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Monday, May 27, 2024

Port City Small Bites: Drift expands to downtown, The Starling opens Friday

The Starling whiskey and wine bar is the latest edition to The Cargo District, set to open Friday, Apr. 14, noon – 10 p.m. (Photo by Matthew Ray Photography)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Lots of movement happens around the Port City when it comes to restaurants, food trucks, bars and bottle shops, not to mention organizational and nonprofit foodie events and festivals. While Port City Daily already covers most of this news, “Small Bites” offers another way for readers to stay in the know.

READ MORE: Catch up on other food news of the week

PCSB unveils newsworthy tidbits, whether it’s smaller shifts and changes to local menus, or expansions of existing establishments, temporary closures and renovations, added hours or grand openings, pop-up events and, of course, openings and closings.

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Drift Coffee + Kitchen to open its fifth location in downtown Wilmington

After launching its first full-scale cafe at Wrightsville Beach last week, Drift Coffee + Kitchen is already looking to its next expansion: downtown Wilmington.

“But we’re about a month and a half away from opening,” co-founder Michael Powell clarified.

Powell runs Drift with his brother Ben. They have always wanted to open a location in the historic downtown area. It’s where the first Drift operated in New Hanover County in 2016. 

“We did a pop-up, selling coffee in the Murchison Building,” Powell explained. “We had a bar set up at the entrance near the elevator.”

At the time, the brothers already had opened their very first Drift in Ocean Isle Beach in 2014. The Powells closed the pop-up shop to focus on their brick and mortar at Autumn Hall, which opened in 2018. A year later, they opened in Mayfaire as well.

However, it never stopped them from scoping out spaces downtown with architect and developer Clark Hipp for the better part of two years. When one location fell through a year ago, another opened. The Powells signed a lease last July to transform the offices of Wilmington Downtown Inc.’s former location at 226 N Front St., suite 130, next to Bijou Park.

“There was a lot of work that’s required, especially going through and making sure to do everything correctly in a really old building — and that doesn’t mess anything else up,” Powell said of the 1,300-square-foot space.

Unlike the Wrightsville location, which has a broader menu and offers tableside service, the downtown shop will stick with quick counter orders — the same as Drift in Mayfaire and Autumn Hall. The focus is on coffee drinks and grab-and-go items with a limited kitchen menu. Diners will be able to utilize the mobile app to order as well. 

Occupancy will be 30, included covered outdoor seating with a retractable awning. “And we’re not sure how it will materialize, but we would like to have seating in Bijou Park,” Powell added. “We will have to work through that with the city as they finish.”

It’s not lost on the brothers that there are three other coffee shops within a few blocks of the Front Street location. Yet, Powell said they operate on “the more the merrier” business model. 

“Coffee is such a widely consumed beverage,” he detailed. “And each establishment puts their own spin on it, you know, to establish a brand. I think there’s a lot of room for us all to co-exist.”

Drift utilizes Ceremony Coffee Roasters. It has a medium profile for its batch brew, a darker profile for cold coffee (a flash cold brew), and lighter brew for espresso drinks.

Powell said the backbone of the drink program is the latte while Drift’s most popular “fun drink” is the Salted-Coconut Oat Coldie. It’s made with maple syrup, coconut and oat milk, sugar and salt, topped with whipped coconut foam, so it’s both vegan and dairy-free. 

“It’s creamy and rich, very sweet,” he said.

Drift Coffee + Kitchen in downtown Wilmington will open by early June.

Drift Coffee + Kitchen will open on North Front Street downtown, beside Bijou Park, by June. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The Starling whiskey bar debuts in Cargo District Friday

Bottoms up: Whiskey and wine bar The Starling will officially open to the public Friday evening. Located in The Cargo District, the joint venture between local chef Abbye McGee and local photographer and bourbon enthusiast Matt Ray has been in the works since early winter.

The top floor of three shipping containers — stacked and positioned behind McGee’s 17th Street business, Salt + Charm — are adorned with starling birds. The mural, designed by Lauren Yates of Arete Graphix, overlooks an open patio that can host around 100 people. Indoors, around 30 people can belly up to the downstairs bar or the upstairs lounge, outfitted with velvet seating.

“We were going to use the top shipping container as our office space but decided to turn that into more indoor seating,” Ray said.

It added around 16 additional indoors seats — “perfect for a rainy day,” he added.

The space evolved exactly as Ray and McGee envisioned, he said, giving off mid-20th century vibes with greens, blacks and golds decorating the interior walls. The exterior maintains the district’s white palette aesthetic, with swing seating, bistro tables and large enough space to host live music. 

READ MORE: Whiskey and wine lovers will get their fix at The Starling

The Friday night opening will welcome the band Holy Heat and debut the craft cocktail menu, priced from $13. The bar’s signature drink, The Starling, has Elijah Craig bourbon, blanc vermouth, grilled pineapple, honey and red wine. Another standout, Midnight Marauder No. 1, comes with Tincup rye, sweet vermouth, house coffee liqueur and Mezcal.

Non-alcoholic beverages to appeal to dry palates start at $9. Milk & Honey features almond milk, strawberry cordial, honey, and strawberry balsamic vinegar. The bar is also carrying the all-natural, non-alcoholic distilled spirit Seedlip in both garden and spice flavors for specialty drinks named “Plant Mom” and “Crimson and Clover.”

There are 27 bourbons on the menu and 17 whiskeys, along with other spirits, including regional and local flavors. The idea is for The Starling to also offer an antique and vintage bottle menu of rare finds.

Ray said they’re still awaiting permitting to sell the collection, so the menu won’t be available by the bar’s opening this weekend. A few months ago he told Port City Daily he hoped to incorporate a 1968 Old Crow, a 1980s Old Grand Dad, and Austin Nichols Wild Turkey from the ‘90s. 

There is also a lengthy white, red and sparkling wine list, offered by the half bottle and bottle, as well as a handful of beers, including local brews.

The Starling will operate Wednesday and Thursday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. It’s a private club and requires a $1 membership per North Carolina law.

Ray said they’re planning a larger grand opening with outdoor vendors from The Cargo District in the future.

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Shea Carver
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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