Friday, April 19, 2024

A new downtown vibe: North Front Street welcomes tequila-centric bar to the mix

Social Casa De’ Tequila has opened on North Front Street — a tequila-centric bar that carries 55 variations. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — While an extensive list of breweries and dive bars pepper the greater downtown area, Lindsey Fundora Rutherford noticed a hole in the market waiting to be filled: a tequila-centric place, focused on freshly prepared cocktails and higher end tequilas. 

Enter Social Casa De’ Tequila.

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The newest establishment in downtown’s portfolio officially opened its doors June 28 after an eight-month process of renovating the space. Rutherford is one of three bar owners who manage the 121 Front St. operation.

Locals will recognize it as the former home to the iconic hot dog stand Trolly Stop, sandwiched between The Hemp Farmacy and A Christmas Shoppe. 

“I thought it would be nice to bring business a little further downtown and add more foot traffic to that area,” she said.

Rutherford said she immediately was drawn to the location, known for its wrought-iron gate welcoming customers into its corridor. A mural greets patrons, along with a line of barstools to enjoy a beverage outside.

An installed garage door creates an open-air atmosphere during warmer months, yet closes during chillier seasons. 

“We have an incredible sunset view overlooking the riverfront,” Rutherford said, referring to a back courtyard with iconic downtown landmarks on full display, from the Battleship to both bridges along the Cape Fear.

During a vacation in St. John, she and her husband signed the lease for the location — while at a tequila bar, nonetheless.

“We based the design of our back bar on that one,” Rutherford said. “We wanted a space that was a little nicer than your average dive bar.”

Deryl Erbe — a contractor and part owner of Social Casa — built the bars. One contains backlit tequila shelves with soft blue lit sugar skull lights, creating a modern, clean aesthetic.

Owning a bar has always been a dream of Rutherford’s, she said. Wilmington born and raised, she bartended in the downtown area for 16 years. 

“I really enjoy when I’m back behind the bar talking to people,” she said. “I have a whole other community and extended family I met through it, including my husband.”

Her love for hospitality began when Rutherford’s parents took her to the Ice House to watch live music as a young child. The iconic tugboat stage often housed blues, jazz and rock musicians and provided a backdrop to TV shows like “Dawson’s Creek.” Yet, it was razed in the early 2000s and has served as a parking lot along Water Street since.

READ MORE: After years as a parking lot, historic Ice House property could become apartments, retail

Rutherford said she was attracted by the buzz the beloved establishment garnered. The allure of owning something so many adored connected with her.

“It’s what I always wanted to do,” Rutherford said. “I never thought it would happen.”

That Casa focuses on tequila was not necessarily part of her plan either. In fact, she said she never really liked the agave-based spirit until her engagement in Cabo.

“The hotel that we stayed at gave us a beautiful little bottle in our room,” she recalled. “It was the best tequila I ever had.” 

Clase Azul — featured on the Casa menu — is made from 100% blue agave, produced at one of the highest points in the state of Jalisco. 

The liquor is slightly fruity and sweet, with notes of cooked agave, vanilla and banana cream pie, but also a hint of clove and soft pepper. Uniquely shaped and hand-painted, the bottles are a work of art.

Rutherford commissioned local artist Nugget to design a mural based on the tequila brand as a way to pay homage. Crafted in a graffiti-style, the brightly dressed skeletons are surrounded by the signature blue and white Clase Azul bottles.

“We wanted something inviting for when people first walked in,” Rutherford said.

Fifty-five tequilas are currently offered at Social Casa. Cocktails start at $6 and Rutherford says there is a drink for everyone. 

But rare, higher-end tequilas, such as Don Julio 1942, are the real draw. These can be tricky to find since they are not offered in any of the local ABC stores, Rutherford said.

“We are still trying to bring in more specialty tequilas,” she added. “It’s taking a bit longer than expected.” 

Social Casa focuses on seasonal margaritas. Right now, bar guests can enjoy strawberry or watermelon, both made with fresh-squeezed fruit puree. 

The bar also offers a spicy margarita, made with 21Seeds, a blanco tequila infused with cucumber and jalapeño. 

Social Casa’s base margarita mix is all natural, made with fresh lime juice, triple sec and pure cane sugar.

It also has plenty of other beloved tequila concoctions on the menu, such as the Paloma, typically made with fresh grapefruit juice, club soda, lime juice, tequila and sugar. Plus, it creates Ranch Water, a West Texan cocktail that has gained popularity over the last year — tequila, lime juice and Topo Chico mineral water. 

Patrons can enjoy a variety of local beers on tap, and Casa also offers wine and additional spirits.

The bar will begin hosting live music Sunday afternoons and Thursday evenings. The next show is planned Aug. 7 and will feature Jason Jackson and Adam Carswell.

Rutherford said the bar’s grand opening is slated for August or September; plans are still being hashed out. Hours are 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday and 12 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

“We just want people to have a place where they can be comfortable, have a good time and drink tequila,” Rutherford said.

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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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