WILMINGTON — Two adjacent restaurants in the historical district on Water Street in downtown Wilmington are expecting late-February openings.
Next to the Italian bistro Floriana, Michael’s on the Waterfront is on its final leg of a two-year renovation process. The gastropub will feature steak and local seafood options along with 30 craft beers on tap, including beers from Wilmington breweries and throughout North Carolina.
Michael LaVigna, who moved from Long Island to Myrtle Beach a decade ago, said the historic building has gone through quite the transformation.
“At first, the only thing that worked in here was an elevator over a hundred years old,” LaVigna said.
Renovation work began with framing out the entire building and then adding new brick inside while preserving the original floors and beams, which are exposed, according to LaVigna. At one point, he said workers were excavating for new sewer lines when they ran into animal bones.
His son, also Michael LaVigna, managed his father’s Irish ale house in Long Island for the past 17 years before moving to Wilmington in the fall to run his father’s new restaurant, looking to escape New York for the South. LaVigna said his son chose the building, although his daughter was not initially impressed.
“My daughter saw it after I bought it and she told me I should have my eyes examined,” LaVigna said. “It was the ugliest building imaginable. All the windows on the second floor were gone. The place had probably been neglected for over 50 years … Now, it’s a beautiful place.”
The building dates back to at least 1830, according to Travis Souther, a local history librarian at the New Hanover County Library. It was used as an old forwarding house in the mid- to late-1800s, importing things like New England rum, Virginia tobacco, cotton, molasses, spices, butter, and flour.
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Souther was also able to find a history of the building in the 1900s:
- 1917: used as storage by John W. Brooks whose wholesale grocery was just down the street at 16 S. Water Street
- 1919: used as a warehouse and shipping department
- 1922-1936: used by Jacobi Hardware Company as a warehouse and shipping department
- 1938-1952: used as storage for Standard Paint and Hardware Co.
- 1953-1973: used as storage for the Stone Towing Company
- 1973-1978: no listing for 5 S. Water St., although Stone Towing continued to operate nearby
- 1979-1993: vacant
- 1993: occupied by Water Street Market
More recently, 5 South Water Street has hosted various restaurants, including Mixto (2010-2013), Delphina Dos (2014), and Kabob and Grill (2017), according to Star News.
LaVigna said he was looking at another coastal city known for its deep southern history, but he chose Wilmington because of the people.
“Wilmington seemed more friendly than Charleston,” he said. “Charleston kind of had its nose up in the air.”
The kitchen will focus on locally caught seafood, a variety of steaks, flatbread pizzas, and crab cake sandwiches and hamburgers.
Chef David Robinson, who recently moved to town from Pennsylvania, said he’ll work with seafood purveyors who keep in daily contact with local fishing boats. He plans to bring in grouper, mahi-mahi, and other local seafood options depending on the season.
Michael’s on the Waterfront (5 S. Water St.) will be open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on weekdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815