WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — Last fall, Chef Gary Walker, formerly of 1900 Restaurant and Lounge, took over the toque at Wrightsville Beach’s 22 North. The well-known restaurant-turned-nightlife establishment at 22 Lumina Ave. — once owned by Jim Radle and purchased by Casey Rhyne a few years ago — has undergone a quarter-million dollar renovation in the last six months, Walker said.
“The entire front of the house, from the moment you walk in the door, all the way to the farthest back parts of the restaurant, were completely gutted and restructured,” he said.
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Wherein two bars once served patrons in the establishment, it’s now down to one, though much bigger and extended, located toward the back area of the restaurant. A neutral color palette of black and white marble slate modernizes the space, which has a 180-seat capacity. Four- and two-top tables are in the center, with six-top wraparound booths on risers around the perimeter.
“It’s a loungey feel,” Walker said, perfect for his vision of being a hotspot for communal dining, with a menu centered around small plates.
Walker is hesitant to call the dishes “tapas” — “because we’re not Spanish,” he said — but rather wants to offer affordable, premium cuisine. He’s working within the constraints of inflation, experienced both on the business side with rising food costs and with diners who may be strapped by increased bills.
“Higher quality food, high quality ingredients, but not breaking the bank,” he described.
Prices range from $8 to $20 and the portion sizes are still healthy, he assured.
“But you won’t get the itis,” he said.
The “itis” is chef lingo for being full — to the point of lethargy, something easily avoidable with small plates.
Encouraged to be shared with others, small-plate dining has gained popularity over the last two decades, as it allows more freedom — on the wallet and the stomach — to eat as much or little as one wants without seeming like money or food is being wasted. It’s also more forgiving for adventurous diners; individuals can try a taste of an item that otherwise wouldn’t have been ordered if it were a larger portion or a singular meal.
Walker’s menu isn’t too out of the box, though thoughtful in its selection. Classic shrimp and grits appear, a recipe he has held close to the vest since working with Sean Brock, who led the helm of Husk in Charleston a decade ago.
On the daily trek to 22 North, Walker said he makes a pit stop at the seafood market, Motts Channel, located near the underpass of the Wrightsville Beach drawbridge.
“I know the people who are shrimping out there,” he said. “So, on top of just the complexity and the explosion of flavor that’s in there, there’s comfort in knowing where the food comes from.”
Five-cheese crab dip, firecracker shrimp and crab legs appear on the menu, alongside a cola-braised short rib dish, served over polenta. It is topped with roasted root vegetable and pepper demi-glace, and tips its hat to the days Walker spent working at Port City Chophouse, the Landfall steak house which shuttered earlier in the year.
“Way back in the day, one of the things they used to do was a sweet-tea-braised ossobuco,” he said.
Walker adapted it to include deep soy and Coca-Cola. “The carbonation of it acts like an acid, so I don’t have to add a crazy amount of wine,” he said. “And the sugars in it give it a little sweet burst with the savory base stock.”
A gourmet burger menu is also featured at 22 North. Offerings go from traditional to spicy, with the “The Cowboy” featuring bacon, smoked gouda, and fried jalapenos. An Asian-inspired Bulgogi features garlic, ginger, sesame, scallions, quick kimchi and Thai chili aioli. Vegetarians will find a black bean alternative, and the handhelds are priced from $14 to $16.
“I would love, in the future once the business starts rolling, to do burger flight Wednesdays,” he said. “Bring them out on a wooden slab, three or four burger sliders, and try crazy, fun things.”
Apps, such as tuna poke tacos, and sides, like smoked gouda mac and cheese, flesh out other offerings among a handful of salads.
A pastry chef who studied culinary arts at the Art Institute in Charleston, Walker makes three desserts: berry cobbler, chocolate torte and bananas foster cheesecake ($6 to $8). He has high hopes to start churning out fresh bread, such as Texas toast for kids grilled cheeses and buns for the burgers.
The menu will change seasonally and Walker is folding in more products from local farmers. He also will add blackboard specials, which could include a random burger and fresh catch, he said. Brunch is on the way too.
22 North is open for dinner from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. It opens on Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m. for lunch.
After dinner service, the space transforms into a nightclub, with a DJ spinning tunes until 2 a.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, a late-night menu of mozzarella sticks, spring rolls, fries, and “more simple food items” are served, Walker said.
“So instead of you having to leave and go grab a slice of pizza, you can grab a beer, sit at the bar, and have a chicken basket at 1:30 in the morning. Why not?”
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