Friday, August 12, 2022

Year in Review: A look back at the local food and beverage scene in 2021

South Front District saw the opening of Mariposa, a Spanish tapas bar in May, launched by Bobby Zimmerman and the True Blue team. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — While 2020 had many foodies perfecting their banana bread recipes and ordering takeout to support local eateries, 2021 officially welcomed them once again to full capacity indoor dining. 

It was a year to bring restaurants back into the black, after many months of having to shift with the times and Covid-19 protocols. Still, 2021 didn’t come without a new set of hurdles. 

This year Port City Daily covered rampant labor shortages that plagued the industry, as workers decided during lockdown to switch careers for better wages, benefits and holidays off. Not to mention, industry workers were more at risk contracting Covid, with the handling of used utensils, plates and glassware and working where masks must be off for customers to eat and drink.

READ MORE: Wilmington restaurants up wages, benefits to attract job candidates. Is it working?

Though the increased clientele was needed, it often left restaurants facing hard choices to operate fully without a complete staff. Some scaled back hours, others reduced menu options and increased prices, as supply-chain issues continuously provided lack of inventory and rising food costs. 

The roller coaster ride was a bumpy one, leaving more than a dozen restaurants closed. Yet, a bounty of eateries — over 35, in fact — also opened in the greater Wilmington area throughout the year.

Below are the highlights of the 2021 food and beverage scene, including expansions of restaurants into various districts across town, local makers starting specialized food businesses, as well as breweries and distilleries moving and shaking on the beverage scene.

More vegan options were among 2021’s food trends in southeastern N.C., such as vegan cheese-like spreads offered from local maker Kind Cultures. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The Food Scene 

The boom of eateries and drinkeries in The Cargo District — located on the outskirts of downtown at 17th and Queen streets — has been on the rise since its first distillery, End of Days, opened on Castle Street in February 2020. In 2021 alone, the district welcomed establishments like CheeseSmith, Salt + Charm, Bottles, Homegrown Market, and Drinx

In one of the bigger moves of the year, Sam Steger, who opened the district’s first burger joint, Mess Hall, in front of Alcove Beer Garden, outgrew the space and announced in December 2021 he will be relocating a half-mile over on Wrightsville Avenue by spring. It will quadruple space and allow Steger to expand Mess Hall into the city’s first dog bar and restaurant

“We’ve got places in Wilmington you can take your dogs,” Steger told Port City Daily at the beginning of December, “but there’s not a bar or restaurant where you can just let your dog run off-leash.”

The district will also get its first cidery with Durham’s Bull City Ciderworks on deck to open next year, while Fermental bottle shop will exit its beloved Ogden homespace and move to Castle and 17th streets by February. On Jan. 1, The Cargo District’s coffee container will change brand from New Town Roastery to Blue Cup Coffee, according to developer Leslie Smith, who started the district in 2017.

“Other than the name, literally nothing changes,” Smith said. “The same people will operate it, the roasting is still there — same faces; same coffee.”

On the Southside, in the Greenfield Lake area’s South Front District, Jason Queen of Monarch Property announced the launch of Seaboard Social Hall possibly by early 2023. The combined music venue and food hall will bring about 100 jobs as it welcomes culinary makers, chefs and others into one creative 13,000 square foot space.

“Entrepreneurs, people making products out of their garage or in their homes, food-truck vendors, chefs who want to experiment with ghost kitchens,” Queen rattled off in April. “You name it — caterers, bakers — they will be here.”

Two blocks south, True Blue owner Bobby Zimmerman opened Wilmington first true Spanish tapas bar, Mariposa, in the former Love, Lydia cafe spot. By fall, Zimmerman was slated to debut his second True Blue brand, a steak house and bourbon bar, near New Anthem, located in the same vicinity behind Satellite. However, opening has been delayed until early 2022.

On the Northside of downtown, Brooklyn Arts District also had a lot of movement in 2021. Though sandwich connoisseurs cried collective tears when Detour Deli shuttered in April, four more restaurants opened in the vicinity by the end of 2021. Greenville, NC’s burger chain Angus Grill took over 1001 N. 4th St. — formerly the fine dining space of The District — while across the way, an 1800s home was relocated from Bladen Street and renovated to become modern seafood eatery Three 10

The gourmet pizza shop Wheelhouse, located on North Fourth across from Jervay Park, opened in May and closed by August. It didn’t take long before another pizzeria opened in its stead: Pizzeria Don Luca began slinging authentic Italian pies in November and plans to open a vegan food truck in the coming year.

2021 could easily be noted as the year of the pizza: multiple establishments opened locally including Oval and Ale in Hampstead, Artisano Pizza and Gelato in Grand View Apartments, Girls With Dough in Riverlights, Wheelz Pizza’s first dine-in establishment on Pavilion Place, and Greenville, NC’s Marabella, which is coming soon to Market Street.

Vegan dining options also gained more steam, as more menus began peppering in items, such as Wrightsville Beach Brewery adding vegan “cheese” for its Impossible burger, as well as Don Luca stocking it and vegan “pepperoni” for its pies. When Flying Machine at Wrightsville Beach opened its first kitchen and second taproom over the summer, the chef included vegan entrees in to its launch.

Wilmington also got its first vegan food truck with The Hardcore Hippie — NachoFalt’s alter ego.

“In Wilmington, we have a very healthy vegan core group,” chef and operator Keith Gissubel said, “but the options are not as vast. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we have our vegan restaurants Sealevel and Panacea — the greatest place on earth — and we have a fine dining restaurant now, The Green House, but we don’t have a vegan food truck.”

The first fine-dining establishment Gissubel spoke of opened in July on Military Cutoff in a former Moe’s Mexican Grill. The Green House puts American cuisine front and center of its menu.

“A lot of restaurants with different ethnic cultural influences include a lot of vegan food — Indian food, Latino food — and it’s funny because American food feels so steeped in meat and dairy,” co-owner Laura Tiblier told Port City Daily last spring. “So we decided there’s not a lot of restaurants that focus on modern American vegan food.”

The first-class experience highlights clean eating with all-natural and wholesome ingredients — vegetables, grains, legumes, herbs — elevated to a new level. No fake meats or processed foods are utilized. The chefs make everything from scratch, down to sauces, desserts and various vegan “cheeses.”

On the maker scene, Kind Cultures’ vegan “cheese” also took off, served at restaurants like Panacea, Sealevel Diner, and Palate, and sold at markets including Tidal Creek, Bodega and Produce Box. All sourced from cashews, Ashley John handmakes a variety of flavors — pimento, brie, cheddar — to be enjoyed on crackers or sandwiches, some perhaps served on bread home baked by Kevin Connor at Wilmington Bread Company.

Connor launched his artisanal bread company in the middle of Covid as a side hobby but has seen it grow in popularity and expand over the course of the year. Sourdough loaves and pizza crust remain popular, as are his sourdough chocolate-chip and white chocolate-macadamia cookies, though he recently expanded options into sourdough cinnamon rolls and brioche rolls. Connor also moved into a production space at 6789 Market St., Suite 2021 and continues selling his product to Tidal Creek Co-op, Heritage Market in Brunswick County, Adapt Kitchen and Juice Bar, Casa Blanca Roasters, and other local spots.

Non-alcoholic drinks also made a splash in 2021, with bar programs adding in one-of-a-kind “conscious cocktails,” such as The Green House‘s Essence of Oceans. Its made with Aplos — a hemp-infused spirit — simple syrup, and blue spirulina as a zero-proof martini. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The Drink Scene 

Makers weren’t only dabbling in foodstuff over the course of the year. Bethany Carpenter decided to submerge herself into the business of shrubs — drinking vinegars that provide healthy alternatives to soda and can be used as fresh mixers with less sugar to add to alcoholic beverages. 

Carpenter’s Pomona Shrub Company sells one-of-a-kind vinegars — made from fruits, herbs and botanicals, using all-natural ingredients — at local markets and online through its website. The vintage sippers date back to 15th century England, wherein they were often used as medicinal cordials.

“It’s definitely historic,” Carpenter told Port City Daily in November. “It has a past and I think that people generally are really intrigued and captivated by older beverages.”

The mead makers at Retro Meadery in Rocky Point agree. One of its founders, Michael Fields, said market research showed modern consumers were interested in having more natural alcoholic options, many of which date back centuries before preservatives and refrigeration existed. Known as one of the first alcoholic beverages consumed by humans as far back as 1700-1100 BCE, mead was indulged upon by the Vikings and is often referred to as “the nectar of the gods” in Greece. It tends to have a high ABV. 

Retro Meadery averages around 13%, according to Fields, who will upstart the operation in Rocky Point after raising over $45,000 on a crowdsourcing platform this year. Retro will begin production and sell products at local markets and stores before easing into opening a tasting room and launching its own facility.

Also tapping into the shrubs trend is Blue Surf Cafe’s new Arboretum West location. The bar program, created by Wes Miles, features homemade shrubs and fresh fruits as core ingredients to its specialty cocktails rather than use sodas, bitters and sugary juices.

The shrubs and the soda water fountain installed in the restaurant allow bartenders to play around with zero-proof cocktails — or mocktails — more easily for non-alcoholic drinkers.

“I think a lot of people make that an afterthought,” Miles said back in July. “We almost shame the non-alcoholic people — ‘You get a Becks and that’s all!’”

A mile away at The Green House, the non-alcohol spirit game is strong. The vegan restaurant offers six “conscious cocktails” for people who prefer a clean-living lifestyle but still want to enjoy creative, indulgent drinks socially with friends. The restaurant carries brands like Seedlip and Rasāsvāda, which are products that mimic flavors of alcohol; one tastes like gin, another has a citrus-clove-herbaceous flavor.

For those who don’t mind a little octane in their drinks, Wilmington’s ever-evolving distillery scene continues to strengthen. Three new distilleries have popped up or announced plans to open soon around southeastern N.C. Four Hounds in Carolina Beach opened in the fall and sells its own rum, while downtown will get two new distilleries offering a variety of spirits.

Hunter Ford has found a home for Momentum Spirits in the former Two Sisters Bookery location at the Cotton Exchange. Ford’s vodka will be sold in N.C.-shaped glassware, and the distillery will make other products.

Matt “Chewy” Karn of IZZYz Spirits has permits for Wilmington Distillery to launch in the former Dock St. Oyster Bar location by spring 2022. Karns said he will continue churning out his rum, but also will distill vodka, gin, whiskey, limoncello, and more.

All local distilleries will benefit from a law Gov. Roy Cooper signed in September as part of the omnibus legislation, House Bill 890. The law allows distilleries to open Sundays and sell to-go bottles from noon to 9 p.m. (ABC stores will remain closed). The bill also loosened restrictions on distillery tours, allows tastings and cocktails to be served from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., and permits distilleries to vend products offsite at events and festivals. 

Also in the bill was a provision for local cities to establish outdoor social districts. The areas are designated for passersby to enjoy beverages outside of bars, restaurants, breweries and distilleries. 

City of Wilmington staff already have been chatting and researching the possibility of a social district in downtown Wilmington, according to Mayor Bill Saffo. The mayor told Port City Daily in September he expects discussions to begin about an ordinance in the first few months of 2022. 

“I’ve seen the concept in other communities, like in Savannah … and I think it’s worked wonderfully,” Saffo said. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea. In fact, I would support it if I think we could enforce it and we could do a good job with it.”

The legislation essentially lines up rules for statewide distilleries — now over 80 in North Carolina — with that of wineries and breweries, the latter which continue to grow in Wilmington as well. 2021 welcomed Catawba Brewing to midtown, with Drum Trout Brewing heading to the Pine Valley area, and Solar Brewing opening in Southport. Also announced: Durham’s Ponysaurus Brewing possibly will head to downtown Wilmington by next year, should all go according to plan.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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