11 North Lumina Ave.
Bottom Line: King Neptune should be at the top of everyone’s list.
King Neptune at Wrightsville Beach has long been touted the oldest, continuously running restaurant in the county. However, nothing in the universe, let alone the county, lasts forever. Earlier in the spring, the ownership of King Neptune changed hands for the first time since Lyndon Johnson was president. Thankfully I embrace change—and in this case, I’m very glad I did.
On a temperate June afternoon, the stars aligned in one of my few treks to Wrightsville Beach: the drawbridge stayed down, the beach-goers stayed on the sidewalks, and going to King Neptune meant I could use either of the restaurant’s two parking lots and avoid the nerve-racking parking meters. Still, I felt just a touch crestfallen when I walked through the door. The dining room seemed unpleasantly Spartan—almost like the last week of school. You know that feeling: Everyone still has to show up, but no one is putting in any real effort. The paint on the walls were drab, the artwork sparse, and the giant chalkboard on the far wall stood clean and blank, like a gaping hole in the room. For a moment I almost believed they were in the process of shuttering the restaurant and halfway through the process of removing the décor.
Thankfully, looks are deceiving.
A charming waitress, with Lauren Hutton’s smile and Kathleen Turner’s voice, ran through the day’s specials efficiently and pleasantly. In fact, her service was outstanding. Never did the Diet Cokes or teas dip below the halfway mark. For someone who drains a water glass rather quickly, I am very aware of how long I have to wait for another drink. Anytime I can sit for an hour without ever feeling thirsty is an occasion to compliment the server.
The newer lunch menu at King Neptune seems to split its focus between healthier salad-based fare and a variety of sandwiches. The whole thing seems designed to move the lunch crowd in and out quickly; I think it’s rather brilliant. A restaurant makes more money if it can turn tables; for a Wrightsville Beach establishment, making a few extra bucks during summer lunch hours is crucial. It’s especially great for beach-goers, particularly ones with fussy sunburned children, who don’t have to sit around waiting. Kudos to King Neptune for realizing what its target audience needs.
My little party opted for the spinach salad with salmon, tilapia sliders and the Cowboy Burger (so named for the grilled onions and spicy, house-made barbecue sauce). Again, I tip my hat to the waitress. Without writing a word down, she correctly delivered all three of our special orders.
Fresh, crisp spinach leaves and a mildly spicy salmon fillet made the salad a hit. There’s really not much you can do to a spinach salad except ruin it by trying to overdo it. Spinach, onion, and tomato make it perfect. Anything else is just a chef trying to show off how smart he is and typically stumbling in the process. I’m pleased to say the kitchen staff at King Neptune know not to mess with a classic. Though, I wasn’t thrilled with their balsamic vinaigrette—surprisingly with a hint of cloying sweetness which added nothing. I identified the closest flavor to that of honey. I have my doubts there’s actually honey in the dressing, but, much like sauvignon blanc tastes like grapefruit, the dressing sure tasted a lot like honey.
The Cowboy Burger struck another high note. Thick and juicy with a fresh bun, each bite delivered pleasure. The candied caramelized onions mixed nicely with the fresh lettuce and tomato. The signature barbecue sauce melded a nice balance of heat and just the right tang from the vinegar. The only downfall came from its watery texture; dampened bread bothers me. Still, I can’t argue with the flavors.
The tilapia sliders are not to be missed at King Neptune. They came slightly charred with a mild smoky taste; the subtle flavor of the tilapia was never overpowered. The fish retained its juices beautifully. It made for a delightful sandwich—my favorite part of a meal I enjoyed wholeheartedly.
In the interests of fairness, I made a return trip to King Neptune to check out the dinner menu. Offering a wider variety and branching out from the standard lunch sandwich fare, dinner comes with a full-fledged recommendation as well. I opted for the caramelized salmon with sriracha crème fraiche. Once again the kitchen knew what it was doing. The fish, cooked to perfection, exhibited all the rich, fatty flavor we’ve come to expect of Atlantic salmon. The soothing crème fraiche, juxtaposed with a slint hint of garlic in the spicy sriracha, placed on top of the sweet salmon, proved a harmonious pairing.
The prices matched the service and quality, too: My lunch for three came in under $30 (at least until I tipped a very deserving server). Even my salmon entrée at dinner came in at $13.95. That’s very high quality for shockingly little money, especially considering what the real estate of the establishment (one block across from the beach) must be worth.
King Neptune should be at the top of every sun-worshipper’s lunchtime wish list. I can’t imagine what more one would want from a beach restaurant: fair prices and great food, served quickly by a smiling waitress.
Well, skipping the drawbridge traffic upon entry onto the island would be nice, too.