8 Best Restaurants (right now) in Wilmington, North Carolina
Get an insider’s scoop on where and what to eat and drink in this coastal city
Story and photos by Jason Frye
Editor’s Note: Jason Frye wrote this article about his adopted hometown before Hurricane Florence devastated Wilmington, North Carolina. We are running it as he wrote it, anticipating that all businesses will reopen as soon as possible—because once waters recede and the community is accessible, visitors can help the local economy recover. We’ll have Jason update this article once he can. In the meantime, we hope this mouthwatering information will fuel your desire to visit Wilmington.
My adopted home state of North Carolina is a food lover’s fantasy land. There’s more outstanding barbecue than you can shake a rib at. Everywhere along the coast the fish shacks, oyster bars and sushi restaurants make the most of what’s caught on the line and in the net. Forests and fields deliver surprises to chefs from the mountains to the sea. And the beer scene—we can’t even go there right now, but do yourself a favor and come thirsty. Most of all, come hungry. Come to Wilmington hungry. This city in the southeastern corner of the state has a food scene that’s got its fair share of names and accolades, from James Beard Award nominees and winners to a AAA Four Diamond restaurant to faces you might recognize from Bravo’s Top Chef and a raft of up and comers. Break out the bib, put on your loosest pants, and get ready to feast. These are the eight must-eat restaurants in Wilmington (right now).
Chef Dean Neff has a pedigree that includes stints cooking alongside renowned chefs like Hugh Acheson and John Fleer, and his menu at PinPoint reflects a care for ingredients and Jedi-like techniques that few possess. Precise knife cuts, bold techniques that elevate traditional Southern dishes, a preternatural ability to coax maximum flavor out of regional ingredients, and tastefully restrained plating are Neff’s hallmarks. Every dish coming out of the kitchen is bound to be your next favorite.
So, what’s the can’t-miss dish? From the seasonal vegetable platter to the Brasstown steak, you can’t go wrong, but we find no visit is complete without at least one order of the crisp smoked NC catfish. Delicately smoked and perfectly fried, this catfish sits perched atop leek-creamed grits, seared okra, mushrooms and a green tomato slaw, all of which is drizzled with lemon brown butter. If that’s not enough for you, we recommend starting with the NC butter bean hummus—a beautiful dish that’s served with benne seed focaccia baked by the chef’s fiancée, master baker Lydia Clopton—and ending the meal with another of Clopton’s creations, the flourless brownie sundae. This is an indulgent treat to die for, especially when it’s served with dandelion root ice cream, caramel, Luxardo and cherries, and a touch of smoked salt.
The AAA Four Diamond Manna is bold, quirky and bound to impress with every course from cocktails to appetizers, entrees to dessert. Step inside this downtown restaurant and belly up to the bar before dinner to pick your poison from a list of cocktails that are big on flavor and booze. The bartenders switch up the menu frequently, but in every season you’ll find house-made syrups and infusions, inventive bitters, and touches of North Carolina in just about every glass. Like rum? Try Blackbeard’s Chest…hair, made with Kill Devil Hills Rum (from the Outer Banks), scotch whiskey, Fernet Branca, lime, orange, oregat and Angostura bitters. Rather go with gin? The White Blossom Special blends Sutler’s gin (a floral gin from Winston-Salem), poblano and pineapple gomme (a simple syrup with body), Cocchi Americano, lemon and white blossom bitters and has what you’re looking for. Add to that a deep selection of top-shelf and hard-to-find bourbons, ryes and other spirits and you’ve got yourself an excuse to show up for dinner at least an hour early.
The food carries the same playful spirit as the cocktail menu, but don’t think Executive Chef Jameson Chavez is playing in the kitchen, his food is seriously good. Start with the Swine Spectator, which is a pork belly roulade with caramelized onion and masa terrine, charred Anaheim pepper compote and pickled mustard seeds. Or go for the Homard Simpson, a lobster tail served with sugar snap peas, shiitake mushrooms, pickled ginger and a rich spring allium broth. When you move on to the mains, The Reel Thing (fresh catch with seasonal vegetables) and Shell Station (seared scallops, creamed celery root farro, preserved lemon and rhubarb puree, shaved fennel and smoked peanuts) are two of the best seafood dishes in a town full of great seafood dishes. Don’t hesitate to also dig into land-based dishes like “Iron Chef: Bobby Filet”(beef) and “Wool Street Journal” (lamb).
Chef Keith Rhodes lives up to his reputation as a Top Chef contestant and James Beard Award semifinalist at his restaurant, Catch. His menu is a love letter to North Carolina seafood and nearly every dish sings the praises of seasonal flavors (and you’ll find more than a few farmers and fishermen in the dining room on any given night). Every dish delivers bite after bite of moan-worthy flavor. Some dishes are odes to Southern flavor (like the Cajun crusted oysters) while others (like the Thai steamed Blue Bay mussels) show his love for the flavors and spices of Southeast Asia. His crab cakes are legendary around these parts and the dish of local lump crab cakes served atop a parsnip purée, roasted root vegetables and a frisee and lobster cream is best described as decadent. The Southern fried seafood platter is a simple, but perfectly executed, Calabash-style taste of crispy flounder, fried shrimp and oysters, and seasonal vegetables. And if for some reason you’re not feeling seafood, go for the crispy duck leg and thigh served with pork belly fried rice, baby tatsoi, shiitake mushroom and a Kahlua pork spring roll. You’re welcome.
Surf House Oyster Bar & Surf Camp
Surf House is as cozy and welcoming as it is delicious. Pair the menu with an excellent cocktail program and it’s a recipe that’ll have you clamoring to come back for another meal. Chef Craig Love keeps a small, well-curated menu of dishes that showcase his love of oysters and other local seafood, plus his deft hand with every ingredient. Chef Love manages to elevate each component of a dish rather than muddying them in a bite that confuses the palate. Every note of the camp oysters (fried local oysters, pickled shrimp, fennel and comeback sauce) plays off the others, creating a bite that’s more than the sum of its parts. The same for charred Brussels sprouts with peanuts, burrata and buttermilk; the dish comes off sophisticated because of its simplicity. For your entrée, study the menu and go for whichever seafood dish strikes your fancy (shrimp and grits is a great option), but pay attention to the daily specials—that’s where I found one of my favorite dishes: soft shelled crab linguini with ramp pesto.
Not everything in Wilmington is about Southern cuisine. The small, simple menu at Pho Café and the hordes of people who seek out this tiny, strip-mall restaurant stand as testament to that fact. On the menu you’ll find pho (the rich and aromatic soup that’s ubiquitous in Vietnam) banh mi sandwiches and boba tea. Oh, there’s other stuff, too—an excellent Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake with pork belly, shrimp and sprouts), and Bun Bo Hue (spicy beef noodle soup), for example—but banh mi is right around $4 and Chef Kiet Nguyen makes sure every bite tastes like his homeland. No matter which of the 11 banh mi options you pick—including barbecue beef, pork meatball, pork bells—you’re in for a treat. Hang out for long enough and if it’s not too busy, Chef Nguyen will pop out of the kitchen and make his rounds to check on every table.
Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria
Two words: hot honey. Three more words: on your pizza. Chef Vivian Howard, a James Beard Award winner and star of the PBS program A Chef’s Life, and her husband, Ben Knight, have a wildly successful restaurant, chef & the farmer, in Kinston, about 90 minutes northeast of Wilmington, but Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria marks their first foray into the Wilmington food scene. It’s been a smash hit. Anchoring an up-and-coming neighborhood on the south side of town, Benny’s serves fun, tasty Italian cuisine that’s garnered a horde of hungry admirers. That’s because the pizza—inventive in toppings from clams to oyster mushrooms to smoky eggplant to buffalo mozzarella—is outstanding, then when you drizzle on some of the hot honey (a blend of honey and Calabrian chilies), it really comes alive. All the pizzas are hand tossed and all the pastas are house made, making a simple dish like tomato and pesto a star.
Sealevel City Gourmet
This unassuming spot from Chef/Owner Nikki Spears sits sandwiched between a salon and a quirky gift shop; if you didn’t know to stop, you might drive right by Sealevel City Gourmet. But don’t miss this one. In fact, do what fans (it may be better to call them evangelists) do and dine here as often as possible. Serving up vegetarian, vegan and a few seafood dishes, Sealevel doesn’t phone it in with these specialty dishes, but rather creates food that’s familiar, flavorful and fun to eat. Sandwiches like the classic Reuben are reimagined with tempeh, kimchi and sprouts; and the patty melt eschews beef for a crispy-outside/tender-inside lentil patty so impressive that you won’t know the difference. Also on the menu is my favorite version of a North Carolina classic found within a two-hour radius: the shrimp burger. Fried shrimp, green chile tartar sauce, lettuce and tomato on a toasted bun: It’s a fabulous iteration of a dish you usually find on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast in towns like Salter’s Path and Morehead City. While you’re here in Wilmington dining at Sealevel and waiting on your entrees, treat your table to a heaping mound of kale nachos, they’re exceptional.
The Fork n Cork
Born from the best burger food truck that Wilmington’s ever seen, The Fork n Cork combines owner James Smith’s passion for burgers and unexpected flavors with his Texas roots, then packs it all into a menu that surprises as much as it pleases the taste buds. Starters like Texas poutine (fries topped with smoked brisket, cheese and a tangy, Texas-style barbecue sauce) and duck wings (think chicken wings but bigger and ever so much better, then tossed in sauce like Moroccan charmoula, peach barbecue, or habanero orange marmalade) deliver tasty surprises. But if you stick with plates like classic poutine (fries, cheese curds, veal-duck gravy) or fried pickles, you won’t be disappointed. On the burger and sandwich side, it’s a wild ride of toppings and patties. You can get a lamb burger and a duck burger, a brisket sandwich or a salmon club, or you can stick to the all-beef patty and get it Kyle style (topped with brisket, Texas barbecue sauce and mustard) or go wild and get the Kreider (with bacon and peanut butter, served on a brioche bun). It’s a fun place with a good beer selection and great energy, and when you’re looking for a burger or something a little different, this hits the spot.
Jason Frye is a food and travel writer, author of the Moon North Carolina guidebook series, barbecue judge and cat lover living in Wilmington, North Carolina. Follow his adventures, bites and sips on Instagram where he’s known as @beardedwriter.