoints either.

They also offer daily food and drink specials, including a Tuesday charity giveback. Every Tuesday, the Copper Penny donates $1.09 to the Plastic Ocean Project for every 109 Chestnut chicken sandwich or Wilmington Brewing Company’s (also winner of Best Brewery 2018; see page 42) Penny Pale Ale sold. The Plastic Ocean Project works to raise awareness of the global problem with plastic pollution, and all monies raised go directly to marine debris research conducted by UNCW.

The Copper Penny has an extensive beer, wine and cocktail list, including draft selections from NC breweries like Wicked Weed, Natty Greene’s and more. Their selection rotates frequently, so check with servers for up-to-date lists. Or follow their social media accounts to stay up to speed.

Jerry Allen’s Sports Bar (19%) and Jax Fifth Avenue (18%) are bouncing on the poll as other popular sports bars, while favorite waitstaff also comes from Cast Iron Kitchen (25%) and Sweet n Savory (25%).

BURRITO:

Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn – 62% votes

Since they opened in 2000, Flaming Amy’ Burrito Barn has been “employing the freaks of Wilmington,” according to their website. You can’t miss their bumper stickers throughout town, imploring drivers to “Eat at Flaming Amy’s.” They’ve been voted one of the best 33 burritos in America by Thrillist, and Best Burrito in Wilmington by encore readers since they opened.

Owned by Amy and Jay Muxworthy, Flaming Amy’s says they’re about more than just food—but a way of life. They description they give their restaurant (Hot, Fast, Cheap, and Easy) might seem like a put-down to some, but that way of thinking is what got them to the top of the Wilmington burrito pyramid.

They outline their philosophy as follows:

“Hot (The way food was meant to be. Except for salads and drinks and stuff like that. They’re not supposed to be hot); Fast (Don’t let the line scare you. Our trained Burrito Monkeys will have your order done in a jiffy); Cheap (As in not expensive. You have better things to do with that money); and Easy (Do you really want to cook? I didn’t think so).”

That touch of snark shows itself throughout each of their locations, including their Carolina Beach burrito barn (the Flaming Amy’s brand also owns their Bowl restaurants in south Wilmington, near Shipyard and College) and in north Wilmington (near Laney High School).

The names of their burritos are as unique as their content. The Big Jerk includes roasted red peppers, cheese, rice, beans, sour cream, pineapple-jalapeño salsa, and choice of Jamaican jerk chicken or tofu. The Wok on the Beach comes with roasted red peppers, shredded carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, rice, beans, cheese, teriyaki sauce, and choice of grilled filling. Vegetarians will be happy with The Tree Hugger, which as its name implies has a bunch of vegetables.

In addition to burritos, Amy’s offers other inventive items, including avotacos—tacos featuring battered and fried avocado slices. And no visit to Flaming Amy’s would be complete without a visit to their famous salsa bar, which boasts nine different styles: traditional tomato, black bean & corn, flaming hot, Asian cucumber, wasabi avocado, green tomatillo, chipotle tomatillo, ginger peach, and pineapple jalapeño.

New to the Flaming lineup is online ordering, and a “Burrito Brunch” at their Carolina Beach location, featuring items like a bacon, egg and cheese chimichanga, tacos huevos, and a shrimp and grits burrito. They also offer special limited-time items, including their popular Thanksgiving churkeychanga (think Thanksgiving dinner in a tortilla and deep fried).

Flaming Amy’s has become a local institution, and it’s not lost on them how Wilmingtonians helped them arrive there. According to their website, “Amy and Jay believe a big part of their success is due to giving back to the community that supports them. These are just a few of the organizations that are near and dear to their hearts: Nourish NC, The Eastern & Central NC Food Bank, Adopt an Angel, Journey 4 A Cure, Cape Fear Hospice, and many of their local schools and family organizations.”

Beer Barrio (10%) and K-38 Baja Grill (28%) also roll onto the poll as contenders for Best Burrito 2018.

DONUTS:

Britt’s Donuts – 52% votes

You know your business is something special when people mark the change in seasons on whether you’re open or not. No matter what the so-called “scientists” say, in the Cape Fear area, it’s not spring until Britt’s Donuts is open. And summer doesn’t end until they close for the season.

The availability of those gooey, doughy, perfectly sweet creations reminds us we’re in the good part of the year. It’s good because business is booming and the weather is warm, but it’s also good for the simple reason that not being able to buy a Britt’s Donut is bad.

By now you probably already know this, but last Saturday marked the beginning of good times.

Britts doesn’t have a website, but they do have an official fan club (although their website is down as I write this—perhaps they follow the same schedule as Britts).They only sell one type of donut (glazed), and they’re cooked the same way since 1939: floating in a vat of oil. The recipe, however, is a closely-guarded secret. They accept cash only, and it doesn’t take much cash to get your fill. The line is always long, but the prize at the end is always worth the wait.

Current owners Bobby and Maxine Nivens bought the shop—along with the secret recipe—from the original Mr. Britt in 1979, and have since done almost nothing to change the place. They have involved three generations of their family in the operation, which is appropriate because many people, tourists and locals alike, think of Britt’s as part of their families. Trips to the Boardwalk for a donut on a summer weekend are fond memories for families all over the area, as well as visitors who make daily stops during their annual vacation.

As I mentioned before, if you’re reading this: Britt’s has officially opened during weekends—Saturdays from 8:30 p.m. until 10 p.m. and Sundays 8:30-5 p.m. through Memorial Day weekend. Then they move to daily hours. They’ll also be open special hours for Easter weekend: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, March 30; 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 31, 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, April 1; and 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, April 2.

Other donuts floating votes on the poll are Duck Donuts (16%) and Wake n Bake (32%).

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TAPPED FOR SUCCESS: encore’s Best Brewery has a new kid on the poll. Welcome Wilmington Brewing Company for their first win in 2018! Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

BREWERY

Wilmington Brewing Company – 38votes

Wilmington’s Best Of brewery actually began in Asheville, also known as Beer City USA, where John and Michelle Savard got their college degrees and informal education in breweries and craft beer. After they took a European grand tour of breweries, and John learned the ins and outs of a home-brew supply store, the couple made the move back to their native ILM. They opened Wilmington Brewing Company in a small shop on Kerr Ave. before expanding into a large brewery (11,800-square-foot) on Kerr Ave., which continues to bubble with delightful suds and entertainment. And Wilmington Brewing Company doesn’t intend to stop growing now. In 2017 the brewery hit the grindstone hard and expanded its draft distribution and added four new 30-barrel fermenters to its brew house. It also introduced a canning line.

“Cans, cans, cans!” Michelle exclaims. “We are canning new beers every few weeks now—lots of big, delicious, juicy IPAs.”

One of their focuses now are ever-popular New England-style IPAs: an almost milky-looking brew with a creamy mouthfeel, fruity overtones and very little bitter taste. Though for a while the brewing community debated whether New England actually was a style of IPA, the Savards like it anyway.

“We love to make it and enjoy drinking that style of beer very much,” Michelle says.

But Wilmington Brewing Company has 15 beers on draft in its taproom: saisons, stouts, porters, ambers, IPAs, blonde and pale ales, even goses. Crowd favorites include the Blair’s Breakfast Stout, Tropical Lightning IPA, and the Jalapeño Saison.

“We also just released a new Session IPA, which we call ‘Dad Beer,’” Michelle adds. “It’s easy drinking with all the flavor at 4.9 percent alcohol by volume. We are always rotating and releasing new beers.”

The new beers come out every Friday, when the Savards tap. Fridays in general are exciting; Firkin Fridays feature experimental cask beer starting at 5 p.m. and food trucks (which stick around for Saturday, too). On Tuesdays from 6 p.m. – 7 p.m., Wilmington Brewing Company will be hosting donation-based yoga in partnership with Yoga Village.

The company also partners with plenty of nonprofits and charities. Spring 2018 holds event collaborations with Ainsley’s Angels of America, the Diaper Bank of North Carolina, the Coastal Therapeutic Riding Program, and the Rape Crisis Center. On a monthly basis, Wilmington Brewing Company partners with The Copper Penny and Apple Annie’s Bake Shop (both of Best Of winners in 2018) to support rotating charities.

“It is a whole lot of fun to support local causes while enjoying great beer at the same time,” Michelle says.

The brewing company and home-brew enterprise has been a labor of love.

“There’s always more to do,” Michelle explains. “Running a brewery, home brew shop and taproom is an ongoing, ever-changing challenge, which is really what makes it so much fun. We are always thinking ahead and constantly tweaking recipes to create the best beers we can.”

But, really, it’s been the community support that’s propelled their growth and popularity. “Our customers are the best,” Michelle says. “We are so grateful to be part of the Wilmington community.”

Other breweries tapping the list include Wrighstville Beach Brewery (29%) and waterline Brewing Company (33%).

COFFEE SHOP:

Bitty and Beau’s – 64% votes

After owner Amy Wright’s win for the 2017 CNN Hero of the Year, Bitty & Beau’s win for Best Coffee Shop—its second in as many years—comes as little surprise. The Wrights originally founded the shop as just “Beau’s” in a 500-square-foot space in January 2016. In July 2016, after resounding success and a donation from the Rippy family, the coffee shop moved to a 5,000-square-foot former car dealership off New Centre Dr. and acquired a new name. The moniker illustrates Bitty & Beau’s mission to spread acceptance and inclusion.

Amy Wright started the store to employ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), like her own children, Bitty and Beau, who have Down syndrome. Wright saw an issue with prospects for folks with IDD, as 80 percent of them are unemployed. The shop changed its name after Beau made a 12th birthday wish for his little sister, Bitty, to get her name on the franchise, too. An echo of its uplifting message, Bitty & Beau’s is one of the happiest spots in town: Walk in and you’re as likely to find its employees literally dancing with joy.

“The best part about my job is my coworkers and our customers,” says Jessie Guillaume, an employee who began her first-job at the coffee shop when it was still just Beau’s. “My coworkers make me laugh until my stomach hurts and inspire my to do my job better. I love getting to know people more and see where our customers are from all around the world.”

Since moving locations, Bitty & Beau’s had the opportunity to add 20 employees to its roster, bringing the total to 40 people with IDD. On Feb. 20 they expanded into Charleston, South Carolina. The explosive growth has come in part from features on national television, including the Rachael Ray Show, Good Morning America and the Today Show. “Our customer family has expanded from all over the world,” Guillaume adds.

As the slogan says, it’s more than a cup of coffee—but the coffee is great, too. “It’s made with love and a smile,” Guillaume explains. Her favorite drink is a 16-ounce Sundance. “It hits you like a truck in the morning.”

The Bitty & Beau’s menu holds coffee-shop staples: lattes, cappuccinos, tea, and hot cocoa. Guests can enjoy a smoothie, breakfast burrito, pastry, or salad, too. The Wilmington store is a spacious, homey environment, with vaulted ceilings and huge windows. It also features a private meeting room that can host up to 10 people, which customers can reserve for free.

“We have top-quality coffee, but more importantly, as soon as [they] walk in the door, our customers feel loved and appreciated,” Guillaume says. “We’re proud to be recognized again by the community that loves and supports us.”

Java Dog (9%) and Port City Java (27%) also pour votes onto the poll.

OYSTERS:

Dock Street Oyster Bar – 46votes

Louise Forbes and Steve Maillard shared a desire for fresh, local seafood in a fun, laid back atmosphere in 1999. Instead of looking elsewhere for their inspiration, though, they decided to create their own space in June of the same year. Dock Street Oyster Bar became their passion project.

“We have incorporated all of our Caribbean travels into our menu,” Forbes says, “and try to bring back a little something every time. A lot of places advertise ‘fresh and local,’ but we deliver.”

The restaurant boasts a talented and dedicated staff. They even have brought in a new head chef, James Roberts

“[He] constantly is looking for new ideas to incorporate into his dishes,” Forbes notes. “We are also very fortunate to have with us Chef Jacob Stone who has owned and worked at numerous award-winning restaurants up and down the East Coast.”

Dock Street’s business is not just booming from their well-thought-out menu and inspiring staff, though. As their namesake implies, a large portion of their business relies on the sale of quality oysters. Why else would they have received the Best Oysters award for 18 years in a row?

“One of the great things that has happened over the years is the abundance of newly leased oyster beds popping [up in places] like Masonboro Island and other local areas,” Forbes notes. “We are very blessed to have such a wide variety to pick from year round.”

The restaurant’s variety includes multiple types of oysters, such as Imperial and Rockefeller, while also providing customers with the options of shrimp, clams, mussels, and crab. And they aren’t the Calabash-style fish camp most Southerners are used to dining at around town. At Dock Street, food is served steamed, broiled and grilled. Folks who aren’t seafood eaters will find offerings of pulled pork or chicken tacos and chicken sandwiches.

Dock Street does more than just serve quality food. They help give back to the Wilmington community through donations of the restaurant’s proceeds. “We take our role in community very seriously and have directed most fundraising to local causes,” Forbes mentions. “One near to our hearts is muscular dystrophy in children.”

When visiting the infusion center at Duke Children’s Hospital, Forbes took notice of the DVDs the children in the center watched. Many were old and scratched. Forbes donated a percentage of the restaurant’s proceeds to help update the collection.

Through such well-meaning ventures and a quality selection of seafood, with friendly staff and a fun, laid back atmosphere Forbes and Maillard have found a recipe for success. It keeps patrons coming back again and again.

“We are constantly humbled and proud to have won Best Oysters with encore 18 of the 19 years we have been in business,” Forbes concludes. “We will continue to strive to be the best in everything we do and want to thank encore readers for their continued support.”

Other restaurants cracking open the poll for Best Oysters are The Boathouse (13%) and Shuckin’ Shack (41%).

FRIED RIGHT: Casey’s continues to take home numerous awards in 2018, including Best Fried Chicken. Photo by Holland Dotts

FRIED RIGHT: Casey’s continues to take home numerous awards in 2018, including Best Fried Chicken. Photo by Holland Dotts

BUFFET, FRIED CHICKEN, SOUL FOOD:

Casey’s Buffet – 61% 37% 43votes

A lot of restaurants claim to offer home-cooked food “just like mom used to make.” Some succeed to varying degrees, but in Wilmington it’s Casey’s Buffet, Barbecue, and Home Cookin’ who continuously wins the prize. Casey’s takes home 2018’s coveted “e” for Best Buffet, Best Fried Chicken and Best Soul Food. Casey’s has established a loyal customer base who keep coming back for his fare.

“Every customer is treated equally,” Larry Casey tells us. “We are grateful for each and every [diner].”

“It started when Larry was a kid, cooking with his mother and grandmother and barbecuing pigs with his father and uncles,” says Larry’s wife Gina Casey.

Ever since, the family has grown their lifelong passion for Southern cuisine into one of the most successful restaurants in Wilmington. Casey’s recipes date as far back as the 1800s, having been passed down from family member to family member. On their buffet, folks will find everything from pulled-pork BBQ and chitlins, to chicken gizzards, pot roast, meatloaf, and all other Southern staples, like fried okra, squash casserole, hushpuppies, and collards, to banana puddin’ and cobblers galore.

Casey’s is known statewide and nationally for its buffet and was ranked on Yahoo Travel’s list for best buffet in NC in 2016. But it’s the fried chicken that stands out for many.

“Nobody makes fried chicken the way I do,” Casey promises.

Casey’s all-you-can-eat buffet is a challenge lots of folks happily accept as they make second and third trips for their favorite dish featured on the line that day. And if it’s not on the line, then it’s being fried up fresh and offered by the helpful staff who come through with fresh seafood offerings, too, like shrimp and catfish.

“We are the only restaurant in Wilmington who serves whole, on the bone, farm-raised catfish,” Casey praises.

Green beans, mac ‘n’ cheese, black-eyed peas, stewed cabbage, limas, chicken and pastry, roast beef, and dozens of other offerings keep the Casey’s line growing out the door. And for customers who can’t dine in, rest assured. Catering is a big part of their business, so they can bring home cooked flavor directly to your next event. Take-out specials and plates are available, too, for folks in a hurry to get home for dinner.

Other buffets lining up the votes go to Boca Bay for their Sunday brunch (30%) and Golden Corral (9%). Fried chicken contenders are Smithfields Chicken n Bbq (31%) and Bill’s Front Porch (32%). Southern soul food staples like The Basics (37%) and Sawmill Restaurant (20%).

HERE, PIGGY, PIGGY, PIGGY! encore’s Best Ribs welcomes a newbie to the category win, Poor Piggy’s BBQ & Catering. Crystal Borror, Joel Hurst and Harley Bruce happily accept the award. Photo by Jessica Russell

HERE, PIGGY, PIGGY, PIGGY! encore’s Best Ribs welcomes a newbie to the category win, Poor Piggy’s BBQ & Catering. Crystal Borror, Joel Hurst and Harley Bruce happily accept the award. Photo by Jessica Russell

RIBS:

Poor Piggy’s Barbecue and Catering – 37% votes

With a bright red paint job and a long line of customers, it is hard to miss Poor Piggy’s BBQ & Catering food truck. Though the line may seem overwhelming, the food always promises to be well worth the wait. It’s why Poor Piggy’s is receiving Best Ribs, after all.

Ed Coulbourn III started Poor Piggy’s in 2010; he would cater parties and participate in various barbecue competitions. In 2011, he was finally able to start up the food truck and bring his award-winning ribs all across the community. A couple years ago, he stepped down from his position as general manager of the truck to focus on a real estate career. He handed the reins to long-time employee Harley Bruce, who still continues to serve their signature ribs.

“Our ribs are the best because of the way we smoke them and the way we finish them,” Coulbourn explains.

They use St. Louis cut spare ribs and start the process with their signature Piggy Rub, then a sprinkling of a special spicy rub. They smoke the ribs until the meat is easy to bite but still provides a good texture. Once done smoking, they finish the ribs with honey.

“This is what makes our ribs stand out,” Coulbourn tells. “Sauce never touches them and that surprises a lot of people because that is status quo.”

Unfortunately, the truck does not serve their signature ribs every day. Typically, they will serve them about once a week because the lengthy process is difficult to complete for it to be an ongoing menu item. When they do serve them, however, they make announcements on their social media sites because the ribs sell out quickly.

On the days when Poor Piggy’s is not serving their iconic ribs, they instead provide the basic staples of BBQ and brisket. Some days they will mix it up and serve smoked chicken and smoked burgers as well. Their latest hit is their homemade mac and cheese.

Poor Piggy’s can be found on UNCW’s campus at Cameron Hall on Mondays and Tuesdays and at the Fisher Student Center on Wednesdays and Thursdays. They also attend the UNCW baseball games. The food truck even visits other locations, like factories for lunch and breweries for dinner, and even will be coming to encore’s home in downtown’s Cargo District this Friday on Mar. 30. (1608 Queen St.)

As well, they often make appearances at local festivals and events, such as last weekend’s Beer, Bourbon and BBQ festival and the One Tree Hill convention two week’s ago.

The best way to stay up-to-date with the truck is follow their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/PoorPiggys.

If you are having trouble catching the Poor Piggy’s truck, though, fret not. Coulbourn, who still helps with the business from time to time, says a physical location may be in the future. For now, eager customers can still utilize the truck’s catering services for any upcoming events they have planned.

“When we open our brick and mortar we will have at least one day a week designated as ‘Rib Day,’” Coulbourn hints.

Other ribs keep our readers finger-lickin’ happy are Texas Roadhouse (28%) and Moe’s Bar B Que (34%).

LISTICLE LOWDOWN: Lector Bennett (above) and Maaike Brandis have the Best Beer List in ILM for 2018 at their bar, Cape Fear Wine and Beer. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

LISTICLE LOWDOWN: Lector Bennett (above) and Maaike Brandis have the Best Beer List in ILM for 2018 at their bar, Cape Fear Wine and Beer. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

BEER LIST:

Cape Fear Wine and Beer – 44% votes

While it may seem difficult to imagine in 2018, in the early 2000s ILM wasn’t offering such a hotbed of craft brews. Cape Fear Wine & Beer saw the lack of businesses as a call to action. Maaike Brender à Brandis, the co-owner of Cape Fear Wine & Beer, confirms. “We were filling a void.”

The original Cape Fear Wine & Beer opened on Water St. as a bottle shop in a small 800-square foot unit. They did not even have draft beer until 2007. There also was another huge obstacle holding them back: North Carolina’s restriction of beer with an alcohol content above six percent brewed or sold within the state.

North Carolina was one of only five states at the time to have such a restriction, which substantially hurt the business of the state’s local bars and bottle shops. To bring an end to the archaic ban, many business owners rallied together in 2005 to support House Bill 392, or “Pop the Cap,” which would raise the cap from six percent alcohol content to 15. The bill passed in August 2005, largely, thanks to businesses like Cape Fear Wine & Beer.

Lector Bennett, a fellow co-owner of Cape Fear Wine & Beer, was one of many business owners who drove to the capitol in support of the bill. Bennett spoke with state senators about how beneficial it would be to pass. Thirteen years later, Cape Fear Wine & Beer is thriving. They have moved into a space on Front St. quadruple the size of their original and delved further into the beer world.

“We’ve seen hundreds of breweries start distributing in our market,” Brandis says. “I fondly remember launching Bell’s, Stone, Founders, Oskar Blues, and so many more. At this point most people can’t remember a time when those brands weren’t here.”

While Cape Fear Wine & Beer’s history is exciting, it’s not the sole reason customers keep coming back. According to the social beer app, Untappd, the bar has the fastest rotating beer list in the world. Publications in the City of Wilmington, around North Carolina, and across the nation have recognized the bar and its unique approach to brews.

Another factor setting Cape Fear Wine & Beer apart from others is their knowledgeable and talented staff. Though there are few of them, all members of the team are Cicerone Beer Server certified. Essentilaly, each bartender has demonstrated a “mastery of beer service and styles.” Having such knowledge helps them tailor recommendations from 300 varieties of cans and bottles or 25 beers on tap to the regulars who rely on them to do so.

“Even though we’re so knowledgeable, we’re not snobby,” Brandis promises. “No one likes a snob; that type of behavior tends to turn people off. We try to be very accommodating.”

What truly shapes a customer’s experience at the bar, though, is the atmosphere provided for them. They hold an extensive collection of both B-list horror and Kung Fu films. They celebrate Massage Mondays where a licensed therapist provides 10-minute sessions for $10. Wednesdays they ask customers to bring their own trivia for gift certificate prizes from local businesses.

“Our atmosphere is very unique,” Brandis notes. “We’ve been described as equal parts English pub, German bier hall, record shop, and tattoo parlour.”

Other beer lists leaving sippers sated with happiness come from The Brewers Kettle (25%) and Fermental (32%).

LATIN/MEXICAN RESTAURANT, TACOS:

K-38 Baja Grill – 52% 48% votes

Everyone loves tacos. And those who don’t … well, really, I have no words. I mean, what’s not to love tortillas (preferably corn, but, hey, I have no qualms with flour either), stuffed with yummy fillings? Avocado? Check. Fried fish? Check. Grilled shrimp? Check. Pico de gallo? Check. Lettuce, beans, onions, cotija cheese? Check. Check. Check. Check. And the folks over at K-38 Baja Grill continuously keep encore readers happily sated everyday of the week, not only Taco Tuesdays. They also score Best Latin/Mexican on our poll year in, year out.

Welp, 2018 is no different. K-38 reigns supreme in tacos and Latin/Mexican cuisine on our poll. With two K-38’s set up to serve Wilmingtonians—the original on Oleander Drive and the secondary location in Porter’s Neck, not to mention their sister restaurants like Wrightsville Beach’s Tower 7 or Cruz and their K-Bueno restaurants—everyone can go crazy over fajitas, tacos, burritos, quesadillas, margaritas, cerveza, and of course endless chips and salsa.

Most days at K-38 are reason enough to celebrate like it’s Cinco de Mayo, with Mondays offering $3 Wannabe Margaritas and Baja fish tacos; Tuesdays serving up half-price fajitas and $1 PBRs; Wednesday’s bringing out $2 hard-shell tacos; and Thursdays dolling out half-price domestic draft and select quesadillas.

But even if there isn’t anything on special, the menu is always tempting, and much of the time with unexpected items that don’t scream Latin/Mexican but taste undeniably delicious all the same. For instance, ever had the Cobb salad at K-38? I know, right? It’s insanely good, chock full of grilled chicken, diced avocado, tomatoes, bacon, and the most succulent pickled onions ever. Top with cilantro vin for tastebud-popping insanity.

And those popular rolls? You know the ones: flour tortilla, stuffed with a variety of fillings, like achiote-marinated chicken, Roma tomato, guacamole, red cabbage and Monterey jack cheese, with chipotle aioli. that’s called the Stetson and it’s every bit of as sophisticated on the palate as it sounds.

Vegetarians and vegans will find a lot to love on the menu, too, so all dietary restrictive diners are welcome here with open arms. With a hip, surfer vibe in all restaurants, quite perfect for our beach town, it feels like summer year round at K-38. And much of the time, the popularity of the eatery will make you think the city has been hit with tourists; it’s often packed on special food nights, so plan ahead if you don’t wish to wait.

With top-notch service and about a gazilion options of hot sauce to spike up flavors on everything, the K-38 eateries never stear wrong a hungry crowd. Whether college students, surfers, beach bums, young professionals, or anyone in between, K-38 pleases all.

Other Latin American/Mexican eateries spicing up the poll are San Felipe Mexican Restaurant (13%) and El Cerro Grande (34%). Taco eateries crunching up the poll include Beer Barrio (23%) and Islands Fresh Mex (29%).

STEAK:

Port City Chop House – 43% votes

When Wilmingtonians crave a dripping ribeye or a juicy pink filet Mignon, they go for local flavor and luxury. For the past 20 years, Port City Chop House has kept their top-notch recipes, atmosphere and customer service consistent—and, of course, their steaks, which won them the 2018 Best Of for Best Steak.

“The team worked hard to get things right from day one, and I think our regular guests have come to rely upon our consistency,” restaurant manager Elizabeth Yasuk muses. “Special care is taken in everything from amazing soups to fresh salads from local seafood to our award-winning steaks.”

Steaks aren’t the only delicacy on the Port City Chop House menu, either. They pride themselves on fresh seafood, being in a beach town and all.

“Our Carolina crab cakes are out of this world,” Yasuk praises. “Twin five-ounce cakes, pan-seared to perfection, served over honey pecan remoulade, with baby greens tossed in olive oil and fresh herbs on the side.”

As spring descends on Wilmington, the steak house also plans to bring back its signature Key lime pie. Guests can also expect to see the tuna poke bowl—a staff and customer favorite—added to the regular lunch menu.

Chef Matt Kahrs presides over Port City Chop House’s menu. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America—the first college in the U.S. to teach culinary arts—Kahrs is beginning his 18th year with the restaurant. He prepares dishes with ingredients of the highest quality available. “Matt is a great mentor to the younger members of our kitchen crew,” Yasuk adds. The mentorship is an important component of continuing the Chop House’s legacy of consistent excellence and creating a positive culture within the restaurant.

In 2018 the Port City Chop House plans to revamp its patio to beautify the restaurant’s outdoor space, which will complement the elegant emerald-green interiors dotted with colored chandeliers, watercolor prints and a cozy fireplace. The only thing better than the best steak in town is the best steak in town plus an ILM sunset, which is especially beautiful at the Chop House because it’s barely a mile from Wrightsville Beach.  “We want our guests to enjoy the beautiful North Carolina weather as much as we do,” Yasuk adds.

The Chop House is an excellent place for unwinding after a long day of work, meeting a friend for drinks, business lunches, or parties—the restaurant even features private dining areas available free of charge if a minimum guest requirement is met.

The staff at the Chop House are grateful to be voted 2018’s best steak in town. It’s an honor that reflects hard work, customer service and community consciousness.

“Our entire staff strives to provide a fantastic experience for everyone [who] walks through our door,” Yasuk says.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House (29%) and Texas Roadhouse (28%) also make the cut.

VIEW FROM THE TOP: Allan Cure, the associate general manager at Bluewater Waterfront Grill, displays the restaurant’s 2018 Best Outside Dining award beside awards of years past. Photo by Jessica Russell

VIEW FROM THE TOP: Allan Cure, the associate general manager at Bluewater Waterfront Grill, displays the restaurant’s 2018 Best Outside Dining award beside awards of years past. Photo by Jessica Russell

OUTSIDE DINING:

Bluewater Grill – 46% votes

Being smack dab in the middle of a beach town, with the Atlantic Ocean just minutes away wherever anyone is at a given time, it’s no surprise encore readers prefer dining seaside; as reflected in their 2018 pick for Best Outside Dining, Bluewater Grill. The Wrightsville Beach eatery opened in 2000, but Lou Moshakos’ renovations and vision for Bluewater’s outdoor dining patio made it a perfect oasis for local and visiting diners.

Bluewater prides itself as one of the only restaurants on the waterway from which guests have a direct view of the sunset while enjoying local seafood. Their banquet and menu offerings—including brunch, lunch, dinner and bar—keep people full and content as they enjoy the tranquil view. Folks have several opportunities to get a taste of what’s offered at Bluewater, as they’re participating in Wilmington Restaurant Week, listing a special pre-fixe three-course dinner at $24.99 per person from April 4-11; hosting the ninth annual Pineapple Guild Foodraiser on April 18, wherein hotel-restaurant and culinary technology students from Cape Fear Community College prepare a three-course meal (www.cfcc.edu/ourplace.). Now folks can soak in live music on Bluewater’s patio, overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, each Sunday evening from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. throughout summer. This week features Selah Dubb on April 8.

Paired with quality waitstaff and specialty drinks, they’re creating meals just as memorable as the view—which attracts more than just diners. Bluewater continues to be a popular beachside venue for all kinds of events. Weddings, corporate meetings, galas, reunions and more fill their calendar throughout the year. Folks can inquire about private event spaces and bookings at www.bluewaterdining.com/private-events. Of course, for smaller parties of 50 or less, “The Sunset Room” earns its name with an exceptional view from a private balcony.

Our readers looking to enjoy a meal outside also like Fish House Grill (15%) and Smoke on the Water (39%).

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Best Chef 2018 Keith Rhodes owns and operates Catch Modern Seafood and its sister food truck, which also wins Best Food Truck 2018. Above was found on Rhodes’ menu just in time for spring: jerked sheepshead, over curried quinoa, cilantro hummus, tzatziki, salsa criolla, and black tahini. Photo by Keith Rhodes

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Best Chef 2018 Keith Rhodes owns and operates Catch Modern Seafood and its sister food truck, which also wins Best Food Truck 2018. Above was found on Rhodes’ menu just in time for spring: jerked sheepshead, over curried quinoa, cilantro hummus, tzatziki, salsa criolla, and black tahini. Photo by Keith Rhodes

CHEF:

Keith Rhodes – 35% votes

Chef Keith Rhodes has reclaimed the award for Best Chef in 2018. The former “Top Chef” candidate and James Beard nominee for Best Chef Southeast is consistently (and firmly) in the category’s top three. Aside from his revered upscale-meets-Lowcountry cuisine establishment, Catch Restaurant on Market Street, Rhodes has dabbled in fresh Asian-inspired pho at his downtown Phun Seafood Bar (now closed) and has since taken his fresh modern seafood on the road with Catch the Food Truck—voted this year’s Best Food Truck.

When possible, Rhodes always works with local seafood and organic produce purveyors, even growing his own in-house in his hydroponic system. He enjoys working with grouper, a signature fish of the area, calling it “our East Coast version of halibut” and premium white fish everyone is familiar with. His pan-roasted grouper is served with sweet potato puree, bacon-wilted kale from Red Beard Farms, jumbo crab vinaigrette and butter pecans. Catfish, too, is a favorite—though, asking Rhodes which cut of fish he likes most is like asking him which restaurant or child he loves best. Not to mention a list of “land offerings” found on his Catch menu at catchwilmington.com.

No matter what he’s cooking or cooking with, he sees food as a gateway to the community and as a way to improve it.

“If you look at a diamond one way, you only see it one way,” Rhodes noted in an interview with encore’s sister publication Devour Magazine, “but if you put it in the right light, and move it around a little, you can see all the different nuances of that diamond, making it that much more beautiful. That is something we’re trying to do in the community: to showcase various types of food and do it well.”

Rhodes almost has his own little cooking school between the restaurant and food truck. “You start here, and we move you out on the truck to work independently,” he explained. “Then, we move to another venue to kind of experience it all.”

Also making the cut onto encore’s Best Chef running is James Doss of Rx Restaurant (33%) and Josh Petty of Cast Iron Kitchen (32%).

FOOD TRUCK:

Catch the Food Truck – 37% votes

2018’s Best Chef Keith Rhodes is once again riding his Catch the Food Truck all the way to the top of our readers’ poll for Best Food Truck four years in a row. Since Rhodes took Catch on the road a few years ago, he’s been serving Wilmingtonians quick, fresh seafood inspired by Mexican street food and California food-truck style.

Catch the Food Truck features a variety of seafood tacos made with local and organic fare. Don’t worry, land lubbers, they offer a few non-seafood options as well. White truffle and Parmesan crispy Brussels sprouts are just as much a favorite staple as the crispy fish tacos. The “Catch” Burger, made with angus beef and topped with romaine, roma tomato, ranch crab salad, American cheese and Texas Pete aioli, was but one specialty item added to their ever-changing and flexible menu.

While the truck can be found at local breweries and pubs each weekend—as well as various businesses and stopovers throughout the week—they are available for hire to serve weddings, receptions, parties, private or corporate events. Anyone can fill out their catering form online to secure Catch the Food Truck (www.catchthefoodtruck.com) at their next shindig. Mind you, this is all while running their full-dine-in restaurant, Catch Restaurant, Tuesday through Saturday.
Eco-conscious diners can rest easy knowing Catch the Food Truck uses eco-friendly packaging and NC soybean oil for frying, too. As well, they recycle their cooking oil to produce biodiesel. Foodie folks can see where Catch the Food Truck is parked by following them on Facebook or Twitter.

Other trucks rolling onto our poll are Poor Piggy’s BBQ and Catering (40%) and Steviemack’s International Food Company (16%).

HOT DIGGITY DOG: The folks from Trolly Stop take home another “e,” continuing their streak on winning Best Hot Dog in the Port City. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

HOT DIGGITY DOG: The folks from Trolly Stop take home another “e,” continuing their streak on winning Best Hot Dog in the Port City. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

HOT DOG:

Trolly Stop – 55% votes

The hot dog was imported from Germany, of course, but it would be hard to argue that there’s a more American food item. The dish was popularized on the streets of big-city America, where hot dog stands popped up to feed the booming working class beginning in the late 1800s. Perhaps because of its portability, the hot dog has became one of the best-selling foods in the country as the country got busy.

The Trolly Stop, longtime winner for Best Hot Dogs, was opened in 1976 by BC Hedgepath at the location of the original first stop of the trolley that carried Wilmingtonians to Wrightsville Beach. Hedgepath sold it after a year to Ron and Winnie Krueger, who sold it to Rick and JoDeane Coombs in 1996.

The operation expanded, with locations opening in Downtown Wilmington, midtown, Southport, and even Chapel Hill.

Their recipe for success seems to come in the quality and variety they offer. They feature five different types of hotdogs, two hamburgers, and thirteen fresh toppings, meaning there are over 1,000 different combinations available. You can choose your own adventure, but perhaps the most popular choices are their own creations, including the North Carolina (deli mustard, chili & slaw), The Nuclear )deli mustard, melted cheese & jalapeno peppers), and my personal favorite, The Wrightsville Beach (deli mustard, secret sauce, onions and diced tomatoes). Their slaw, chili, and baked beans are made in-store, and they emphasize freshness in all of their ingredients.

They also offer Trolly Stop Tailgating Kits for your parties, which include dogs, buns, tons of toppings, recipes, and even delivery. All that will only set you back $2.75 per hot dog.

The Trolly Spot is always looking to expand, and their website mentions that they’re looking for franchisees in Leland and Hampstead specifically. For more info in franchising or to take a look at their full menu and specials, visit www.trollystophotdogs.com.

Other hot dog places our readers love are Paul’s Place (23%) and Charlie Graingers (22%).

CHAIN RESTAURANT:

Panera Bread – 48% votes

Typically, people do not associate “fast food” with “healthy food.” In fact, it’s hard to find any options which successfully combine the two. Panera Bread strives to break the misconception with its healthy food options and “fast-casual” service.
Ken Rosenthal started Panera Bread in 1987 as St. Louis Bread in Kirkwood, Mo. In 1993, he sold the franchise to Au Bon Pain Company who changed the name to Panera Bread in 1997. The restaurant has since expanded to over 2000 locations in the United States and Canada, with two here in Wilmington on Oleander Drive and inside Mayfaire Town Center. The 101 restaurant locations in the St. Louis metropolitan area, though, still operate under the name of St. Louis Bread.

The restaurant chain now operates under Blaine Hurst with active help from former CEO Ronald Shaich. Shaich was the recipient of Restaurant Business’ 2018 Restaurant Leader of the Year award due to his “constant reinvention of Panera Bread” and his work in ensuring the brand serves a clean menu to customers.

Panera Bread prides itself on their healthy menu items which include a variety of sandwiches, soups, salads, and pasta. Such a multitude of carefully selected menu items helped Panera Bread earn Health magazine’s “healthiest fast-casual restaurant” in 2008. In 2014, the restaurant chain introduced a new policy promising customers clean ingredients, a transparent menu and a positive impact.
To ensure clean ingredients, Panera Bread decided to remove artificial trans-fats from their menu, as well as artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives. In January 2017, Panera Bread successfully eliminated such ingredients from their products. The restaurant also took measures to further ensure all location bake their bread fresh daily and without the use of bleached flour.

Panera Bread’s second commitment to its customers involved “becoming the first national restaurant company to voluntarily disclose caloric content on menu panels,” according to a June 2014 statement from the restaurant. The commitment also promised the disclosure of nutrition, allergen and ingredient information on the website and app, as well as inside each location.

The third promise of Panera Bread’s new policy involved only purchasing livestock raised responsibly and working with farmers and fishermen to sustain a more positive impact on our environment and animal treatment. Panera Bread also began working with groups like Feeding America to reduce the amount of food waste the over 2000 locations produce and help raise awareness about hunger in America.

Another aspect of Panera Bread which appeals its numerous customers is its “Panera 2.0” model which they introduced in 2014 alongside their new food policy. “Panera 2.0” called for new innovative methods which would speed up the process of ordering food from Panera Bread locations. Such methods included the implementation of “Fast Lane” kiosks where customers were able to pay without needing to approach a register. The model also introduced new methods of ordering through Panera Bread’s website and app.

It’s no mystery why encore’s readers voted  Panera Bread the Best Chain Restaurant in the city. With its healthy food options, quick service and dedication to customers, Panera Bread is the ideal spot for a good meal.

Encore readers nosh at Charlie Graingers (18%) and Bonefish Grill (34%) as well.

ICE CREAM:

Kilwins Chocolate, Fudge and Ice Cream – 54% votes

Walk anywhere within a block of Market and Front, and you’ll smell it: the sweet, chocolatey aromas drifting out of Kilwins Chocolate, Fudge and Ice Cream. The interior of the shop feels like something out of a “Willy Wonka” movie, bordered with glass counters full of confections. The trio of treats in the store’s name turn out in abundance, from truffles to sundaes to blocks of peanut butter fudge. Yet Kilwins is full of all kinds of other confections, from caramel-drizzled popcorn to candied apples to marshmallow treats.

The Wilmington branch of Kilwins is one of 113 stores in a franchise that has dotted the eastern seaboard and a handful of Midwestern states since 1947. Despite this, it feels like a family affair, with helpful and smiling employees dressed in crisp, nostalgic uniforms. The blast from the past is intentional, as Kilwins’ method of making candy hasn’t changed since Don Kilwin established it in Michigan in the late ‘40s. Most of the candies, treats, ice creams and other menu items are handmade in the store, the fudge equipment sitting ready just behind the counter and visible from street windows.

The ice cream is what landed Kilwins its 2018 Best Of win. Kilwins owner-operators have been making it the same way since 1985. Ice cream crafters make small batches with antibiotic-free, rbST-free milk and cream from family farms. More than 40 flavors are served in giant, flaky waffle cones or generous bowls. There’s a little something for everyone, whether it’s a classic butter pecan scoop, a limited-edition “perfect apple pie” sundae, or a lemon-sorbetto option for the dairy-free folks.

The location of Kilwins Wilmington in the historic downtown district makes it a perfect stop on a late spring or summer day. The sidewalks and cobblestones outside are full of benches and shady spots under trees where visitors can watch carriage tours depart or enjoy a light breeze. Lunch or dinner spots abound across Market Street, and the river is hardly a block away. There, folks can catch a glimpse of the USS North Carolina or begin a walking ghost tour of ILM.

Beyond the tourist attractions, Kilwins remains an integral feature of Wilmington, beloved by college students and kids as much as by the professionals and artists. Stop by for the award-winning ice cream or just for the kid-in-a-candy-store feeling.

Readers get their ice-cream fix at The Fuzzy Peach (11%) and Boombalatti’s (16%).

SALAD:

Chopt Creative Salad Company – 43% votes

Salad is so commonplace on American menus, it’s hard to find a place which doesn’t serve some variation of it. However, few places actually dedicate most of their menus to salads. Chopt Creative Salad Company switches up the norm and does so with their motto “Salad isn’t the start of the meal, it’s the whole meal.”

encore readers recently voted Chopt as the Best Salads in Wilmington, and with 18 different types of salad available, it’s easy to see why. Customers in the mood for a destination salad can choose between a Chinatown BBQ chicken salad or a Baja shrimp bowl. Customers with simpler tastes, though, can choose from either a kale caesar or even a kebab Cobb. There are even 20 different dressing options to pick from. The options are endless.

Though Chopt dedicates itself to providing the best salads around, they also serve other options for the less-than-enthusiastic-about-salad eaters. Soup and wrap options also make up a portion of Chopt’s menu. And depending on which location customers visit, they may find options only available at a specific Chopt.

Another aspect of Chopt’s salads which makes them unique against their multitude of competitors is their dedication to clean eating. For example, the franchise chooses to not use sugar in any of their salad dressings but includes healthier alternatives like agave nectar and honey instead.

Chopt franchise locations started popping up in 2001 under founders Tony Shure and Colin McCabe, but they remain centralized to a few specific areas in the U.S. rather than branching out into numerous states. Areas where Chopt is available include New York City, Washington D.C., Virginia and North Carolina. Wilmington’s own local Chopt sits off Military Cutoff Road near Mayfaire Town Center. How lucky Wilmington is to be one of the few locations of a Chopt Creative Salad Company.

Jester’s Cafe (23%) and Brasserie du Soleil (34%) also are building delicious bowls of healthy eats across town, according to encore readers.

APPETIZERS:

Front Street Brewery – 43% votes

Front Street Brewery needs no more introduction than its name. Folks haven’t really been to Wilmington unless they’ve walked downtown and popped into the city’s favorite spot for appetizers.

The brewery’s inviting façade of windows taper inward, and its patio is normally full of pub-grub connoisseurs and their dogs. It’s difficult to pass Front Street Brewery without stopping to smell the food, browse the menu, or step inside for lunch, dinner or a few beers. The restaurant is narrow but homey, with a long shining bar, cool ceramic tile ceilings and stairs that lead to a mezzanine in the back. The building it occupies dates back to the Civil War, and the brewery (Wilmington’s first microbrew pub) opened in 1995 after several fires and a string of tenants that included multiple clothing stores, a dentist, dry goods stores, an instrument showroom, a carpet store and more.

The 2018 Best Of appetizers include 17 different options, nine of which are half-price between 4 and 6 p.m. and after 10 p.m.   Visitors can order traditional options, like the mammoth pile of buttermilk-breaded onion rings or corn tortilla chips with homemade salsa or queso. But most of Front Street’s appetizers are pub favorites with a mouth-watering twist. Like the Front Street Hot Legs–chicken drumsticks instead of wings, doused in buffalo, Scottish Ale Brew-BW or Alabama white sauce.

The fries are poutine fries, seasoned and topped with white cheddar cheese curds and brown gravy. The pub chips come with queso, shredded cheese, and scallions.
Then there’s the brewery’s more unique options: the tourist-friendly Mug of Bacon (what it says on the tin) or its famous slow-cooked, hand-pulled chicken nachos, topped with black beans, cheese and queso, jalapenos, tomatoes, sour cream and scallions. Meanwhile vegetarians can enjoy the portabella quesadilla (made complete by spinach, red onions and smoked Gouda), or the chipotle black bean hummus with pita points and fresh-sliced cucumbers.

Aside from its appetizers, though, Front Street Brewery is known for its beverages. It’s currently home to North Carolina’s largest bourbon and whiskey selection. Its dozens (even hundreds) of liquid delicacies are listed and kept up-to-date on its website, and guests can take free guided tours of the brewery before or after chowing down on its iconic appetizers.

Front Street Brewery also hosts private events and is available for catering, making it a perfect way to show party guests the history and good eats of ILM.

Other starters that tempt our readers’ appetites come from Caprice Bistro (34%) and Hell’s Kitchen (23%).

FIRST DATE:

The Little Dipper – 35% votes

First dates are like job interviews. The participants are trying to sell themselves while determining if the other party is a good fit. You’re probably dressed differently than you’re used to dressing. There are uncomfortable moments, stupid questions, and nervous laughter. On the line: Perhaps how you spend your time for the rest of your life.

All of this can make for a stressful experience, so it’s important that the setting for a first date is one that makes things easier. The atmosphere should be nice and relaxing, and there should be diversions to hide the nerves while not taking away from the conversation.

“I think our recipe for success has been providing a unique and memorable experience for our customers while dining with us,” Little Dipper owner Pete Gruodis says of their latest win for Best Place for a First Date. “It’s not just a quick bite. Our restaurant is unique in the fact that the pace of the meal is slower than most and includes many courses, allowing our guests to enjoy uninterrupted time and quality conversation with friends and loved ones.”

The Little Dipper’s menu focuses on fondue, the Swiss national dish wherein participants dip their food–and sometimes even cook it–in a communal pot. The experience lends itself to conversation and sharing, leaving the opportunity for sparks to fly.

“We are able to offer high-quality ingredients, unique dipping sauces,” Gruodis says, “and the fact that the customer is doing the cooking at the table provides an experience that they can only have at The Little Dipper.”

The Little Dipper opened in Downtown Wilmington in 2005, and has since expanded to another location in Durham. In addition to their wide-ranging fondue selections, they also offer specials and promotions, including a Date Night special every Friday. The promo includes a three-course meal for two and a bottle of wine for $85. They also have a Locals Night on Tuesdays with a $10 Cheese and Chocolate special and local live music on their outdoor deck when the weather is warm.

The entire experience at the Little Dipper couldn’t come together without good help.

“The staff is very good as far as reading the customer,” Gruodis says. “They can guide the customer without being overbearing and help to make the whole experience smooth. As far as first dates go, we stand out because it’s definitely a place for conversation and taking your time to enjoy the whole experience with the person beside you.”

Readers are spicing up romance at Indochine (31%), as well as Airlie Gardens (34%).

FAST FOOD:

Chick-Fil-A – 57% votes

Chick-fil-a has been a staple for hungry Americans since its start in 1946 as the Dwarf Grill (and later the Dwarf House) by Truett Cathy. In 1967, a total of 51 years after the creation of the Dwarf Grill, Truett started the first Chick-fil-a which has since grown into more than 2,200 restaurants across the United States and Canada.

Cathy is the source credited with creating the recipe for the “original chicken sandwich” in 1964. The immensely sought after Chick-fil-a chicken sandwich then is similar to the version many love and crave today: two pickles on a toasted butter bun with a chicken breast cooked in a pressure-fryer in the middle.

The first Chick-fil-a opened in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall as part of its food court. For two decades, the restaurant chain continued to open food court locations across the United States. Chick-fil-a did not open their first freestanding franchise until April 1986 in Atlanta. With the opening of their first proper location, Chick-fil-a began to focus its efforts on creating more freestanding stores.

Chick-fil-a is best known for two things: their chicken sandwich and their cows. It’s hard not getting distracted by the “Eat Mor Chikin” billboard signs above most U.S. highways. With its often precariously placed cows and simple message, Chick-fil-a has created one of the more iconic advertising campaigns for an American brand. The cows are even featured members of New York’s Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame. The Richards Group created the slogan in 1995 and it has since lived on to our present day. What didn’t last was Chick-fil-a’s original mascot, Doodles the chicken, but he still makes an appearance as the “C” in restaurant chain’s name.

Sadly, Cathy passed away in 2014 but lived long enough to see his legacy grow into a successful food chain. Cathy’s son, Dan, now operates the company as CEO in his father’s place and continues to honor the values and traditions set in place by his father before him.

Locally, readers get a quick bite from Cook-Out (31%) and Taco Bell (12%).

JAPANESE:

YoSake Downtown Sushi Lounge – 48% votes

Most people don’t know there are more Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan than any other country. While YoSake Downtown Sushi Lounge doesn’t have one (mainly because Michelin only recognizes restaurants in the USA in Chicago, New York City, DC, and San Francisco), they do have several “e’s” to their credit, including this year’s win for Best Japanese food.

After a past win in the category, owner Bekah Smith told us that, outside of sushi (for which they also have won several encore awards for in the past) and sake, they’re not technically even a Japanese restaurant. In essence it makes their win “quite a coup.” They describe their menu as being more pan-Asian than strictly Japanese. One can find elements of cuisine from Thailand, India, Vietnam, and Korea, in addition to sushi, which is among their most popular choices.

Located on the second floor of the historic Roudabush building, YoSake turns 12 years old this month, no small feat of longevity in Wilmington’s ever-change food scene. They describe their unique decor as “Tokyo-vogue,” which will make perfect sense to readers who frequent YoSake. The artwork was created by local artist Johnny Bahr III.

Their menu is unique and ever-changing, owing to the inventiveness of their kitchen crew and their focus on using local, seasonal ingredients. Some favorites will be staples always, including their always-popular Shanghai Firecracker Shrimp (tempura shrimp, tossed in spicy Shanghai sauce) and a local favorite, bahn minis (grilled pork, chicken, or tuna on a crispy baguette with spicy mayo, cilantro, and pickled  vegetables).

They noodle bowls, including udon and Ramen, as well as fried rice, like their popular shrimp-pineapple variety, plus curries galore, a kobe burger, and pad Thai. Every appetite, whether vegetarian or carnivorous-based will be happily sated.

And what’s a good bite without a delightful sip to go with it? YoSake is known for their cocktail program. They have a variety of famous mojitos, including the Pomegranate Ginger one, which includes ginger-infused pomegranate juice and light rum, muddled with lemon, mint and candied ginger.

To make matters even more tempting YoSake offers half priced bar menu on famed appetizers, bahn minis, dips, and sushi, 5 p.m. – 7 p.m., daily, in addition to 10 p.m. – midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Plus, Monday mojitos are $6, to go along with $5 small plate features. Tuesdays are Locals’ Night, with 20-percent off all entrees. Wednesdays are ‘80’s night, with select menu items at ‘80’s prices, and Thursdays offer build-your-own curries starting at $12.

Other Japanese eateries rolling out the votes are Okami Japanese Steakhouse (20%) and Hiro Japanese Steakhouse (32%).

BARTENDER:

Trista Nicosia, Goat and Compass – 38% votes

Tucked over on North 4th Street, the Goat & Compass is nonetheless hard to miss because of the bright blue paint on it bricks and the classic, parchment-style lettering over the door. Those who venture inside will find a cozy spot to order their favorite drinks and listen to live music. Behind the pine, Trista Nicosia—voted Wilmington’s best bartender for 2018—is ready with a grin.

“I got into bartending, more or less, by surprise,” Nicosia recalls. After scoring what she thought was a serving gig at Pedro’s Cactus Cantina in Oxford, OH, she reported to her first gig. “The manager told me, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, you’re behind the bar and it’s Margarita Madness, so keep up. There were two other bartenders there that night. They ‘trained’ me in about 5 minutes and we proceeded to run our butts off for the next eight hours. Two weeks later, they both graduated and moved away, and I was suddenly head bartender.”

Even in a casual interview, she’s showcasing one of the beloved bartender’s talents: the ability to spin a story. Nicosia also listens to stories. “I try to get to know my regular customers, beyond their names and what they drink,” she says. “If they have something exciting or important going on in their lives, I ask them about it—I want them to know I truly care.”

Nicosia’s hospitality is only one of many traits that keeps her top of mind as a great bartender. She has a particular warmth and sense of humor, not to mention she crafts a fine cocktail.

“My specialties include sangria and Bloody Marys,” she says. “I love making sangria because it reminds me of the time I spent in Spain for a study abroad program.”

Other bartenders whipping up the best spirits in town include Mike Belies at Tavern Law (26%) and Brandy Tomcany at Slainte (36%).

BAR:

Satellite Bar and Lounge – 63% votes

Satellite Bar and Lounge once again takes top votes for providing barflies across ILM their favorite space to throw back spirits, craft beers and wines any ol’ day of the week. The bar’s specialty themed nights—like movie night every Monday and Tuesday at sundown, or bluegrass Sundays, wherein families are welcome to dance to their favorite bands—make for fun-filled adventures at every turn.

“People just can’t get enough of the bluegrass jam,” Tuki Lucero told encore of their 2017 win as well—and it continues jamming on in popularity.

Plus, live music on weekends are completely free! Bands play every Saturday night at Satellite. Plus, the bar also takes holidays seriously—specifically Halloween and Christmas. Each October they do 31 Nights of Horror, and showcase scary movies at dusk every night of the month. They also hold a Halloween dance party with a DJ and prizes. “We spend days putting up decorations in October and December to totally transform the bar,” Lucero said.

In 2017 they opened Block Taco in the back of Satellite as well. People order the freshest tacos in town at a walk-up window, as well as chips and salsa (queso or guacamole). Flavors include pork and seafood, as well as vegetarain hits like Brussels sprouts and green beans.

Paired with delightful beers from Wicked Weed and fun ciders, like a cucumber ginger or mango habanero flavor from Blake’s Brewing, it makes the upcoming summer months already feel cooler.

The breezes will keep flowing, whether seated in their garage-style, open-air seating at the front of the bar, or on the side lines where folks play cornhole or putt a few golf balls while waiting for tacos.

“It’s such a great space,” Lucero praises. “We have a big, beautiful yard. Dusty [Ricks, owner] is always tweaking details in design and landscaping so it doesn’t get stale. We’re family and dog-friendly, too.”

encore readers also belly up to the pine at Lagerheads Tavern (17%) and The Brewers Kettle (20%).

SUSHI:

Nikki’s Sushi Bar and Restaurant – 40% votes

Nikki’s Sushi Bar and Restaurant has quite a few locations across Wilmington, from their steak house and sushi bar on Military Cutoff, to the recently renovated downtown location, to the mall location and even one in Southport. It’s no wonder folks continue to adore their sushi selection, since it hits all corners of our southeastern NC home. encore readers have again voted Nikki’s as Wilmington’s Best Sushi for 2018.

Open for lunch and dinner, Nikki’s has everything from simple tastes, a la tuna and avocado rolls, to more adventurous daily sushi roll specials that go beyond traditional Japanese expectations. (They’ll even take special requests.) Sushi, sashimi, bento boxes, samplers … diners have a variety of ways they can order their fresh fish.
Traditionlists will appreciate the chirashi—straight up fresh cuts of seafood over tangy sushi rice. It’s enough to feed more than one person with 18 pieces of fish: tuna, salmon, yellowtail, red snapper, eel, smoked salmon, white tuna, clam, octopus, shrimp and crab.

Larger parties will ooh and ahh over Nikki’s sushi boat: a wooden serving vessel, decorated with cuts of sushi, sashimi and rolls, all to equal 39 pieces of fish to be exact.

Plus, they have begun to serve poke bowls (like salmon, tuna, and white tuna on a bed of sushi rice, topped with seaweed salad, cucumber, asparagus, avocado, Japanese dressing, sesame seeds, and powdered seaweed, or eel  on a bed a sushi rice, topped with seaweed salad, cucumber, asparagus, avocado, eel sauce, Japanese dressing, sesame seeds, and powdered seaweed).

Folks who steer away from raw fish can nosh on vegetarian rolls, or order from their large hibachi and teriyaki menus (chicken, shrimp, beef, tofu). Not to mention some of the restaurants have extensive sandwich menus, to help feed folks who wish for a variety of American fare, like burgers (turkey, vegetarian or beef), Philly cheesesteaks, wraps, and more. Sides and appetizers abound, too, whether wanting edamame or miso soup, dumplings or fresh fried hot chips, ginger salad or a four-piece California roll.

Other sushi restaurants making the cut include Bento Box (30%) and YoSake (30%).

INDIAN:

Tandoori Bites – 72% votes

Tandoori Bites has been churning out besties for nine years now, taking home Best Indian Cuisine in Wilmington. They’ve continued heating up lunch and dinner tables for many locals, with a plethora of traditional dishes from their most popular tikka masala and tandoori chicken dishes, to desserts like gulab jamun (milk reduced to the consistency of a soft dough and garnished with dried nuts).

“We serve around 1,500 customer a week,” says TJ Singh, owner of Tandoori Bites, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Simran. “Quality food and customer service is our key [to] success, and we never sacrifice quality ingredients.”

Their buffet opens at lunch daily and features a variety of flavors suitable for every diet, from vegetarians to carnivores. At night their extensive menu features malai kofta (veggie balls), veggie korma (sauce made of nuts and spices), tarka dal (ginger and garlic yellow sauce), butter chicken, to goat curry and vindaloo. They serve rice specialities, like lamb or shrimp biryani and masalas, and have fresh Indian breads, like naan, parantha and kulcha, baked and served with favorite spreads, like raita, papadum and mango chutney. And don’t skip the starters! Their vegetarian samosas, chili paneer and onion bhajia will start off every meal to perfection!

“We have great support from our loyal customers, who support us and enjoy our cuisine,” Singh praises of his clientele—one that will continue to grow and expand beyond Wilmington. Singh will operate a Tandoori Bites in Fayetteville and are opening one in Raleigh in July, too. “It will be with an open kitchen concept,” Singh says, “with local and organic menu.”

Nawab Fine Indian Cuisine (28%) also sauces up the poll.

CHINESE:

Double Happiness – 48% votes

Locally-owned, family-run, authentic, delicious Chinese with American hospitality—that’s the M.O. for Double Happiness. The restaurant is making its first appearance as a winner on encore’s poll, taking home Best Chinese Restaurant.

Though it opened in 2006, current owners Jamie Zheng and May Chen purchased the restaurant in 2010. The couple’s goal was to make Double Happiness Wilmington’s only authentic gourmet Chinese restaurant. Thus, Double Happiness serves classic Chinese dishes in addition to traditional meals, like dim sum, ginger scallion shrimp, Shanghai-style rice and more.

“Double happiness” is a translation of a Chinese phrase from an old legend. The myth follows a young man who, on his way to take a minister’s exam, fell ill and was nursed back to health by an herbalist and his daughter. The young man got well and went on his way, but not before falling in love with the daughter and receiving a token of her favor: a piece of paper with a line of poetry written on it. At the young man’s exam, the emperor asked him to complete a couplet, and the young man realized his lover had given him the second half of the puzzle. The young man recited it and assumed the ministerial position and a place of honor. When the young man and the herbalist’s daughter were married, the symbol for happiness was duplicated and etched on red paper. This double happiness symbol became known throughout the country and stood for life-long harmony and love—an atmosphere that Wilmington’s own Double Happiness aims to emulate. They’ve done so well in the last eight years they’ve owned it that just last month they opened their second location on Market Street in front of the new Publix. The owners are celebrating the opening of the new Ogden location with a free gift certificate when you dine in—just draw a fortune stick from the bamboo bucket to find out how much you can save.

Zheng and Chen’s good-eats goals don’t come easily. The harmony of taste and texture emerges from a balance of fan foods—or rice, noodles, grains, etc.—and t’sai foods—or veggies, meat, poultry, seafood. Double Happiness chooses the finest ingredients and outlaws MSG from the kitchen. Each dish is beautifully presented from the servers, and never scooped from a buffet table—always made-to-order in individual or family portions.

Double Happiness is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner, and you can visit either of its locations on Wrightsville Avenue or Market Street in Ogden.

Other Chinese eateries making an appearance on the poll are Szechuan 132 (37%) and Lucky Star (15%).

SAVORY TO THE MAX: Downtown’s Savorez owner Sam Cahoon is cooking up the best in our Best New Restaurant category for Savorez. Website. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

SAVORY TO THE MAX: Downtown’s Savorez owner Sam Cahoon is cooking up the best in our Best New Restaurant category for Savorez. Website. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

NEW RESTAURANT:

Savorez – 36% votes

Opening a new restaurant is no small feat. It’s not as simple as renting a spot, putting up a sign and hopping into the kitchen. Every little detail counts, from the obvious like menu and staff, to the less obvious, like types of napkins and bathroom soaps to use. Each customer is a new customer, and restaurateurs only get one chance to make a good first impression.

At Savorez, this year’s winner for Best New Restaurant, it’s clear owner Sam Cahoon has paid attention. The small downtown spot has kept locals coming back already in its infancy.

Cahoon, a Wilmington native, has worked in local restaurants for over 12 years, and graduated from Cape Fear Community College’s culinary program with honors. Savorez is spanish for “flavors,” and to put it bluntly: Cahoon’s restaurant has plenty of it.

Rosa Bianca, encore’s restaurant reviewer, calls the restaurant “a bold union of spicy Latin American fare and a tiny twang of the South.” She goes on to give a rare endorsement that diners can’t go wrong with any item on the menu, adding that “Cahoon’s fresh, local ingredients speak for themselves on each stunningly vibrant plate. Cahoon’s fresh, local ingredients speak for themselves on each stunningly vibrant plate.”

Even the starter/small plate menu is inventive, featuring BLT Arepas (fried corn cakes with Balsamic glaze, bacon-jalapeno jam, avocado, tomato, micro greens and cilantro oil) and Langousta Y Coco (lobster ceviche in citrus coconut-ginger marinade with avocado, cilantro, red onion, red bell pepper and habanero). T

The dinner menu features flavor-packed dishes,, like Tres Cochinitos (grilled pork loin over black bean-bacon puree, warm pork belly and a two-bean salad, wilted arugula, and pickled root vegetables), and Jefe’s Arroz Con Pollo (jerk-braised chicken leg with coconut rice, black beans, chipotle sauce, pineapple salsa, pickled shallots, chimichurri ranch and avocado).

They also offer vegan and vegetarian options, including bangin’ empanadas and a chile relleno that will knock off the socks of all tastebuds. They may be new, but based on the praise from diners and critics alike, Savorez will be around for a long time.

Other new restaurants opening doors in ILM this year and churning out decadent dishes to our voters’ content are Wrightsville Beach Brewery (30%) and Smoke on the Water (34%).

DELI:

A Taste of Italy – 55% votes

Who has the best eggplant parm in town?

A Taste of Italy.

Who has the best chicken salad in town?

A Taste of Italy.

Who has the best cheesesteak in town?

A Taste of Italy.

Seeing a pattern?

Readers of encore do.

Customers who dine at A Taste of Italy would agree with encore voters who continuously put TOI on the Best Of Readers’ Poll. This year they’re taking home Best Deli. Chris Guarino says their most popular dishes, as noted above, are all made with the freshest ingredients and a load of love.

“Eggplant parm is always a hit,” he admits. “I would assume it is because, unlike most other places, we skin it and slice it super thin before we fry it—then our classic tomato sauce layered in with cheese. Nothing better!”

Chris and his brother, Tommy, founded the delicatessen/market/restaurant more than 20 years ago. They started it by utilizing their mother’s family recipes. “Over the years we have learned what works best for our business,” Chris says, “and have made changes where needed—without taking out the core of each one. I do love to branch out a little and get creative.”

Customers can eat up the delicacies on A Taste of Italy’s hot bar. Whether ordering baked ziti or huge homemade meatballs or chicken parm, offerings run the gamut. More so, their customers aren’t just full from their order, but feel like they’re getting a home-cooked meal their own mom would make.

“Our quality ingredients (like all-white meat chicken and Hellman’s in our chicken and tuna salads) really make our customers, new and old, appreciate the food,” Chris continues.

Their desserts continue to tempt, too: chocolate mousse, Tiramisu, NY-style cheesecake, all made in house.

The restaurant caters six to eight lunches daily, and they continue to increase this sector of their business. They also cater private parties and weddings. TOI has better priced meal deals that change weekly, alongside discounts on wine by the case.

On top of it all, they continue to give back back to the community by donating to schools, law enforcement and civic organizations, as well as nonprofits.

Other delis impressing readers on our poll are Chop’s (34%) and Midtown Deli and Grill (11%).

VEGETARIAN:

SeaLevel City Gourmet – 42% votes

When it comes to clean eating, Sealevel City Gourmet restaurant anad Bar on Kerr Ave. gets made props for providing the best eats—especially to specialty dieters, like vegans and vegetarians. Their varied menu offers more than a salad or side of veggies as a meal option.

Their menu is large, and offers everything from dairy-free to gluten-free varieties. Popular items include their lentil burger, as well as veggie dogs, topped a variety of ways, from Carolina- to German-style. Plus, they do a bevy of flavors worldwide, like the Mediterranean pita (black-eyed-pea hummus, carrot shreds, lettuce, mayo, tomato, falafel) or a Korean take on a veggie-based Jewish favorite, kimchi tempeh reuben (sour kraut, kimchi, tempeh, Russian dressing, sprouts, rye, jack cheese).

And don’t even think about skimping their sushi menu. They bring in fresh fish daily to roll spicy crab and avocado roll or a spider roll (soft shell crab). They also do tons of vegan sushi, with ingredients not found on a lot of local menus—like the yamagobo roll, which has burdock root pickle, or a kampyo which comes with Calabash gourd.

Sides abound like Latin American-flavored refried lentils and fried plantains, or Asian tastes, as enjoyed in a seaweed salad or Mediterranean tabbouleh.

Led by Chef Nikki Spears, who opened the restaruant in 2013, the menu continues to draw from fresh local produce and seafood to craft something truly for every palate: sushi, tacos, sandwiches, pitas, organic veggie-burgers, Southern-style seafood, hush puppies, and a wide variety of housemade desserts. They’re open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and serve dinner Wednesday through Saturday 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. (closed Mondays and Tuesdays).

Other vegetarian restaurants turning up happy diners on our poll are Epic Food (29%) and Lovey’s Market (29%).

MEDITERRANEAN:

Olympia – 39% votes

The so-called “Mediterranean diet” is known for being health—heavy in vegetables and good carbs. Luckily, it’s also delicious. At Olympia, also known as Wilmington’s 2018 pick for Best Mediterranean, Wilmingtonians have been able to get their Greek food and seafood fixes since 1994.

The first Olympia restaurant opened in New York in 1980, and Nick and Doreen Voulgaris followed 14 years later in the ILM. Customers can expect all the classics of a Greek joint, from juicy lamb and tzatziki sauce dripping from pita-wrapped gyros to feta- and olive-topped salads. Olympia boasts a variety of salads and traditional Greek appetizers, like spanakopita and hummus, as well as seafood snacks: fried calamari, sauteed shrimp and mushrooms, or Olympia crab cakes. (The Zeus Platter, a sampling of all the appetizers, is truly the “food of the gods” the restaurant’s slogan talks about.) It also has a menu full of seafood dishes and a plethora of Greek and Italian pasta options, from shrimp santorini to chicken Alfredo. Among daily specials, customers can find fresh-caught fish, hand-crafted soups of the day, and lunch bargain platters.

Located just off Oleander, Olympia can be spotted by the geometric white whorls in the windows and bright blue awnings. Inside, the décor is old-fashioned, giving the impression diners are walking into a hidden gem.

Beyond the flavor of the food, Olympia is a place for fellowship and family. The restaurant contains a large party room that’s free to book and frequently filled with birthday parties and holiday shindigs.

Of course, no party would be complete without a full bar, which Olympia runs as well. Tuesday offers $6 martini and $5 pizza and Thursday comes with half-price bottles of wine.

On special nights, Olympia pairs a recommended wine with a decadent pasta dish and features live music. Dine in for lunch or dinner, or take it with you home to the family for a night of authentic cuisine without the effort of making it yourself.

Other Mediterranean hotspots in town include Peno Mediterranean Grill (28%) and The Greeks Gourmet (33%).

ITALIAN:

Osteria Chicchetti – 47% votes

Best Italian Restaurant is one of the most hotly-contested categories year-after-year, with winners flip-flopping between Wilmington’s popular Italian eateries. One restaurant that is always in the mix is this  year’s winner, Osteria Cicchetti. One of the member restaurants of Ash Aziz’s successful group of restaurants, The OC, as locals call it, has two locations, one in the Forum and another in Monkey Junction, and both locations offer the same high-quality traditional Italian fare.

And when I say traditional, I don’t mean the spot on the corner with greasy pizza and red sauce on everything (although there’s certainly a place in my heart for those places). The OC’s menu starts off with cheese and charcuterie options from their cold plates menu (try the Artichokes Francaise). It continues to their cicchetti plates, or small dishes and side items (try the stuffed cherry peppers), and insalate (try the roasted beet salad).

You can make a meal out of the starter options alone, but the main courses at the OC offer endless unique and tasty options. The wood-fired pizza selection ranges from the Classico with mozzarella and pizzaoli to more adventurous choices like the Melanzane with eggplant, goat cheese, tomatoes and olives.

Main courses include classic pasta dishes you’ll recognize like the Spaghetti Cicchetti (meatballs, Italian sausage, and pomodoro), as well as more traditional, seafood-centric dishes like Zuppa di Pesce (fish, clams, shrimp, scallops, mussels, calamari, spaghetti, and red broth). If you’re still hungry after all that, try one of their desserts like cannoli or white chocolate croissant bread pudding.

While each location’s menu varies slightly, the OC in Monkey Junction offers specials like a 3-course prixe fixe menu every Sunday and Monday for $19.95; half-price select pizzas on Tuesdays; half-price select bottles of wine on Wednesday, and a discounted app menu at the bar every day from 5-7. The Monkey Junction also offers family-style dining, which includes starters, entrees and dessert served in the traditional Italian fashion for only $21.99 per person with a four-person minimum.

Other Italian eateries rolling up the best pasta in town include A Taste of Italy (34%) and Tarantelli’s Ristorante Italiano (19%).

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