Monday, April 22, 2024

‘Hole in the wall’ restaurant and bar gets cozy at 2nd and Princess downtown

Fox’s Hole in the Wall opened Feb. 23 at 124 Princess St. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Chipping away at the interior walls at 124 Princess St., Brian “Wes” Westlye was renovating his restaurant, formerly CRUST, with high hopes it would reveal exposed brick. Most of his dreams came true, at least on the bar-side, as fallen drywall uncovered decades-old masonry work.

But when Westlye reached one section with his hammer, he noticed something was off; he found an area patched with cinder blocks. Apparently, a former owner of the space from years ago had knocked a hole in the wall into the adjoining business and rather than attempt to fix it with brick, mismatched the remediation.

READ MORE: ​​Downtown restaurant CRUST closes this week, to reopen as traditional pub

“So there was a literal hole in the wall once in our business,” Westlye said with a grin.

It’s serendipitous seeing as it suits the new operation’s name: Fox’s Hole in the Wall.

Westlye and his partners, John Bradley and Travis Weiss, chose the moniker long before finding the remnants appropriate of its namesake. The idiom is something they frequently use each time they travel, have a great sandwich and beer, but inevitably can’t remember from where.

“We always just say, ‘I don’t know — some hole in the wall,’” he said.

Westlye, Weiss and Bradley are partners in PROOFHospitality Group, and oversee Rebellion on Front Street and the Commodore Public House, coming soon to Brooklyn Arts District.

They closed CRUST in November, known for its grown-up grilled cheese sandwiches, craft cocktails and throwback ‘90s vibe. Today, the bright white walls have been replaced with 140 dark wood boards on one side, with a few other areas covered in a worn-looking, gray damask wallpaper. 

The space is intended to be cozy, welcoming — grab a bite, a drink, “and stay for more drinks,” Westlye said. “We are basically mid-Atlantic northeast boys. We like the Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston-style neighborhood bars.”

The ceilings are now exposed, bringing more of an industrial look. It complements the exposed brick, in some areas covered by rustic wood shelving holding a bevy of spirits. Masking the area that used to be cinder block: a picture of Jonathan Goldsmith, the most interesting guy in the world from the Dos Equis campaign.

Exposed brick and wood replace the bright white walls once enclosing the space, formerly known as CRUST. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“Some of our personal photos,” Westlye said. “We wanted to do something unique, indicative of our personalities.”

Other framed photos, mostly black-and-whites, include Mr. T staring down Christopher Walken, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Jimi Hendrix, even the Swedish chef from the Muppets.

Gone are the square booths and in their stead are a handful of round tables and tan leather stools.

Fox’s first day of business was Feb. 23. It was a family and friends opening for the first few hours before Westlye flipped on the open sign — no announcements, no big entrance. It allowed staff to adjust to the menu and routine of working in the space and to hash out any hiccups without being bombarded all at once by customers.

During its opening weekend, it served roughly 200 people.

The menu has one sandwich left in homage to its former iteration, CRUST. “Ghostface Fillah” contains shaved ribeye, provolone, mozzarella, arugula and a demi-glace on sourdough. 

However, it’s the Boston beef that his partner Bradley has been itching to add to the menu at one of the their restaurants (they also owned and operated eateries in D.C. prior to moving to Wilmington and continue to own one bar in the Virginia area).

The menu features numerous handhelds, including its signature item, the Boston Beef, featuring a pound of meat. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“John is from Boston and his favorite restaurant, where he’s from, is in Revere Beach, called Kelly’s Roast Beef,” Westlye said.

The sandwich is stacked with a pound of beef, which is specially aged for seven to 10 days. Its rubbed with Fox’s spice blend and slow-roasted for two hours before being shaved fresh for every sandwich order. It can be upgraded to the “back it up” style — slathered in homemade sweet and tangy barbecue sauce, mayo, American cheese and in-house cheese sauce.

“It’s like a Mornay, but we didn’t want to be fancy here,” Westlye said.

A smash burger and fried chicken thigh sandwich is on the menu, as is a BLT called the “Pig Pounder.” It contains a pound of bacon, Duke’s mayo, heirloom tomato, lettuce, chimichurri and sourdough.

There is also a nod to Indiana’s fried pork-chop handheld in “Hoosier Daddy.”

“All of our sandwiches spill out of every bun,” Westlye said. 

The items at Fox’s are created in the same vein as the other PROOF restaurants: elevated bar food, familiar but often with a twist. 

For instance, the take on pigs in a blanket is “Big Wes’ Little Wieners.” 

“So we take empanada dough and then wrap it around jalapeno and cheddar sausage and fry it for about 2 minutes and serve with housemade arugula chimichurri,” explained Ryan Carson, the corporate chef for Fox’s and Commodore.

Carson started with the company in D.C. and hashed out much of Fox’s menu, including spice blends and rubs, like the parm-garlic that goes on every order of curly fries. 

Fried mozzarella gets an upgrade as well.

“Everybody has mozzarella sticks,” Westlye said. “But have you ever had fried provolone?”

Pigs in a blanket get a significant upgrade, featuring smoked jalapeno and cheddar sausage fried in empanada dough and served with chimichurri. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Thick squares of the cheese are coated in Italian breading before getting dunked in the fryer and served alongside homemade marinara, also Carson’s doing.

The bar program is truncated compared to Rebellion, which carries more than 350 whiskey and bourbon varieties, but it’s not without quality. A cocktail list of roughly five drinks will be static, including a Bloody Mary offered everyday of the week. It’s made with in-house Mary mix, containing green chiles for a slight kick. A gin martini and rye bourbon Negroni also make an appearance. 

The “Iron Balls” stands out to Westlye, who describes it like a “three-way Old Fashioned.” Admittedly, he said he isn’t the biggest Scotch fan, but was won over by its balance of Evan Williams BIB, Rittenhouse rye, Ardbeg 10-year scotch, clove and cinnamon syrup and aromatic and orange bitters. 

“This cocktail is really unique,” he said.

Though the most popular has been “Spa Water” — Ketel one cucumber and mint or grapefruit and rosé, muddled lime and soda.

There are 12 craft beers, many local, as well as $3 domestics. Three drafts are on tap and one will rotate frequently featuring only local and regional North Carolina-made beers. 

“Once one keg is tapped, a new brand and flavor will be put in,” Westlye said.

A small but quality wine list also is featured, with a South African chenin blanc, Napa chardonnay, and Oregon pinot noir, among other offerings.

George Dickel no. 8 is on tap, for $5 a shot, as well as Deep Eddy’s Hard Lemonade.

Five TVs pepper the space showing the latest games, and a back patio welcomes diners to have a beverage or eat al fresco, but they’ll order at the bar and take a number for the food’s delivery. Tableside service is offered indoors otherwise. 

Fox’s shares the patio with nextdoor neighbor Goodfellas, which takes it over around 8 p.m. It’s outfitted with picnic areas, corn hole and enough room to house live music. Westlye plans to take advantage of it this spring.

“Around happy hour probably,” he said, indicating late afternoon shows. “It will likely be acoustic music, like we book at Rebellion.”

Prices at Fox’s Hole in the Wall range from $2 to $19, with beverages from $3 to $12. Currently, it is open daily at 4 p.m. (closed Monday) until midnight on week nights and at least 1 a.m. on weekends. 

“We really want to be able to serve the late-night crowd that’s looking for good food,” Westlye said. 

By next week, he hopes to add lunch hours. 

Tables are wood with leatherbound stools throughout the restaurant. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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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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