A wise Kenny Chesney once said, “The sun and the sand and a drink in my hand with no bottom.”
I can’t be certain, but I’d like to think he was sipping on Waterman’s West Coast Pale Ale.
With novel breweries popping up left and right in our waterside town, locals have become quite familiar with discerning the good from the great. It is beer, after all, so as my friend Ina Garten says, “How bad could it be?” OK, I’ll stop name dropping now. The point is: There are taprooms where patrons sit and stay a while, and those where one-and-done will suffice. When the news dropped that Wrightsville Beach’s longtime lush-hole Fibber McGee’s was out and a new craft beer bar was in skepticism seeped into our salty air. But once Waterman’s opened their doors, it’s safe to say they paddled directly into our hearts.
It only takes one foot in the door to realize the phrase “the beauty is in the details” must have struck a chord with the owners as they flipped Fibbers. The redesign results in an elegant, industrial atmosphere accented by exposed brick, a wood-burning fireplace, and hanging neon lamps over the bar that boast the Waterman’s logo—not to mention the decked outdoor patio with string lights and tables producing the ideal summer spot for day drinking.
So, what about the beer? Does it hold up to locals’ picky palates? Insert enthusiastic nod from all of Wilmington.
I popped in for lunch one weekday afternoon, and my date and I saddled up to corner seats at the bar. We were immediately greeted with waters, beverage lists and food menus. I typically go straight for an IPA, but with a beer board as catchy as Waterman’s it’s hard to turn down a five-pour flight. The styles won’t scare off customers by being outrageous. Expect familiar varieties, fused with assertive hop combinations and distinctive flavors and aromas. As we sipped the Plate Shifter (a West Coast pale ale), my date and I passed our tiny pint back and forth. Lemon? Pine? I dig when something hits my tongue and throws me for a loop. This soft, resinous varietal was our first sip of the flight and it immediately sparked conversation (as quality beer and food should).
In addition, we sampled the rotating IPA selection (floral, bitter, and citrusy—just how I like them); the American Red Ale with hints of warm malt; the Shoal Digger, a zippy rye saison spiked with fruit; and a robust Belgian strong ale as recommended by our server. Of course I had my preferred picks over others, but each brew radiated its own unique personality.
The menu at Waterman’s reflects its rustic charisma: laidback, yet chic with an emphasis on sandy toes. In a previous visit, I had partaken in the homemade floppy chips and beer-infused queso, and recalled a pop from pickled jalapeños and bright carrot sticks which gave the dish new life. I also tried the blackened tuna taco with kohlrabi cabbage and once again remembered high marks as the cuisine had a creative, tropical energy behind it.
For this feast, I spotted a new item on the appetizer lineup. How could I possibly turn down a dish called “If Pigs Could Fly”? The pork-cicles stood out from standard ribs, as the meat was shaped to mock a drumstick. The sticky sweet BBQ slipped right off the bone and each moist, succulent bite was worth every napkin.
Next on deck: dry-rubbed grilled chicken wings (because one meat-stick is never enough). It’s not an easy feat for chefs to impress via chicken wings around here, as most make them precisely on point or surprisingly forgettable. Waterman’s jumbo chicken drummies and wings were speckled with a smoky, salty and sweet aromatic rub, whose aroma I would consider wearing as perfume. Thanks to choosing grilling over deep-frying, the addictively juicy meat burst with smoke. A dunk into their perfect, herby homemade ranch (or sharp, creamy blue cheese dressing) and I was like, Buffalo, who?
For the grand finale, my date and I planned on splitting a sandwich. What we got was a New Orleans-style shrimp bed big enough to sleep two people comfortably.
Lieutenant Dan, is that you back there in the kitchen? Po’ boy from top to bottom, it was a fluffy, split-open buttery toasted French bread, stacked with a mountain of gloriously breaded shrimp, shredded lettuce, tomato, and tart pickle. The seasoned shrimp were crisp and light as air, and the vinegary bite from the pickle gave each mouthful another layer of flavor. As opposed to being overdressed with a heavily mayonnaise sauce, the seafood was simply accented by an exceptionally awesome, tangy remoulade. It got on my cheeks, my forehead, and in between my fingers. Not only did this enormous sandwich contain some of the most flawlessly fried shrimp I’ve ever tasted, but the price point was beyond reasonable.
On the side came Waterman’s quinoa tabouli—a nice diversion from a side salad. The garlicky bowl of nutrient-dense whole grains was crunchy, fresh and lemony.
Between the excellent customer service, eclectic menu that’s impressive without being pretentious, and the absolutely on-point house brews, Waterman’s is going to earn back every penny they put into the building.
If you need to find me this summer, you know where I’ll be.