BEST OF WILMINGTON 2011

Feb 16 • BEST OF WILMINGTON, Food & Beverage 20115 Comments

Food & Beverage

//Food & Beverage//

SEAFOOD
When visiting Hieronymus Seafood, diners shouldn’t expect frozen fish and canned goods to be slopped on a plate, and served with the proverbial hushpuppies and coleslaw. At Hieronymus, seafood only comes fresh and local, and the veggies come from the family farm. Yes, the farm! Whether ordering from their vast menu of fresh catches of the day, served one of numerous ways, like Greek-style or Italian-rubbed, or from their raw bar, where oyster-shucking is a necessity, anything ordered from Hieronymus will be a winner.

Taking Best Seafood in 2011, owners Skip and Dawn Hames run this ship like two seasoned mateys. “We offer carefully prepared seafood, fair prices and homemade recipes,” the Hames say. Pair it with top-quality staff and why wouldn’t they be numero uno?

Sticking to a simple motto or two in running their business, including “Fresh is best and that’s what we do!” or “Make today better!” the husband-and-wife duo keep close ties to the community all around. “We use local products and we’re people-pleasers,” they remark. Thus, customers aren’t just numbers on a ticket; they’re neighbors, they’re family, they’re friends. Locals get more than they bargained for from Hieronymus, like cheddar-garlic biscuits served with a smile, daily specials on food and drink and careful attention.

Other seafood houses swimming in the best Of pool include Bluewater Grill and Michael’s Seafood.

THAI/VIETNAMESE
Indochine has many elements working for it: delicious, authentic Asian cuisine, a super helpful staff, a jungle-like oasis, filled with tropical plants, flowers and oriental carpentry to adore. But owner Solange Thompson would like to see the restaurant become an educational spot, too.
“Wilmington is becoming a nice cultural center,” she says, “and I want Indochine to be an Asian Art Center for the schools.”

Every inch of the building is adorned with art work from Thaliand and Vietnam, along with sculptures and decor indigenous to the area. That it has taken Best Atmosphere numerous years running in encore’s Best Of poll is no surprise. And that it continues topping the categories Best Thai and Best Restaurant Overall isn’t only from the fresh ingredients used in delectable dishes, like panang curry or drunken noodles, it’s also because of Thompson’s number one philosophy in running a successful restaurant: “I always tell my staff, customer is king!”

Seemingly, the message has been conveyed loud and clear, too, especially when judging by the overflowing parking lot at Wayne Road and Market Street any given night of the week. Regulars are a dime a dozen at Indochine, but not one is overlooked. “I remind myself and my staff to be grateful for the business we receive,” Thompson continues. “As long as you do the job with passion and sincerity, success will follow.”

Other restaurants taking Best Atmosphere are YoSake and Circa 1922. Best Restaurant Overall nods also go to Sweet and Savory Bake Shop and Cafe and Circa 1922, and Thai runners up are Big Thai and Thai Spice.

NEW RESTAURANT
So many restaurants exist on Wilmington’s culinary scene, it’s really hard to resist the temptation of dining out daily and/or nightly. 2010 saw no shortage of new restaurant openings either, making 2011’s vote for Best New Restaurant a bit more difficult than normal. Yet, only one can win, and that one goes to the renovated spot on 9 S. Front Street: Crow Hill.

Known for their rustic cuisine, focused on fresh ingredients, prepared simply with maximized flavor, Crow Hill focuses on the seasonal goods offered from NC farms. Diners have responded favorably to their comforting menu, featuring items like NC trout, duck confit and mushroom risotto, fried chicken, meatloaf and braised short ribs. Their fish of the day always comes straight from the boat, and they even have a charcuterie plate, featuring handmade cured meats from Burgaw.

“Our concept struck a chord with the year-round locals of this town,” owner Derrick Cook says. “Keeping things local and seasonal helps us to really put everyone’s dollar back into the community.”

Having worked in the restaurant industry since he was 14, Cook’s dream has been to open his own restaurant. By focusing on consistent food, exceptional service and ambience that feels charmingly sexy—from the greyish beige walls to the dark wood, right down to the farming utensils made into beer draft handles—his dream is now reality. His commitment to continuing representing the best of downtown doesn’t flounder either.

“We want your business,” he iterates. “More importantly, we want you to be safe. If you come downtown, please drink and act responsible.”

Two other downtown hotspots round out second and third: Manna and Chop’s Deli.

BARBECUE
There’s Tennessee, Texas, Kansas and Alabama; South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri. They all claim to do barbecue right. North Carolinians do, too, and not without right. Vinegar-based, with tomatoes and seasonings, maybe some hot pepper flakes, it’s just the type of sour and sweet sauce we like over our pulled or chopped pork. Whether preferring the Western over the Eastern styles (the difference being added ketchup), in Wilmington people are continuously voting Jackson’s Big Oak the best.

Recently undergoing a management and ownership change, Sawmill restaurateurs Michael and Hunter Davis, as well as Seth Franklin, have taken over the Jackson’s family establishment. Die-hard Jackson fans can assured: The recipes haven’t changed.

“We use a secret recipe that’s been used consistently for over 25 years,” Hunter Davis says. “People know when they come to Jackson’s, they’re leaving happy.”
Having been a customer since he was a kid, Davis and his family frequented the establishment before taking over the business. Their dedication to the restaurant brims with sheer desire to continue the Jackson legacy.

“Customers come here to eat the same food and see the same faces,” Davis notes. “Keeping that criteria is my goal in this business.”

From pulled pork plates to ribs and hearty Brunswick stew, as well as BBQ chicken and sandwiches, the menu stays dedicated to the ‘cue. But for those who only want vegetables, well, they have a veggie plate, too. But why overlook what they do best? Their slow-cooked, hickory-smoked pork cannot be beat in town.
Other barbecue joints smoking out the category are Smithfield Chicken and BBQ and Casey’s Buffet.

SUSHI AND VEGETARIAN
“If it weren’t for Nikki’s, who knows if we would have ever met,” a local customer says, referring to the first encounter he had with his now-wife. “She was the veggie. I was the meat-eater.”

NIkki’s Restaurant and Sushi Bar is one of Wilmington’s most eclectic eateries. It truly appeases all palates, from vegetarians to pescatarians to carnivores. No one will be able to walk away without finding a menu item suitable to their cravings.

“Who doesn’t like sitting down for sushi and burgers with their vegetarian friends?” Daniel Roughan, area director, asks. “One world—circle of life.”

The sushi here is always appetizing and ever-changing. From rolls wrapped in cucumber (Rainbow Naruto) to traditional fish and rice (harumaki nigiri) to fanciful and innovative dishes like … sushi pizza? Trust us, it’s insane-good—a deep fried patty of sticky rice, topped with tuna, sweet and spicy sauce, avocado, roe and tempura fried crunchies. Yummo!

“We are continually trying to reinvent our product,” Roughan notes.

They also feature lots of meat-free products, like the hummus-falafel wrap, hand-made tofu burger or avocado sandwich. They make their hummus, falafel and baba ghanuuj from scratch, too.

Fish doesn’t get any fresher than here, either, which has kept them at the top of their game according to encore voters for many years in a row.

Other sushi establishments fishing into second and third are YoSake and Hiro, while vegetarian diners also enjoy going to Lovey’s Market and Tidal Creek.

FAST FOOD
This category seems to never have any real contenders to take down perhaps the friendliest drive-through employees on the face of the earth. Chick-fil-A again tops encore’s Best Of poll.

Their customer service, consistent food and clean restaurants remain memorable to all who dine with them. That they also focus on community makes them engaging, according to marketing director Valerie Watkins.

“We try to provide fun family events,” she says. They host Daddy-Daughter Date Nights, as well as fund-raisers for local schools, not to mention Family Game Nights on Monday and even a music seres on Tuesday. On the 22nd they’ll be welcoming the sounds of maracas from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Mayfaire location. “We love what we do,” Watkins continues, “and that keeps us focused on high standards.”

Compliments always run deep here, especially when it comes to customer service. “You have the friendliest employees!” often tops the list, making Chick-fil-A stay top-of-mind with our readers.

Other fast-food establishment on the poll include Cook-Out and Wendy’s.

NEIGHBORHOOD BAR
“Who are the people in your neighborhood? In your neighborhood? In your neigh-bor-hooood?” It’s a song that has stuck with me since the ‘70s, after watching “Sesame Street” to no end. Even then, they had the idea of living local down pat.

For those who’ve yet to meet our newer neighbors in the renovated area of Greenfield and 3rd streets, allow me the introduction: Dustin Hicks, owner of Satellite Bar, which also happens to be 2011’s Best Neighborhood Bar. Hicks knows his way around the nightlife scene. His talented hands have crafted and sculpted the impressive decor of the now-defunct Odessa, as well as Pravda when they first opened. Satellite can be added to his makeover list.

Its rustic wood feels much like a ski lodge tucked away in the mountains, with antiquated pictures hanging throughout, and vintage and leather furniture keeping customers cozy. The bar is really long and can house an extended family if need be. Of course, leave the kids at home; this watering hole is for adults only.
“I feel our patrons and employees feel vested in our establishment,” Hicks says. “We offer a come-as-you-are warm and welcoming environment.”

From hosting live music to cornhole tournaments to movie nights under the stars on their grassy outdoor patio, Satellite goes beyond any standard bar. In fact, one will not find pool tables or dart boards mucking up the space. This bar encourages interaction with patrons and building relationships.

Actually, living among a self-reliant community tops Hicks wishlist for Wilmington’s growing business-scape. “Customers need to support their neighborhood establishments—small grocers, neighborhood bars, churches, etc.” No matter what, though, his value always comes back to people. “Put family and friends first, business second.”

Triangle Lounge and Copper Penny host neighborly vibes, too, according to encore voters.—Shea Carver

WINGS
The mere scent of a crispy, sauce-dripping chicken wing can cause hunger pangs, and Wilmington foodies believe Wild Wing Cafe is the best restaurant to indulge in when the cravings hit.

The restaurant was opened in 1990 by a couple who wanted a casual wing place with great food, drinks and entertainment; only seven options for sauces were available then. Today, Wild Wing Cafe offers carnivores 32 tantalizing tastes, all of which are made fresh in their very own kitchen. The sauce list includes Flying Fajita, a Tex Mex flavor; Island Jerk, a light Jamaican temptation; and The General, a spin on the classic Chinese dish, General Tso’s.

On top of great wings, Wild Wing Cafe also features live music almost every night of the week. Wilmington’s location frequents encore’s music calendar, Soundboard, with listings of DJs and bands each week.

“Our food is our staple, but our band schedule has evolved to accommodate the ever-expanding crowd,” Courtney Motz, assistant manager, says.
Plus, the service is top-notch at Wild Wing. With a friendly and knowledgeable staff, comments (and votes!) pour in from satisfied guests. “Someone told Courtney [Cella, the bar manager], that our morale is the best she has seen at any restaurant, and it’s obvious we love our jobs,” Motz reports.
Second place in the wing category goes to Buffalo Wild Wings, and Katy’s Great Eats takes third.

MARTINI BAR
The Dirty Martini puts a twist on the idea of regular bar, dive, watering hole or even lounge. Wilmington’s Best Martini bar allows its patrons a more luxurious setting and a chance to sip on something a little stronger than the daily draft special.

“We offer a relaxing atmosphere to socialize with friends or network with business colleagues,” owner Mallory McCombs tells encore. “We believe the best compliments are from our customers [choosing] to spend their time and hard-[earned] money with us.”

This bar has gathered quite the following, too. McCombs says there are a lot of regulars, but no matter how full the place gets, everyone receives a homey welcome. “We pride ourselves on superior and personal service,” she explains. “We remember you and we remember what you like to drink. We make each person feel special!”

But it’s not just for the regulars. Newcombers can stop by anytime, and there’s always something going on at The Dirty Martini. “We host various events throughout the year, keeping it fresh with networking socials, local charity functions and free private parties,” McCombs says.
Other swanky stops on the martini bar path include Caprice Bistro and Cameo 1900. —Bethany Turner

HOT DOG
There are 5,000 different ways to enjoy the American classic. OK, probably more than that. With cheese and bacon bits. With slaw and chili. With onions and relish. Plain. With ketchup and mustard. The hot dog is as versatile as the little black dress, really. Wrap in a criossant for a French dog or throw it in a pastry for pigs in a blanket.

Trolly [sic] Stop does it best old-fashioned: top-slit bun, choice of all-beef, pork, vegetarian or fat free dog and toppings out the wazoo. My personal favorite—which has been for 15 years now—is the North Carolina dog: homemade chili and slaw (they make the best!) and mustard. Sometimes I throw on a slab of their housemade chipotle sauce for good measure.

General manager Rachel Willoughby takes pride in the fact that the famous hot dog stand, which got its start on the sands of Wrightsville Beach, has been doing this for 35 years! “We put so much time and quality into our product,” she says. “And our employees really care about our customers.”

Open for lunch, as well as late-night downtown, ‘til 3 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, no matter the hour someone craves a dog, they’ll always be treated like a regular. “We believe in what we do,” Willoughby remarks, “and we do the best job we can.”

With locations downtown, at Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, midtown Wilmington and in Southport (even in Boone!), a craving for a doggone delicious dog can always be fulfilled. Other dogs barking up the Best Of tree include Jeeter’s Hot Dogs and Paul’s Place.

BAKERY
Say “Apple Annie’s” any time of day, and the nearest Wilmingtonian will swoon with a story of the best [fill in flavor here] cake they ever ate. Or bread. Or Italian cookies.
The Longordo family has been running Apple Annie’s for six generations. What started as a pasta-making business in a small town in Italy in the 1800s grew into a full-fledged bakery, offering breads and sweets. Crossing continents to America, the Longordo family resided in New Jersey until 1984, when they moved to Wilmington.

Since, Christine and Gary Longordo, along with family members Frank Longordo and his wife, Aris, and all their children have been baking daily, walking in the footsteps of their great great grandfather Longordo. “We have the best products for the value,” Christine told encore last week. “We make our cakes look like works of art!”

And she’s right. It’s impossible to not eat with the eyes first, as the smooth icing blankets a moist crumb, and images of flowers or abstract designs of fancy enliven the senses. Whether going for lemon cream or strawberry shortcake, classic chocolate or vanilla, everything tastes as good as it looks.

“We offer a full line of bakery products,” Christine reminded, “cakes and cookies, muffins and pies, even gifts.” They also have a wholesale line of breads available for local restaurants.

With the goal of always making customers happy, the bake shop looks forward to another 26 years. “We hope consumers consider buying locally to help keep money in our community,” Christine noted.

Other bake shop nods went to Sweet and Savory and La Gemma.

INDIAN FOOD
Over the past six months, College Road has become a corridor of far east flavors, welcoming more than one Indian eatery to our culinary landscape. Among the choices is Tandoori Bites, located across from Hugh MacRae Park, and debuting on our list as Best Indian Restaurant.

Since TJ and Samrin Singh put their hands into the establishment, a lovely palette of regal colors and dark, cozy wood welcomes any visitor. But what keeps everyone coming back for more is the food.

“All of our chefs are from India,” TJ clarifies. “The recipes are authentic.” Among the most popular are the chicken masala and tandoori dishes. However, their delightful vindaloo shrimp and chile naan tops this diner’s fave list.

Not a stranger to the industry, the Singhs moved from Raleigh, where they ran Taj Indian Cuisine. The more laid-back pace of Wilmington hasn’t slowed them down, as Tandoori Bites continues receiving high praise and many returns from customers. “The difference here is sometimes we can never tell exactly how busy we’ll be,” he shares happily. “A Monday will be packed beyond our expectations.”

Serving a lunch buffet for $7.99 and dinners from a carefully designed menu, with prices ranging from $12 to $16, the establishment feels comforting and even a bit fanciful from normal buffet eateries. Their attention to food comes from the heart. “I started cooking because of my grandmother,” TJ says, noting over 10 years in the restaurant industry. “I love this business.”

Other Indian flavors voted among the best are India Mahal and Curry Valley.

BURRITO
Double Bypass. Thai Me Up. Tree Hugger. Baywatch. Big Jerk. They’re not names of new reality TV shows—no, no. They’re part of the burrito craze that has Wilmington eaters coming back for gargantuous bites of Best Burrito 2011. Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn keeps a loyal fanbase from its wide variety. In fact, they’ve upped the ante from beef and beans, offering fried or grilled seafood, Philly cheese steak, Jerk tofu or just all veggies.

“We keep a close eye on the restaurant,” owner Jay Muxworthy (whose wife is the famous Amy) says. “We make sure quality does not slip just because costs may rise.”

Flaming Amy’s incessant line out the door says the obvious: Muxworthy’s doing something right. “I think our wide variety really sets us apart from others.”

He and his crew also continue pushing the envelope on how far they can brand their goods, including their famous salsa. Their newest project, Operation Salsa Drop, sends salsa to troops who are serving our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their famous pineapple-jalapeño (“Shock ‘N’ Awesome”), flaming hot salsa (“Fire in the Hole!”), and traditional tomato (“TARFU”) come in 12-ounce jars and are sold for $4.50 each. The proceeds get put back into the operation of production and distribution. “Our goal is to ship one jar to a soldier for every jar sold!” Muxworthy notes.

Check out www.flamingamysburritobarn.com and www.operationsalsadrop.org for all Flaming news updates.

Second place goes to Moe’s Southwest Grill, while K-38 takes third.

CHINESE
“Thank you for adding another beautiful chapter in our history book,” Joseph Hou, owner of Szechuan 132, wrote encore last week after hearing about his Best Chinese win. Unlike the numerous fast-food delivery joints that throw noodles in a wok with extra MSG, Szechuan takes great care in creating fresh, delectable Chinese food.
But don’t take our word for it. Folks at Urbanspoon agree, like “Just Jamie” who has been a regular for 15 years. “Waitstaff is always friendly, and the owner, Joe, is always table hopping, checking on his guests,” she writes. “Great food, great people.”

Other exceptional elements of Szechuan can be found in the fact that they switch their lunch menu occasionally. They also pay attention to weight-conscious eaters, offering steamed items, fresh veggies and brown rice rather than fried or white.

Staples like Imperial Chicken and Kung Pao Shrimp sate typical cravings, while Singapore Chow Mei Fun and a surprisingly lovely Rosemary Lamb will delight the taste buds. And if an item isn’t on the menu, try asking a server about it; the kitchen staff has been known to go out of their way to please diners.

Located in University Landing, the atmosphere is much nicer than shoddy plastic booths and order-by-picture menu items. Hou not only takes pride in making his restaurant tasteful to everyone but comfortable and engaging.

Other Chinese cuisine recognized by our readers come from Double Happiness and Peking Gourmet.—Shea Carver

MEDITERRANEAN
Olympia is a delicious Greek staple of Wilmington—they’ve been fixing up Mediterranean dishes for 16 years! They offer their own originals like zucchini sticks and seafood-stuffed mushrooms, plus a traditional tomato and feta salad called “horiatiki.” Landlubbers will enjoy beef and lamb dishes, like broiled loin lamb chops. Sailors of any degree can partake in their fresh local tuna steak or fried oysters. The shrimp and scallops mykonos comes baked in a caramelized onion sauce with feta cheese.

Perhaps the most intriguing dish found at Olympia, is their Zeus platter. This entrée comes with a generous serving of hummus, skordalia (a Greek dip made with walnuts and garlic), shrimp, scallops, calamari, grape leaves, meatballs and spinach pie. That’s a lot of Greek!

Located in Bradley Square on Oleander Drive, they also provide patrons with lunch specials and a children’s menu. Kids can chow down on smaller servings of pasta with marinara or Alfredo, as well as chicken tenders, fried flounder or fried shrimp, all served with fries.

“We have the best and most authentic Mediterranean food in town,” Antoinette Voulgaris of Olympia says. It seems Wilmington agrees, awarding the restaurant its fourth “e” award. Keep up the good work!

Pita Delite scores second place, and Sahara Pitas and Subs takes third.

OUTDOOR DINING
In the summertime, there’s nothing better than pulling a boat full of friends up to the docks of Bluewater Waterfront Grill to sample expertly prepared seafood and refreshing mojitos. The outdoor dining experience can’t be topped. Bluewater is nestled just beside the Wrightsville Beach drawbridge, where guests of the restaurant can view passing boats and local wildlife from their position on the patio. Gigantic fans create a comfortable breeze when a natural one is difficult to find, and laughter from neighboring tables makes for the perfect ambience.

“Bluewater has the most spectacular views of the Intracoastal Waterway,” Mindy Stroupe Amerson, marketing and public relations of LM Restaurants, says. “Our recently renovated outdoor patio overlooking the water is spacious and beautiful. It’s the best place in Wilmington to kick your feet back and unwind.”

Voters agree, granting Bluewater bragging rights to the absolute best outdoor dining experience in the area. Time and time again, Port City residents look to Bluewater for a relaxing atmosphere and tantalizing dishes. “Bluewater’s team of servers and chefs make people return day after day, season after season,” Amerson suggests. “We serve top quality seafood and American fare with superior hospitality.”

Second place goes across the way to Dockside and third to Indochine.

SPORTS BAR
In North Carolina sports team rivalries run deep. With March Madness just around the corner, Duke and UNC fans alike will be crowding the local sports bar to catch a glimpse of their favorite players on the big screen. No one understands this better than Carolina Ale House. “It’s not only an awesome restaurant that serves award-winning food,” Mindy Stroupe Amerson, marketing and public relations of LM Restaurants, says.

She’s right. Carolina Ale House has over 50 televisions, so no seat is a bad seat. Open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., specials are served every day of the week. Wednesdays feature all of the beers on tap for $2.50 per pint. Ladies’ night is on Tuesday, so girls can grab their friends and sip on $2 house wines.

Amerson says the restaurant has always been a value-driven concept. The menu boasts $5.99 lunch specials and dinner starts at just $7.99. “With the high-energy environment and whimsical decor, it’s obvious why people have voted us best sports bar in Wilmington!”

Buffalo Wild Wings gets second place, and third goes to Wild Wing Cafe.

BUFFET AND SOUL FOOD/COUNTRY COOKING
In Wilmington, everyone knows where to go for some country comfort cooking. That place is Casey’s Buffet. “Every day we are open, somebody tells us it tastes just like their grandma’s or mama’s cooking,” co-owner Gena Casey says.

Gena and her husband Larry run the show at the Oleander Drive restaurant where people are urged to forget their diets. There’s no tofu here, just fried goodness served up with a heaping helping of gravy. Those looking for true Southern soul food should head straight to Casey’s, fast.

The buffet menu offers barbecue, pig’s feet, cat fish, macaroni and cheese, baked beans and “chitlins.” Variations of chicken include traditional fried and chicken ‘n’ dumplins. And of course the husband-and-wife duo are baking up some delicious cobblers for dessert!

Fans of the buffet have no worries about the Caseys mixing up what works, either. “We haven’t changed,” Casey says, “and that’s our secret!”

Going back for seconds is Golden Corral, while China Buffet is serving up thirds for Best Buffet. Salt Works II and The Basics take home second and third respectively for Best Soul Food/Country Cooking.

BURGER AND FRIES
By now the P.T.’s Old Fashioned Grille burger is a classic Wilmington meal. For almost 20 years, the folks at P.T.’s have been preparing thick, fresh burgers topped with a choice of typical cook-out condiments. Served with a side of their famous seasoned fries (a la lemon pepper), the burger makes for a true Port City experience.

Such a delicious burger shouldn’t be held down to one location, though. As much as we locals would like to keep our favorite restaurant all to ourselves, the secret must be shared. So, the P.T.’s family now reaches out to Leland and Chapel Hill. All seven locations, with five of those in our hometown, offer more than just the four- or eight-ounce P.T.’s burger. Diners can also choose hot dogs, grilled chicken sandwiches and even a low-fat, low-calorie Gardenburger with a side salad. Although, really, why would they need anything else on their menu when the original burger and fries are so satisfying?

Second place for Best Burger goes to Five Guys while Red Robin receives third. In the Best Fries category, McDonald’s gets second and Five Guys has third.

WAITSTAFF
“Surround yourself with good people.”

That’s the motto of The Copper Penny and a great one, too. Manager Deede Bell follows this philosophy in her daily work and encourages her servers to do the same.

“We strive to give friendly service in a great atmosphere,” Bell explains. “We have several key staff members who have been with us a long time, and we try to treat everyone like they are a regular.”

A long-standing waitstaff means the most knowledgeable waitstaff. The Copper Penny carries classic brews, but Bell says they strive to offer the hippest beers, too. With a constantly changing draft list, the staff has to mind their p’s and q’s, literally. The restaurant has rotating taps with seasonal brews from Blue Point Brewing Company, Bell’s Brewing and the North Carolina native, Highland.

Aside from the wonderful service, The Copper Penny’s appetizers are enough to encourage repeat business. Topping the list is a black-bean dip with lettuce, salsa, jalapenos and sour cream, as well as cheesesteak spring rolls served with spicy ketchup. Keeping it local, the restaurant offers entrées like The Wright Brothers’ house-roasted turkey club sandwich or the Fort Fisher fish ‘n’ chips.

Second place for Best Waitstaff is Circa 1922, and third is Port Land Grille.

PIZZA AND LATE-NIGHT EATERY
I can’t begin to count the many nights I’ve enjoyed a fresh slice of pepperoni pizza at the downtown location of Slice of Life, all after 2:30 a.m. Anyone who has ever seen the line out the door can attest why its Best Late-Night Eatery. The fact that the pizza is to die for helps.

But what about the pizza cravings that come while shopping at Mayfaire or the Forum? Never fear, there’s a Slice for that. On Military Cutoff, this location is also open 365 days a year. And for those pizza lovers that live in Monkey Junction or Pine Valley? There’s a Slice for that, too. Having recently opened in January, the newest addition to the Slice family is located on the corner of 17th Street and College Road.

Slice not only offers a piece of heaven in its pizza: Patrons can find a much more extensive menu for lunch or dinner, including salads, nachos, quesadillas and tacos. Wings, subs and wraps are also available. Or, if it’s impossible to break away from the pizza pattern, there are plenty of non-traditional toppings like feta cheese and artichoke hearts.

Second place pizza goes to Elizabeth’s Pizza and third to Incredible Pizza. Jimbo’s and Waffle House round out the late-night eatery competition with second and third.—Bethany Turner

COFFEE
With beans roasted locally, coffee can’t get any fresher than at Port City Java. Voted best coffee house for over 10 years gives Port City Java mad street cred. An always-courteous staff and cozy atmosphere appeals to their customers—and not just on a local level. The coffee shop originally stretched its legs in Wilmington but sinces has spread its wings worldwide, even to Jordan.

They provide a perfect start to the day, where every customer becomes a regular. “We really care about our guests and we know most folks on a first name basis,” CEO Steve Schnitzler says. “It really matters to us if we don’t see you for a few days.”

It’s not just about serving people at Port City Java, it’s about interaction and personal attention to detail. “We provide hospitality,” Schnitzler explains, “not just service. You can get service from an ATM, but we get to know our guests, and we take care of them. We welcome folks into our cafes and seek to become a part of their lives. Wilmington is our home.”

Who doesn’t want their cup of Joe in the morning without a smile? Caffeine junkies can agree that the best coffee comes from Port City Java, while Starbucks and Java Dog are a stir-stick behind in second and third place. —Patti Wilson

LUNCH
With a selection including dozens of handcrafted sandwiches and burgers, tantalizing soups, and delectable salads, Sweet and Savory Bake Shop and Cafe deserves best lunch! The restaurant features an in-house bakery, and all of their wonderful creations are served on breads made from scratch each morning by a professional bakery staff. From French baguettes to three-cheese semolina, they make breaking bread a serious privilege.

As far as sandwiches go, Sweet and Savory has it all. Their outrageously popular Cucumber River is a toasted pita piled high with premium turkey, cheddar cheese, diced cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce, and drizzled with a cucumber dill sauce—superb! But turkey isn’t the only option. No, diners can also choose from beef, chicken, ham, seafood and lamb. Vegetarians have great choices too, from the Portobello and Roasted Red Pepper sandwich to house-made hummus.

To catch their lunchtime treats, visit Sweet and Savory from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and on the weekends from 11:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Pine Valley Market takes second in best lunch, and Chris’ Cosmic Kitchen receives third.

JAPANESE
Hiro Japanese Steak and Seafood House has long been the place to celebrate anniversaries, retirements, graduations and “just because it’s half-priced sushi.” The chefs slice and dice hibachi style on a grill right in front of the guests, entertaining with monstrous fires and friendly gags. The hibachi menu includes choices like teriyaki chicken or a combination dinner of filet mignon and lobster, although the preparation of any entree is sure to delight.

The sushi menu boasts diverse and unusual ingredients, like that of the Squid Salad: squid, of course, along with octopus, bamboo shoots and woodears marinated in sesame vinaigrette. After a salad like that, it’s only natural that it be followed by a tempting assortment of sushi and sashimi.

End any meal with a Cherry Chocolate martini in which the bartender will mix Finlandia vodka, cherry liqueur and dark creme de cacao – delicious! With a night that’s guaranteed to be a great experience at Hiro, it surely won’t be the last.

Wilmingtonians also get their sushi fix at Nikki’s Restaurant and Sushi Bar and YoSake Downtown Sushi Lounge.

BARTENDER
This mixologist and knowledgeable beer enthusiast spent two and a half years bartending at Cape Fear Wine and Beer. These days, his fans—er, customers—find him slinging drinks at Satellite Bar and Lounge.

His name is Roger Harris, and he knows how to connect with his guests. Talking to people, he says, sets him apart from other bartenders who merely fix beverages and do no more than acknowledge the clientele. “I get to know my customers,” Harris explains. “People come to see me instead of just getting a drink.”

At Cape Fear Wine and Beer, a specialty store for brews and a constantly rotating wine selection, Harris always knew what to suggest for an indecisive customer. Today, he’s making friends out of guests at Satellite, encore’s 2011 Best Neighborhood Bar. Despite his claims that winning this award was “completely unexpected,” Harris agrees that it truly shows the loyalty within his customers.

Other great bartenders in Wilmington include Roger Bennett of Cape Fear Wine and Beer and Isaac Jones.

OYSTERS
For over 10 years, area residents have been voting Dock Street Oyster Bar the best place to go for great, fresh oysters. Opened in June 1999 by Louise Forbes and Steve Mallard, the team vowed to serve great tasting seafood that is steamed and grilled but never fried. “A chef from Food Network came in for dinner – six days straight – and said it was the best on the Eastern Seaboard,” Forbes says.

That said, the best way to enjoy Dock Street’s oysters may be on their steamer platter with heaping servings of snow crab, shrimp, mussels, clams, crawfish, corn and potatoes. But if the appetite for ocean dwellers isn’t so strong, Dock Street offers their oysters as aptly-named “Appeteazers” as well.

The Oyster Rockefeller is a dish of six select oysters topped with bacon, spinach and hollandaise, or opt for the Oyster Imperial which features a topping of bacon and creamy backfin crab mix. Can’t decide? Dock Street put together a plate of three Rockefeller and three Imperial in their oyster sampler.

Diners can also order a half-dozen or dozen of raw and shucked or steamed oysters. Whatever the route, all the mollusks are brought in fresh daily. Really, there’s no going wrong at Dock Street.

Tantalizing shellfish are also available at Hieronymus Seafood and Dockside.

PANINI
“Handmade and perfectly pressed!” That’s how the menu describes Press 102’s paninis, and Wilmington agrees! Unlike other restaurants in town, these flat sandwiches are even served for breakfast, starting with the Early Riser, which features thickly cut smoked bacon, melted Swiss cheese, scrambled eggs and sliced tomato on a French baguette.

At lunch, the paninis are served with pommes frites, garden-rotini pasta salad or a cup of soup. The Gaucho ventures away from plain deli meat and cheese, featuring hearty braised short ribs from Painted Hills Farm, wilted spinach, roasted mushrooms and havarti cheese on hand-cut sourdough bread.

Aside from great paninis, Press 102 is environmentally conscious. “We utilize the freshest ingredients from neighboring purveyors to help sustain the local economy,” according to their menu. “In order to help reduce the human footprint, Press 102 uses both recycled and compostable materials where possible.”

Other sandwiches pressed for votes include Panera Bread and Atlanta Bread Company, both in Mayfaire.

CHAIN RESTAURANT
“Our commitment to excellent service and quality food makes us stand out,” Bryan Abel, managing partner of Bonefish Grill, explains. “The menu is quite diverse and has something for everyone’s budget.”

Bonefish Grill features everything from fish tacos to American-style kobe beef burgers, filet mignon to Chilean sea bass. And who can forget their most popular menu item? The Bang-Bang Shrimp! This appetizer is a must-have of fried shrimp tossed in a creamy and spicy sauce, featured for only $5 every Wednesday, all day long.

Speaking of $5 specials, Bonefish Grill offers specials on hand-crafted cocktails each day of the week. Try the Ocean Trust Mango Martini, which is a shaken combination of Absolut citron vodka and freshly muddled mango and orange. Choosing this martini means Bonefish Grill will donate $1 to Ocean Trust, an ocean conservation foundation. Take the workday edge off and do a little bit of good at the same time!

Second place for Best Chain Restaurant goes to Olive Garden, and folks also enjoy the eats at Outback Steakhouse.

HEALTH FOOD STORE
Thanks to a huge increase in environmental awareness in the 1970s, the world took a greater interest in organic farming. Thus, local farmers markets and natural food co-ops sprung up across the nation. Tidal Creek Co-op was one of many birthed from the movement.

Today, the mission of Tidal Creek is to provide the area with an affordable way to attain organic foods, along with a knowledgeable arena to gain education on living healthier lifestyles. Even non-members are able to shop the co-op, Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sundays 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tidal Creek often offers classes, like how to buy in bulk and save, and features artwork such as this month’s exhibit from Trace Ramsey of Circle Acres Farm, showcasing photography of farm life.

Tidal Creek essentially has everything one would need: groceries, a deli, salad bar, bakery, local produce, health and wellness department—even beer and wine. The co-op is a wonderful way to support small, local vendors while developing a healthier and more sustainable life.

Lovey’s Market and Paula’s Health Hut make the list, too.—Bethany Turner

BREAKFAST AND DINER
And why wouldn’t the two categories, Best Breakfast and Diner, consist of the same winner without question? I’d expect some of the yummiest pancakes and coffee to come from any good old-fashioned diner. In Wilmington, that place is downtown’s very own Dixie Grill.

The Dixie’s been hashing out breakfast and lunch for, like, ever, taking encore’s breakfast category by storm for seven years straight. They have eggs and bacon, homemade sausage and biscuits, Louisiana hash that will make your tongue slap your brains out, and sweet potato pancakes worth many a return. Server Laura McPherson says its culmination of “country comfort food and Southern gourmet makes [Dixie’s] menu unique.”

Open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., the packed restaurant allows diners insight into its popularity. Whether going for breakfast or lunch, the quality never stales. Their hand-pattied burgers and sweet-potato fries are as lovely as the huevos rancheros. The portion sizes are exceptional, and everything is made fresh to order.

“Owner Brian Mayberry loves to cook,” McPherson says. “But he is not merely an excellent chef; he is a man with big ideas, and owning a restaurant allows his ideas to come into being.”

By sticking to the motto, “imagine, innovate, evolve,” the Dixie keeps customers coming back for more morning and noon thanks to consistency, quality and value.

Other diners leading the category include Happy Days Diner and College Diner, while other breakfast stops include Causeway Cafe and Sweet and Savory Bake Shop and Cafe.

STEAK
Ruth Fertel, the original owner of the famed Ruth’s Chris Steak House, once said, “Do what you love and love what you do!” From that motto came the best broiled, USDA Prime beef, especially voted on by encore readers in our Best Steak category.

Ruth’s Chris general manager in Wilmington, Amy MacMahon, says their deliciousness is simple: “seasoned with salt and pepper, a touch of butter and broiled at 1800 degrees to lock in natural juice.”

Whether ordering the most tender filet mignon or incredibly rich cowboy ribeye, no cut of meat comes less than top quality here. The same can be said for the service, too.
“We have a dedicated team that has been with us since June 2008,” MacMahon notes. “We all work toward one goal: providing an excellent dining experience.”

For 45 years strong, the restaurant has been churning out meals that provide primo product. They’re celebrating their decades-long dedication by sharing some of their recipes on their website, www.ruthschris.com, including their delectable bread pudding, creamed spinach, barbecued shrimp and sweet potato casserole.

Located in the Hilton Riverside restaurant, Ruth’s Chris upscale lounge also offers a fabulous martini list. Trust me when I say: The chocolate-espresso martini will become a quick addiction and must-have pick-me-up for any unwinding work week.

Other steak houses making the cut on our poll include Port City Chophouse and Outback.

RIBS
“I want my baby back, baby, b-b-b-baby back ribs/
“Chili’s baby back ribs/
“… barbecue sauce.”
OK—that’s so 1995, but it’s a jingle from the famed Tex Mex restaurant that still has customers singing its glory today. Chili’s Bar and Grill makes its first appearance on encore’s poll for Best Ribs. With a warm, finger-smackin’ welcome, we imagine it’s because Chili’s smokes their baby backs in house. In fact, they’ve upped the ante as of late, slow-smoking them over pecan wood. The end result: fall-off-the-bone tender with a gusto of flavor forever ingrained in the tastebuds.

“We are passionate about using the highest quality ribs, smoking them with aged wood chips for hours and hours,” culinary manager Leigh Saunders says. “We individually triple-baste every single rib with the guest’s choice of one of our many delicious signature barbeque sauces. We are really grateful that the love and hard work that goes into making our baby back ribs is appreciated.”

Chili’s ribs come in original flavor, honey-chipotle sauce or Shiner Bock BBQ sauce, as well as Memphis dry rub. Ordered as a full rack, it’s a perfect pairing with their homestyle fries and cinammon apples. But folks who have a hard time choosing between the flavors can mix and match, ordering a half rack of two flavors.

In fact, it’s not out of the ordinary to see customers doused in sauce—every which way way but the corners of their mouths, too. “I was working one Sunday and was speaking to a couple just in from church,” Saunders says. “These folks appeared to be at the age of retirement, so I know they know great ribs when they have them. The gentleman was eating his ribs and had a napkin around his neck to keep sauce off his Sunday clothes. I asked how the ribs were and he just laughed and said, ‘Look at me. You know these are the best ribs I have ever had.’ I saw his wife glare at him and thought it best to just walk away. Obviously, he thought our ribs were better than hers. I didn’t want to cause a domestic disturbance, but it really made me proud of our culinary team!”

Voters also like the bone-suckin’ ribs at Texas Roadhouse and ones from the now-defunct Sticky Fingers.

SALADS
Spinach. Iceberg. Romaine. Mesclun greens. Tomatoes. Ham. Cheese. Edamame. Peas. Beets. Onions. Green Peppers. Pasta salad. Potato salad. Cottage cheese. Fruit. Bacon bits. Homemade croutons.

Think of anything in the world that could possibly go on a salad. Olives? Check. Pickles? Check. Turkey? Check. Name it, and more than likely Ruby Tuesday’s monstrous Fresh Garden Bar has it.

The chain is known for not just touting the most impressive salad bar among Wilmington’s intensely varied restaurant scene, but offering a never-ending scope of toppings in one place. To make a meal out of their garden bar is easy-peasy. Topping it off with one of a gazilion dressing choices only poses one question: Can we come back for seconds? And, yes, without a doubt, encore readers do. The chain is making the phrase “eat your veggies” a joy to do, after all.

Other salads topping the encore poll include Brasserie du Soleil and Elizabeth’s Pizza.

WINE LIST
Pinotage. Sauvignon Blanc. Bubbles. Rosé. Name any style of wine, and I would bet all of my money that Fortunate Glass serves it. With an inventory topping over 300 bottles and 30 flavors by the glass, wine-lovers are in vino paradise when heading to the 29 S. Front Street location downtown.

Charmingly cozy, thanks to dark wood and nooks welcoming private little hideaways for couples or groups of minglers, The Fortunate Glass appeals to all palates. Their wine list rivals any in town because the owners are not just knowledgeable about wine, it’s their passion. That means: Every style has been custom-picked for its decadent flavor and appeal. Prices range from $15 to $300 for the very high-end bottles, like a 2005 and 2006 Harlan Estate Meritage.

If folks would like to enjoy sips with bites, their tapas menu pairs wonderfully. They serve a charcuterie and cheese plate, as well as offer daily specials, like empanadas, paninis or bruschetta. And for the other drinkers not privy to wine, well, rest assured by their beer selection—18 to be exact.

Open Tuesdays through Thursdays, from 4 p.m. to midnight, or Fridays and Sundays, from noon to 2:00 a.m., Fortunate Glass is closed Mondays.

Other wine lists that encore readers like sipping on come from Circa 1922 and Bottega Art and Wine.

APPETIZERS, DESSERTS AND FINE DINING
They seemingly sweep the Best Ofs annually, taking a host of categories. 2011 has proven no different as Circa 1922 tops our list for Best Appetizers, Best Desserts and Best Fine Dining. Located downtown Wilmington in a building that once housed a bank, the exposed brick walls and extremely high ceilings bring a regal tone to the restaurant, only topped by its carefully crafted menu from the hands of Chef Kyle McKnight.

Boasting a tapas-style theme, where small portions make for the perfect and filling meal, the menu at Circa remains varied. From Southern classics, like shrimp and Guilford Mills grits, made with andouille sausage and roasted tomatoes over gorgonzola grits, to traditional Spanish fare like their paella, to hearty favorites like braised lamb shank or beef short ribs, the chef and his crew go the extra mile to bring a culinary high to all diners.

Paired with specials, like their daily $5 bar menu, served from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., or their prix-fixe menu, served Sunday through Thursday for only $19.95, offering the perfect three-course meal, something for every palate can be found, drooled over and indulged upon repeat times. Just save room for their “Colossal Confections,” like their bananas foster with Myers rum or their chocolate-coconut sushi. They also serve mini desserts for only $3, including New York cheesecake and crème brûlée, among others.

Runners up in the appetizer category include Bonefish Grill and Front Street Brewery; dessert nods also go to Sweet and Savory Bake Shop and Cafe and Apple Annie’s Bake Shop; and other fine dining establishments recognized by our readers are Port Land Grille and Deluxe.—Shea Carver
CATERER, CHEF AND GOURMET SHOP
When ya got it, ya got it! It’s really that simple. But don’t expect the folks at Pine Valley Market to be rattling off in any boastful manner. In fact, last week when we were taking our cover shot of PVM co-owner Christi Ferretti and Best Chef Smoky Masters, regulars were coming through congratulating them, surprisingly unaware of the outcome.

“We have a loyal following of customers who we have to thank for making [our wins] possible year after year,” Ferretti says first and foremost. “We do not take this honor lightly. We believe in heightened awareness of consumers to support locally owned businesses.”

Their dedication to all-things local keeps them evolving. They currently feature a vast majority of retail products made locally and regionally, as well as use bread from Wrightsville Beach’s Sweet and Savory on all respective menu items. During spring and summer, PVM hosts a Saturday-morning market with farmers around the region selling fresh produce, flowers, goods and whatnot.

When they aren’t boasting all-local, they’re doing everything by their own hands and recipes, including housemade dressings and soups, and frozen dishes made in-house to take home for the family. Their dine-in café has also brought them a dedicated lunch crowd.

“We have been evolving and doing our best to keep up with the needs of our customers,” Ferretti says, noting how impossibilite that would be without a dedicated staff. “We are always ready and willing to do what we can to help our customers, whether they’re trying to decide what steak to put on the grill [PVM is also a butcher shop] or what to choose for dinner for a friend. We do our best to let our customers know how valuable they are through excellent service.”

Johnson and Wales graduate Smoky Masters added to the restaurant’s many awards this year, taking Best Chef for the first time. However, Masters is no amateur behind the knife. Having studied and worked in Charleston, the culinary capital of the South, he takes pride in his job.

“We have the same customers coming back for six and seven years, now,” he says. “They are loyal, and that means the most to me.”

Staying on top of the current market and the culinary business-scape of Wilmington remains high on the PVM list. To stay focused and viable, co-owner Kathy Webb envelops a “we” attitude.

“We are all in this boat together,” she says, referring to small business owners everywhere. “Like all business owners, we have stuck our necks out to live this American Dream, and it’s not easy in these economic times. We, as businesses, need to show our support for each other.”

FRENCH FOOD
Thierry and Particia Moity are icons on Wilmington’s foodscape. Chef Thierry has experience to outrun most in town. His adept hands have been hard-working since he was 13, taking him all over Europe and the States, learning the fine craftsmanship of French cuisine. Thank goodness he chose Wilmington to share his tried-and-true old-school techniques at Caprice Bistro. After all, the Best French Restaurant should perfectly churn out the most refined, exquisite, hearty dishes this side of the pond. Whether delighting in Caprice’s duck confit or their specialty Waterzooi, a cream-based stew chock full of fresh seafood, nothing will disappoint from their extensive selection.

Tuesday nights are prime time at Caprice, thanks to their insanely decadent $5 mussels. They come served in one of numerous sauces, from white wine, lemon juice, shallots, garlic and herbs (Meriniere) to beer, cream, bacon and mustard (Bruxelles). They make the perfect meal with a helping of pomme frites.

Pair any meal here with Patricia’s hand-selected and sophisticated wine list, offering some of the most decadent reds, like the Cotes du Rhone, as well as whites, bubbles and Ports. Bartenders take pride in their martini list, too, so ask Darren and the crew to whip up an apple or lemongrass variety. In fact, the entire staff, from kitchen to floor, go the extra mile to ensure everyone has a relaxed, indulgent night out when dining here.
Other recognized restaurants in the category are Brasserie du Soleil and Our Crepes and More.

ITALIAN FOOD
I am thrilled—thrilled, I say!—to see Osteria Cicchetti pull in encore readers to their fine Italian eatery for the first time on our reader’s poll. Without a doubt, one bite of food here will reveal it all.

The “OC,” as it’s so commonly referred by locals, has so many pros working for it: very reasonable prices, delicate and balanced Italian flavors and an atmosphere that has me pining to redo my kitchen upon every exit. Dressed in rustic wood and wine bottles in view at every corner, OC feels like the inside of a beautiful countryside home in Italy. The plates are mis-matched, the server trays are tin, the water comes in carafes and the antipasto selections, on wooden boards. Everything feels effortless. And the food tastes the same.

Their fish of the day always flakes with the most rich flavors, whether stewed in tomatoes, fennel and garlic or a white wine-lemon-caper sauce. Their roasted Brussels sprouts salad comes cold with a fine Balsamic drizzle and the best charred flavor, yet still paired with a hearty crunch. Their cheese and chacuterie boards astound, and their pizzas are wood-fired rounds of goodness.

When it comes to pasta, nothing tastes tired in the red clam sauce over linguini, served in a large bowl overrun with fresh clams in their shells and an aerated tomato sauce not overpowered by heavy hands. But if rich and stout suits the palate, then one of their risotto dishes will be tempting, like the chicken, cherry peppers and goat cheese variety.

Dessert won’t fail diners, especially if it’s their bread pudding, and their wine list, as one would suspect from any Best Italian Restaurant, is top-notch! Owner Ash Aziz, restaurateur behind Circa 1922, Grand Union Pub, Brasserie du Soleil and Happy Days Diner, has hit another home run here that has diners constantly screaming, “Mama mia!”
Second and third go to Taste of Italy and Giorgio’s, respectively.

SUBS/SANDWICHES AND DELICATESSEN
Where do Wilmingtonians go to get a sandwich piled high with freshly shaved meats, unique condiments, like fruit chutney, mushroom gravy or tomato pesto sauce, and fresh bread? Downtown’s friendliest lunch and dinner spot, Chop’s Deli! Owned and operated by Chris Graham and Brad Corpening, who once worked together at another local restaurant, joined forces last year to open the deli in the old Charlotte’s location at 130 N. Front Street. Their popularity soared immediately—which comes from making delicious sandwiches and offering super friendly service. At Chop’s, the customer’s name isn’t only taken at the register but filed in the staff’s photographic brains for future greetings.

Chop’s Deli does simple really well, like their pastrami on rye, piled with cracked-pepper beef, swiss and mustard, and pressed on a grill for ultimate crunch and oozing goodness. Their specialty sandwiches also take high honors, whether ordering the Chicago (rare roast beef, melted French brie, lettuce, red onions, and peppercorn gourmaise, on a sourdough kaiser) or the Marseille (maple-glazed chicken breast, french brie, arugula, tomatoes and Cajun remoulade, on a toasted baguette). Their sides are also something to write home about, whether choosing one of their homemade soups of the day, like ham and mac-n-cheese or turkey chili, or pasta, potato or fruit salads.

Quite simply, attention to detail makes them the best. Thus, they recently decided to open for dinner, and they serve down-home comfort food to make the evening all the more cozy. Cheesy chicken-and-broccoli casserole, pot roast and pulled-pork BBQ often make an appearance on the night menu. Join them on Facebook for a chance to be their chosen “friend of the day,” wherein a free meal is served!

Jersey Mike’s and Subway round out the sub/sandwich category, and Taste of Italy and Long Island Eatery make up the delicatessen category.—Shea Carver

MEXICAN RESTAURANT

El Cerro Grande proves it has staying power on the Wilmington restaurant scene. While other places come and go, this south-of-the-border favorite celebrated its 20th anniversary in January. With a section on their menu that says “Real Mexican Tacos,” patrons know they’re tasting authentic flavor.

Tacos aren’t the only thing cooking in la cocina! El Cerro Grande’s menu also boasts chile rellenos, enchiladas, chalupas, tostadas, tamales and chimichangas. Guests can even experience a Mexican version of surf ‘n’ turf: bistec y camarones. This dish offers up a T-bone steak and grilled shrimp, served with hot green sauce or salsa ranchero, rice, salad and tortillas.

Vegetarians will enjoy sicronizada, an “old favorite” according to El Cerro Grande’s website, elcerrogranderestaurant.com. It’s a grilled tortilla sandwich filled with mushrooms, spinach, cheese, onions, tomatoes, chopped avocado and sliced jalapeño peppers. Served with rice, it’s sure to satisfy any palate!

To turn down the heat, El Cerro Grande offers its famous margaritas, as well as a long list of true Mexican beers, including Dos Equis, Carta Blanca and Pacífico.

La Costa and K38 Baja Grill round out the category.

FAMILY RESTAURANT
With a kids’ menu that’s more extensive than most, and a bright, fun atmosphere, Red Robin has this award in the bag—err, nest?

“We have something for everyone,” boasts Brian Dunmire, general manager. “Families know when they come to Red Robin that there are great menu options from our incredible gourmet burgers to salads, wraps and entrées. For adults, we have a full bar with signature drinks [or] our non-alcoholic favorites like Freckled Lemonade.”

The menu for young ones has nine entrées, including corn dogs, spaghetti and quesadillas, as well as the healthier option of Grilled Chick-on-a-Stick.

“The menu was created to give kids and families a variety of options to choose from to accommodate all our guests’ tastes and dietary preferences,” Dunmire explains. “We also offer fruit and vegetable side options, such as apple slices, baby carrots with ranch dressing, and mandarin orange slices to accompany each kids’ entrée.” So, moms and dads can take their pick, add a drink, and never spend over $5 for any child’s meal!

“We also have an extraordinary culture that encourages our team members to treat families who dine with us like their own,” Dunmire continues. “Whether it’s kneeling down to a kids’ level to take their order or having a seat with regulars, our staff care about the people that come through our doors.”

Other family-friendly locales include already winners on our poll, Casey’s Buffet (Best Buffet) and Flaming Amy’s (Best Burrito).

ICE CREAM
Walking through the doors of Kilwin’s on Market Street, just before the river in downtown Wilmington, is like arriving in another time. Everything seems so simple inside this old-fashioned confectionery shoppe where the only rule is to indulge. Offering assorted chocolates, clusters, barks and brittles, Kilwin’s is as sweet as a dance with the sugar plum fairies. Still, nothing tops their fresh, decadent ice creams.

The scent of the waffle cones sneaks up the nose and the mere sight of all the barrels of ice cream can make one salivate. Choosing a flavor suddenly becomes pretty tough! Whether it’s for a chocolate lover, Plain Jane or a brave soul wanting to try a Kilwin’s original, the staff behind the cooler is always friendly and eager to help customers pick the perfect sweet treat.

Owned and operated by Bill and Kathy Williamson since 2001, Kilwin’s is a nationally known name in desserts. But this location is a must-stop for any tourist (and local, too!). No riverside stroll is complete without a scoop of the best ice cream in Wilmington.

Completing this category are second place Boombalatti’s and third place Cold Stone Creamery.

WINE/BEER SHOP
Located in gorgeous Wrightsville Beach, just off of Causeway Drive, Lighthouse Beer and Wine offers area residents a great selection of beer, wine and cigars. This store has one of NC’s largest selections, with over 400 varieties of beer! Plus, the choices don’t merely come bottled. Kegs are also available, with usually 50 or more on hand every day. Just a $100 refundable deposit (with the price of the beer itself, of course) turns into everything necessary for a good time, including a tap and bucket to keep it cold. For more sophisticated palates, Lighthouse has wines from around the globe, like Spain, France, and Italy.

While their popularity is secured for offering the best guidance in spirited purchases, it really soars each fall, as they throw Wilmington’s most beloved BeerFest. This gigantic party features over 70 breweries serving up samples. BeerFest is known for hosting the likes of Abita, Pyramid, Smithwicks, Flying Dog and our very own Front Street Brewery. What party is complete without catering? Food vendors are also there to share their goods. It’s been held at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater and Hugh MacRae Park, and in 2011, it will be held on October 15th! Stay tuned for all the details; encore will have it covered.

Filling up this category are Cape Fear Wine and Beer with second place and Red Bank Wine with third.

TAKEOUT
Chinese is one of those cuisines that people really get a craving for when they wanna avoid cooking, or just have a hankering for takeout, or just really, really need an eggroll to make the day a little bit better. Just bringing up the idea of ordering takeout from Chopstix creates an uncontrollable Pavlov’s dog effect for encore readers. Moo Goo Gai Pan, the Pu Pu Platter for two, General Tso’s or Szechuan Beef … hungry yet?

With daily lunch specials under five dollars, no wonder they’re among top contenders. Everyone loves a bargain on food nowadays. And their servings are quite generous, piled high with pork fried rice, or substitute lo mein if that’s the preference.

Dinner combinations are priced under eight dollars, too, and it comes with fried rice and an egg roll! Chopstix also offers local options suitable for all vegetarians. Served with white rice, folks can order their tofu with any of their popular dishes.

The have locations on Market Street and Oleander Drive, and they’re open every day of the week, until 10:30 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends. Call in for delivery ($10 minimum).

Other great takeout indulgences include Hibachi Bistro and Nikki’s Restaurant and Sushi Bar.—Bethany Turner

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5 Responses to BEST OF WILMINGTON 2011

  1. Tom Morgan says:

    With food trucks coming on the scene. Start a food truck category.

    • admin says:

      We agree, Tom! We have an honorary category annually, which may include this. When we started revising ballot a while back, the only food truck was Poor Piggy’s. Clearly, it’s taken off since! It’ll definitely be official next year on ballot. Again, perhaps an honorary category for this year! Thanks for reading and responding!—Shea

  2. jason durgala says:

    When is comes to best neighborhood bar it has to go to the guys at The Coat of Arms Lounge off 39th & Wrightsville Avenue. When I moved here I walked in and was welcomed like family. If you never been you should check it out. They have been there like 45 years too

  3. Jeff says:

    Why don’t you just call this what it is The People Who Advertise with you the most contest.

    • admin says:

      Ah, Jeff! The ol’ “only advertisers win” argument. Yea, we’ve heard that before. Sorry to disappoint, but it’s far, far, far from the truth.

      In fact, way more than half who win this competition annually don’t actually advertise with us regularly (if at all——we’re talking to you, Mayfaire, Monkee’s, Bangz… We aren’t begrudging you, though. We know you have your own appropriate marketing plan in action).

      Do people who advertise with us win? Some. PT’s, Gold’s Gym and Taste of Italy come to mind. But, guess what? We have weekly advertisers who don’t even make the cut. Why? Because the public votes——not us. That means thousands of people chime in on their favorites, and when thousands of people do so, not one vote will be the same. And if we catch cheaters, we prosecute (cue: “Law and Order”——OK, really, we disqualify them, and, yes, we’ve caught ballot-box stuffers before, even electronically). So, if advertisers do win, we’d like to think it’s probably because those who vote are regular encore readers and see their ads in our paper. Really, though, if you scoured through all 130 categories and compared them to our ongoing advertisers, not even a 1/3 would be there. (We know, because we do it!)

      Believe us: We would LOVE for every winner to advertise. That’s kind of the goal, and we’re not ashamed of admitting it. We hold Best Of to give our community a chance to speak on their favorites and to generate more advertisers in encore. The latter half of the plan works partially, but most of the “BEST OF ADS” that run only do so over a four-week period as winners thank people for voting. They don’t sign up on ongoing contracts.

      So, to recap: the truth of the matter is Best Of is a vote from our readers, not us. We don’t “throw it,” “rig it” or “play favorites.” The only thing we’re guilty of is ensuring LOCAL businesses get recognized by their patrons.

      Thanks for reading, writing and having opinions! We love you!

      xo
      Shea Carver, editor

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