Saturday, January 28, 2023

Local restaurateur takes on new project in quest to transform N. Front ‘cocktail district’

The palette will be matte black and gold with iron gray; its exposed brick walls are elevated by white marble and plush leather and velvet furnishings. (Allison Eding/Lightbloom Photography)

WILMINGTON — It’s become a passion project Joseph Sena didn’t realize he wanted: to renovate the northern side of downtown Wilmington into bars and restaurants that elevate the local dining scene.

Over the last five years, Sena and his partners — wife, Abigail, and friend Ivan “Chip” Moore — have purchased, refabbed and offloaded Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Rumcow, and Tacobaby, all next door to one another along Grace Street. Now they have their sights on a location around the corner at 265 N. Front St. The Underfront will open by mid-February in the former Dead Crow Comedy Room location.

READ MORE: Dubliner to close, downtown restaurateur to take over ownership

Next door to Waffle House, the bar will have a modern industrial vibe. Sena calls it “raw hewn wood meets modern elegance.” He came across the space while buying coolers after its last iteration, Local 910 Bar and Lounge, closed in July, after the building owner asked him to come down and take a look.

“It’s got so much history in that 100-year-old building,” Sena said. “It’s got the original timber rafters that were installed in the early 1900s. That’s just the coolest thing from a construction guy’s perspective, and all the old brick.”

Sena oversaw construction at all the bars and restaurants he has been involved in locally when he moved to town to open WTF five years ago. Having been in the restaurant industry for 25 years, he operated a Melting Pot and Churchill’s Bar in Greensboro beforehand.

“When I came to Wilmington, that whole block [of Grace Street] was just so destroyed, but I felt at home there, and I am really passionate about restoring old places, so that’s where I started,” he said. “I just saw what Whiskey Tango could be — and building it was so much fun.”

Sena and his crew knocked down walls and ceilings, and reconstructed the former Browncoat Pub and Theater interior into a craft cocktail bar. It specializes in high-end drinks, created with top-shelf liquors and utilizing fun techniques.

Over the last few years, they sold WTF and purchased two restaurants a few doors up — Rumcow just before the pandemic and Tacobaby mid-pandemic. But running an eatery six days a week was taking its toll and something Sena wanted to cut back on as he and his wife were rearing a toddler. 

“I know it seems like I’m a serial concept developer — which, I mean, I do develop concepts; part of the thing that I’m really passionate about is figuring stuff out. But I’m a new dad, too, so a lot of stuff needed to coalesce at the same time,” he explained of taking on the basement-bar project.

Sena was technically in retirement since late summer, when he sold Rumcow to a California couple at “the pinnacle of business,” he said. But at 40, he also realized he had “crazy amounts of energy” and decided if he took on another project, it would fit into his familial needs and obligations. So he has been chipping away at The Underfront leisurely; he didn’t make its formal announcement on social media until December 1.

“I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for the last six months by any reasonable standard,” he said. “I really just go into the Underfront when my daughter is getting a bath and going to bed; I’ll work four or five hours and do the kind of stuff that motivates me and makes me feel good — construction that I’m really proud of and brings a sense of accomplishment. It’s a good creative outlet, masonry and woodwork.” 

His wife, Abigail, is designing the space. The palette will be matte black and gold with iron gray. Its exposed brick walls are elevated by the use of wood, white marble and plush leather and velvet furnishings. A crystal chandelier hangs above as customers walk downstairs from Front Street into the basement. Accents of hammered copper pop against art deco designs embellished in the refinished black bar.

The Underfront’s exposed brick walls are elevated by the use of wood, white marble and plush leather and velvet furnishings. (Allison Eding/Lightbloom Photography)

“It’s modern and early 19th century American construction,” Sena said. “And I got to make a men’s bathroom that rivals any men’s bathroom you’ve ever seen in Wilmington — Victorian theme with embellishments.”

The Underfront will serve thoughtful cocktails, with bitters, tinctures, shrubs, syrups and other ingredients prepared onsite. Also a chef, Sena said he will be taking advantage of the fully equipped kitchen.

“I really want to get ground level with everything,” he said. “I’m a Southerner, so I like starting with base jams and jellies to make simple syrups. I like making caramel and molasses and sugar glass. I love doing new-age garnishes, like drying weird fruits and setting them on fire.”

He also is creating a small five-item food menu, including charcuterie boards with smoked homemade jerkies and other small-batch artisanal items. Sena said he is being cognizant as to not compete with the other restaurants he sold recently. He wants The Underfront to be standalone. 

“I don’t ever copy a style,” he said. “When we first did Whiskey Tango, I was really into classic cocktails and their origins. I wanted to make a Sazerac exactly the way it was made in New Orleans. But everything evolves and changes, so being able to evolve and change is kind of the crux of the business, and it’s nice to circle back on doing a cocktail bar five years later because my whole idea and mindset around cocktails is totally different than it was then.”

Moore and Abigail are devising the menu of drinks. Yet, Sena will add his culinary touch, whether it’s using house-smoked salts, flavored woods, or infused ingredients.

“Chip is our old-school, classic drink guy and Abby is passionate about progressive mixology,” Sena said. “I’m just the guy that has to figure out how to make it all work harmoniously.”

Every weekend, The Underfront will host live music, and there will be events and themed nights. The back patio on the Water Street-facing side will become a tiki bar by summer.

Sena said the entire space is “all-purpose built” — so much so, The Underfront is also an event and wedding venue which can house 125 people.

“We built it with a much larger knowledge base than when we would have built things in the past,” Sena said. “Everything is built by section with the ability to accommodate groups that range from five people all the way up to 100 people and still be user-friendly.”

Once The Underfront opens, he and Moore will be sharing shifts, working four days a week, 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., which will allow Sena to keep his dad duties fulfilled.

“With Rumcow, I was working from 12 o’clock until 10 o’clock, six days a week,” he said. “It’s going to be a better work-life balance that I lost inside the restaurant games, which move so quickly.”

He also signed a 15-year lease on the building, so flipping the bar isn’t immediately in the cards. Sena said the goal was to have a sustainable, long-term business to operate. But it doesn’t mean he has closed the door on future ventures; he constantly has his eyes on the market.

“We’ve made our mark along North Front Street as kind of a cocktail district,” Sena said. “Going into a market we’re super invested in, I’m excited to be part of its growth.”

The Underfront will open early 2023, six days a week. 


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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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