When it comes to restaurants, Wilmington and its island beaches have it pretty darn good. Between the award-winning chefs and celebrated fare, they’re one reason why foodies flock to the area, and vacationers return time and again. From locally-sourced Latin-inspired cuisine and other global flavors, to succulent seafood from the resident docks, Wilmington’s food scene has something for everyone – and then some. Some restaurants even offer fun and surprising features that range from theme nights and secret menu items to pairing dinners and sports activities. Read on to discover some unique dining experiences.
One thing you may not expect to find a few feet from the ocean is authentic Italian cuisine. Located near the Kure Beach Fishing Pier, Freddie’s is a slice of fresh pasta and hours-simmered-sauce heaven. But what this family-operated spot is locally known for is its chops. Not only are they mouthwatering, the large center cut pork chops are prepared a minimum of eight different ways. Two specialties to try? Start with the Rum Runner Chop and Chop Italiano.
Another family recipe driven eatery, Tarantelli’s in Wilmington, offers a special experience for diners who order the Spaghetti al Formaggio Parmigiana, prepared tableside with melted parmesan cheese and a whiskey-flamed sauce.
In Wrightsville Beach, lobster lovers are covered at East Oceanfront Dining at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort, where Friday nights are reserved for this fruit de mer. To complement the lobster preparations, Chef Jessica Cabo changes the sides with the seasons.
On the sweet side of things, The Basics at The Cotton Exchange in Wilmington’s historic district serves up specialty southern desserts that are to-die-for. These homemade creations include not-so-easy to find hummingbird cake and another that’s even more elusive on menus: Coca-Cola cake. With a light sugary shell this treat is served warm, with a side of vanilla ice cream.
Secrets & Specials
Catch has been a Wilmington staple for more than a decade featuring local sustainable seafood, grass-fed beef and farm-fresh produce. Chef/owner Keith Rhodes, a “Top Chef” (season 9) contender, is synonymous with culinary creativity. To that end, you can catch (get it?) the James Beard Award finalist’s tapas on special—but only for three hours a week. “Tapas Time” is Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
In Wilmington’s river district, Crust Kitchen & Cocktails focuses on one thing and doing that thing well: grilled cheese sandwiches with gourmet flair. While a scan of the menu reveals ‘sammies’ named for 1990s nostalgia (e.g., The Jurassic Pork), some may not appear on the menu. A check of Crust’s social media will reveal if there’s a ‘secret sandwich’ available, which must be asked for by name.
Pinpoint--a Southern Living “South’s Best Restaurant” pick in 2019—offers an “undisclosed something” that’s not on the menu: half-price oysters and wines (on Mondays) with in-season offerings from local oystermen, such as Masonboro Salts.
Locals also know where to find the most tempting tacos—even on the Carolina Beach Boardwalk! Tasting History Tours operators Jeff and Brinley Christner include a stop at The Dive Food & Spirits where foodies find tasty fish and pork tacos, burgers, and daily house special entrees.
True Blue Butcher & Table at The Forum near Wrightsville Beach features fine dining, an open kitchen and a full-service butcher shop that’s stocked with prime meats like marbled A-5 Japanese Wagyu and pasture-raised Lady Edison pork chops. What’s more, you can place butcher orders online.
Meanwhile in downtown Wilmington, Savorez—specializing in Latin American cuisine—hosts pairing dinners when inspiration strikes. These curated monthly (or so) events require reservations and feature multi-course meals expertly paired with libations.
In Wilmington’s trendy South Front District Love, Lydia Bakery & Cafe has a budding breakfast and lunch menu of scrumptious treats and light eats, but not everyone knows that the refurbished cottage also hosts seasonal pop-up theme dinners prepared by 2019 James Beard Award semi-finalist Chef Dean Neff (whose yet-to-be-named restaurant will open in 2020).
For a side of exercise, look no further than Lazy Pirate Island Sports Grill in Carolina Beach, as well as Capt. Bill’s Backyard Grill in Wilmington. With outdoor volleyball courts and other on-site activities, you can burn calories with your meal and favorite cocktail or local craft beer.