Tuesday, July 16, 2024

‘Mid-century beachy’: New craft cocktail lounge thrives on small bites, fresh sips, vintage vibes

High-end bourbons and whiskeys appear on the Shagri-La craft cocktail menu in Carolina Beach. (Courtesy photo)

CAROLINA BEACH — Nicole Adkins, who has worked in the food and beverage industry all over the U.S. for 20 years, dreamed of opening her own bar at the beach. Her vision came to life on June 24, when Shagri-La Island Bar, which also operates as a restaurant, opened next to Saks Salon behind The Last Resort.

The bar offers a menu of eight signature crafted cocktails and 10 small bites, along with others in the works as the establishment gains more footing.

ALSO: In other Brews and Bites news

“I started as a shot girl off Bourbon Street in New Orleans, handing out shots in test tubes,” Adkins said. “I saw that bartenders were making more money, so I got a job bartending myself.” 

Since leaving the Big Easy, Adkins traveled and bartended across the West Coast, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Santa Monica, California, to Portland, Oregon. 

“It allowed me to live all over the country,” she said.

The 43-year-old eventually broke into the craft cocktail scene when she landed at The Double Crown in Asheville in 2013.

“I always liked cooking new recipes at home,” she said, so experimenting with craft cocktails “felt similar.” 

After moving on to work as general manager at Little Jumbo — a neighborhood cocktail bar that opened five years ago in Asheville — Adkins decided she wanted to fulfill her dream of living at the beach. She discussed with Little Jumbo’s owners Chall Gray and Jay Sanders about expanding their operations to the North Carolina coast.

“They told me to move and settle in and that we could eventually open another Little Jumbo,” Adkins said. 

Adkins led the cocktail program at Coast Craft Cocktails and Calabash, the modern, casual seafood restaurant on the island, in August 2021. Unexpectedly, it closed in January 2022.

“I found out that the owner was trying to sell the business,” she said. 

That’s when plans to operate her own establishment solidified: “A light bulb went off. I thought maybe this could be the next Little Jumbo.”

At first, Gray and Sanders weren’t interested since the restaurant had been closed a while due to Covid. Once they discussed numbers, they offered to instead back Adkins financially. 

“I worked for them a long time, they trust me, and we are close,” she said. 

More familiar with bartending, Adkins said at the onset she didn’t plan on serving food at Shagri-La. Considering the former tenant left behind a fully-loaded kitchen, she also said she didn’t want it to go to waste.

“The decision came down to either spending more time and money on demolishing it or embracing it,” Adkins explained.

It took roughly four months for the renovation process of the 52-seat establishment, as the Shagri-La owner did the demolition and refabbing.

“I painted, poured cement, tore down walls,” Adkins said. “It felt pretty good to put all of my love into it.”

Adkins calls the vibe “mid-century beachy.”

She said she always moved to foodie cities that housed trendier establishments. Though Pleasure Island is known for a more Southern, casual flair, Adkins leaned into its eccentricity and created an inviting lounge area, using inspiration from her love for mid-century modern furniture, thrift stores, plants and “The Golden Girls.” A salmon pink wall brightens the space, decorated with antique lamps and retro wooden chairs.

“We have a 28-foot-long bar you see when you walk into the door,” she said. “We have some pretty wild furniture and a few different walls featuring vintage framed ads.”

The Acapulco Gold features tequila, fresh pineapple, jalapeño, cilantro juice and celery bitters. (Courtesy photo)

All of Shagri-La’s signature cocktails are made with fresh juices and homemade syrups and tinctures. Adkins also utilizes locally made shrubs, such as Pomona. Most all drinks on the cocktail menu can be made as mocktails or some variation of such.

READ MORE: Vintage sippers: Local shrub company starts pushing drinking vinegars online, at markets

The Happy Moment, $14, is an homage to Little Jumbo’s —  specialty drink Adkins made for years in Asheville, featuring vodka, Aperol, St. Germain, lemon and orange juice.

Adkins designed the rest oft he menu herself. The the Ambrosia, $14, was inspired by the vintage gelatin fruit salad, crafted with silver rum, Luxardo, coconut, lime, orange blossom water and pistachio.  

The Acapulco Gold, $16, is a refreshing blend of tequila, fresh pineapple, jalapeño, cilantro juice and celery bitters.

Being near the beach, Adkins sought to offer a modernized version of Hemingway’s signature drink — the daiquiri, $10. It’s a blend of silver rum, Luxardo, grapefruit and lime, served up in a hoop-glass. 

Adkins is culling seasonal signature bar recipes, too. Currently, A Seedy Situation, $16, features a smoky blend of mezcal, Cynar, basil, peppercorn, lemon and chia seed. 

Shagri-La has full ABC permits and also serves wine and beer, with drinks priced $3 to $40 — the most expensive is a pour of Whistle Pig Small Batch Rye Whiskey.

Other higher end bourbons and whiskeys, including Buffalo Trace Kentucky straight bourbon and Blantons, are on the menu as well.

“Our liquor selection is also pretty grand compared to what else is out there on the island,” she said.

Adkins recently entered a new sipper, the Bangalore Blitz, in the End of Days Distillery Instagram summer cocktail competition, which won Best Reel. It will have a chance to be featured as a weekly lounge special at Castle Street’s EOD.

The Bangalore Blitz will debut Thursday at Shagri-La, featuring End of Days gin, bell pepper and carrot juices, a curry simple syrup, lemon, Japanese chili, lime bitters and egg white. (Courtesy photo)

Made with End of Days gin, bell pepper and carrot juices, a curry simple syrup, lemon, Japanese chili, lime bitters and egg white, Adkins said social media followers have been asking when the drink will be available in-house. 

“We will start making it next Thursday,” she confirmed.

Aside from drinks, the bar also offers a variety of small plates, priced $4 to 60. Adkins is veering away from the fried seafood and burgers most notable on the island. But she hasn’t abandoned all Southern flair.

Deviled eggs — typical mustard, mayonnaise, a dash of Tabasco and a sprinkle of paprika — are a perfect base, she noted, for experimentation. 

“They are a fun vessel to work with and you can easily change the flavors.” 

Shagri-La serves Kalamata, bacon, curry, and Asian-inspired, made with a soy marinade and Asian chili paste. 

The bar and restaurant also has signature homemade dips: hummus, spinach artichoke dip and pimento cheese.

“I always had the small plates idea in my head,” Adkins said, “but I wasn’t sure what kind of talent I could find. I decided to do charcuterie boards and dips as a placeholder until I found that talent.”

The charcuterie choices constantly change and the restaurant offers a cheese plate loaded with six different cheeses, nuts, fruit, olives, balsamic onion jam, whole grain mustard and chocolate.

As small plates are lacking on the island, Adkins said the snacks allow patrons to “linger with a cocktail.” They’re also engaging eats, so to speak, traditionally shared in group settings with friends.

She hopes to expand the menu with the help of her staff, and will rotate items and even do pairings with seasonal cocktails.

Added in coming weeks will be brunch — classic items with a twist, Adkins said. It will have two types of Bloody Mary’s, traditional and Verde. 

“Since we make our own juices in-house, we will also have plenty of options for mimosas,” she added.

Adkins said she has a strong front-of-house staff, all of whom pride themselves on customer service. Two remained from her former employer, Coast.

“They are extremely talented and they fortunately waited for me to open,” Adkins said. “We just want people to leave feeling that they enjoyed themselves in a fun and creative space, and happy that they got to try something new.”

Shagri-La is located at 604 N Lake Park Blvd. and open Thursday through Monday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.; it’s closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

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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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