FOOD AND BEVERAGE: Best Of 2017 winners

Mar 7 • Best Of Wilmington, EXTRA! EXTRA!, UncategorizedNo Comments on FOOD AND BEVERAGE: Best Of 2017 winners

FRESH, WINNING CATCH: Evans Trawick scores another Best Seafood win for his restaurant, Cape Fear Seafood. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

FRESH, WINNING CATCH: Evans Trawick scores another Best Seafood win for his restaurant, Cape Fear Seafood. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

SEAFOOD:

Cape Fear Seafood Company—57% votes

When Cape Fear Seafood Company (CFSC) first opened in January of 2008, like many small businesses, owner Evans Trawick (pictured left) worried they’d struggle in the down economy that followed. Nevertheless, they managed to grow despite the recession. Trawick says CFSC really took off once the economy began to improve.

“We have faced many challenges, both professionally and personally, over the last nine-and-a-half years,” he admits, “but have managed to continue to provide southeastern NC with the best seafood dishes served in a comfortable relaxed atmosphere that we know how.”

It’s a mantra that has garnered CFSC multiple Best Of awards from encore readers, including this year for Best Seafood. Now in the throes of building another restaurant in Leland’s Waterford area (opening in May of 2017), it will be the third, which joins its Monkey Junction and Porter’s Neck locales. Like its predecessors, CFSC in Leland will have a familiar menu but also include new and different specials unique to the location.

Throughout the last decade CFSC has perfected dishes like their shrimp and grits and grouper saltimbocca. They feature two to four fresh fin fish daily, along with creative special appetizers and entrees. They’ve even incorporated spins on Calabash seafood favorites, too.

Aside from serving quality food, wines and spirits in a relaxed and casual setting, Trawick credits his chefs for bringing their A-game to his kitchens. Chef Ricky Martin co-operates the Monkey Junction kitchen with Chris Estelle, and Matt Wivell is the head chef at Porter’s neck.

“Every dish is prepared with attention to detail, quality ingredients and excellent flavors,” Trawick says. “CFSC always looks at different dishes for our menu. We run an extremely diverse core menu at all locations.”

CFSC also experiments with special wine and bourbon dinners throughout the year, which can be found on Facebook or at capefearseafoodcompany.com.

Runners up in the 2017 poll for Best Seafood are Dockside Waterfront Restaurant and Bar (22%) and Bluewater Waterfront Grill (21%). —Shannon Rae Gentry

ZING-A-DING! The staff of Indochine sweep the 2017 Best Of awards with four wins from the readers’ poll. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

ZING-A-DING! The staff of Indochine sweep the 2017 Best Of awards with four wins from the readers’ poll. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

THAI, OVERALL RESTAURANT, OUTSIDE DINING, ATMOSPHERE: 
Indochine—67% votes, 41% votes, 45% votes, 37% votes

Indochine is one of the most competitive restaurants on encore’s readers’ poll—and has been for 16 years now—thanks to the dedication of owner Solange Thompson and her family. They opened the popular eatery on Wayne Drive in 2000 to bring healthy and flavorful ingredients of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine to southeastern NC. The establishment showcases the most prevalent flavors of southeast Asia, aside from Korean and Indian.

“The braised Vietnamese catfish is one of my favorites as my mother used to make it for me back in Vietnam,” Thompson says. “Also, the Bon Bo Hue is very special to me.  It is a traditional Vietnamese soup that originated from my hometown, Hue, which is the Imperial City of Vietnam. It has a beef base and is highly seasoned and spicy.”

Both items can be found on an expansive menu that covers everything from dim sum to sushi, pad Thai to pho bac, to curries galore, among specialties and noodle and fried rice dishes. Thompson travels the world frequently and especially back to her homeland, often eating at various places in Vietnam. “We are constantly updating our décor inside and outside with treasures from my homeland and local artists,” she tells—indicative of her Best Atmosphere and Outside Dining wins. The cabanas outside of Indochine sit among lush foliage and a koi pond that makes the restaurant feel far from the busy Market Street it faces.

Dedication to customers remains their number-one goal in keeping the parking lot overflowing daily, and on weekends they flip the 250-seat restaurant twice. Though they don’t take reservations, Indochine prides themselves on friendly and quick service, so everyone is treated to exceptionality. “We have many customers that continue to come weekly to our restaurant and support us.  We are very grateful for their continued support of Indochine,” Thompson tells. “However, this can only be done with all hands on deck, to ensure the greatest service.”

“The hardest part of running a successful restaurant is managing employees,” Thompson says. “We have a huge employee base and it comprises a variety of cultures and nationalities. I strive to promote the employees to bond together as a family unit. This takes patience, understanding, organization, planning, and knowledge of management.  I make sure to give the employees all the tools that they need to do a good job and to be successful for our restaurant.”

Other Thai restaurants topping the poll include Southern Thai (20%) and Thai Spice (13%). Atmosphere votes also go to Bluewater Waterfront Grill (31%) and Oceanic (24%), while both Bluewater (32%) and Oceanic (31%) are Outside Dining contenders, too. Restaurant Overall runners up are Bluewater (30%) and Rx Restaurant (29%).  —Shea Carver

WINNERS CIRCLE: Christi Ferretti and Kathy Webb-Ferretti take home wins for Best Catering Services and Best Gourmet Store. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

WINNERS CIRCLE: Christi Ferretti and Kathy Webb-Ferretti take home wins for Best Catering Services and Best Gourmet Store. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

GOURMET STORE, CATERING SERVICES: 
Pine Valley Market—40% votes, 49% votes

2017 marks the 20th anniversary for one of south Wilmington’s most delicious pit-stops, Pine Valley Market. What began as a humble fresh market in 1997 from Lauren “Lolo” Shannon has evolved into a full-on catering company, restaurant and gourmet shop, all in one. Since 2003, Christi Ferretti and Kathy Webb-Ferretti have owned and operated Pine Valley Market and upgraded it to its current popular eatery today.

“A lot of people still don’t’ realize we are actually a restaurant,” Ferretti tells. The market transformed into a cafe after the Great Recession of 2008. Today they open for breakfast Monday and Tuesday at 10 a.m. and Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 a.m. They serve lunch as well and offer frozen meals or fresh grub from their deli cases daily, for easy, quick ways to feed the family any night of the week (they close at 6 p.m. during weekdays and 4 p.m on Saturdays). Every Sunday they do brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“We have been changing our menu up seasonally,” Ferretti says. “While the main staples remain, Chef Chris and Chef Paul have been rotating out menu items based on local product availability. The newest menu (out mid March) will feature gluten-free bread and we’ve added gluten-free freezer meals to our list.”

Plus, they’ve become well-known for their daily soup specialties, concocted from Chef Paul. They’re especially warming during cool months, and vary in flavors from turkey and wild rice, to tomato bisque, to ribeye mushroom, and chowders galore. “I think that people don’t have high expectations when it comes to soups,” Ferretti explains. “Ours are packed with so much flavor and hearty ingredients that the bar is set higher.”

While the storefront also houses a butcher shop and wine store—as well as sells fresh ingredients to make cooking at home a breeze—their bread and butter, so to speak, comes from the numerous caterings they do every year. “It has always been a big part of what we do but the heightened exposure from our café has allowed our catering to flourish,” Ferretti informs. “Our catering spans from deliveries of platters for a small in-home gathering to several hundred people for a black-tie wedding or gala. When a client chooses PVM for catering, they are basically saying that the food is a priority. We take great pride in the quality of the food that offer especially for off site events. We put the quality of the product ahead of the ease of preparing it so often our job is harder than it needs to be but the end result is worth it. We also spend time with the client helping them design their menu so it is a reflection of them and something that they can be excited about, not just a pre determined package.”

Aside from running a successful business, Ferretti also has joined the ranks of 40 EATS, a group of restaurateurs and chefs who collaborate to get the best local products for their eateries, and provide high-end dining experiences to the public, wherein they donate funds to area nonprofits or farmers. Just in January they raised $10,000 for Black River Farm, which was affected by flooding from Hurricane Matthew. Working with local sources for the best in fresh food is priority to the PVM vision and ongoing success.

Other catering services ranking on poll are MOI (30%) and A Thyme Savor (21%), while gourmet store runners up include Fresh Market (39%) and The Seasoned Gourmet (21%).  —Shea Carver

ALL IN A NIGHT’S WIN(S): Nicholas Gray and Walker Payne accept the awards for YoSake’s Best Sushi and Best Japanese wins. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

ALL IN A NIGHT’S WIN(S): Nicholas Gray and Walker Payne accept the awards for YoSake’s Best Sushi and Best Japanese wins. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

SUSHI, JAPANESE RESTAURANT: 
YoSake—36% votes, 40% votes

“There’s just so much more that goes into this business than most people realize,” says Bekah Smith, co-owner of YoSake Downtown Sushi Lounge.

For more than a decade YoSake has evolved and changed with the fluid landscape the restaurant industry often presents. Whether it’s losing great chefs to new ventures and maintaining consistency in the menu or adjusting to economic challenges, or keeping loyal employees happy with their work environment, the YoSake family runs on successfully culling a team spirit.

“Figuring out what works for the customer while maintaining our vision from its inception has been the biggest challenge,” Smith says. They’ve done a stellar job according to encore readers and diners who crowned YoSake Best Sushi and Best Japanese Restaurant for 2017. “I think paying attention to what our community likes, loves and even dislikes has helped us evolve and grow as a business. We never really considered ourselves Japanese themed, but appreciate the recognition in the dishes we offer that have inspired the vote.  The sushi win for us is nice, as we have put a lot of effort into trying to give our guests great quality product and our sushi chefs work hard putting out fresh, local and creative food.”Their long menu of decadent dishes appeal to all diners, whether they’re craving one of their specialty rolls, or chef’s originals like banh minis, crispy salmon and black forbidden rice, shrimp and pineapple fried rice, or massaman curry. According to Smith, popular items include their udon noodle bowl with various textures and flavor profiles, along with sesame-seared tuna with sweet chili and mango soba noodles. “The Spicy Generoll is truly one that people love,” Smith tells, “but so is the Tropic Roll and The Chilli Roll!”

Monday through Saturday they do a happy hour menu from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and then on Fridays and Saturdays, 10 p.m. to midnight, wherein most items are $5 or $6, including their insanely popular Shanghai firecracker shrimp and edamame hummus. They also have a weekly features page in their menu to highlight the creativity and inspiration chefs are feeling daily. “If something is a great hit, it will probably make it on the next menu,” Smith tells. “We like change, we are excited about it but we also want to remain a staple for those who come in for their favorite dish.”   

A Pan-Asian restaurant, the staff pride themselves on paying attention to every detail. Located on one of the major corners of downtown Wilmington, Front and Dock streets, above Husk, means having plenty of foot traffic to draw attention to their second-floor, chic eatery. “We’re small and local, and we want to give our customers and great experience,” Smith adds. “We try to maintain positively consistent and loyal to our community of diners with our menu and service, while truly hopeful that every new restaurant that opens nearby is successful in their endeavors. The more quality thoughtful restaurants that are locally owned and operated, the better for our downtown community and better to serve our locals and new guests to town.”

Other sushi establishments pulling weight are Nikki’s (35%) and Bento Box (29%), while Japanese fare ranking the poll are Hiro Japanese Steak House (38%) and Okami Japanese Steakhouse (22%).  —Shea Carver


MEDITERRANEAN: 

Baba Ghannouj—46% votes

Our Best Mediterranean Restaurant winner may also take home this year’s prize for biggest change since first opening their doors. encore readers’ Best Mediterranean Food pick is once again Baba Ghannouj. Yet, the restaurant recently changed their name to Peño Mediterranean Grill.

“We have been overwhelmed with support and our customers say they don’t care what the name is,” says business partner Rocco Quaranto, “as long as the food and service continue to be world class, which it always will be.”

Still under ownership of Jamal Haddad, Quaranto says the name change was important for their growth plan. In addition to their College Road and Independence Mall locations, they’ve launched they’ve started franchising and have already signed for their first location in Charleston, SC—”with many more to come.” Changing the restaurant’s name was a needed step in this process. They were unable to trademark “Baba Ghannouj,” which means anyone could open up another restaurant under the same moniker and their hands would be tied.

“We are very pleased with the fresh new name Peño Mediterranean Grill,” Quaranto continues. “The food, staff, ownership, everything is still the same and will not change. It was simply to help us grow.”

Peño Mediterranean Grill restaurants still use Haddad’s family recipes he learned from growing up in Lebanon. Though, they are starting to spice up tradition. Last year the restaurants began incorporating more jalepeños into their recipes, including a jalepeño cilantro hummus. Quaranto says they’ll be adding lots of new menu items throughout 2017 as well, diners just need to stay tuned to their Facebook and Instagram pages. “We are continuing to offer more jalepeño options and working on some amazing new plates that we can’t wait to serve up,” he adds.

No matter what their name is, fresh food and daily favorites from shawarmas to gyros and platters keep loyal customers coming. However, there is one more key ingredient: “Experience,”  Quaranto answers. “Recipes learned over a lifetime, only the freshest ingredients and a lot of love. It sounds hokey but when the owner and staff of a restaurant truly and genuinely care—I don’t care what kind of food they are serving—you will taste the difference.”

Others dishing up some of the best Mediterranean fare on 2017’s poll are The Greeks (28%) and Olympia Restaurant (26%).  —Shannon Gentry

TWISTING TRADITIONS: Joseph Hou takes another win for his eatery Szechuan 132, Best Chinese Restaurant 2017, which recently began introducing new menu items with traditional Chinese cuisine twists. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

TWISTING TRADITIONS: Joseph Hou takes another win for his eatery Szechuan 132, Best Chinese Restaurant 2017, which recently began introducing new menu items with traditional Chinese cuisine twists. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

CHINESE: 
Szechuan 132—43% votes

Joseph Hou says 2016 was a very exciting year for Szechuan 132, starting with adding new top-sellers to his menu. Su Yeun Shrimp, Sriracha Shrimp, Chinto Box, and Laksa Beef are all the latest from Wilmington’s Best Chinese Restaurant, as declared by encore’s readers. If diners are trying to decide which new dishes to try first, Hou has a recommendation:

“Hands down I would suggest the Chinto Box,” he asserts. “This exciting dish consists of homemade chicken dumplings, fresh ginger salad, crispy chicken and shrimp, and a healthy serving of brown rice all in one box with our mouthwatering spicy cactus sauce.”                       

Hou’s small, family-owned restaurant is well on its way to two dozen awards for their traditional, yet innovative take on Chinese cuisine. Their expansive lunch, dinner and pre fixe menus have something for adventurers (like Rabbit In Wild Cherry Brandy Sauce—a Canadian delight) or traditionalists (Peking Duck). By offering a variety of dishes not commonly seen on other Chinese restaurants’ menus, such as Tibetan Lamb or the gluten-free Cape Fear Treasure seafood stir-fry, they try to provide “a new perspective on what it’s actually like to dine on authentic Chinese food.”

“We at Szechuan 132 help define and expand Chinese cuisine by taking our food a step up from what Americans view as traditional Chinese food,” Hou adds.

Since opening in 1988, Hou says the most challenging aspect of being a restaurant owner/manager is the amount of training and initial oversight involved in anything from culinary and food safety training, to creating a staff culture which values and offers an appropriate level of customer service. “I strive to keep people loyal, healthy, motivated, disciplined, and focused on working together as a team,” Hou explains. “We are constantly assessing what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong, too. The things that need to be revamped may call for changes ranging anywhere from a change in staff to a simple menu revision.”

Hou most recently updated the restaurant to look more aesthetically fresh and modern. They remodeled their bar area, decorated walls with new artwork, rearranged their wait station for efficiency, installed new light fixtures in the kitchen, and created a new wine list.

“Making these small changes is undeniably worth every penny of our effort,” Hou says. “There is no perfect or special recipe for success in our industry, but there are a few things you can do to put your restaurant in a better position.”

Aside from owning the joint, Hou’s number-one job is to make sure every customer leaves satisfied. Meeting not only expectations of food and service, but also keeping his cool in crisis is key. “Understand what the experience is like for your patrons, get feedback and figure out what is working and what needs to be improved,” he advises. “Stay focused!”

Folks should look out for more additions to Szechuan 132’s menu in 2017 and keep up with the newest info from the restaurant at www.szechuan132.com.

Also topping our readers’ poll for Best Chinese Restaurant are Double Happiness (39%) and Chopstix (18%) —Shannon Gentry

OHANA: It’s all about the “love.” Surfers Healing board member Rob Kelly poses with his girlfriend, Kelly Morley. Surfers Healing was the beneficiary of the 2017 Best Of awards and fundraiser which garnered over $12,000 in monies for the annual surf camp it holds for children with autism. The nonprofit also will host a Captain’s Choice golf tournament on Mar. 31 (see ad page 44). Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

OHANA: It’s all about the “love.” Surfers Healing board member Rob Kelly poses with his girlfriend, Kelly Morley. Surfers Healing was the beneficiary of the 2017 Best Of awards and fundraiser which garnered over $12,000 in monies for the annual surf camp it holds for children with autism. The nonprofit also will host a Captain’s Choice golf tournament on Mar. 31. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

BURRITO:
Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn—68% votes

Thai Mee Up. Wok on the Beach. Treehugger. Big Jerk. Each burrito is almost as synonymous with Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn as the infamous Flaming Amy itself—stuffed with chipotle peppers, fresh jalapeños, green chilies, Flaming Hot salsa and more, it’s the hottest thing on the menu. “We are something different,” owner Jay Muxworthy says of their offerings. “Not your typical burrito place, our variety is what I believe sets us apart. Hot, fast, cheap and easy!”

Their variety, creativity and service continue to set them apart on encore’s Best Of poll as well. Taking home another Best Burrito award in 2017, Muxworthy is already surprising patrons with new (limited-time) specialties. A green-chile pork burrito—inspired by a trip out west—came and went in a flash, but Muxworthy took to Facebook last week to tease his tribute to St. Patrick’s Day: The Shepherd’s Chimi. An idea loosely based on another seasonal craze, Thanksgiving’s Churkeychangas, this deep-fried burrito stuffed with mashed potatoes, meat and savory fillings won’t last long.

“We just keep on trying to give the people who come quality food in a unique environment at a reasonable cost,” Muxworthy promises. “Variety and the unique selection of burritos and salsa is what sets us apart from other burrito places and keeps people coming in the door!”

After 17 years here in the Port City, Wilmingtonians are finding more and more Flaming Amy’s across ILM. They expanded from their original concept at Oleander Drive with Flaming Amy’s Bowl out on Shipyard Boulevard in 2008. Still a fun and funky environment, Flaming Amy’s Bowl is more a build-your-own adventure with rice, noodles or flour tortilla topped with endless varieties and combinations of sauces, proteins and veggies. They’ve since opened a second Bowl in Northchase in 2015 and then another Burrito Barn out in Carolina Beach in the same year.

Each Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn offers the staple menu items, including build-your-own or specialty quesadillas, bowls, salads and desserts. However, out at their Carolina Beach locale only, folks can get their burrito and brunch fix on Sundays from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Whether looking for Taco Huevos or a new twist on a Southern staple like Sontino’s Shrimp N Grits Burrito, pair it with the perfect brunch cocktail from their Build Your Own Bloody Mary Bar.

With all of the growth, consistency remains key. Yet, Muxworthy admits, it can be hard to keep up with themselves at times. “As the company grows and people come and go,” he says, “It is tough to make sure that the food quality and service quality remain the same or improve.”

Flaming Amy’s has become a staple in the community for their unique burritos and salsa bar, and their philanthropy as well. Their latest philanthropic endeavor, Local Love Salsa, offers a portion of Pineapple Jalapeño Salsa sales to local nonprofits. For the entire month of March, their partner is Open House Youth Shelter of Coastal Horizons Center—an emergency shelter for youth.

“I like to keep giving back to the community that supports us,” Muxworthy says. “I think that is very important and one of the reasons we have made it this long.”

Runners up are K-38 (22%) and Beer Barrio (10%). —Shannon Gentry

FRESHLY BAKED: Rob Cooley, owner of Apple Annie’s Bakeshop, scores Best Bakery and Best Desserts for 2017. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

FRESHLY BAKED: Rob Cooley, owner of Apple Annie’s Bakeshop, scores Best Bakery and Best Desserts for 2017. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

BAKERY, DESSERTS:
Apple Annie’s Bakeshop—51% votes, 46% 
votes

In the world of chocolate cakes, gingerbread cookies, canollis, eclairs, and other treats that bend the sweet tooth, Apple Annie’s Bakeshop can’t be beat on encore’s poll. Again in 2017 they’ve swept Best Desserts and Best Bakery categories because their products are dependably delicious, whether celebrating a birthday, anniversary, holiday, or a nice, hot cup of morning Joe.

“We have customers who grew up eating our adorable character cupcakes and are now introducing them to their children,” Krissy Mingia, marketing director, says. In fact, just in time for Easter and St. Patrick’s Day, they’ll be doling out bunnies and rabbits, and shamrocks and leprechauns to nosh. “The recipe for success in our case is providing first-rate customer service and a quality product. When something has been working for over 32 years, you don’t mess with it.”

While sweets may be local’s faves, Apple Annie’s bread and butter, so to speak, comes from their wholesale line from their bakery. They provide local eateries like Poe’s Tavern, Copper Penny and A Taste of Italy, to name a few, all bread for their top-notch sandwiches and burgers. “So not only are we a staple on the culinary scene in our own right, but we support many of the best restaurants in town as well,” Mingia praises.

Yet, they’re always adding to their ever-evolving menu to keep the town raving. They’ve included a rustic Italian loaf to their menu, most recently, which provides a crispy outer layer and a chewy crumb. “It’s perfect for mopping up sauces and dipping in olive oil,” Mingia notes.

They also have added treats for four-legged fur babies. Dogs will be able to enjoy handcrafted biscuits and such, with the Apple Annie’s stamp of approval. Folks who live outside city lines will be excited to hear about Apple Annie’s expansion into Brunswick County, coming this spring. “This has been a long-time coming,” Mingia states, “and we are thrilled to be adding a location for our customers who live in the Leland area.” They’ll be combining the sweet and savory goodness of the bakery and pairing it with their other storefront, The Wine Sampler, and making it an all-in-one-shop called 80 Barnwell.

“We wanted to offer a destination where you could pop in for a cup of our proprietary blend coffee and a freshly baked croissant in the morning or enjoy a complimentary wine tasting with delicious desserts in the evening,” Mingia says. “Our menu will be expanding to offer savory lighter fare, like paninis, soups, and cheeses and charcuterie—all designed to be paired with our freshly baked breads.”

Other bakeries rising on the poll are Sweet n Savory Cafe (35%) and One Belle Bakery (14%), while dessert contenders consist of Sweet n Savory Cafe (36%) and Circa 1922 (18%).

 

SALADS:
Rucker Johns—41% 
votes

Wilmington is full of active folks: runners, swimmers, bikers, surfers, and so on. Sometimes diners just want something light and healthy to munch; something that’s filling, delicious, but not a draining trip to food-coma city. Salads get a bad wrap as “rabbit food.” And who doesn’t have a die-hard meat-eating friend who often jokes: “Salad is my dinner’s dinner.”

However, RuckerJohns knows better—and they know salads. They’ve been nominated for Best Salads on our readers’ poll several times throughout the years and 2017 is their first win in the category.

“Winning this award is great,” General Manager Thomas Woodman says. “Maybe a few folks will come down to Monkey Junction and give us a try.”

Some of RuckerJohns’ bestsellers are the Seared Tuna Salad and Grilled BBQ Chicken Salad. RJ’S Spinach Salad not only starts with fresh spinach, real bacon, eggs, fresh mushrooms and homemade croutons, but is served with their own blend of Hot Bacon-Honey Mustard dressing. The Key West Salad offers a tropical twist with fresh melons and seasonal fruits, choice of chicken salad or low-fat cottage cheese, and served with creamy orange dressing on the side. RJ’s House Salad—served in a frozen bowl with crisp salad greens, chopped tomatoes, eggs, bacon and croutons—can also be paired with the soup of the day. Plus, no matter which salad diners choose to nibble on, everyone gets a flaky honey butter croissant with it.

All of their dressings are made in-house, too. From Buttermilk Ranch and Thousand Island, Cajun Catalina to Bleu Cheese, to Honey Mustard, Fat-Free Italian, Raspberry Vinaigrette or Sun-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette, folks have their pick. “All ingredients are cut fresh everyday, and/or made in-house,” Woodman adds. “I give a great deal of credit to our staff, they strive for high quality and most of all consistency with the product.”

Woodman points to Kitchen Manager and Chef Danny Ciciretti and Johnny Nalepka for their culinary creativity. Aside from their devotion to using fresh, local ingredients—which is consistent throughout their entire menu—they’re continuously inventive with their daily chalkboard specials.

“[Ciciretti] is going on his 17th year with RuckerJohns and has been a chef for 30,” he explains. “[He] specializes in Italian but I haven’t found something he can not cook. And Johnny Nalepka has been with the company for five years.”

While Woodman says their Wilmington spot has no plans in the near future, their Emerald Isle eatery is about to reopen its doors after a two-month hiatus. They have completely renovated the entire restaurant. “Everyone is very excited to see the new and improved RuckerJohns,” he tells.

Readers can find RuckerJohns’ full menu online at www.ruckerjohns.com.

Also tossing the best salads on encore’s 2017 Best Of are Brasserie Du Soleil (37%) and Jester’s Cafe (22%). —Shannon Gentry

BUFFET, FRIED CHICKEN, SOUL FOOD:
Casey’s Buffet—44% 
votes, 54% votes, 35% votes

Casey’s Buffet, Barbecue and Home Cookin’ has been serving locals soul food “just like mom used to make” since opening in 2005. Southern comfort is their bread and butter, so to speak. According to our readers’ poll each year, Casey’s Buffet is the place to go for a lot of good food for a good deal—and perfectly fried chicken. Once again they’ve decidedly swept encore awards for Best Buffet, Best Fried Chicken and Best Soul Food.

Perhaps their popularity also stems from one key philosophy: The customer is always king at Casey’s. At least, that’s what owner Larry Casey tells encore after every win each year. “Every customer is treated equally,” he’s told encore time and again. “We are grateful for each and every [diner].”

Casey’s recipes date as far back as the 1800s, ranging from pulled-pork BBQ and chitlins, to chicken gizzards, pot roast, meatloaf and every other Southern staple one can think of. Casey’s is known statewide and nationally for its buffet—most recently ranked on Yahoo Travel’s list for best buffet in NC in 2016. Their golden-fried chicken, however, is what Wilmingtonians tend to load their plates with. And load them, they do.

Casey’s all-you-can-eat buffet is a tasty challenge lots of folks happily accept as they make second and third trips for their favorite dish featured on the line that day. Anything from farm-raised catfish to traditional green beans, mac ‘n’ cheese, collards, black-eyed peas, and dozens of other sides are listed daily at Casey’s website. As well, Casey’s brings soul food right to diners’ doors with catering services. (Anyone who came out for the Best Of Awards party in February got a nice sampling!) Take-out specials and plates are available, too, for folks in a hurry to get home for dinner. Customers should note Casey’s is Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Diners can find more at www.caseysbuffet.com.

Wilmingtonians also pile their plates at Boca Bay (35 %) and Golden Corral (11%) buffets. While newcomer Bill’s Front Porch (33%) and Smithfield’s (32%) are cooking in Best Fried Chicken, The Basics (31%) and The Sawmill Restaurant (25%) are ranking again in the Best Soul Food category. —Shannon Gentry

DOGGONE DELISH: (Above) Trolly Stop owners at Fountain Drive, Kathy and Rich Walsh, accept the award for the Best Hot Dog, continuing their winning streak for more than a decade. • (Left) The PT’s Olde Fashioned Grille crew take home a duo of awards for Best Burgers and Best Fries in 2017. Photos by Chris Brehmer Photography.

DOGGONE DELISH: (Above) Trolly Stop owners at Fountain Drive, Kathy and Rich Walsh, accept the award for the Best Hot Dog, continuing their winning streak for more than a decade. Photos by Chris Brehmer Photography.

HOT DOG:

TROLLY STOP—47% votes

Anyone who has spent summers at Wrightsville Beach knows a trip to the Trolly Stop is a must. Located in the exact spot where the first stop on the trolly line used to be on the island, Station 1, as it’s known, opened in 1976 by BC Hedgepath. Hedgepath only operated Trolly Stop Station 1 for a year before selling it to Ron and Winnie Krueger, who operated the eatery for 19 years before Rick and JoDeane Coombs took over in 1996.

The Coombs expanded the hot dog haven into downtown and Southport locations. When JoDeane passed away, Rick continued running the business, and began franchising it out to others, which now includes the Fountain Drive location at UNCW.

Today the menu has evolved from serving only hot dogs. It includes hamburgers,  nachos and sides, like homemade baked beans, chili and cole slaw. However, the dog—whether original pork, smoked sausage, Sabrett beef, vegetarian, or fat-free turkey—remains the top seller.

The variety of ways a Trolly dog comes cannot be topped (pun intended). Their Mexican flavor is packed with three strips of bacon, salsa, cheese, onions and jalapeños, while their well-known Surfer Dog gets filled with mustard, cheese and Baco bits. The North Carolina comes just how any born-and-bred Tar Heel native would expect: deli mustard, chili and slaw. The German (deli mustard and kraut) and Chicago (deli mustard, Chicago sauce, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers) will tantalize taste buds for other regional twists.

Of course, plain ol’ ketchup and mustard can be ordered, too. However, when going for the sauce, Trolly Stop bottles their own: chipotle hot sauce, which has adds a smoky kick to any dog, burger or fry.

Other doggone delicious dogs topping the poll include Charlie Graingers (34%) and Paul’s Place (19%). —Shea Carver

BURGER RUN: The PT’s Olde Fashioned Grille crew take home a duo of awards for Best Burgers and Best Fries in 2017. Photos by Chris Brehmer Photography.

BURGER RUN: The PT’s Olde Fashioned Grille crew take home a duo of awards for Best Burgers and Best Fries in 2017. Photos by Chris Brehmer Photography.

BURGERS AND FRIES:

PT’s Olde Fashioned Grille—48% votes, 48% votes

After more than 20 years of collecting encore awards, PT’s Olde Fashioned Grille once again took home Best Burger and Best Fries prizes in 2017. Joe Pate, owner of PT’s 17th Street location, said last year that each Best Of award meant a little more pressure to win the two categories.

Pate began his career at Fountain Drive in 2000, where he bought into the business and opened his second restaurant on 17th Street in 2003. “There are many challenges in the restaurant business accompanied by many rewards,” he told. “I’d have to say I love the people aspect of the business the most.”

In addition to their niche in fast and casual burgers, including turkey, veggie and black bean options, their chicken, turkey and roast beef sandwiches can be dressed any way customers like. Each person picks up a menu slip, checks off a sandwich and toppings they’d like before handing it to the cashier for quick service.

There are five other PT’s in addition to Pate’s two, including Military Cutoff Road, Monkey Junction, Porter’s Neck, Leland and Goldsboro. Not to mention a PT’s food truck ready to park their grub at any business event or cater any function. The French fries are fresh-cut and seasoned to perfection with a special blend of spices and pair nicely with their made-to-order, fresh-squeezed lemonade. No matter which PT’s folks find themselves in, each follow a simple award-winning recipe for success that remains as consistent as their menu.

“The restaurant business is hard enough without having to constantly change who/what you are doing,” Pate said last year. “We have a certain identity that we won’t stray too far from. . . . It’s hard to get much simpler than we already are, and we certainly don’t want to make it complicated.”

Hungry readers can find menus and more information about PT’s various locations and food truck at www.ptsgrille.com.

Fork n’ Cork (27%) and Winnie’s Tavern (25%) also made encore’s poll for flipping fabulous patties. Copper Penny (30%) and Five Guys (22%) also made it on the list again for Best Fries. —Shannon Gentry

IRON WIN: Cast Iron Kitchen took top votes for the Best New Restaurant in Wilmington, NC. Chef Josh Petty (center, glasses) and wife, Drea, (behind him, glasses on head), and their staff cut up for photographer Chris Brehmer when receiving their award.

IRON WIN: Cast Iron Kitchen took top votes for the Best New Restaurant in Wilmington, NC. Chef Josh Petty (center, glasses) and wife, Drea, (behind him, glasses on head), and their staff cut up for photographer Chris Brehmer when receiving their award.

NEW RESTAURANT:

Cast Iron Kitchen—40% votes

“Getting the honor of winning Best New Restaurant means all the hard work, long hours, the ups and downs of starting a restaurant paid off,” Cast Iron Kitchen’s owner, Chef Josh Petty, says of his debut on encore’s Best Of poll. “It puts [Cast Iron Kitchen (CIK)] on the growing culinary map in ILM and southeastern NC. It also, means that we (CIK) have wonderful, talented and loyal staff that was a very important reason we were able to get this honor.”   

Focused on dominating breakfast and brunch, Petty is serving up tasty Southern fare like the Dirty South Biscuit: Southern-fried chicken tenderloin, bacon, runny egg, Muenster and pepper jack cheeses with sausage gravy. There’s also Not My Momma’s Meatloaf Sandwich, which calls for ground beef and pork in the loaf, topped with fried egg, caramelized sweet onion, lettuce, tomato, aged cheddar, herb aioli and Texas Pete Hollandaise.

Other hot items off CIK’s praised menu are classics like Biscuits and Gravy, Shrimp and Grits, Chicken and Waffles, and Corned Beef Hash. Also, his housemade country, chorizo and turkey sausages have been a hit with diners.

“[We’re] Southern cuisine with charm and a unique perspective,” Petty describes. “2017’s menu is going to stay the same, we are going to kick up our daily chalkboard specials, using more local farmers and NC ingredients.”

Local and regional purveyors include Lorek Farms, who provides radishes, sweet corn, melons, cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes and assorted peppers; Cottle Farms sends fresh berries, sweet potatoes and greens; Heritage Farms is where Petty gets fresh pork; and Carolina Farmin’s local produce, breads and pastries are also stocked at CIK.

While their award-winning menu isn’t going to see a lot of change this year, there are plans for more monthly wine dinners and “Picnic Pick-up” cold sides and salads for boat trips and beach days. Folks can find Cast Iron Kitchen’s full menu at www.castiron-kitchen.com.

Also reserving spots on encore’s poll for Best New Restaurant are Bill’s Front Porch (37%) and The District (23%). —Shannon Gentry

PLACE FOR FIRST DATE:

The Little Dipper—42% votes 

Like a fine wine or perfectly cooked steak, a good first date should be savored. Yes, while first dates can be full of uncertainty—or be the beginning of the end of one evening together—they can also mark the start of something beautiful. First dates are often the beginning of a couple’s story and many Wilmington sweethearts continuously vote The Little Dipper as the best place for people to start their story.

“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.”

Like the cheese and chocolate fondues, Gruodis and his staff want diners’ concerns to melt away at the door. They’re not only guiding folks through their menu but also a fun time, so people can focus on the person they’re with—whether it’s a first date or 50th anniversary.

“We are able to offer high-quality ingredients, unique dipping sauces,” Gruodis adds, “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.” 

While The Little Dipper fulfills a niche with fondue, Gruodis explains their biggest challenge is finding new ways to grow creatively. As well, with so many great options in downtown ILM, they must work extra hard to stay in diners’ rotations.

“We always want to continue to develop new ideas and sometimes that’s a challenge year after year,” he says. “So we rely on the whole team to work together to brainstorm and take some leaps of faith from time to time.”

While their dinner and deck menus will remain full of favorite premium and classic cheeses for dipping fresh veggies, meats and seafood, The Little Dipper is planning to add additional à la carte items to their offerings in 2017 to give diners more opportunities to create their ideal meal with as many, or as little courses they would like.

“Our menu will always have our staples that our long-time customers come back for time and time again,” Gruodis promises, “but we are always evolving and looking to offer something for everyone.”

Of course, if the date is going well, couples who stay for dessert can get their fill of fresh fruits and treats to dip in various fine chocolates.

Runners up in encore’s poll for Best Place for a First Date are Airlie Gardens (38%) and The George (20%). —Shannon Gentry

DELI, HOMEMADE SOUPS, LUNCH, SUB/SANDWICH SHOP:

Chops Deli—54% votes, 45% votes, 61% votes, 58% votes 

Best Lunch. Best Deli. Best Sub/Sandwich Shop. Best Homemade Soup. It’s hard to keep count of all the Best Of awards Chops Deli is taking home in 2017, let alone how many they’ve collected since opening in 2009. Year after year, encore readers dub Chops their favorite collection of locales—now a total of five properties, including sandwich shops in downtown, near Wrightsville Beach, Monkey Junction and Barclay Commons, as well as a diner on Castle Hayne Road. Aside from rapid expansion in recent years, Chops Deli co-owners Brad Corpening and Chris Graham also updated their downtown store in 2016, switching from counter service to table service.

“It took some getting used to for us and our customers,” Corpening admits. “The real challenge has been to work through the transition and maintain our standard of quality service that our customers have become used to at Chops.”

Corpening and company have always placed a priority on building relationships with their customers. Regulars know Corpening’s famed chops decorating his warm smile—often taking time to greet customers no matter how busy it is. It’s the personal and friendly service, partnered with quality products, that Corpening says have become hallmarks of many locally owned businesses in Wilmington.

“We all set ourselves apart from bigger, national chains by adding our own personal touch and exemplifying the charm of Wilmington!” he asserts. “We certainly make sure to provide high-quality food for our customers and I think that (coupled with people’s personal investment in Chops) is what translates into people taking the time to cast their vote for Chops.”

Folks in need of a hearty and tasty lunch can find classic Chops staples, such as the Tripoli filled with pastrami, corned beef, rare roast beef, sharp picante provolone and fixin’s, or the Wilmington’s Carolina pulled pork BBQ with homemade BBQ sauce and slaw. Any of their signature sandwiches—or daily special—can come with a bag of kettle chips and pickle, or an original soup or mac n’ cheese of the day. Their wraps and salad options are just as filling and tasty, too, with more than a half-dozen dressings to choose from.

While there aren’t any plans for new permanent additions to the menu in the coming year, Corpening assures regulars and new customers alike can always find the “same great sandwiches that you know and love” at any Chops Delis. 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 Charlie Graingers (22%) and Cousins Italian Deli (17%). Building Best Sub/Sandwiches are A Taste of Italy (25%) and Cousins Italian Deli (17%). The Best Delis in ILM include A Taste of Italy (32%) and Temptations Everyday Gourmet (14%). Ladling Best Homemade Soups are Pine Valley Market (37%) and Cousins Italian Deli (18%). —Shannon Gentry

COFFEE SHOP:

Bitty and Beau’s—59% votes 

Another freshman on encore’s Best Of poll is Bitty & Beau’s Coffee shop. Voted Best Coffee Shop, they first started on Kerr Avenue in a 500-square-foot space in January 2016. However, a mere six months into business, they moved into their current 5,000-square-foot locale on New Centre Drive.

“Through the generosity of the Rippy family, we were able to grow into the old Hummer building on the Rippy Cadillac lot,” says founder and CEO Amy Wright. “From day one we were bursting at the seams in our 500-square-foot shop. It simply could not accommodate the crowds that showed up day after day. . . . We love our community and appreciate the support they have shown Bitty & Beau’s Coffee. This award means so much to us!”

“A human rights movement disguised as a coffee shop,” Wright and company were inspired to open their shop by their two youngest children, Bitty and Beau, who both have Down syndrome. Through a simple business plan, they’re challenging and changing the way people see others. From taking orders to making lattes, Bitty & Beau’s is operated by roughly 40 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

“Our shop puts people with Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy on the front of our business,” Wright explains, “giving customers an unparalleled experience—one that leaves them wondering how this population of people has been overlooked and marginalized for so long.”

While their business model is unprecedented locally, Bitty & Beau’s products are great, too. Named the Official Coffee of the “Rachael Ray Show,” Wright says they’re already thinking of more expansion throughout this year.

“We plan to open at least one more Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in 2017,” Wright divulges. “We’re currently trying to decide where to open our next location. We’ve launched a social media campaign asking our followers to tell us where they think we should open the next shop by tagging their posts with #bittyandbeausgrows.”

Readers may find more on Bitty’s & Beau’s Coffee at www.bittyandbeauscoffee.com.

Brewing up points for Best Coffee Shop on encore’s 2017 Best Of poll are Port City Java (32%) and Java Dog (9%). —Shannon Gentry

FOOD TRUCK:

Catch the Food Truck—46% votes 

Wilmingtonians are quite aware of local chef extraordinaire Keith Rhodes, who got his start at downtown’s fine-dining establishment, Deluxe, more than a decade ago. Rhodes went on to open his own restaurant, Catch Modern Seafood, in downtown Wilmington, before expanding the eatery to Ogden in its current home, 6623 Market St. As part of the chef’s and restaurateur’s evolution—including a stint on “Top Chef,” the Texas edition, and the opening and closing of downtown’s Phun noodle bar—Rhodes took Catch on the road a few years ago. Today Catch the Food Truck continues serving folks quick, fresh seafood in fun ways all over town.

“Being able to keep up with the demand, has been the biggest challenge,” Rhodes’ wife and marketing director, Angela, says.

The truck can be found every weekend at local breweries and pubs, as well as at special  gigs, weddings and parties. “We work five days a week,” Rhodes tells. And that’s outside of running their full-dine-in restaurant, Catch, nightly, Tuesday through Saturday.

While Catch is known for elaborate dishes like the Angry Lobster—a full lobster over fried rice—its baby food truck serves lobster sliders. In fact, the food truck serves easy-to-eat items like tacos and smothered tator tots, or roasted Brussels sprouts with truffle and Parmesan, popcorn bay scallops or Cajun Carolina shrimp.

“We will be featuring  new taco salad and quesadillas soon,” Rhodes tells. “We try hard to keep the menu consistent and exciting. But with the various venues we pride ourselves in great customer service.”

Rhodes focuses only on seasonal and local ingredients to ensure every bite is as spectacular as if diner’s caught the fish or plucked the veggies themselves. Rhodes has secured close relationships with local fishermen and farmers as such. And with the food truck, it all comes at an easy price.

“The hardest part of running the truck would be in unforeseen mechanical issues,” Rhodes admits, “but the best part is meeting new folks.”

Diners can see where Catch the Food Truck is parked by visiting www.catchthefoodtruck.com.

Other trucks parking on our poll are Poor Piggy’s BBQ and Catering (38%) and Steviemack’s International Food Company (16%). —Shea Carver

WAITSTAFF, SPORTS BAR:

Copper Penny—45% votes,

50% votes 

 Dining experiences can go downhill fast without good service. A friendly smile and knowledgeable menu suggestions can go a long way in this industry. Excellent service is what encore readers keep saying they get from Copper Penny, who’ve topped our readers’ poll again for Best Waitstaff. Located in historic downtown Wilmington on Chestnut Street, Copper Penny is also taking home the prize for Best Sport Bar.

While March Madness is certainly a bustling time for Copper Penny, this Eagles bar is busy during almost any sports season. Its atmosphere and decor is “classic sports bar,” with various team’s memorabilia lining the walls of the historic space. Their beer list is expansive with roughly a dozen rotating taps of North Carolina brews from the likes of Wilmington Brewing Company, Wicked Weed, Southern Appalachian, Oskar Blues, Natty Greene’s, Lonerider and many more.

Copper Penny’s menu also offers a little something for everyone with appetizers, salads and sandwiches—just ask the waitstaff. While spicey wings are a given for most game-day diners, Copper Penny’s menu is loaded with handmade fare like cheese steak or Southwest black-bean spring rolls, or an appetizer of sesame-encrusted Ahi tuna with ginger-cilantro sauce. Lunch and dinner menus share some of the same filling items as well, including a “grown-up” grilled cheese with mozzarella, provolone and grilled tomato on ciabatta bread. Hearty crab-cake sandwich, grilled salmon and shrimp po’boy are just a few of their seafood offerings. Then again, there’s always a half-pound short rib and Angus burger, topped any way you’d like.

With such an extensive selection of beers, mixed drinks and food, Copper Penny also has specials all week outlined at www.copperpennync.com, which is subject to change. However, folks who follow them on social media can be the first to know when a new special hits the menu or when purchases will go back to the community, such as last week’s donation of $1.09 for every pint of Wilmington Brewing Company sold going to Communities in Schools.

Making it onto encore’s list for Best Waitstaff are Indochine (31%) and Bluewater Waterfront Grill (24%). Readers also like to tune into the big game at Buffalo Wild Wings (30%) and Wild Wing Cafe (20%). —Shannon Gentry

OYSTERS:

Dock Street Oyster Bar—43% votes

It’s March! Spring weather is warming up and it’s still oyster season. Whether preferring to eat them raw, steamed or baked on a half-shell, this coastal delight will pop with every bite. For almost 20, years encore readers have chosen downtown ILM’s Dock Street Oyster Bar as the place to go for Best Oysters.

Folks have the option to enjoy Dock Street’s award-winning oysters a few different ways. Oyster Rockefeller with bacon, spinach and creamy hollandaise, start the menu and are a great way to introduce newbies. Raw, shucked oysters are offered by the half- or full dozen at market price, or served steamed. The Dock Street Steamer Platter has a bit of everything Dock Street is known for: oysters, snow crab, shrimp, mussels and clams—corn and potatoes included!

Since opening in 1999, co-owner Louise Forbes and company have worked diligently to make every diner’s experience perfect. The entry of review websites (Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc.) seem to bring even more people to their door year after year. However, one of their biggest challenges is steering people away from fried seafood—as reflected on their menu at dockstreetoysterbar.net. “We were ‘clean cooking’ before it was popular,” Forbes says. “Meaning ocean-to-plate, no fillers and no frying. Whole, clean food.”

Without a walk-in cooler, Dock Street gets daily deliveries to ensure freshness. They source their seafood from across the region—staying as close to home as seasons and availability allow. Outside factors can halt harvesting all the time, such as storms and harmful runoff, which makes securing them for Dock Street’s menu more difficult. “Oysters are seasonally bulk harvested so when we can’t get enough,” Forbes says. “We source from the next closest vendor. . . . Fingers crossed for no storms this year!”

Aside from oysters, Forbes says 2017 will continue to bring more fresh, innovative seafood dishes from Dock Street—paired with friendly service and handcrafted cocktails. “Come check us out,” she adds. “We are so much more than just oysters!”

Also shucking onto encore’s list for Best Oysters are Shuckin’ Shack (39%) and Boathouse Restaurant (18%). —Shannon Gentry

BRUNCH:

BOCA BAY—36% votes

Boca Bay has dominated the Best Brunch category since it was added to our readers’ poll in 2015. And for 2017, they officially take the title again, thanks to their massive buffet brunch offered on Sundays.

Wilmingtonians pack in for the all-you-can-eat fare from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. each week for more than traditional eggs and bacon—though, diners can get those as well. Bagels, cream cheese and lox, eggs Benedict, Belgian waffles, hashbrowns, blintzes, and so much more are aplenty at the Eastwood Road eatery. Diners can concoct their own omelet at various stations, complete with eggs, sausage, cheddar, Swiss, and veggies.

Boca Bay is a place to take parents or loved ones for a special occasion, too, as tables are donned in white with fine china. Inside or outside seating is offered. As well, reservations are a smart idea for Mother’s Day and Easte. And unless NC decides to repeal its statute on no alcohol before noon on Sunday, folks will need to stroll in at noon or after for tasty Bloody Marys and Mimosa cocktails.

Boca Bay’s dinner, bar and prix fixe menus delight any day of the week as well—and especially during Wilmington Restaurant Week, which starts Wednesday (see their menu in the center spread). They have starters like tuna tartare and ceviche, to crab dip and oysters Rockefeller, and do seafood right (see cover for scallops dish), including a slew of sushi and raw bar items. Their prix-fixe menu is offered Sunday through Thursday evening for only $26.95, which includes a starter, entree and chef’s dessert choice.

They cater parties with a hefty banquet menu, starting at $23.95 a person for their buffet option or folks can add$10.95 per person for dinner option. Their Hors d’oeuvres course can start as family style or buffet of Fried Calamari, Spring Rolls, Mini Crabcakes or Chicken Satays and more. Entree selections include multiple chicken, seafood, steak, and vegetarian options, which are all prepared to with the same quality ingredients.

And their nightly bar menu from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. features a dozen mussels for $6, oyster shooters for $4 and $2 oyster Rockefeller, made with Gruyere, spinach, bacon and cream. Sushi Tuesdays feature innovative and traditional rolls for less than $10 all evening long.

Other brunches popping onto our readers’ poll are from The Basics (34%) and Bon Appetite (30%). —Shannon Gentry

WINGS:

Hell’s Kitchen—59% votes

Tame.

Hot.

Fire.

Inferno.

Buffalo garlic.

Teriyaki BBQ.

Honey chipotle.

Blue Buffalo.

Tangy NC BBQ.

Mango habanero.

Breaded to order.

Never frozen.

Yep! That’s how Hell’s Kitchen fries up their wings for the public tod indulge upon, whether it’s ahead of one of the big games they show on their bigs screen or during half-price wing nights on Thursday from 7 p.m. to close and Sunday from 9 p.m. to close.

“What makes our wings the best in my opinion is that they are as fresh as it gets when it comes to wings,” general manager Drew Flynn says. “They’re lightly breaded and always fried in fresh oil, with about a dozen homemade sauces to choose from. We also offer our most recent award-winning savory dry rub.”

And though they tipped the winning slot for Best Wings, Hell’s Kitchen offers a full menu for folks who wish to order something different—like one of their massive, freshly ground burgers. “We do our burgers on special Every Wednesday for $6.66!” Flynn says.

They also have $1 tacos on Tuesday nights, featuring beef, chicken or bean, and menu stuffed to the gills with other options like nachos, quesadillas, fried pickles, chili and cheese potato skins, tenders, salads, pork belly sandwich, clubs, reuben, and more. “We are coming out with a new menu in a few weeks and there is a section with specialty burgers that is guaranteed to keep customers coming back,” Flynn promises.

Other wings flying onto the poll come from Buffalo Wild Wings (32%) and Wild Wing Cafe (29%). —Shea Carver

FAST FOOD:

Chick-Fil-A—51% votes

We all have seen those silly cows climbing up billboards to scrawl across the canvas, “Eat mor chikin.” It’s perhaps one of the more effective fast-food campaigns. Paired with great customer service and, well, great fried-chicken sandwiches, it’s really no surprise to see Chick-fil-A dominate the Best Fast Food category yet again on encore’s poll.

Franchisee of Chick-Fil-A at Mayfaire, Billy Lynch, is proud of his staff and restaurant for making such an impact on customers—and so many of them, in fact. Collaboratively, local Chick-Fil-As do upward of  50,000 transactions weekly.

“The original Chick-fil-A sandwich is still the most popular item,” Lynch tells. “Our Chick n Minis—nuggets served on a honey butter yeast roll at breakfast—and our frozen drinks such as milkshakes or frosted lemonade are big sellers, too.”

The fast-food conglomerate updates their menu with limited-edition and specialty items always. Currently, folks will see frosted strawberry lemonade, watermelon iced tea and even a BBQ grilled chicken sandwich on the menu. While the food always is consistent, the folks who serve customers take as much recognition for keeping everyone happy.

“Our commitment selecting the best people is what sets us aside,” Lynch tells. “Flexible scheduling, college scholarships, [the fact we’re] closed on Sunday, and the opportunity to advance are big attractors. Three of the five local franchisees started out as employees in high school. All of my 13 managers started as team members and have advanced within my organization.”

Lynch has been with the company since 1991. During that time, the majority of locations, 300, were in malls. Today, the stand-alone restaurants are a national brand.

“Our menu offers some of the healthiest options in our industry,” Lynch boasts.

Grilled nuggets and sandwiches, as well as salads of various flavors—Spicy Southwest, Coob, Grilled Market—make it easy to dine without unwanted calories and fat. Plus, they do side items that up the ante on nutrition, such as Greek yogurt parfait, fruit cup or Superfood Side, consisting of broccolini, kale and maple-vinaigrette dressing.

Other fast-food joints who zip onto our poll are Cook-Out (30%) and Bojangles (19%). —Shea Carver

BITES AND BREWS: Ellie Craig accepts both Best Appetizer and Best Brewery awards for Front Street Brewery. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

BITES AND BREWS: Ellie Craig accepts both Best Appetizer and Best Brewery awards for Front Street Brewery. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography

BREWERY AND APPETIZERS:

Front St. Brewery—42% votes, 39% votes

When it comes to beer and bites, Front Street Brewery is taking over the poll for Best Brewery and Best Appetizers in 2017. It’s no surprise, really, as the 22-year-old restaurant has accomplished many things in its young life: 1) It was the first brewery in ILM; and 2) It’s become one of the most happening restaurants to be and be seen downtown.

They continue to feed the masses thanks to the well-equipped hands of their executive chef/GM, Chuck Archer, and their head chef, Brandon “Rooster” Lance, who devise and make all recipes from scratch. The two oversee a large menu, including 18 appetizers from which to choose.

“The Low-Country grit cakes are an amazing addition to our select half-price appetizers,” sales and public-relations manager Ellie Craig says. Half-priced apps are available from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and after 10 p.m. everyday at FSB. In fact, their grit cakes come for only $2.49 during half-priced hours. “They are our take on a Southern staple: golden fried cheesy grits served with a rich Cajun Creole sauce and topped with scallions and shredded cheese.”

Also new to the app menu is a vegetarian-friendly dish, portobello quesadilla—served with marinated mushrooms, sauteed spinach, red onions, and Gouda between two tortillas. FSB will drop an entire update to their full menu soon, with the addition of poutine (gravy-covered fries, served with cheese curds).

“As for beers, our head brewer, Christopher McGarvey, and his assistant brewers, Hugh “Hootie” Slack and Harrison Parker, have gone over each of our flagship recipes with a fine-tooth comb and have developed some of the best beers we have ever produced,” Craig praises. They churn out 11 beers on tap, with five flagships available year-round and rotating seasonal selections that change about every two weeks. “By constantly evolving and improving our beer and the way we brew, we manage to stay ahead of the curve.” 

Folks can enjoy the sips with their $1.99 mug of the day everyday and all mugs 7.2 percent ABV and under are $1.99 on Tuesdays. “If there is one thing we are known for it’s good beer,” Craig praises. “If there are two things we are known for: It’s good beer and the best damn nachos you have ever had the pleasure of putting in your mouth.”

Their famed nachos are topped with slow-cooked, hand-pulled sweet chicken (a secret recipe), homemade queso, diced tomatoes, black beans, jalapeños, shredded cheese, spicy sour cream, and scallions. Craig says indulging them with Dram Tree Scottish Ale alongside is the perfect pairing. “This recipe is constantly bringing people who are afraid to drink dark beer over to the dark side,” Craig touts. “Rich chocolate and caramel malts shine in this malty, semi-sweet beer—and at 7.2 percent ABV that can be dangerously delightful.”

Other items worth a pairing are FSB’s fried-green tomatoes with chipotle remoulade and pimiento cheese, with their Coastal Kolsch, as well as the Buffalo fried shrimp, to be complimented by Port City IPA. But why take Craig’s word for it? Diners who haven’t tried a taste of FSB can head to 9 N. Front Street  from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

Other breweries making a splash on the poll are Wilmington Brewing Company (31%) and Waterline Brewing Co. (27%), while appetizers worth many bites come from Circa 1922 (38%) and Hell’s Kitchen (23%). —Shea Carver

WRITE-IN CATEGORY, BEST BAGELS:

Beach Bagels—52% votes

Oh, the bagel! That beloved round of goodness—topped with sesame seeds or poppy seeds, made with cinnamon and raisins or blueberries. Or just served plain with cream cheese. Or topped with the best meats and veggies for a perfect lunch. Or maybe with Southern delicacies like pork belly and pimiento cheese for a taste of decadence. Beach Bagels takes the write-in category this year for Best Bagels (which will become an official category on the 2018 poll).

“They are made with love!” promises owner Tony Dinorcia. “The bagels are boiled first, then baked—the traditional way. It’s a more time-consuming process than what many other bagel bakeries use but makes for a better bagel.”

Beach Bagels serves up 18 flavorss. Their most popular is by far the everything version, topped with all the zingy spices and seeds, like poppy and sesame, onion, garlic and salt. It can be used to make one of their seven breakfast sandwiches or nine lunch items. Plus, they do omelets and salads.

“We have so many ingredients, we can accommodate almost everyone’s food fancy,” Dinorcia tells. “All our menu choices are so good, it’s hard for me to pick a favorite.”

Last year, he decided to do a revamp after having bought the business in 2015. A native Long Islander, the newly minted Wilmingtonian upped the ante on flavor profiles and appreciation for customers, as tasted in The Beast. “Egg, bacon, jalapeño-cheddar cream cheese, avocado, tomato—it was the creation of two sisters who happened to be very loyal and long-time customers,” he tells. “It is now our number-two best selling sandwich.”

The number one comes with Jose (egg, bacon, sausage, provolone, cream cheese, jalapeños, onion) and the #AnnieWB (turkey, bacon, swiss, lettuce, tomato, mayo). Lotta Lox (smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers, tomato, onion) will win over traditionalists, and customers who want more options than bagels will be pleased by Beach Bagels’ additional offerings. They do more than just bagels.

“We bake Ciabatta and Kaiser rolls, as well as biscuits,” he continues. “And we carry four kinds of wraps—plain, sun-dried tomato, wheat, and spinach—along with white, wheat and Gluten-free bread.”   

Dinorcia will make more changes to the menu soon. It won’t be an overhaul, as much as tweaks to keep customers happier.

Other write-in category vote-getters are Best Metal Shop, GS Metalworks (37%) and Best Dance Studio, Techniques in Motion (11%). —Shea Carver

PIZZA PUCKERS: The staff of Slice of Life took home two awards for Best Pizza and Best Late-Night Eatery. Yet, the also won the costume contest at the Best Of Awards Party, The Beach Ball, wherein they donned their best in Baywatch wear. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

PIZZA PUCKERS: The staff of Slice of Life took home two awards for Best Pizza and Best Late-Night Eatery. Yet, the also won the costume contest at the Best Of Awards Party, The Beach Ball, wherein they donned their best in Baywatch wear. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

PIZZA AND LATE-NIGHT EATERY:

Slice of Life—40% votes, 49% votes

Porter’s Neck residents will be happy to hear they can ride the Slice of Life train in the near future. Owner Ray Worrell is breaking ground near Lowe’s Home Improvement come fall 2017. The 120-seat eatery will have garage and barn doors so the dining experience can be inside or outdoors as the weather changes. What will not change, however, is the consistency of Slice’s food, including the Best Pizza 2017, according to encore readers.

“We like to keep it simple and consistent,” Worrell tells. Thus Slice doesn’t really add new and fancy gourmet pies like other eateries. But folks will find happiness in their vegetarian or pepperoni or plain ol’ cheese all day long. And the downtown locations stay pumping late-night, too, serving hundreds upon hundred of barflies exiting their watering holes come last call. Fridays and Saturdays get packed on the Market Street at the corner of Second, where the downtown location has secured Best Late Night Eatery.

“We will have 75 or so pre-cooked pizzas ready to go on weekend nights,” Worrell says. They reheat with added toppings as need be.

“I believe our preparation for owning Slice really came from working in the business for 20 years,” Worrell notes. He worked at Slice of Life for two years before owning it. “The most eye-opening for me was when we opened the Military Cutoff location 10 years ago.”

With the beach crowd, Worrell learned his demographic was more diverse. They catered to more families than the downtown location, so they added more low-top tables for children and the elderly, instead of the high-top bar-friendly seating.

Monkey Junction opened thereafter in the Pine Valley area, and they host trivia every Monday at 7:30 p.m. as well as live music on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. The downtown location does trivia on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.

Other pizzerias slicing up the poll include Elizabeth’s (31%) and Pizzetta’s (29%). Late-night eateries include Jimbo’s (26%) and Front Street Brewery (25%). —Shea Carver

STEAK:

Port City Chop House—46% votes

“We start with high-quality center-cut certified-Angus beef steaks, season them well, and sear them over an open flame on cast iron grill grates,”  says Brian Nave, Port City Chop House general manager. They have  taken home at least a dozen Best Steak awards to date.

“[The Best Of award] means the community appreciates the quality of our menu and level of dining experience they will receive,” Nave says. “Many of our guests have been regulars for a long time and continue to support this locally owned business.”

Port City Chop House’s (PCCH) executive chef,Matt Kahrs, has been with the restaurant for 17 years. Before he was searing perfect steaks, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in several restaurants from Boston, MA, to Greensboro, NC. Cooking the best flavors from the menu combined with great prices remains the winning combination for the restaurant.

They currently are running a $22 lunch special for two and $60 dinner for two, as well as $10 appetizers at the bar from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. The Chop House dinner menu is chock full of tasty appetizers from tuna crudo and crab cocktail, to baked brie and fried calamari for starters. Delicate salads and blue-crab bisque also serve as fine beginnings before the main course.

Signature steaks include a choice of soup or salad and choice of one side item—as well can come with additions like lobster tail or sauteed onions and mushrooms. Steaks aren’t the only mains on the expansive list of entrees. Crab-stuffed flounder topped with a lemon butter sauce and roasted lobster tail are among seafood items, while chicken marsala and florentine are poultry dishes to enjoy.

“There will be a few new items coming onto the menu in April,” Nave divulges. “We usually keep most of our menu the same with standard cuts of beef, but like to add a few new things twice a year to keep some fresh options for our regular guests and try to attract some people who might not have dined with us before.”

Eager diners can visit their Eastwood Road locale or see their menu at www.chophousesofnc.com.

Also making the cut for Best Steak: Ruth’s Chris Steak House (30%) and Texas Roadhouse (24%). —Shannon Gentry

LICK-SMACKIN’ DELISH: John Hudson of Mission BBQ takes home the award for Best Ribs 2017. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

LICK-SMACKIN’ DELISH: John Hudson of Mission BBQ takes home the award for Best Ribs 2017. Photo by Chris Brehmer Photography.

RIBS:

Mission BBQ—43% votes

In 2014 the military and first responder-friendly restaurant chain, Mission BBQ, opened its doors off College Road in Wilmington. Over the last two years, they’ve continued making their Best Of stamp in sweeping the Best Ribs category. But remaining a go-to establishment takes constant work, according to general manager John Hudson.

“We have to continue to introduce ourselves to the community of Wilmington,” he tells. “We are still a relatively new brand and meet new people daily that have never been to our restaurant or given us the honor of cooking for them. The city of Wilmington and surrounding communities are growing rapidly, and we are trying to keep up our word of mouth to match the growth speed.”

Not only are praise-worthy words falling from happy customers’ mouths; award-winning ribs are falling off the bone with every bite they take. Mission BBQ keeps the cooking technique simple. They monitor the meat and right amount of smoke, wrap them precisely at the right time, and then don’t pull them ‘til they are falling off the bone.

“We dry-rub and oak-smoke our ribs for three-and-a-half hours, and let the customer decide what to sauce them with,” Hudson continues. In fact, Mission is unique in that they offer various styles and sauces from across America. They sell Carolina pulled pork, Texas brisket and sausage, and ribs straight from the heart of St. Louis and Kansas City.  They also have seven traditional sauces, including sweet, spicy, smoky, tangy, or even sauces with Old Bay seasoning. 

“We offer new promotions every six or seven weeks to keep our menu fresh for our customers, too,” Hudson explains. “We offer different proteins, from steaks or prime rib to salmon at different times of the year.  We also pair them with seasonal sides, such as potato salad or baked sweet potatoes, and our delicious desserts, such as peach cobbler.”

And they back to every community the franchise goes into, by doing charitable events and fundraisers. “We are here to serve those who serve us,” Hudson continues.  “We are in a unique position to be able to serve current and veteran members of our military, police, fire/rescue and first responders, ,and do all we can to show our appreciation for those who sacrifice for us.”

encore readers also love Poor Piggy’s BBQ and Catering (37%) and Bone and Bean BBQ (20%). —Shea Carver

Chef James Bain creates healthy, colorful and delicious food at Epic Food Company, which won Best Vegetarian for 2017. Photo by Holland Dotts for Devour

Chef James Bain creates healthy, colorful and delicious food at Epic Food Company, which won Best Vegetarian for 2017. Photo by Holland Dotts for Devour

VEGETARIAN:

Epic Food Company—38% votes

Gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan friendly, paleo friendly … it’s all welcome at Epic Food Co., which rings in Best Vegetarian Restaurant in Wilmington again in 2017.

Owned and operated by James Bain (pictured right)—a local chef who once ran the high-end restaurant Harvest Moon on Oleander Drive a decade or so ago—Epic is just as its name implies for health-conscious or morally conscious diners that choose all veggies to make up their diets. Bain touts his menu as “simple.” Though boundless options may suggest otherwise. But the beauty of it is: With over 20 vegetables, 10 sauces and 8 protein sources, customers make their own creations.

Epic offers bowls, salads, wraps, and more for breakfast, lunch or dinner—particularly for folks in a hurry. Adamant about providing customers plenty of sprouts, carrots and spinach, Bain focuses on clean cooking, with numerous ways to enjoy Epic. If folks don’t wish to make their own creations, they can depend on the chef’s specialties to help them, such as their bison loco coco bowl, which includes bison burger, topper with an organic fried egg on brown rice, house, Sriracha, and avocado sauce, pico, cabbage and cucumbers, and sweet potato chips.

“Everyone these days has a different allergy, a different diet, or what-not,” Bain told encore a few years ago when we interviewed him for our sister foodie publication, Devour. “We made a menu that gives them the option of really good meals or create an item just like they want it.” Whether a bowl, wrap, soup or salad, topped with brown rice, beans, tofu, chicken or beef, folks can pair their plates with a variety of canned and bottled beers, organic wine or sake, or a healthy smoothie.

Better yet, for families who want to provide healthy habits for their children, well, Bain is making it easy. Kids eat for free on Monday and Friday nights, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Vegetarian diners also head to Lovey’s Market (32%) and Sealevel City Gourmet (30%). —Shea Carver

CHEF AND FINE DINING:

James Doss, Rx Restaurant—42% votes, 38% votes

“I am only one member of a strong team with a shared commitment to our community,”  Chef James Doss says, humbly accepting his second win for Best Chef on our readers’ poll. “Our staff is the key to our success. I’m fortunate to have them—and our local farmers, fishermen and food producers.”

Chef James Doss is becoming a regular on our poll. His Castle Street eatery, Rx Restaurant, took home the win for Best Fine Dining this year, as well as made the running for Best Restaurant Overall. “I think we are seeing diners caring more about where their food is coming from,” he observes of his own growth and Wilmington’s culinary scene as a whole.

Since opening Rx in 2012—and his second restaurant (Pembroke’s in The Forum) in 2013—Doss has seen more eateries, both new and already established, putting emphasis on supporting local food producers. It’s part of what’s helping Wilmington grow in awareness and attraction as a dining destination, especially with continuation of nonprofit groups like Feast Down East and 40 EATS, “which we’re proud to be a part of and support,” he adds.

In our modern culinary world, wherein pre-made food and Cisco tend to dominate the food-service industry, Chef Doss says his restaurants remain unique in their traditional methods. They practice whole-animal butchery and make use of the entire animal throughout their menu. “We do things the old-fashioned way,” he tells, “where everything is made in-house.”

Doss is known for serving a wide variety of seafood dishes—made exclusively with North Carolina catches. Though they have staples like shrimp and grits and pork belly, their menu is ever-changing with seasons. Because of this commitment to local sources, such as Black River Organic Farms, Doss creates a customized menu “backward.” “It’s a different type of creativity,” he tells. “We take what’s in season and then make the menu rather than going out and buying ingredients out of season for a menu we make beforehand.”

He is excited to see numbers of sustainable food producers grow, nowadays. He now has a younger generation of NC farmers to work with at Red Beard and Humble Roots farms. However, Doss has a long-standing relationship with Black River Organic’s Stefan Hartmann—whom he has worked with since opening both restaurants.

“I’m excited about getting produce from Stefan again,” Doss says. “His crops were wiped out and the farm destroyed during Hurricane Matthew. I’m happy about the return of his organic produce, which serves as a great inspiration in our cooking.”

So far, Hartmann has delivered a variety of lettuces, garlic leeks and green strawberries. The green strawberries were used as a mignonette at Rx to go along with Topsail Sound oysters.

Still, it’s not just Doss’s philosophy, culinary training and experience that boost him and Rx. Located in an unassuming building, which was once Hall’s Pharmacy on Castle Street, Rx is as well known for their cocktails, beer and wine selection, not to mention ambiance. Their cozy layout of dark-stained wooden tables and a full bar, decorated with local fine art, curated by artist Sarah Rushing adds to the community vibe.

In fact, they’ll be opening “Tributaries: An Art Party” on Monday, Apr. 10, 6 p.m. to midnight. Rushing and Trey Alber curated the show, which has a theme of water. Live music will be played by Josh Novicki and Morgan Avery. The two-dozen or so roster of artists include Dallas Thomas, Clay O’Neal, Jarred Weinstein, Carleigh Sion, and Abby Spangel Perry, among others. Partial proceeds of sales benefit Cape Fear River Watch (encore’s Best Environmental Group 2017).

“Our goal is to continue to support our community,” Doss says. “Whether through the local art on our walls, the exclusively NC beer on our taps, or through the seasonal ingredients we use”

Fine diners are also making reservations at manna (36%) and Ruth’s Chris Steak House (26%). Also on fire in the kitchen are Keith Rhodes of Catch Modern Seafood (41%) and PinPoint Restaurant’s Dean Neff (17%). —Shannon Gentry

BAR:

Satellite Bar and Lounge—50% 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.

“Sunday nights are still consistently our busiest night,” bartender Tuki Lucero says. “People just can’t get enough of the bluegrass jam. It’s really cool to see such a diverse crowd all having fun together.”

Plus, live music on weekends are completely free! Bands play every Saturday night at Satellite. Lucero particularly is fond of April 15’s show, Must Be the Holy Ghost. “We have several local acts that rotate every few months and some regional acts that stop in fairly regularly.”

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 DJ and prizes—and the staff gets in on the fun, too, dressing to the nines and such. “We spend days putting up decorations in October and December to totally transform the bar,” Lucero tells.

However, a more permanent change is underway as Dustin Ricks, owner and operator, is transforming the back of the bar into Block Taco. “It will be like a permanent food truck,” Lucero tells. “People will order at the walk-up window but eat in the bar or backyard. We will be open for business within two months.”

Street-style tacos will be all the rage, though the flavors are being hashed out still. And there definitely will be vegan options. As well Satellite is stocking up for refreshing warm-weather brews.

“We recently started carrying several beers from Wicked Weed that have been selling like crazy,” Lucero says. “We also have a cucumber ginger cider and a mango habanero cider from Blake’s Brewing that are amazing and so perfect for summer.”

Plus, to keep the breezes flowing, they’ve changed out the front windows in the bar of Satellite, which now open up, garage-style. So, essentially, there is open-air seating.

“It’s such a great space,” Lucero praises. “We have a big, beautiful yard. Dusty 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 Brewer’s Kettle (27%) and Cape Fear Wine and Beer (23%). —Shea Carver

CHAIN RESTAURANT:

Bonefish Grill—43% votes

Wilmingtonians take great care to patronize local business—in fact, encore has a whole column dedicated to the concept! Wilmington diners, too, often support local fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And while those beloved local eateries provide a unique taste of the Port City, ILM also hosts its fair share of chains, too. Sometimes folks just want a familiar meal with reliable and friendly service—no matter where they are in the country. Taking the most votes for Wilmington’s Best Chain Restaurant for another year is Bonefish Grill.

Founded in 2000 in St. Petersburg Florida, this seafood restaurant is owned and operated by Bloomin’ Brands, which also head Outback Steakhouse—who also happened to land in second place in the category. Market-fresh fish and ingredients are found at more than 200 Bonefish Grills across 28 states.

Bonefish Grill operates with brunch, lunch, dinner and bar menus. While there’s no shortage of mahi mahi, sea bass, grouper, trout, salmon and tilapia, their menus are full of turf options and fully stocked bar for cocktails. Their daily Happy Hour, from 4 p.m.-6 p.m., features new menu items, cocktails, $1 off draft beers, $4 house wines, $5 select spirits and $6 “bar bites.” All of their fish dishes may be served with a fresh-grilled lemon or one of their signature sauces, including Lime Tomato Garlic, Mango Salsa, Herb Pesto, Pan Asian Sauce or Lemon Butter. Fish dinner can also come “Oscar-style” with lump crab, asparagus and lemon butter at an additional charge.

What also makes Bonefish Grill’s casual dining experience stand out is their methodology. All fish, chicken and steaks are cooked over a wood-burning grill. From their Fontina Pork Chop, with Fontina cheese, garlic, prosciutto, mushroom and marsala wine sauce, to their Bone-in Rib-Eye steak, their dishes are tender and burning with flavor. Not to mention a whole list of soups, robust salads, fish and shrimp tacos, fish and chips, specialty bowls and more.

All of Bonefish Grill’s menus can be found at www.bonefishgrill.com.

Coming in hot on our poll in second and third place are Outback Steakhouse (30%) and Charlie Graingers (27%). —Shannon Gentry

BREAKFAST AND DINER:

Dixie Grill—44% votes, 44% votes

Folks looking to experience a true Southern breakfast in Wilmington can certainly find it in downtown’s Dixie Grill. Few do Southern comfort and casual charm like them, which is probably why they continue to collect the Best Of accolade for Best Diner year after year. The line for their breakfast menu starts to form along downtown’s Market Street starting as the sun rises on Saturday and Sunday mornings, so it’s not a surprise they also got the award for Best Breakfast, too.

Dixie Grill has been a staple of Wilmington for roughly a century. And while the city continues to change and grow around it—literally, downtown is well into its five-year plan—business partners Brian Mayberry and Allen Quigley continue to nurture their eatery throughout. Praised for keeping old favorites while staying current with culinary trends and tastes, their chalkboard features something special daily. Their offerings range in specialty pancakes and waffles, to Southern biscuits and gravy and breakfast sandwiches, to innovative versions of hash and omelets. Their classic breakfast favorites include steak n’ eggs alongside their famed Dixie Benedict: open-faced biscuit with fried-green tomatoes, scrambled eggs and topped with vidalia onion gravy.

While their breakfast menu is expansive and popular, lunch keeps the lines forming as well. Meat lovers have options like corned-beef Reuben, classic Dixie Burger or chair-grilled Stafford Burger with apple-sage pork, sausage, and ground sirloin. Lighter fare includes the Treehugger with vegan black-bean burger stacked with melted Swiss, cucumber, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and roasted red pepper mayonnaise. Dixie’s Big Salad can fill any vegetarian or omnivorous belly, crisp romaine, broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, onions, tomatoes, banana peppers, hard-boiled egg, and fresh mozzarella. For a Mediterranean twist: The Greek Salad comes with crisp romaine, Kalamata olives, Feta cheese, banana and green peppers, onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers, tossed in a greek vinaigrette.

Though they’re no longer open for dinner hours, Dixie Grill’s bar menu continues to please at breakfast, brunch and lunch. Their list of $2 domestic and $4 craft beers pair nicely with a sandwich and sides, or opt for a $5 mimosa or Bloody Mary

Also taking nods for Best Diner are Jimbo’s Breakfast and Lunch House (34%) and Goody Goody Omelet House (22%). Goody Goody (26%) also is serving a mean breakfast alongside Sweet n Savory Cafe (30%). —Shannon Gentry

BARBECUE:

Jackson’s Big Oak—53% votes

Our Best Barbecue category is one of the most hotly contested each Best Of season. The Carolinas are already divided on what flavor and style is best, but Wilmingtonians are definitely down for the southeastern-style North Carolina barbecue served up at Jackson’s Big Oak Barbecue. For more than 10 years, Jackson’s has been smokin’ the competition in Best Barbecue and takes home the prize this year as well.

When owner Hunter Davis bought the Jackson family about six years ago, he continued their long-lasting (and award-winning) traditional BBQ recipes.

“We offer a distinctive barbecue known only to our region,” he said after 2014’s win. “[It] creates an opportunity for us to represent it the way it should be.”

Since Davis has taken over, he’s transformed the dining area, added a full-on catering truck and now Jackson’s offers delivery through Surfside Express Delivery. Their slow-roasted and hickory-smoked meats and sides are now available with just a few clicks on their website at www.jacksonsbigoak.com. Have anything delivered to your home, hotel or office any day of the week but Sunday (when they’re closed). Folks can swing by for pick up anytime as well, and grab a bottle of their famed red, vinegar-based sauce—a new offering Davis added a few summers back. Most recently, Jackson’s has been putting the finishing touches on their mobile ordering app, which patrons can try for themselves by visiting their website or texting JBBQ to 33733 to download.

Whether opting for their pork plates or fried chicken, dishes can be rounded out with Southern-side staples like mac ‘n’ cheese, collards, baked beans, black-eyed peas, fried okra and more. Diners also can enjoy $5.99 early bird plate specials, available only 3:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Choices of small barbecue, fried pork chop or fried chicken plates come with two sides. However, their special lunch combo, Jackson’s Big Oak Barbecue Sandwich and a side and drink ($7.49) is offered every day. All of their special meals, deals and merchandise can be found online or in person at at 920 S. Kerr Ave.

Other barbecue contenders include Moe’s Original BBQ (24%) and Casey’s Buffet, Barbecue, and Home Cookin’ (23%). —Shannon Gentry

DONUTS:

Britt’s Donuts—55% votes

They’re kind of a big deal in NC: donuts. Fluffy, fried dough rounds come glazed in a sugary bath of sweet goodness. I mean, Krispy Kreme was founded in Winston Salem, NC, after all. However, on the southeastern coast of the Tar Heel state, we dunk for more at Carolina Beach’s 76-year institution, Britt’s Donuts. Once again, they’ve swept the Best Donuts category on our poll.

Owners Bobby and Maxine Nivens just opened their doors for the season on Mar. 31 on the Carolina Beach Boardwalk (11 Carolina Beach Ave.). Through the spring they will operate on a weekend schedule from 8 a.m. to close (around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m.). They’ll also open shop on Easter Monday, April 17—just arrive early, because everyone is familiar with the crowds that snake around the building for folks to buy their glazed donuts by the dozens. Come Memorial Day, May 29, they’ll open daily at 8:30 a.m. and operate ‘til 10 p.m. through September before it closes for fall and winter.

Britt’s opened in 1939 by the Britts and the Wrights. But Mr. Britt sold it to the Nivens in 1974, along with Britt’s safeguarded donut recipe. The tradition has been going strong since, with the Nivens family, including daughter Lynn and granddaughter Halyn working behind the counter. In fact, Halyn Prusa and Daniel Norris authored a book about the shop’s history in 2014, which is now sold in the store for $19.99.

The shop has its own fan club, with a dedicated website, so folks can keep up with all of its dunkin’ updates (www.brittsdonutsfanclub.com). Known as the “sweetest place on earth,” Britt’s isn’t like modern-day, artisanal donut shops. They don’t offer stuffed varieties with a gazillion toppings. They stick to tried-and-true glazed in a single order ($1), by the half dozen ($5.50) or a full dozen ($8).

Other donuts keeping Wilmington diners happily on a sugar rush are Wake N Bake (35%) and Duck Donuts (10%). —Shea Carver

ICE CREAM:

Boombalatti’s—42% votes

Wes and Kristen Bechtel worked in the corporate world of America for many years. They also harbored a love for cooking, but especially making homemade ice cream for their family, including their two children. When the opportunity arose a few years ago for them to take over The Forum’s famed Boombalatti’s Ice Cream parlor, they decided it was a move they wanted to make. And the move was a smart one, as in 2017 encore readers crowned Boombalatti’s Best Ice Cream.

It starts with fresh, local ingredients that the Bechtel’s choose, including dairy from grass-fed North Carolina cows and absolutley no artificial flavors or colors. They use local coffee when possible, and they have 26 flavors to choose from, like salted almond and toffee, or banana with nilla wafers, or vegan/dairy-free almond joy. Actually, no one suffers from dietary restrictions at Boombalatti’s, as they offer three to five vegan options every day.

They’ve also expanded their flavor profiles into the local craft beer craze. They introduced a Blair’s Breakfast Stout, made with Wilmington Brewing Company’s famed sips, and they did a Swiss Cake Roll flavor made with Waterline Brewing’s coffee-cream ale. The new Wrightsville Beach Brewery even was in on the action with an Orange Crush kolsch. They offer flights of the beer creams at Boombalattis, plus they have ice-cream sandwiches to boot in cookies and cream, Andes mint and turtles in cream flavors.

Oh, and readers who want to feed a party of ice-cream lovers, well, they can opt for one of their pies. It feeds eight to 10 people and goes for $22 in multiple flavors. For instance, start with a base of Oreo, Nilla Wafers or graham crackers, and fill with homemade ice cream before adding layers of fudge or caramel, and finish with whipped topping and delicious cookies, nuts or candies. All that’s needed is a 24-hour lead time for the Boombalatti’s crew to create the tastebud sensation.

Folks who wish for shakes or malts or sundaes and banana splits, in waffle bowls, of course, can enjoy options aplenty. Boombalatti’s even make their hot fudge from scratch. And if settling on one flavor isn’t gonna cut it, they do flights of four to choose the most decadent of ice-cream flavors. Open from noon to 10 p.m. daily, Boombalatti’s serve friends and family alike with a lot of smiles and endearing encounters that makes ice cream taste all the better. Be on the lookout for their Easter flavors coming soon.

Other ice creameries churning onto the poll are Kilwins Chocolates and Ice Cream (41%) and Fuzzy Peach Frozen Yogurt Bar (16%). —Shea Carver

tacosTACOS:

Islands Fresh Mex—47% votes

Hard or crunchy. Beef or chicken. Fish or veggie. Sour cream and salsa or guacamole and jalapenos only. No matter how diners want their tacos, Islands Fresh Mex is serving up the half-moon bites by the mounds full, and once again they’re taking top votes for encore’s Best Tacos 2017.

“Our tacos are the best because they taste great and they’re the best deal in town,” manager Lucas Jones says.

In fact, their tacos are on special every single day, for $1.99 before 5 p.m. then after 5 p.m. veggie, chicken and beef are only a buck (steak, pork and tilapia are $1.99). This comes with three toppings and one sauce (additional toppings are $0.35 extra), and diners must purchase a beverage, too, in order to secure the deal. Tacos are made-to-order, so fresh is always the priority. And Islands has become so popular, they just keep expanding across the Port City.

“We have grown from one location to four locations in order for everyone in Wilmington to take advantage of our amazing food and unbelievable price,” Jones says. They’re now serving up the best downtown Wilmington, on Racine Drive, on Market Street in Ogden, and in Monkey Junction on Carolina Beach Road. Plus, they often work with local charities and nonprofits so folks are taking more than a bite out of their fave taco; they’re giving back locally.

“We work with nonprofits, charities and schools every month,” Jones says.  “We just had a fundraiser for Blair Elementary on April 4th at our 7032 Market St. location.”

Other tacos crunching onto the poll are Las Olas (32%) and Beer Barrio (21%). —Shea Carver

FRENCH RESTAURANT:

Caprice Bistro—47% votes

Caprice Bistro has taken Best French Restaurant since 2010 and with chef and owners Thierry Moity, and wife Patricia, at the helm they’ve done it again in 2017. Caprice Bistro is also back for Spring Restaurant Week (ending April 5) as well with a prix-fixe three-course dinner menu for $29.95 per person. It’s the perfect time to taste-test Caprice’s rich, filling French fare. However, diners shouldn’t fret if they miss their Restaurant Week special. Their prixe-fixe menu is offered regularly on Sunday through Thursday—not to mention daily specials posted on their sidewalk board.

From start to finish, Caprice’s menu is out to not only sate any appetite but to render it in a complete food coma. The filling fun can begin with anything from lightly fried calamari or sausage of the day or their “faux gras.” Offered warm or chilled, what makes their version of the mousse dish different from the controversial foie gras is not using the traditional force-fed goose or duck.

Their mussels are perfect for sharing, too, served in one of three sauces: curry, Marseillaise (white wine, tomatoes, garlic, basil and herbs) or mariniere (white wine, shallots, garlic, parsley and lemon juice). Daily soups, delectable salads and cheese plates round out their beginnings. Caprice’s full menu is full of entreés like their house specialty, waterzooi (assortment of fish and seafood in a herb-cream broth) and chicken ballotine (with goat cheese, spinach and natural jus). Caprice also is the place to find delicate crepes like crepe du jardin (vegetable medley in a crepe), crepe forestiere (shiitake, portabella, cremini cream) and crepe au fromage (spinach, Gruyere, Parmesan, brie, cream).

The only downfall to their dinner menu is the risk of not having room for dessert! Macarons served with chocolate mousse, triple chocolate mousse, homemade sorbet, Belgian chocolate cake served with ice cream … the list goes on.

While the Moities clearly understand what makes a superior French menu stand out above all the rest, they’ve managed to pair it with an extensive wine list, specialty cocktails and craft beers, too.   

Serving up the Best French Food to Wilmington diners are also Brasserie du Soleil (39%) and Le Catalan (14%). —Shannon Gentry

ITALIAN:

A Taste of Italy—45% 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? Well, readers of encore do. Though we don’t have separate categories for each item above, customers who dine at A Taste of Italy would agree on the one moniker it keeps taking on encore’s reader’s poll annually: Best Italian. 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, have been operating the delicatessen/market/restaurant for 20 years now. They started it by utilizing their Mom’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 those 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. “Our homemade desserts are becoming bigger than ever. Chocolate mousse, Tiramisu and big slices of NY Style cheesecake, all made in house, are hard to keep around for long.”

The restaurant caters six to eight lunches daily. Actually, they’ve increased this sector of their business tenfold and do private parties and weddings. “We have a ton booked for the remainder of 2017,” he tells. The year is starting off on the right foot with more customer benefits, too. TOI has better priced meal deals that change weekly, alongside discounts on wine by the case. “We are starting loyalty cards for all of our TOI lovers beginning April 1,” Chris shares.

And if feeding the masses isn’t enough to make the Best Italian Restaurant 2017 most popular, giving back to the community is the quintessential cherry on top. They donate to schools, law enforcement and civic organizations, as well as nonprofits. “Being a local business, we think it is an important thing to not only provide good food to everyone, but to help out anyway we can,” Chris remarks.

Other Italian eats impressing readers on our poll are Osteria Cicchetti (40%) and Roko Italian Cuisine (15%). —Shea Carver

INDIAN:

TANDOORI BITES—63% votes

First and foremost TJ Singh and his wife, Simran, thank Wilmington diners for keeping Tandoori Bites at the top of the Best Indian Cuisine poll for quite some time now. After serving around 1,500 customers a week in Wilmington, their success will expand the eatery’s reach into Fayetteville, NC.

“Our most popular items are chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken,” Singh says. “For, dessert gulab jamun and our fresh tandoori breads.”

The recipe for success at Tandoori Bites comes with quality food and customer service. “We never sacrifice fresh ingredients,” he continues. “I think that’s why we are the best Indian cuisine.”

Every dining experience at the restaurant is started with a plethora of choices—74 dishes on their lengthy menu, to be exact. They have specialties, such as lamb korma with nuts, spices and herbs in a mild creamy sauce, as well as seafood, like shrimp biryani with saffron-flavored rice, topped with the shellfish and nuts.

They also have many vegetarian dishes, including mutter paneer, with garden peas and homemade paneer, or baingan bharta with baked eggplant, flamed and sautéed with onions, garlic and ginger.

Their cozy eatery is like walking into a Far East escape, with a staff of friendly and helpful servers, as well as chefs who bring full-flavored tastes straight from their homeland.

Located across from Hugh MacRae Park, Tandoori Bites (1620 S. College Rd.) has evolved since its opening in 2010. Aside from serving a hearty lunch buffet—open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily or Sat. and Sun. until 3 p.m.—they have a full bar, an Indochinese menu and are extremely vegan friendly. Plus, they do gluten-free items and offer house specials.

“We have seven awards hanging now,” Singh praises, “so it gives me strength to work even harder for next year. Thanks to encore—this is a great program to encourage specially small business.”

Other Indian restaurants cooking up the poll are Kabob and Grill (19%) and Nawab Fine Indian Cuisine (18%). —Shea Carver

LATIN/MEXICAN EATERY:

K-38 BAJA GRILL—52% votes

I have friends who are former Wilmingtonians and have a laundry list of places they absolutely must dine when they visit. K-38 Baja Grill is on it.

During our college years, taco night at K-38 (Wednesdays, $2 hard shells) was a weekly sojourn—as was their ‘rita night ($3 on Mondays). Here’s the thing: That was (gulp!) 20 years ago. Today, K-38 is still going strong on their taco and ‘rita game. They also have half-price fajita night on Tuesdays with $1 PBRs and half-price Miller Light draft on Thursday with select quesadillas. It’s really not surprising they continue taking the Best Latin American Cuisine category, though they’re definitely dishing out more Tex-Mex food than traditional Mexican fare.

But, hey, delicious is delicious.

K38’s fish tacos are not to be messed with, only enjoyed with dripping hot sauce, avocado, salsa fresca, cabbage, and cheese, and a side of rice or beans. But if tacos aren’t going to cut it for hefty appetites, one of their many specialities will. Their Island Grouper Roll comes packed with Jerk-spiced grouper, Jack cheese, spinach, black-bean puree, and grilled pineapple, finished with a Baja BBQ and pineapple habanero sauce. And their Yucatan Carnitas are no joke: achiote-marinated, slow-roasted pork, orange salsa fresca, pickled red onion, guacamole, sour cream, jalapenos, and cilantro.

Even their lighter menu items are insane on the tastebuds, like the Baja Cobb salad with cilantro-lime dressing, which has the most refreshingly crispy and pickled red onions atop it, with egg, bacon, chicken, and avocado. Or try out their fish bowl, with beer-battered tilapia, leaf lettuce, red cabbage, mixed cheese, Roma tomatoes, avocado and cilantro, with yogurt ranch dressing. Plus, Wilmingtonians can take their pick of where to enjoy such decadence, as K38 has two locations to serve the area: Porter’s Neck Commons and Oleander Drive.

And their sister restaurants, Las Olas on Military Cutoff and Tower 7 on Wrightsville Beach, make sure diners can access their menus just as easily.

Other Latin American/Mexican eateries spicing up the poll are El Cerro Grande (30%) and La Costa (18%). —Shea Carver

BARTENDER:

IAN MURRAY—35% votes

Folks know Ian Murray for slinging superior cocktails across ILM, from Cucalorus’ annual-red carpet event to downtown’s manna. Though Murray just recently—as in last week—moved on from the Port City to Raleigh, NC, manna owner Billy Melon says it was an honor to have one of his stellar barkeeps at manna win the Best Bartender award in 2017. “I have felt our team is the best in Wilmington,” he says. “Frankly, I think they are as good as anyone anywhere.”

While Murray won for creating delightful concoctions—and undoubtedly serving up good conversations alongside them—Mellon says manna always has been a team effort. When one person wins, the entire manna family wins.

“The group of bartenders we have cultivated over the years are passionate about what they bring to manna,” he details. “They spend an incredible amount of time researching and perfecting ideas and recipes. . . . Much like our back-of-the-house operation, there are many components that lead to the end result—and everyone has a hand in that process.”

Like Murray, all of manna’s expert mixologists prepare their own tinctures, bitters and mixes to create specialized drinks daily. Their intention is to be the most innovative in the market as a whole and not just in Wilmington. As well they use fresh juices, herbs and other quality ingredients in their ever-changing menu, including their soon-to-be released spring options. “It offers a wide range of creations spread across every style,” Mellon shares.

The “Shufflin’ off to Buffalo” features Eagle Rare bourbon, strawberry-balsamic puree, muddled basil, lime, and ginger beer. For gin drinkers, the “Officer’s Shoulder Straps” uses Winston Salem’s Sutler’s gin, dry and bianco vermouth, a touch of Fee Brother’s falernum with a Green Chartreuse rinse, and scorched rosemary.

“Then for our vodka drinkers: the ‘Lonicer’s Libation,’” Mellon inrtoduces. “A bright, easy-drinking combination of Cathead Honeysuckle vodka, Lillet Blanc, Matcha honey syrup, lemon, and sparkling wine. This barely scratches the surface of what we’re offering, so you’ll have to see for yourself!”

Brandy Tomcany of Slante (33%) and Slice of Life’s Danielle Waller (32%). —Shannon Gentry

THE FINEST POUR: The Fortunate Glass bartender Jordan Culler and owner Celeste Glass accept their 2017 win for Best Wine List. Photo by Shea Carver

THE FINEST POUR: The Fortunate Glass bartender Jordan Culler and owner Celeste Glass accept their 2017 win for Best Wine List. Photo by Shea Carver

WINE LIST:

THE FORTUNATE GLASS—51% votes

It’s touted Wilmington’s premier wine bar not only from encore readers (who keep voting it the best annually, as noted by their many awards on the wall), but also by Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence. The dining public can imbibe on more than 60 sips by the glass and hundreds upon hundreds of hand-selected bottles of all flavors and price ranges. The Fortunate Glass carries the “e” again for 2017’s Best Wine List.

The Fortunate Glass is an intimate establishment right in the heart of downtown Wilmington with dark-wood decor, paired with warm lighting that sets the mood for relaxation. An impressive slate of knowledge comes from its bartenders, too, so every diner will receive top-notch sips and background on the vines they choose. Don’t know what to choose? Well, tell the bartender flavors you enjoy, and voila! A recommendation will be made in a split second.

Their wine at Fortunate Glass is stored in a state-of-the-art wine preservation system, the N2Vin, to ensure it’s served at its best temperature. Even those who are disinterested in imbibing in vino can order a cold craft beer from their list of 30.

As well, they have lots of bites created from an in-house chef who can slice up the best Italian or Spanish meats and a global variety of cheeses, or impress with numerous small plates, like the daily panini or truffled mushroom pizza, empanada or duck sliders. Diners must leave room for dessert, though. The chocolate torte or dessert trio will make the ending as sweet as the beginning.

Each day brings a new special small plate, wine and beer, and there’s a free wine tasting every Tuesday night from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Readers can check Fortunate Glass’ website (fortunateglass.com) and Facebook page for special events, such as wine and food pairings.

Other wine lists that our readers enjoy sippin from include Circa 1922 (32%) and Palate (17%). —Shea Carver

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