Best of Wilmington 2012 – Food & Beverage

Feb 14 • BEST OF WILMINGTON, Food & Beverage 20122 Comments

//Food & Beverage//

Ice Cream
The anticipation and excitement that follows being asked, “How about Kilwin’s?” is only second to the wonder that ensues when passing through the wooden doors. Caramels, candies and dozens of chunky, nutty fudges fill shelves on the walls. The scents of chocolate and waffle cones waft on their own. Kilwin’s employees greet guests with smiles, offering morsels of their 32 ice cream flavors.

From rocky road to mint chocolate chip, Kilwin’s original ice creams are all made with farm fresh milk and cream. Mixed, pasteurized and homogenized at the original Kilwin’s kitchen in Michigan, the ice cream is then cooled in old-style double barrel freezers to -20 degrees. Lemon sorbetto, french silk and cashew toffee are shipped to each store, including the Wilmington location on Front Street, only in Kilwin’s trucks. The process ensures the quality of every tub of old-fashioned vanilla is the same as it was in 1985 when the Kilwins first incorporated ice cream into their candy shop.

Despite the homey, antique feel of Kilwin’s, the company manages to keep up with current trends. In the down economy, every business is feeling the grip of tight wallets, just like the families who patronize them. The popularity of coupons and deals is ever increasing in order to drive folks into all types of stores. Thus, Kilwin’s recently introduced its own rewards program: My Kilwin’s Club. Members receive discounts, early announcements of brand new products, and seasonal and special offers. Anyone can visit www.kilwins.com/my-kilwins-club to register and make themselves in-the-know on Wilmington’s best ice cream.

The ice cream (or frozen yogurt, as the case may be) is also decadently tasty at Fuzzy Peach and Boombalatti’s.

Seafood & Chef
Though our own Keith Rhodes did not bring home the title “Top Chef” from the hit TV show’s ninth season, he’s still Wilmington’s Best Chef! Besides, we believe earning the love of locals is just as tough as gratifying the super-foodie judges—after all, we beach natives know our seafood.

In 2006, Rhodes founded the restaurant that’s earning him Best Seafood as well, Catch. The café in its original downtown location was limited to 22 seats, but the reception was overwhelming. Since opening, it’s relocated to Market Street just shy of Gordon Road, and can now tend to 100 people. Catch caters to diners looking for delectable dishes, intriguing plating and a relaxing, nautical atmosphere. In the eatery, Rhodes serves up cuisine that melds low-country fare with hints of Asian tastes, such as the “Angry Lobster”: a Maine-bred crustacean weighing over a full pound, wok-seared in sweet chili whiskey glaze with white truffles, foie gras and served on fried sticky rice. It’s a concept that runs over into his newest restaurant. “We have recently launched Phun Seafood Bar, our Asian tapas concept,” Rhodes explains.

Phun focuses on Thai and Vietnamese street-style food, with a menu that changes weekly. Fittingly, it serves bubble tea, the beverage craze that originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. The best way to keep up with Phun’s offerings is to check its Facebook page, Phun Seafood Bar, where Rhodes posts his special of the day—from fresh pulled-pork summer rolls to crispy duck pho with scallions, bamboo, shiitake mushrooms, fresh ginger and Thai basil in fragrant spiced broth.

In addition to Phun, Rhodes and his wife and partner, Angela, will soon be launching TackleBox, a food-truck version of Catch, and Roots, their vegetarian concept. “We wanted to bring multiple culinary destinations to Wilmington,” Rhodes says. “We pride ourselves in using the freshest ingredients and tested techniques in preparing our foods. It feels awesome to be embraced by the community.”

The seafood at Hieronymus and Bluewater Grill is also satisfying to our readers. Second place for chefs goes to Jacob Hilbert of Manna, and third is awarded to Smokey Masters of Pine Valley Market.

Breakfast & Diner
The idea of a downtown diner in 2012 evokes images of exactly what Dixie Grill offers: vintage style, an extensive bar, a trend-focused menu and a ridiculously cool staff. Dixie by no means travels out of its way to be so vogue; yet it’s this laid-back attitude which keeps folks coming back for more. Think the Maker’s Mark commercial: “It is what it isn’t.”

Tea is served in plastic “Coca-Cola”-branded cups; coffee comes hot in white ceramic mugs. Nostalgia for Southern, American, simplistic dining is what owner Brian Mayberry was feeling when he bought The Dixie Grill in 1999, resurrecting it from past ventures. The café once harbored a pool hall and even became a white-linen eatery. It seems Dixie works best in its current lifestyle choice, complete with a painting of bacon and toast dancing away from a fork (sorry about the unlucky egg).

Searching Dixie Grill online, one will find numerous blog reviews: “Grits, and Everything Else” from Pasture Pilot, “Dining with Dondero: The Dixie Grill” from Me So Hungry, amongst others. The diner’s biggest claim to fame, however, is its number four spot on Southern Living’s top 10 list of best breakfasts in North Carolina (Wilmington locals disagree with the list, coincidentally, placing Dixie Grill in its more deserved spot: number one).

The writer does accurately attribute Mayberry’s menu as throwing “some Southern-style curves,” which probably alludes to its inclusion of a black bean burger on the lunch side, or for breakfast, the “Dixie Benedict” featuring scrambled eggs and a fried green tomato, instead of the standard poached eggs and ham. Overall, the diner offers food, atmosphere and service that are all seemingly simple, yet unique. That’s what makes Dixie stand out above the rest.

Other breakfast spots include Causeway Café and Sweet and Savory. Diners making our list of runners up are Nick’s Diner and College Road Diner.
Martini

There is something to be said about a man who is not afraid to wield the delicate, y-shaped glass that is solely reserved for martinis—who sips from it with agile boldness. At times it seems the martini is meant for women alone, yet the iconic Manhattan drink employs the warmth and spice of whiskey, and a vodka or gin martini is little more than the alcohol itself.

As well, aren’t some of the most famous martini drinkers men? George Burns, Jackie Gleason, James Bond…

Whether a purist—adding an olive, lemon twist, or nothing else—or a brave downer of a mixologist’s creative concoctions, The Dirty Martini has offerings to quench anyone’s thirst. Located in the swanky shopping center, Lumina Station, this bar is sophisticated, stylish and modern. After work, a blend from one of Dirty’s bartenders can take the edge off a brutal day, and for a night out on the town, it provides a haven for entertainment.

The menu boasts over 20 different mixtures, with enticing titles like “Sweet Seduction” (Bacardi dragon berry rum, cranberry juice, sour mix and lemon-lime soda), “Elite French” (Belvedere vodka, Grand Marnier, Chambord, pineapple juice), and “Better than Sex” (Godiva chocolate liqueur, whipped cream-flavored vodka, Captain Morgan rum and Bailey’s Irish cream in a chocolate-lined glass). Plus, on Friday and Saturday nights, Dirty lays claim to DJ Battle, voted Wilmington’s best again on the 2012 encore poll. So, we say, affix the best James Bond accent and go “shaken not stirred.”

Other reputable martini bars to visit are Caprice Bistro and TreBenzios.

Wine List
When people talk about The Fortunate Glass, they don’t typically mention the wine right off—though the bar and small plates eatery boasts over 350 bottles from around the globe. The wine is seemingly a given perk, and folks don’t always speak of the extensive craft beer list, either. For those who have ventured inside the small venue, what they recognize first (and remark about later) is the gorgeous setting. A mountainous three-dimensional wall sculpture, created by an owner’s father, depicts a mermaid with long, flowing blonde hair and a sea-foam green tail that fans toward the bar. She greets all guests, her glass being filled with red wine by a stout Cupid-like angel.

Opened in autumn 2010, by Celeste Glass and Denise Fortuna (clever nomenclature, right?), The Fortunate Glass has raked in Best Wine List since. “Denise and I have a shared passion for wine,” Glass admits. “During our friendship, we have had the opportunity to travel and experience wonderful food and wine. We thought it would be nice to own a bar that reflects our tastes.”

Last year, along with acquiring their first Best Of win, the duo earned a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, and were recognized for offering affordable pricing. It’s simple to find a glass of wine for any palate or wallet; yet don’t be alarmed to encounter bottles with several hundred dollar tags. The diversity, though, is part of what makes The Fortunate Glass so special. As enthusiasts, the owners seek to educate their guests on all of their options. They offer free weekly wine tastings on Tuesdays, and monthly pairings with focuses, such as on bubbles, or with area vendors like Coastal Cupcakes.

“Our customers are becoming more knowledgeable about wine and are becoming more curious,” Glass notes. “The Fortunate Glass likes to introduce obscure varietals to our customers to further enhance their knowledge.”

Adding to the elegant ambiance, seating is intimate, especially within two redwood nooks, separated by a wine cabinet. Tables allow patrons to sip within the window, looking out upon Front Street—especially good for a gorgeous spring day (although, who wouldn’t want to perch inside this spot with a divine glass of cabernet sauvignon while rain hammers the Cape Fear?). Pairing such an inviting, romantic atmosphere with 50 wines by the glass, 30 bottles of craft beer, and decadent tapas, it’s no wonder Wilmington is enamored with The Fortunate Glass.

Second place for wine lists is Deluxe, while third goes to Circa 1922.

Panini
Nestled within the quaint Hotel Tarrymore in downtown Wilmington is Press 102, a restaurant named for the dish which earns its Best Of win. As well, “press” refers to the establishment’s French press coffees, and to the fruits and herbs which are pressed for their juices, used in original cocktails.

The eatery is expansive—the outdoor patio alone seats 65 guests. The rich leather chairs, paired with the upholstered church pews lining the wall, give the bar a suave and cosmopolitan feel, beckoning friends to enjoy a mimosa with brunch or a glass of fine wine. Recently given new hardwood floors, and often a host to Susan Savia’s songwriter showcases, Press’ veranda ballroom is a gorgeous formal event space.

Yet, it is Press 102’s menu that invites customers the most. The owner was reared in the South, yet spent 30 years traveling abroad. Thus, the restaurant naturally developed a menu that embraces all flavors. The chicken and waffles panino (the singular of panini) gives a worldly twist on a home-style favorite: a quintessential buttermilk-battered fried chicken breast melds with fontina cheese between two Belgian waffles, while on the side awaits a horseradish mustard sauce and espresso-infused syrup. A farmers field panino entices vegetarians: fire-roasted peppers, artichokes, baby arugula and crumbled bleu cheese on multi-grain bread. The Caprese panino offers fresh Mediterranean stilo: buffalo mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, sweet basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar on a French baguette. With over 15 different panini varieties to choose from, there is surely a sandwich to sate any palate.

Second place goes to Panera, while Chop’s Deli takes home third.

Barbecue
When speaking in ‘ques in the South, it’s imperative to understand the holy topic’s contested hotness. Some folks like it chopped, others pulled; some prefer the western side of the state’s sweeter, vinegar-style sauce; others prefer the eastern’s spicy style. But what everyone in Wilmington does agree upon is Jackson’s Big Oak’s superior quality of swine, which keeps us licking our lips on a monthly (weekly, daily, hourly) basis.
Just a year ago, the Jackson family sold their quarter-century-old eatery to the Sawmill Restaurant folks, Michael and Hunter Davis, and Seth Franklin. In their first year, the fellas have given the space a facelift and a new website (www.jacksonsbigoak.com), but have remained true to the Jackson classics and quality fare.

“We use a secret recipe that’s been used consistently for over 25 years,” Hunter Davis told encore last year of the famed barbecue. “People know when they come to Jackson’s, they’re leaving happy.”

The Davis family patronized the restaurant long before owning it. Thus, they understand the community’s love for its classic country flair. Jackson’s serves classic Eastern Carolina BBQ pork plates, served with homemade sides, like mac ‘n’ cheese and succulent Brunswick Stew. They also do ribs and amazing fried chicken, along with daily specials, like chicken ‘n’ pastry. For folks who crave the food but don’t want to fuss with the sit-down, dine-in experience, Jackson’s naturally does take-out and they cater.

Other barbecue tempting local palates includes Smithfield’s Chicken ‘n Bar-B-Q and Casey’s Buffet and BBQ.

Thai/Vietnamese, Restaurant (Overall) & Atmosphere
Indochine is celebrating 10 years in Wilmington in 2012. And there are no signs of slowing down! Serving some of the most delicious Asian cuisine, while surrounded by a jungle-like oasis, filled with tropical plants, flowers and oriental carpentry to adore, owner Solange Thompson is a restaurateur to admire locally. She has built the eatery into a hotspot not just for food but with regalia indicative of her homeland, as she shares an authentic experience to everyone who walks through its ornate, specialty carved doors.

Every inch of her 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. It also continues topping the categories Best Thai and Best Restaurant (Overall). One bite from any of their decadent entrées will prove why: fresh ingredients fill some of their best offerings, from Pho Bac or Pho Ga (a yummy noodle soup not to be overlooked!) to their Vietnamese wraps, to sushi, curries, a lenthy vegetarian menu (including Vietnamese crepes) and house specialties worthy of many returns!

With a parking lot constantly overflowingwith customers at Wayne Road and Market Street, regulars have made Indochine a second home. The friendly staff treats everyone like family, and goes out of their way to meet their everyone—whether in the form of dietary restrictions or by simply making suggestions on the menu.

“I remind myself and my staff to be grateful for the business we receive,” Thompson told encore last year. “As long as you do the job with passion and sincerity, success will follow.”

Other restaurants taking Best Atmosphere are Crow Hill and Bluewater Grill. Best Restaurant (Overall) nods also go to Manna and Circa 1922. Best Thai runners up include Big Thai and Thai Spice.

Burrito
Their sign says it all: “2012: The Year of the Burrito!”

To be honest, every year is the year of the burrito when Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn is involved. From their super huge Double Bypass, to their exotic flair, Thai Me Up, to the vegetarian likes of the Tree Hugger, Flaming Amy’s is a burrito-barn boutique, so to speak. Whether ordering from their gourmet-like choices or building one’s own, a gargantuous bite will be had every time. These ‘ritos are freaking huge!

Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn keeps a loyal fanbase because of its variety. They keep it simple with beef and beans, or spice it up with Jerk chicken and tofu, or appeal to pescatarians with fried or grilled seafood. The styles are endless.

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

He and his crew also continue going beyond the ordinary to create a brand that’s memorably delicious. Of their offerings are the famous salsa bar. Pinapple-jalapeño, wasabi-ginger, peach, tomatillo or their regular tomato-based titillate the tastebuds every time.

Muxworthy’s Operation Salsa Drop is another reason to love his dedication to community. He sends salsa to troops who are serving our nation overseas. 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. Check out www.flamingamysburritobarn.com and www.operationsalsadrop.org for all Flaming news updates.

Burrito-eaters also flock to K-38 Baja Grill and Moe’s.

Bar (overall)
Satellite Bar and Lounge speaks to peoples’ desires to be cozy while socializing and throwing back a few brews. Going on its third year in business and second Best Of win, bar owner Dusty Ricks and his partner Carol Anne Cutshall searched high and low for a place with unique appeal. Once they came across an old building on Greenfield Street, they saw a burgeoning opportunity to be leaders in turning around an area of town in need of renovation. Today it sits across the street from the newly reconstructed S. Front Street Apartments.

“We wanted a place where everyone from any age range or walk of life could feel comfortable,” Ricks says. “We both enjoy designing spaces and reusing found material for new purposes.”

When gutting the space, they took old wood to make a gorgeous bar, which spans the entire length of the building. They also antiquated the walls and added vintage furniture and fixtures for a pop of throwback appeal. “Our attention to detail is always in the forefront of our business motto,” Rick assures, “and I would like to believe our patrons recognize this.”

Seemingly, they do. Satellite isn’t just the local yokel watering hole, they offer free music most weekends (that’s right: free!) and their back lawn often operates as a makeshift cinema, wherein the projector often highlights everything from rock ‘n’ roll flicks to cartoons on their family days.

“We are constantly looking for ways to improve our service to our community,” Ricks explains. 2012 will bring many other fun stuffs to Satellite’s roster of excitement. But don’t expect anything to trendy to take over; that’s just not Ricks’ style.

“We don’t like no stinkin’ trends,” he spouts. “We do what we want and maybe that is the best trend of all…set the pace and see what happens!”
People also flock to the downtown’s Blue Post and Cape Fear Wine and Beer as fave drinking spots in town.

Bartender
Over at Cape Fear Wine and Beer, one’s love for frothy hops and barley can be sated in the most mindful of ways. Cape Fear specializes in serving brews of all kinds, from lambics to IPAs, stouts to lagers and everything in between. They also have connoisseurs for bartenders who love showcasing beer knowledge and offering suggestions to patrons who seem overwhelmed or just in limbo by the massive inventory. One such lady to turn to is Megan Loux, who takes the crown for Best Bartender on our 2012 poll.

“The world of beer and wine has become a lifelong passion of mine and a source of happiness,” Loux notes. “There is so much more to beer than just bottles and labels, and so much being done to further expand the concept and methodology behind brewing.”

Thus, when new releases or seasonals come out, Loux finds herself in the midst of heightened glory. There’s so much to love, she can barely contain herself. “It makes me want to shoot off a confetti gun every time I wake up,” she excites.

Being a part of everyone’s bar experience, while at times can be daunting, keeps Loux’s outlook at a high. Her interactions maintain a high success rate when she can suggest a flavor that goes over well on the patron’s palate.

“When I can offer someone a beer they were initially doubtful of or just downright hated before because it wasn’t what they wanted, and then they get ‘it’—’it being the feeling of ‘what else have I been missing out on?’—it’s great,” she admits. In fact, she’s made a game of it upon seeing loyal patrons. “If something new comes in, I’ll try it and immediately think of customers who will lose their Pop Tarts over how fantastic it is.”
Her barkeeping suits Cape Fear appropriately as she believes in their ability to push beyond normal expectations of beer drinking. No one will find the normal (generic) brands here. What they will find is a solid dedication to finding world-class, hand-crafter beer and wine.

“The craft beer world is fueled by innovation,” Loux explains, “and Cape Fear is a damn good representation of that. From an extremely rare cask ale to a sporadic renovation, the bar itself is always progressing.”

Included in coming months will be specilty cask ales, rotating drafts and new releases, among rare important and beers just hard to come by. All served with a classic Loux smile!

Other bartenders encore readers adore are Joel Finsel of Manna and Mandy Marcum of 22 North.

Fine Dining
Manna offers so much in the way of fine cuisine, fine experiences and fine memories. Just ask anyone where they should go as a culinary treat, and likely this restaurant, tucked in the heart of downtown at 123 Princess Street, will be one of the first suggested. In its infant 15 months of business, its culinary team, including Chef Jacob Hilbert and business partner Billy Mellon—who reunited a few years after working together at Tango du Chat—focus on making their work fun, inviting and unforgettable. Seemingly, gastronomes and regular food lovers alike are taking notice.

“It’s nice [winning the award] because we didn’t spend any time thinking about it or telling people to vote for us,” Mellon admits. “Honestly, we really feel good about this one because it seems ‘legit.’ I recall feeling the same way when I was a server at Port Land Grille and we continuallly won this category—it was like ‘the public has voted and they are honestly saying we’re pretty darned good.’”

It’s not hard to convince folks of the truth when it’s so naturally obvious. The new American cuisine at Manna isn’t simply divine, but along with the restaurant’s weekly offerings, it’s keeping them top of mind. They do “Wines”days on Wednesday, and offer a tasting of four flavors and one full pour for only $7. Thursdays are theme nights, allowing the chef to traverse across the world and present tapas of varied styles. They also hold numerous specialty events, like the chef face-off School of Fire last fall (another is planned for spring) and numerous wine dinners, such as March 14th’s Spanish foray, which will explore classic wines from Spain (reservations accepted now for $85 a person).

“We try very hard to make every effort obvious,” Mellon says—“not just the food or the service or the space vying for what is important. We focus on balancing the three and adding a little personality into the mix so that the guests feel like we always put our best foot forward.”

One taste from their ever-evolving, fresh and locally sourced menu will prove decadence need not be stuffy or overblown. From their “Beet Box Salad” (roasted beet and goat cheese terrine, field greens, orange supremes, pistachios, red wine, and ginger vinaigrette) to their decadent “Time for a Grouper Hug?” (grouper meuniere, smashed turnips, caramelized local pac choi, olive oil, blood orange beurre blanc), to their delightful ice cream sampler for dessert, everything from beginning to end feels uniquely refined—and that’s because it is.

Other fine dining eateries ranking our poll include Port Land Grille and Circa 1922.

Family Restaurant
I worked in the restaurant industry for years; I know the drill on both sides of the fence when it comes to waiting on families. Often waitstaff with whom I worked would bemoan messy families whose kids spilled drinks and threw food everywhere but into their mouths, or made the dining room their personal playground. Yet, families appreciated when we would be especially understanding of the challenges that come with a mother and father trying to enjoy dinner outside of the house with three kids under the age of 10. My fix was always simple: Treat the muchkins with as much respect as the parents, including them in conversation, playing and joking around with them when necessary and simply engaging them. Likely, there wouldn’t be too bad of a mess to pick up after (and the tip would improve, too).

At Red Robin in Mayfaire, their entire staff is well-trained on how to deal with families on every occasion, and their menu is one of the lengthiest for pint-sized customers, too. It’s no wonder they keep tabulating awards year after year as Best Family Restaurant.

“We offer a kids’ menu for guests 10 and younger with nine entrees and six side options, including healthier sides like apple slices, broccoli and baby carrots,” Brian Dunmire, general manager, says. However, they also know how to entertain their customers; hence avoiding alternative options like hide-n-go-seek among tables of diners. They give kids crayons and games to play on the back of their menus. “As guests are leaving, they can also take a balloon for their child,” Dunmire notes.

While Red Robin includes the kids in the dining experience, the real gem is the staff’s willingness to know their clientele. They enjoy connecting with customers no matter age or size. “I have amazing team members that are like a family,” Dunmire states. “They know that when our guests choose to dine at Red Robin they in turn treat them like family.”

Red Robin rewards customers, too. Just last year, the Red Robin Red Royalty program started, offering incentives like free birthday burgers to registered diners. It’s just one special part of being in their family of players.

“In 2012, we will offer some new menu items and limited-time offers throughout the year,” Dunmire notes outside of their already stacked menu of burgers, sandwiches, wraps, entrées and salads. “Our Red Royalty program will be offering even more surprises and delightful awards to our guests.”

Sign up now, and say it with me: “Redddd Ro-bin. Yummmm.”

Families also appreciate the service and food from Casey’s Buffet and BBQ and Golden Corral.

Bakery
Though they lost their patriarch over New Year’s, the Longordo family can rest assured their beloved Frank has left a legacy behind that keeps getting recognized for its greatness. Again in 2012, encore readers have voted Apple Annie’s Bake Shop the Best Bakery among the ranks of sweet stuffs, from cream-filled goodies to cakes to cookies and breads galore.

Having arrived in our port city in 1984, Apple Annie’s has been family-owned for five generations. Originally from Italy, specializing in homemade pasta, the Longordos immigrated to New Jersey, opening their bake shop and putting morefocus on breads. Once Frank moved south, to serve in the Marine Corps, they became an instant success and added sweets to the roster.

“We bake hundreds of different items daily,” Christine Longordo, daughter-in-law to Frank, says, “and use the best possible items in a cost-effective manner. We strive to make our products not only appealing to the eye but also delicious to taste.”

And they are. Apple Annie’s loads of cannolis, Italian cookies, decadent pastries and especially cakes have remained Wilmington favorites. Their cakes alone prove masterful not just in sinful flavor but aesthetic amazement, too. In fact, it’s what most customers are vying for nowadays.

“People watch baking shows on television [and] want elaborate cake designs,” Longordo says. “We are doing the best we can to accommodate this growing trend!”

The bakery focuses its ties locally by offering its breads to area restaurants. Many, such as Taste of Italy, utilize the family’s secret recipe, adding an Apple Annie’s flavor beyond its bake-shop doors. With two locations open to serve customers, Kerr Avenue and Military Cutoff in Landfall Center, folks from all parts of the county can indulge in the Longordo classics.

Other bakeries sweetening the category include Sweet and Savory and La Gemma.

Catering & Gourmet Store
Their 10th year in business is coming with a lot of updates and betterment already. Pine Valley Market recently renovated their cozy, neighborhood café to become more open and user-friendy. Shortly after, they announced the opening of Johnnie’s Cafe in the Cameron Art Museum (coming in March). Improvement and growth stems from their desire to find happiness in food—something head chef and owner Christi Ferretti says comes from childhood.

“Some of my best memories throughout life are around a dinner table,” she notes. “My friends remember my house as the place to come for good food. No matter the time of day or what meal had just been put away, the counter was covered with a smorgasbord within minutes of the doorbell ringing. I am happiest when I am feeding people.”

Her co-owner Kathy Webb and their partner Smokey Masters, among a dedicated staff of culinary masterminds, ensure Pine Valley continues surpassing expectations on every front. Whether cutting the freshest meats in their butcher shop, serving quick, delicious lunches from their cafe’s kitchen, or providing locally shelved goods and a wide selection of quality wines, they better their services because of the community they love.

“These past few years have not been easy,” Ferretti notes of our nation’s and city’s economic hardship, “and I think our entire staff has come to realize just how important each and every customer is to the success of our business. Our personalized attention to our customers makes them feel as though they are coming home when they enter our shop.”

Ferretti and company energetically make time to become friends with people who trek through their doors, treating each as if a part of their culinary family. And the family keeps expanding as their Best Of wins rack up year after year, ever since their first one scored in 2004.
“This recognition is one that we believe speaks louder than any advertising,” Ferretti says, “because it is dependent on customer satisfaction. I think that in today’s economic climate especially, it is imperative that people recognize and acknowledge locally owned businesses.”
Proponents of pairing with local vendors, PVM will build upon a devoted clientele daily. Likewise, they expect the same of Johnnie’s Cafe. “We are looking to source a great deal of products locally and to change that menu seasonally,” Ferretti admits of this new venture.

Other catering businesses of recognition are Middle of the Island and Bon Appetit, while gourmet store nods also go to World Market and Temptations.

Delicatessen, Lunch & Sub/Sandwich Shop
Chop’s Deli has taken Wilmington by storm. Point blank. In fact, when Brad Corpening and his staff attended the awards ceremony on February 10th at City Stage, almost everyone in the audience went crazy in applause at the mention of Chop’s numerous wins. Dedication was made clear to those who had never heard of the famed lunch spot.

Corpening and his co-owner Chris Graham started Chop’s two years ago in downtown Wilmington. Lines began snaking out the door within a month, and return customers began spreading their praise. Just a few months ago, Chop’s opened a second location in Monkey Junction. Their strengths are becoming abundantly clear to the rest of the Wilmington population: These guys know how to make a sandwich. And a mean cup of soup. And a salad if one should choose.

The simplicity of pastrami and Swiss on rye with brown mustard can be had, or signature Chop’s items will titillate as well. Many adore their gourmet remakes of mere turkey (Plymouth: oven-gold, smoked turkey breast, havarti cheese, thinly sliced granny smith apples, and chop’s deli cranberry relish, on multigrain) or roast beef (Bordeaux: rare roast beef, French brie, red onion and mushroom gravy on french baguette). Their soups are always zingers, whether indulging on a classic like New England clam chowder or something fancier like maple-glazed chicken and blue cheese.

Open Monday through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the restaurant owners not only have great food and products—eco-friendly ones at that, as their serve ware is compostable and made through Eco-Products—they often remember their customers on a first-name basis. It’s part of their business model: Take the customer’s name when he or she orders and put it in the memory bank thereafter; and if they forget upon a second or third visit (which is rare), their genuine sincerity makes up for it, followed by one delicious sandwich!

Other delis ranking our poll are A Taste of Italy and Long Island Eatery, while lunch stops also worth a bite are Sweet and Savory and Midtown

Deli and sub/sandwich shops include Jersey Mike’s and Subway. —Shea Carver

Mexican
For truly authentic Mexican cuisine, complete with bold spices and quintessential salt-rimmed margaritas, Wilmingtonians need look no further than El Cerro Grande. Although the restaurant ventured into the United States—specifically the port city—in 1991, El Cerro began in the small Mexican community of Degollado, Jalisco. Since its inception in Wilmington, it has expanded to about 15 eateries along the North and South Carolina coast. Among these are the UNCW, Monkey Junction and Military Cutoff Rd. locations here in town.

At El Cerro, the options range from vegetarian to seafood, enwrapped in tacos, burritos, enchiladas and more. From carne asada to mole ranchero, the entrées are served with rice, beans or guacamole salad prepared just as the pioneering owners in Mexico would have them. Perhaps the majority of locals’ favor the thick white queso into which tortilla chips are decadently dipped. Any meal at El Cerro is delicious when it begins with this creamy concoction.

El Cerro has become one of the top places to share a birthday dinner with friends—during most meals diners encounter the sombrero-laden, drum-wielding, zesty and energetic waitstaff who greet a birthday boy or girl with mariachi flare. What such fun says about El Cerro Grande is that it is a restaurant in which folks of any ethnicity can experience quality Mexican fare while reveling in the entertainment of a night out, complete with some of the most friendly staff in town.

Second place in Mexican restaurants is La Costa, while third goes to K-38/Tower 7.

Fast Food
As a past employee of this chain for three years, I can attest that it is the best—not only offering up their satisfying staple, the original chicken sandwich, but also one of the best companies for which to work: Chick-fil-A. It was my first job and, as such, taught me great lessons like superior customer service (it’s “my pleasure,” after all). Today when I need a good meal quick, I know I can hit the Chick-fil-A drive-thru in nearly no time flat; plus I’ll be greeted by a friendly, smiling face and will leave with crispy waffle fries and juicy chicken that I know was always fresh, and breaded and fried just before I came to the drive-thru window.

Everyone who eats at Chick-fil-A knows they’re closed on Sundays (and isn’t that the day we want Chick-fil-A the most!), and most people know it’s because the founder, S. Truett Cathy, believed his employees should be able to save the day for worship or to spend time with family and friends. It’s been this way since he started Chick-fil-A under the name Dwarf Grill in 1946 in Atlanta, Georgia. Yet most folks don’t know that Chick-fil-A truly goes the extra mile for their employees, even beyond giving everyone a day off.

Cathy’s non-profit, the WinShape Foundation, provides $1,000 scholarships to each team member who works a certain number of hours, and up to $32,000 for eligible students to attend Berry College in Georgia. As well, the foundation branches out to offer camps for kids, retreats for marriage and leadership, and a safe home for children who are victims of abuse, addiction or worse.

So, patronizing Chick-fil-A is not only buying a tasty lunch—it’s funding some pretty amazing community contributions, too.

Quick eaters in Wilmington also like CookOut and McDonald’s.

Pizza & Late-Night Eatery
On my 21st birthday, I was already wise enough to round my girls up for a surely raucous downtown adventure, and make sure my boyfriend was the DD. Though barely anyone can remember their 21st birthday, I still vividly remember one thing: the pizza. As I drunk-dialed my beau to have him pick us up from Slice of Life at 3 a.m., I ordered two pieces of their delectable pepperoni pies—one for me and one as a well-deserved gift for our chauffeur. Though as he arrived and we piled in, the large slice I got for him slid halfway off the plate, ensuring its grease would run like sweat down my legs. It was by far the sexiest thing he’d ever encountered.

Yet, did he eat that slice and love every second of it? Of course he did—it’s Slice! Its crunchy crust satisfies the craving for late night munchies and without a doubt has a line by 2:10 a.m., as drunk folks stagger from nearby bars and into the small pizza haven. Still, Slice isn’t just downtown and it isn’t just for the hammered. No, normal people (and, yes, even families!) can enjoy their piece of Slice for a mid-week lunch or even dinner, and they can do so on Military Cutoff Road or on the corner of 17th Street and College Road. As well, it’s not just a pizza parlor either.

Folks can enjoy a quesadilla or pasta salad, a wrap or a taco. I once witnessed someone open a Slice of Life pizza box to reveal nachos piled high with chicken, tomatoes, scallions and jalapenos—needless to say, it blew my mind. And, I am determined to venture into a Slice of Life before the daily cessation of alcohol sales, just so I can give their white pizza a try (the late night menu is limited for efficiency): garlic, ricotta, fresh basil, tomatoes, mozzarella and parmesan! Hey—it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon—do you know where your slice is?

For pizza in the port city, seconds go to Mellow Mushroom and thirds to Pizzetta’s Pizzeria. Other late night menus to check out are Jimbo’s and CookOut.

Hot Dog
I hope that my fellow locals can recall, as I do, the first time they had a hot dog from Trolly Stop (my guess is that, yes, they can). My grand experience was with the Surfer Dog at the Carolina Beach location sometime around the 8th grade. Though mustard, cheese and bacon bits seemed an odd mix at first, my taste buds proved my mind wrong with the first sensuous bite. It’s been puppy love with my Surfer Dog ever since.
I really enjoy introducing my out-of-town friends to Trolly Stop for their initial taste of the Cape Fear staple. For my sorority sisters, it was off to the Fountain Drive location between classes at UNCW. For days on the shore, it’s always fun to take someone inside the itty bitty Wrightsville Beach eatery. The typical reaction is confusion by the small space (it’s barely bigger than a closet, it seems!) and distrust that any cuisine coming from such a hole-in-the-wall could be something to rave about. But they should know it’s the original store—Station 1—and was founded by B.C. Hedgepath in 1976. Obviously, Trolly Stop made a lasting impression on this city!

We natives know that each of the Trolly Stop dogs are excellent, especially when washed down with fresh pink lemonade. Truly, it’s the perfect pairing during a weekend outing downtown, as that location is probably the best—quaint seating accommodates shoppers and river-viewers (plus they deliver!). Of course, the delicious little dogs probably taste just as great in Southport, Jacksonville and Boone, the other Carolina sites.

Essentially, there’s nothing about Trolly Stop locals, transfers and tourists can’t enjoy, no matter the place and no matter the dog.

Jeter’s All American Grille and Paul’s Place also offer dogs to bark about.

Japanese
The restaurant that offers the best Japanese food in town—Hiro’s Japanese Steakhouse, according to encore readers—may just become the best place for Malaysian cuisine in 2012. Yes, that’s right; the eatery will be serving up culinary goods from the small neighbor of Thailand and Indonesia soon. Diners can expect a bit of spice, amongst other flavors, to grace their new menu.

“[The biggest trend] was sushi, but now I think we are seeing many ‘fusion’-style cuisines becoming very popular,” owner Mei Ling Chau explains. “We will be bringing some new ideas and new food entrées into the market.”

New this year, Hiro’s will open its doors for lunch beginning in April. Chau hopes it will continue to bring in fresh faces to the restaurant year after year.

“My passion really has always been about the people,” Chau, a veteran in the restaurant business, says. “I have had a chance to meet tens of thousands of people over the years. This is what drives me every day.”

Working with her dad, who opened his own restaurant in Wilmington in the 1980s, began her natural progression toward a career in the industry. Seemingly, he taught her well, as Hiro’s has become a staple in this town for fine cuisine.

In the current economic climate, Chau cites a few rules she abides by, which allow her to continue in her efforts of delivering the best quality at the most reasonable price. “You just really have to enjoy what you do, and believe that you are providing a level of service and value that is more than what the customer is paying for,” she notes. “It is very rewarding to have something that I have labored [over] become such a locals’ favorite over the years. I can never tell my customers thank you enough.”

For Japanese, diners also enjoy Nikki’s Hibachi Steak House and Sushi Bar and Yo Sake. —Bethany Turner

Ribs & Chain Restaurant
Coming into our poll for two-years running now is the quintessential baby-back rib kings. They’re such royalty, they even have their own song. Mention “Chili’s” and “ribs” in the same sentence, and hear people immediately start singing the jingle that got their finger-suckin’ jangle off! The grill and bar is still holding strong, too, as Chili’s not only has scored encore’s Best Ribs but the secured a second win in 2012 with Best Chain Restaurant, too.

Perhaps the reason the restaurant stays top of mind for many voters is because its local general manager, Rob Russell, was born to lead. “I have been in the restaurant business for 24 years,” he tells encore, “and it gets into your blood!” He couldn’t be more proud of leading the blue-ribbon team either.

“Last year when we won best ribs, we saw a very positive impact,” he notes.
“We started selling more ribs and a spike in guests counts that we have managed to hang on to.”

Likely they return because of the numerous offers Chili’s churns out on a constant basis. From dinner for two for a mere $20 (one appetizer, two entrées) to their $6, $7 or $8 lunches, to their deliciously decadent top-shelf margarita promotions, there is always something to enjoy for the palate and the wallet. “We offer exciting, crave-able limited-time offers [like their new cheesesteak or blackened chicken sliders] and change our menu selections on a regular basis,” he notes. “We always find a way to give a great value without compromising quality.”

Their ribs consistently make customers happy, as they’re slow smoked over pecan wood. Served in orginal BBQ sauce, Shiner Bock sauce or Memphis dry-rub, the flavor never wanes as the tender meat falls from the bone without resistance.

Aside from running a tight ship of talented players and delicious food, Russell often welcomes charitable causes to help give back to the community. He has allowed Chili’s to host a plethora of events from school pancake breakfasts to Full Belly Project fund-raisers. His motto: “Treat your guests like they are your best friends, because they are!”
Here, here!

… “I want my baby-back, baby-back, b-b-b- baby-back ribs…”

Really, it never gets old.

Carrabba’s and Bonefish Grill took second and third in the chain restaurant category, while Wild Wing Café and Outback Steakhouse followed up ribs.

Wings
Finger-lickin’, lip-smackin’, sauce-poppin’ deliciousness. It’s in every morsel of chicken served at Buffalo Wild Wings. Celebrating 10 years in Wilmington comes yet again with win for this wingery, as they keep providing locals a multitude of variety and quality, according to Larry Alderson, franchise owner.

“Our wings are spun fresh in one of our 20 signature sauces and dry,” he notes of flavors like Asian Zing, Caribbean Jerk, Parmesan Garlic and more. “Because of our great selection of flavors and different levels of ‘hotness,’ there is definitely a sauce for every taste bud.”

BWW knows how to keep customers lining up the door for more, too. From Wing Tuesdays (yep, that would be $0.50 wings) to Boneless Thursdays ($0.60 wings), as well as daily drink specials, patrons always have something to eat, drink and watch on one of their many big screens.

“Whether we’re getting the newest in big-screen television technology or stocking a huge selection of craft beers for the latest craft beer craze, we always accommodate and listen to what our patrons want,” Alderson continues.

Next for BWW—aside from being one of the greenest spots in Wilmington, seeing as their Eastwood Road location runs off solar panels and the latest environmentally friendly kitchen technology—is their move to Jacksonville, NC. No doubt will sports and wing fans flock to the restaurant for some B-Dub’s love.

“Winning acknowledgements from locals means a lot to us!” Alderson says. “Our restaurants are locally owned and operated, and though we may be a franchise of a global restaurant chain, we take pride in being involved in our local community. Thank you Wilmington!”

Other wing spots worthy of a mention are Wild Wing Cafe and Carolina Ale House.

Oysters
It’s an aphrodisiac. It’s protection to a beautifully enchanting jewel. It houses the world according to some. The oyster—a hardened shell protecting delicate, ambrosial nuggets of bliss. Add champagne. Sip, eat, repeat.

Dock Street Oyster Bar has been honing their skills at providing the best of the best in seafood for years. They’ve ranked our poll for 13 wins in a row now (who says 13’s an unlucky number anyway?) thanks to their fine oyster preparation. Whether enjoyed on the half-shell on ice, steamed or grilled, they can make any hard day lighter in memory. Literally, lighter, too, as owners Steve Maillard and Louise Forbes opened the restaurant in 1999 with one goal in mind: Offer healthy seafood options and venture away from the de rigeur of Calabash-style seafood known across the southeast coast.

“We have remained true to our roots,” Maillard says of the restaurant’s seafood specialty. “We are constantly traveling  the coast and the Caribbean to bring new ideas to the plate.”
In today’s dining environment, seemingly customers want more for less, according to Maillard. “It is a challenging business environment for sure,” he notes. “We have a motto that is ‘innovate or abdicate.’” The former they’ve secured for years now, remaining a staple on downtown Wilmington’s food scene.

They work closely with local fishermen to bring the best shrimp and oysters to the table, whether from Stump Sound or Topsail. “We have some of the greatest resources right in our own back yard,” Maillard notes.

From spicy peppered scallops to their jerk-spiced “Calypso Catch of the Day,” to a blackened catch sandwich, the offerings vary. Most folks go for their steamers, which include shrimp, snow crab legs, mussels, crawfish and  of course oysters. Washed down with a fresh beverage, it’s a meal made for the best!

Other oyster nods go to Shuckers and Hieronymus Seafood.

Coffee
Life would be virtually impossible to live without a cup of caffeinated goodness. For many, the mornings would be impossible to bear without it: Kids wouldn’t be properly dressed and off to school. Work would be an enigmatic place of stalled progress. Brains would misfire and malfunction. Java runs so much of our lives, at least for the 150 million Americans who drink coffee daily. In Wilmington, folks head over to our very own Port City Java for their fix.

Founded by Steve Schnitzler in 1995, their motto hasn’t changed: “to serve the best coffee in a great environment.” They’ve done so not only in Wilmington’s 10 locations, but across the state, East Coast and even the world, including Costa Rica and Jordan. Having received their start along downtown Wilmington’s cobblestone streets keeps them close to locals’ hearts—and they’re paying back tenfold.

“We are investing $700,000 in our local cafes over a two-year period to stay Wilmington’s best coffeehouse,” Schnitzler says. Among their plans will be upgrading to Nuova Simonelli Aurelu’s espresso machines, which just so happen to be the official gear of the World Barista Championships. (Yes, they exist!) It will ensure PCJ baristas stay on top of their game with evolving knowledge.

“We’ve been leading our own seminars on expectations for guest hospitality as well as coffee roasting, tasting, beverage preparation, etc. for years,” he says. “We want to take it a step further, and give our baristas and managers the opportunity to become certified baristas with the Barista Guild.” (Yes, that also exists!)

PCJ will become a SCAA Certified Laboratory, meaning the workshops and courses they host will be available to other coffee shops as well. “We seek to exceed expectations on every guest list,” Schnitzler continues. By adding more breakfast items and grab-and-go snacks, along with remodeling cafes, it’s no wonder encore reader’s sent votes for this “guild” straight to number one!

Other coffee shops worth a sip are Java Dog and Starbucks.

Soul Food/Country Cookin’ & Buffet
Ask anyone in town where Southern food tastes its best, and they’ll most likely answer Casey’s. Casey’s Buffet and BBQ has been around for what feels like forever. In its most recent incarnation, it’s only been since 2005. However, prior to this, its owner, Larry Casey, ran Taste of Country. Before that, he was honing his skills at family gatherings.
“It started when he was a kid, cooking with his mother and grandmother,” wife Gena says, “barbecuing pigs with his father and uncles.”

Working his way across numerous slates of restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, Larry settled on his roots, going back to what became most satisfying. It’s part of Southern morale, really, where food and family go hand in hand. Thus, Casey’s is run by Larry’s entire family—daughters and wife included—and with friends. It’s part of the reason their appeal keeps attracting diners from all walks of life. To them, that’s who really matters most.

“It is an amazing feeling—when you work as many hours as we do to make a restaurant successful—to be acknowledged by people who truly enjoy our establishment,” Gena notes. “The ones who say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know about [Best Of] this year, but you can bet I will be voting next year!’ is more rewarding than [being reviewed by] a food critic who may just be eating with us for an assignment.”

Their menu always touts the heart and soul of the South: fried chicken, chit’lin’s, catfish, pig’s feet, mashed potatoes, mac ‘n’ cheese, beans of every variety, cobblers, banana pudding and so much more. They’re also abiding more these days by the locavore movement.  “Collards this time of year [are delicious!]” Gena notes. “We try to use as many local products as possible.”

As many eateries evolve with what’s trending, Casey’s stay homey (they still don’t have a website) but not without keeping up to par on bettering their catering services, improving take-out and call-aheads. “If you come to Casey’s and the line’s too long, and you can’t wait, then let a Casey girl fill yo’ plate!” Gena says excitedly.

All of Casey’s food is available by the plate ($4.99 a pound), pint, quart or pan to accommodate diners of multiple party sizes. Closed Monday and Tuesday only, the Caseys stay true to their family and food—no wonder they continue ranking top notch in Soul Food and Buffet categories.

Other buffet nominees were Golden Corral and Boca Bay, while Soul Food/Country Cookin’ included Two Fat Ladies Over a Simmering Pot and Cracker Barrel.

Vegetarian
More and more people are dining healthfully, for sure. By taking on dietary specialties that include more greens than, say, reds—less meat and more veggies—Lovey’s is pulling a first-time rank this year by securing its spot on our annual poll as serving Best Vegetarian food. Appropriately so, they are the epitome of conscientious eating. The natural market and café serves 100 percent organic produce, alongside a very large organic salad bar, which keeps people lining up in their Military Cutoff location.

Owned and operated for over a decade by Karen Stewart and Marie Montemurro, non-meat eaters have a hey-day here, as the shop celebrates the alternative lifestyle, which for many is a mere norm. “My interest and passion is in herbal formulas and vitamin supplements and their use alternatively to prescription drugs whenever possible,” Stewart says. “Marie has a lifelong experience in the restaurant business, as her grandmother and mother, Lovey (our namesake), both owned restaurants. Marie was literally raised in the business, [and] grew up working and cooking at her mother’s specialty gourmet restaurant in Warwick, New York.”

Wilmington’s own has a varied menu suited to many palates: veggie melts and bean burritos, Boca burgers and tofu melts, steamed veggie plates and falafel, among gluten-free and vegan items galore. Sundays welcome brunch starting at $5.95, too.
New to the Lovey’s staff in 2012 is Nikki Spears—the official moniker and original restaurateur of Nikki’s Fresh Gourmet. Nikki will tempt many with her delicious baked goods among health-conscious foods she prepares daily. Lovey’s is also adding wine and beer to their stockpile, and on the last Thursday of each month, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., they will offer samples of new items, including delicious gourmet cheeses. “More demos are being scheduled, offering educational opportunities as well,” Stewart maintains.

They offer beauty products, such as Gabriel Cosmetics, and their website showcases wellness tips, healthy recipes and even health calculators. “The customer’s health and well-being is always the most important,” Stewart notes. Lovey’s is making itself more than the local yokel veg eatery—it’s becoming the Wilmington hub for all-things healthy!

Other among the ranks in Best Vegetarian cuisine include Nikki’s Fresh Gourmet and Sushi Bar, as well as Tidal Creek Co-op.

Chinese
“Deep down in my heart, after 23 years in the business, I am still looking forward to going to work every morning,” Joseph Hou, owner of Szechuan 132, encore’s 2012 Best Chinese eatery, says. His infectious positive attitude and delightful dedication to customer priority, as well as employee satisfaction, makes Hou one of the most revered businessmen on the local scene.

“Besides the love I have for the playing with ingredients in my little kingdom, the restaurant business fosters the opportunity for me to delight in, bond and strengthen friendships with those in the community, as well as [with] visitors,” he says. “My business also gives me a sense of challenge, excitement, independence and responsibility.”

What this does for the community, in return, assures top-notch experiences at the University Landing restaurant time and time again. Hou and his staff provide the highest-quality foods among a plethora of dishes, from standard fare like Peking duck and Spicy Hunan, to carefully crafted, unexpected items like rosemary lamb, along with tempting hot egg noodle dishes like Dang Dang Mien. They also offer a “Lite and Fit” section to their menu, among Thai and Malaysian curries, Japanese fare and so much more. All dishes come with careful preparation, fresh ingredients and skilled hands.

Though Hou’s ranks on our poll have been numerous over the Best Of 20-plus year reign, he’s not affected by it—only grateful. Exempt are egos from his kitchen and operation.
“The Szechuan 132 team is not superior to other businesses,” he exacts. “As small business owners, we are all capable and excel in our own ways. When we come to work, our ears, minds, and hearts are all in one place—focused on the customers and not anywhere else.”
In the year of the Water Dragon, much good fortune comes with promises of balance by creativity and endless growth. Hou sticks to the standards of what coddles such opportunity, from treating others wholly with respect, exceeding expectation of those he serves and working together as a team.

“In our restaurant we have two big Chinese characters on the wall as a reminder of our missions,” he says. “One is joy and the other is harmony. If you can’t find joy in your work, I guarantee you can’t put 100% of your energy into it. Without harmony, you cannot build a team.”

Other Chinese establishments worthy of a mention are Double Happiness in second and Chopstix in third.

—Shea Carver

Mediterranean
Though a cruise through the Greek Islands beckons many for not only relaxation and culture but food—delectable, fresh and healthy cuisine—Wilmingtonians need not seek out the latest travel agent. They can find seafood, pitas and hummus prepared with Mediterranean flare in their own hometown, right on Oleander Drive in Bradley Square. There they’ll encounter Olympia, the family-owned restaurant which boasts its third Best Of win in 2012.

Antoinette Voulgaris’ parents thrive in the food business—they’ve owned restaurants for over three decades, including Olympia which has been serving the port city for 18 years. “I’ve grown up in [Olympia] and love it,” she shares. “The customers, the staff—we are like a family. We have so many regulars that have been loyal to us over the years and hope to bring in more.”

The Mediterranean diet is known for its health benefits, as it’s renowned for using a plethora of veggies from olives to mushrooms, and plenty of fish. It’s the type of fare where taste and health coincide, and that rule is no different at Olympia. Aside from having a family-friendly and comfortable atmosphere, according to Voulgaris, the restaurant also prides itself on the use of fresh, quality ingredients. From pasta creations to delights from the sea, Olympia offers an authentic trip to the Mediterranean for tastebuds, without the price tag of a global cruise!

Diners also venture to Black Sea Grill and Pita Delite for Mediterranean cuisine.

Waitstaff
The Copper Penny is rooted in Wilmington’s downtown scene, a neighborhood destination since March 2004. It’s never a surprise when they take home the Best Waitstaff award year after year. It’s a natural win considering the motto of general manager Deede Bell is “surround yourself with good people.” Thus, the Copper Penny focuses on hiring staff that works hard to keep those beers coming, even more so now that they’re offering an extensive North Carolina-made brew list.

It’s not just a familiar pub with friendly faces, though; The Copper Penny boasts a menu of bar staples such as wings and nachos, unexpected appetizers like house-made hummus and hand-made spring rolls, and a lengthy list of specially crafted sandwiches. Take the Lady Liberty’s Portabella sandwich, for instance: its mushrooms are topped with roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, provolone and a basil pesto aioli—yum! Plus, they’ve just joined up with a loyalty card app that allows you to keep your card on your smart phone—easily accessible for earning the ninth Copper Penny lunch free.

Essentially, it’s about providing a well-rounded experience at The Copper Penny: staff that managers and guests can count on, local brews at great prices, and delicious foods that up the ante on traditional bar fare. “We are always honored by receiving this award and it always feels good to get a pat on the back,” Bell says. “We want to thank all our loyal patrons for making us the downtown staple that we have become.”

The staff also rocks at The Little Dipper and Circa 1922.

Burgers and Fries
Wilmington residents all recognize the crazy, enthused burger-flipper of the P.T.’s Old Fashioned Grille logo. Locals probably resemble the guy on the emblem when a perfectly grilled P.T. burger is set down in front of them, too. In fact, I once had a UNCW Wave driver that would stop by the Fountain Drive location almost daily just to get a side of their salty seasoned fries. Pair ‘em together, and you’ve got Wilmington’s best take on some of America’s favorite foods.

It’s simple to dine at the nearly 20-year-old establishment. One might have to wait in line just to get to the order forms, but they’re quick to fill out. Amongst all the other choices—salads, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs and more—pick a burger, four or eight ounces. Fries are a must (they’re the best in Wilmington, after all!). Finish it off with some of their house-made lemonade, and the trifecta of P.T.’s Old Fashioned Grille will be out in no time flat. Take a seat on the patio or in the dining room while it’s cooking.

Folks can find P.T.’s all over the place these days. Of course, there’s the original location across from UNCW, and the ever-popular establishment on 17th Street near the hospital. Those headed to the beach can stop by the Military Cutoff Drive restaurant on the way to Wrightsville, or the Monkey Junction store on the way to Carolina Beach. There’s even a P.T.’s in Porters Neck, and another in Leland. Thus, with six locations to choose from, there’s no excuse not to fill out a P.T.’s order form wherever folks hang out.

Wilmingtonians also like the burgers at Five Guys and Red Robin, and the fries at McDonald’s and Five Guys. —Bethany Turner

Indian
Since TJ and Samrin Singh opened Tandoori Bites over a year ago, they’ve received praise from the culinary community. Not only have diners become hooked by their extensive menu of fine Indian cuisine, they’ve become addicted to it. So much so the couple has extended its demand. Buffets aren’t just relegated to lunch now; diners can enjoy it on Wednesday evenings, too.

Where the real specialties lie are from ordering off Tandoori’s lengthy menu, featuring classic favorites like chicken masala and shrimp vindaloo, among lots of delicious vegetarian dishes and meat-eater favorites, too, à la lamb, chicken or even goat.

“All of our chefs are from India,” TJ told encore last year. Hence, folks can expect the most authentic dining experience even if situated among the Western world. Their homemade paneer (cheese) and naan are enough to demand many returns.

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. Tandoori Bites will be participating in encore’s upcoming restaurant week, March 21st through 28th, serving dinner for two for only $40 (which includes wine!).

Their attention to food comes from the heart, too. “I started cooking because of my grandmother,” TJ said. “I love this business.”

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

Italian
It’s a hotly contested category. Best Italian has flip-flopped over the many years encore’s been doing this. Yet, securing its second-year win is Osteria Cicchetti, one of the many successful eateries among the Circa 1922 Group (which has two other restaurants featured on our Best Of 2012 poll, too—so read on!). “OC,” as endearingly called by local yokels, does so much right I am not sure where to begin.

I suppose we can start from the top: the meatball. Yes, they do it right. But, when coming here, may I suggest a step away from the norm?

For starters, try one of their amazing cheeses or charcuterie options from their cold plates menu (the taleggio and capicola are yummola!). Of their spreads, try the artichoke and mascarpone, and if you’re in need of ruffage for the necessary veggie intake, go with their Italian insalata.

Per pasta, well, everything delights, but especially their linguini and red clam sauce or linguini calabrase (chicken, broccoli rabe and sun-dried tomatoes in a white wine sauce). They have risottos, too, which provide a hearty dinner, and they do daily specials which can’t be beat. I’ve never been steered wrong from their fish of the day (if it’s trigger or monk, don’t even bother perusing the menu).

What’s best about OC is not just the food, but the cozy, rustic decor, as if transported straight from an Italian countryside. From the wooden farm tables, to the mismatched plates to the carafes of wine, delivered to the table in quarter, half or full options, it’s all thoughtful.

Just in case the mounds of bread and pasta aren’t filling enough, dessert can be a treat when indulging in some of the most delicious bread pudding in Wilmington.

Other Italian eateries taking the cannoli are Terrazzo Trattoria and Taste of Italy.

Steak
A hunk of meat can be quite satisfying. Thickly tempting and juicy. Perfectly cooked a medium-rare. Accentuated by butter oozing down its seared sides. Yes, a hunk of meat can be so perfectly satisfying.

Wilmingtonians prefer their cuts straight from the menu of the finest meat connoisseurs in town. And who may that be, you ask? Well, Mrs. Ruth Fertel, of course! That would be the original founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, located locally in Wilmington’s Best Hotel, Wilmington Hilton Riverside. Boy, do they do fine dining to perfection. More importantly, they know how to serve the best USDA Prime beef to every customer who walks through the doors.

Broiled to a perfect 1800 degrees and simply dressed with salt, pepper and butter, no fancy-shmancy sauces top the many cuts here. Whether ordering their amazingly huge, decadently divine cowboy ribeye or the petite filet mignon, Porterhouse for two or a NY strip, no matter the preference, the raw flavor of every cut’s earthiness will beckon bite full after bite full.

Of course, the folks who come without a hankering for red meat can be sated just as well. Their menu of other items extend from shrimp to chicken, lamb to lobster and other choices in between. Along with their à la carte family sides, from creamed spinach to potato au gratin, and their numerous salads (the wedge is a must-try), and a cocktail and wine menu to keep everyone’s thirsts quenched, Ruth’s Chris makes an appealing case for anyone’s hunger.

Other steak houses cutting the top tier of our poll are Port City Chophouse and Outback Steakhouse. 

Salad
When folks crave ruffage in its many forms—iceberg, Romaine, mixed greens, edamame, garden peas, carrots, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, beets and so on—they turn to one place where the options are endless: Ruby Tuesday.

Ruby Tuesday (RT) is well-known for their garden bar, kept perfectly chilled and brimming with fresh crispness. Everyone becomes a veggie artist here, creating a salad sensation to adore. Favorite toppings include RT’s famed homemade croutons, not to mention tons of dressing choices, in low-fat and full-flavor variety. They also offer treats on the bar not found at other stops, from pasta and potato salads to cottage cheese and fruit.

Tempted by other items on the menu, the garden bar gets companions with many RT specials, such as the minis and garden bar combo. A choice of RT’s famous mini burgers, turkey burgers or their brand-new vegetarian-friendly zucchini cakes come in pairs with fries and, yep, many refills of salad. All this food can’t be beat for under $10! They also offer the combo with their chicken quesadilla, soup or with a choice of three veggie sides.

Naturally their full-fledged menu has many regulars coming back for more, whether eating pasta, chicken, steaks, ribs, burgers or sandwiches. No matter the order, it always gets a healthier dose of satisfaction thanks to the Best Salad in Wilmington: Ruby Tuesday’s garden bar.

Brasserie du Soleil and Rucker Johns also top our poll in the salad category.

New Restaurant
Walking into The Kitchen, Wilmington’s favorite new restaurant located in the Forum in the old Grand Union Pub location, arouses a sense of cozy ease. The dark wood creates an air of refinement against lit candelabras and vintage mirrors. Tables consist of old sewing machines, as exposed brick adds to the den-like comfort. A bustling open kitchen showcases chefs and line cooks churning out thoughtful homey fare, all of which is taken up a notch by fastidious hands.

And it’s all very delicious.

Scallop and dumplings are unlike another dish in town, perfectly cooked and seasoned to a medium, paired with a corn-chowder-like sauce and dense flour nuggets of deliciousness. The charcuterie and cheese plate also rivals any other. From intense-flavored duck salami and American chorizo to homemade pâté, along with double cream blue cheese and Camembert, paired with house-made, fruity sweetmeats and apple butter, the outcome is plentiful and rewarding.

Their side dishes are enough of a temptation to keep tables happily engaged over mounds of food: roasted Brussels sprouts, root vegetables, homemade mac ‘n’ cheese (with or without lobster), Creole succotash (insane good!) and the best leek bread pudding on the face of the planet.

An in-house smoker makes brisket and ribs fall apart without much fork puncture, while rotisserie chickens churn and permeate the house with sinful aroma. Their nightly specials showcase some of the best local fare, too, as their menu boasts 75 percent regionally used foods, which means it’s made of the freshest quality. If the duck or fish of the day is available, don’t hesitate to order.

Just leave room for dessert, as their pastry chef is a champ! His daily creations aren’t only treats of indulgence, but often they’re larger than entrées. Plan to share—and get there early. Since The Kitchen’s opening in late November, they’ve remained a packed house on most nights (they’re only open for dinner as of now at 5 p.m. and take reservations) but especially weekends. Their farm-raised, fire-roasted fare deserves best new nods in town!

Other new restaurant spots in 2012 include Pizzetta’s Pizzeria and Nick’s Diner.

Sushi
Nikki’s Fresh Gourmet 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 her cravings. Yet, what most people rave over in this dining staple—with four locations to boot in Wilmington, including downtown, Independence Mall and Racine Drive, as well as their Japanese steak house, located off Miliary Cutoff—is the sushi.

Owners Johnny and Andy Chen keep quality behind every roll or slice of nigiri; that’s the most important aspect to any successful sushi restaurant. With multiple deliveries weekly, securing the best, fresh tuna, salmon, eel, shrimp, yellowtail, squid, scallop, crab and more, they’re able to make artful food not only indelible to the tastebuds but also to the eyes. In fact, their sushi chefs are trained in the highest regard and pride themselves on making top-tier meals enticing to every customer.

The sushi here is always appetizing and ever-changing. They offer rolls wrapped in cucumber (Rainbow Naruto) or on top of a rice patty, à la sushi pizza. They also do traditional fish and rice (nigiri or chirashi), and they know how to wow customers, too. Just order the Love Boat and watch over 50 pieces of sushi sail onto the table, perfectly arranged and designed for many pictures and multiple “oohs” and “ahhhs.”

Trust us, it’s all fanciful and decadent in every bite. And if for some reason, diners aren’t feeling sushi, Nikki’s lenthy menu of sandwiches and entrées for both meateaters and vegetarians will pacify to no avail. From burgers to their famed veggie wrap, to Japanese-style tempura dishes, its all beckoning new flavors. But it’s the fish that keeps them at the top of their game according to encore voters.

Other sushi establishments fishing into second and third are Bento Box and YoSake. —Shea Carver

Neighborhood Bar
After the Best Of awards party on Friday, February 10th, my friends and I moseyed over to the best neighborhood bar, Duck and Dive Pub. It was packed to the door with people as music from the live acoustic rock/reggae band, The Sound Down Shore, poured out onto Dock Street. It was so packed, in fact, that the bouncer checking IDs outside the small bar had to take a headcount to make sure they weren’t over capacity! Yet even though Duck and Dive’s cup runneth over with beer drinkers, music lovers, and even a dog, I still bumped into so many familiar faces. And, unlike some other late-night spots, the bartenders were ever-friendly and eager to pour us another round. “It’s a fun business and a great way to mingle with current friends and meet new ones,” owner Todd Barber says.

Barber got together with his current business partner, Glenn, benefitting from his buddy’s knowledge of the bar business to open Duck and Dive. Today, they attribute their success to consistency, a quality everyone in the bar strives to produce. “We owe this award to our patrons and bartenders,” Barber explains. “They are the ones that bring the neighborhood feel and comfort to the Duck and Dive Pub. They speak—we listen closely, and bring in changes regularly. We are not afraid to try anything that’s legal and fun, though we try to stay low-key and cater to the locals. Great patrons, great bartenders and great music: seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.”

Barber and his partner love to dabble in alternative drinks, exposing new beers and liquors to their guests. But we won’t catch anyone in Duck and Dive breaking away from the laid-back feel that has earned it this 2012 honor. “We are not really into trends, more just keeping a steady pace and providing a comfortable place for our patrons to enjoy,” Barber notes. “We are very appreciative of the positive feedback and winning this award.”

Other welcoming bars with a “Cheers” vibe include The Triangle Lounge and Blue Post. 

Appetizers & Desserts
Though Circa 1922 reels in accolades for its tapas-style dining year in and year out, in February the restaurant welcomed a brand new executive chef, Andrew Karasz. He will not re-imagine the hugely popular eatery, rather he will rejuvenate the menu by incorporating a few new flavors to old favorites and by introducing his own savory specials.

The historic and charming atmosphere of Circa will remain, as well as the global wine bar complete with a custom 12-bottle Cruvinet temperature-controlled system to ensure the freshness of wines by the glass. Diners can still expect regionally themed sharing platters, as Karasz is dedicated to sourcing local goods.

The chef, who has worked in New York City at Union Pacific and with Wolfgang Puck at Postrio in San Francisco, will surely enhance the revered offerings that garner Circa Best Of wins annually. From the small plates of cheeses and charcuterie to the generous portions of crème brûlée or bananas foster, Circa 1922 will continue to evolve with its chef and present international, cosmopolitan tastes for all.

Second place in appetizers goes to Front Street Brewery, while Bonefish Grill takes home third. Diners also delight in desserts at Apple Annie’s Bake Shop and The Little Dipper.

Wine/Beer Shop
Boasting over 500 different bottled beers, be they American craft or international brews, Lighthouse Beer and Wine Shop in Wrightsville Beach caters to the ale aficionados, lager lovers and everyone in between. As well, the store meets the needs of every vino votary and cigar connoisseur, too!

Of those 500 beers, folks can mix and match to create personalized six-packs of bottles they’d like to try, and Lighthouse also offers one of North Carolina’s largest keg selections. They typically have around 50 kegs on-hand for the impromptu get-together, or they can special-order brews for a planned soirée. In fact, Lighthouse even caters events with their beer and wine, and can bring non-alcoholic beverages, mixers and ice, with pre-chilling and delivery optional. It all starts with a free consultation to be sure they’ll have all bases covered.

With over 13 years in business, the Lighthouse staff samples thousands of wines yearly to bring the best in pinot noir, chardonnay, bubbles or shiraz (and every other wine imaginable!). Shoppers can also indulge in Lighthouse’s fully functional humidor to select the best cigar, from mild to full-bodied, Nicaraguan to Dominican. Folks can even look to Lighthouse for gift baskets for beer, wine or cigar enthusiasts.

What most notably sets Lighthouse Beer and Wine Shop apart from other stores is its annual beer festival, which will be held this year on Randall Parkway on October 20th. Featuring over 90 breweries, this outdoor sampling party makes for a great time complete with live music (this year from Langhorn Slim), food vendors and, as always, benefiting The Carousel Center for Abused Children.

Other wine/beer shops making our list are Cape Fear Wine and Beer and Wilmington Wine.

French
Though Chef Thierry Moity hails from the central provinces of France, he wants everyone to feel welcome in his authentic eatery, Caprice Bistro, where a dimly lit dining room gives off an unobtrusive café vibe and prices remain below the $20 mark (except for the Angus steak frites or filet mignon, which are barely higher than that).

The proprietor’s goal is to combat the stereotype that French food must be costly and, thus, reserved for the finest diners. Rather, his attentive and knowledgeable waitstaff offer fast-paced service and generous portions of traditional French cuisine, and guests are encouraged to “come as they are.”

Chef Moity has been cooking since the age of 13, and owned Cafe de Bruxelles in New York City and Patou Bistro in Charlotte with his wife, Patricia. He’s been bred to provide consistency in his savory meals, from crisp pommes frites to cassoulet-style lamb shank. A varied menu caters to most tastes, including a delectable mushroom crepe, paté mason, escargots and tomato tarte tatin.

As well, the upstairs sofa lounge is trés couru (very popular). Decked in rich jewel tones and local art that alternates between various artists, the hip and casual bar is the place to go for specialty martinis and cocktails in a welcoming atmosphere.

Second place for French food goes to Brasserie du Soleil, while third is awarded to Le Catalan.

Outdoor Dining
After traveling by boat to Charleston, South Carolina, via the Intracoastal Waterway, I realized that we are blessed with the most beautiful section of the ICW—barrier islands give way to ocean views, if only for moments, and the wildlife of our area flourishes along this stretch of water. I often tell people that if any South Carolinians think the narrow strip behind Barefoot Landing, littered with the ruins of old bridges and concrete, constitutes the majority of the ICW, they are sadly mistaken and should take a little trip up Highway 17 North to Wilmington. Then, they should follow 76 East right to Wrightsville Beach—final destination: Bluewater Grill.

Perched along our gorgeous waterway is one of the area’s many pearls. The gigantic coastal building is topped by a teal roof that beckons drivers as its tip peeks from the top of the bridge. Large frond-like fans on the sprawling outdoor deck keep folks cool in the summertime (though I’m sure it’s the mojitos and cervezas which truly provide the “air conditioning”). Local bands offer up energetic melodies, from reggae to classic ‘70s dance covers. It gives “beach party” a whole new meaning: remove the pesky sand, add a few bartenders to make the drinks for you, and amplify the view (it’s not called Bluewater for nothing!).

A staple for locals and tourists alike—a must-do over and over again in the warmer months—Bluewater will unveil a completely renovated second floor this month, expanding the dining room into an open floor plan and adding a vaulted ceiling, which will surely keep folks returning in the winter, too. As well, the second floor will soon host an unobstructed window view of the Intracoastal. “LM Restaurants has operated Bluewater Grill since 2008,” Katherine Costa Goldfaden, the marketing representative for LM Restaurants says. “The outdoor dining was the primary selling point of this restaurant. You can’t beat this view!”

Indochine and Dockside also provide spectacular outdoor dining.

Take Out
After a long weekend of hustling and bustling, trying to run errands, fixing odds and ends and cleaning all about the house, sometimes cooking a meal on Sunday night can seem a bit exhausting. Especially when another work week is looming only hours away. Cue the sorting of the take-out menus: pizza, subs, Chinese. Which offers a varied enough menu to feed the picky family at minimal cost (and quick!)?

The best in take-out year after year goes to Chopstix, an Asian eatery that’ll deliver, located in front of Walmart on Market Street. They’ve got fried dumplings, tofu options and pork fried rice out the yin yang. As well, folks can expect specialty items like the Dragon and Phoenix: lobster, fresh jumbo shrimp, scallops, crab, chicken and vegetables with a few sesame seeds and sweet golden sauce—the whole kit and caboodle for only $12.99. Still, most dishes are under five bucks for a pint.

Plus, the place stays open ‘til 10:30 p.m. on Sunday nights, as well as on Mondays through Thursdays—which makes Chopstix super convenient, considering most restaurants close early on Sunday. On Friday and Saturday, they’re open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., catering to eaters from lunch to late-night.

Taking home second and third are Cook-Out and Indochine, respectively. —Bethany Turner 

Sports Bar
March: For many Wilmington residents, it signifies the beginning of beach season, the inclusion of spring break, or the time when every single professor decides to assign a paper or midterm test. For others, though, March can only signify one momentous occasion: March Madness.

Let’s get one thing straight: College basketball is no joke in North Carolina. Whether  a Tar Heels, Blue Devils or even Wolfpack fan, there is no better place to cheer on the team this month other than the Carolina Ale House (CAH).

Its prime location, just down the street from UNC Wilmington, in midtown causes college students and locals alike to flock to this casual, upbeat sports bar for their hoops fix. With two large projection screens and 46 other TVs displaying high-definition broadcasts, every seat is sure to have a great view of all the action.

“The warm hospitality and neighborly atmosphere of English pubs inspired owner, Lou Moshakos to create such a place in America,” Katherine Costa Goldfaden, marketing director, says. “As the concept has grown across the Southeast, it is the mission of CAH to remain the neighborhood-gathering place.”

The Wilmington location boasts an impressive 38 different beers on tap—served from the main bar inside and the patio bar. Don’t worry—there are TVs outside, too. “We also run great promotions,” Goldfaden says, “like $2.50 drafts all day, every Wednesday.”

The staff is always friendly and willing to root for a team right alongside of you, while serving up favorite dishes such as fried pickles, grilled wings and baby back ribs. Let’s not forget about their signature fries, which are even more fantastic when loaded with melted cheeses, bacon, jalapenos and homemade chili.

Fans enjoy all the Ale House has to offer, and regulars keep coming back because of their daily specials. Every Tuesday night, parents can delight in the fact that kids meals are only 99 cents. “Service is king!” Goldfaden states. “Lou instills in every team member that service is what will keep our fans coming back. Carolina Ale House is committed to continuing a fan-friendly menu price point, quality items and generous service. To support this goal, we are opening our newest location in Jacksonville, NC. Ale yeah!”

Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Sports fanatics also like to enjoy the games at Buffalo Wild Wings and Wild Wing Café. —Kaitlin Willow

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2 Responses to Best of Wilmington 2012 – Food & Beverage

  1. curious says:

    Where’s best bartender?

    • admin says:

      Once it appears in print (we’re covering Best Of through March 7th in our print editions), it will go online. Keep your eyes peeled!

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