Planning a stop in Wilmington, North Carolina? Here’s where to eat, drink, and stay, and what to see and do.
Just two hours south of Raleigh, in a nook off of the Atlantic Ocean lies North Carolina’s historical port city and the official home of “Dawson’s Creek”—Wilmington. Housing the largest movie studio in the United States outside of California and boasting endless nearby beaches, Wilmington is typically most notable for encompassing one of the University of North Carolina campuses. It certainly should not be overlooked, however, for its reemerging film scene, rich naval history, and seafood forward menus. (Plus, if you’ve ever wondered whether Joey ends up with Dawson or Pacey, you simply must go, and there’s a tour just for you.)
From pirates to the Civil War, Wilmington is a city with interests for all, but particularly history or film buffs. Antebellum mansions, battleships, and a small but flourishing culinary scene create the perfect spot for both family and couples’ getaways alike. With smaller U.S. cities like Charleston and Savannah quickly gaining notoriety for their culture, cuisine, and history, it’s time to try one of the south’s oldest port cities on for size.
Where to Eat and Drink
Located on an unassuming corner of downtown Wilmington, Savorez is a culinary standout you’ll remember long after your trip. With a low key atmosphere and specials that vary with the day’s local catch, this restaurant nails casual dining with an upscale, Latin feel. Wilmington native and Executive Chef Sam Cahoon claims Savorez offers “fresh bold flavors in a unique manner that you’re not gonna find anywhere else.” We have to agree. The award winning tuna tostadas (with avocado, pineapple salsa, pickled shallots, jalapeño, and yuzu aioli) are Savorez’ prized menu item, but the deconstructed BLT Arepas and Langousta y Coco Ceviche resembling a sophisticated tom kha ghai are not to be overlooked. Coconut weaves unexpectedly into traditional dishes like a black bean bisque, and sweet potatoes and goat cheese transform their house guac into a sweet and tart dairy-laced dip Antoni Porowski would be proud of. Finish with the Chocolate Chili Flan topped with raspberry gastrique, pumpkin seed praline, and chocolate ganache for the ideal end to a moderately priced but perfect indulgence.
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If you’re looking for New York quality cuisine with a local and southern flair, Pinpoint is it. They’ve won basically every award Wilmington’s food scene has to offer, including being named one of Southern Living’s top ten restaurants of 2019. Great for special occasions, their menu often changes weekly, sometimes daily depending on local ingredients, and the predictably impressive flavor pairings and high-quality components will never cease to amaze. Executive Chef Jake Carey serves up insanely unique dishes beautifully plated, such as the Ash Seared Yellowfin Tuna (with shiso, cured duck yolk, cilantro-avocado puree, ramp sea salt, smoked blackberry, black garlic vinaigrette, and spiced yucca chips) and Local Tomato Salad (with feta, pickled red onion, lemon verbena, tomato emulsion, and basil mint oil). Although Carey highlights their seafood (“swimming the day before you get it, if not the day of”), don’t sleep on dishes like the hangar steak accompanied by garlic butter and local produce. Definitely save room for dessert, because they make a malt pudding with grilled peaches that’s unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.
One of Wilmington’s newest establishments, having only been open for a few months, this corner hideaway on N. 3rd Street has a sweet spot for home chefs—the Prohibition era themed wine bar doubles as a shop for infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars, complete with tasting bar. Every adorably named item on their menu suggests a wine pairing, but best of all, each item, like The Gatsby (toasted bread chips topped with house made bruschetta, shaved manchego sheep cheese, and traditional 18-year aged balsamic reduction) is created with an oil or vinegar you can buy in house. They’re best known for Executive Chef Dave Andersen’s award-winning purple deviled eggs, but you can’t leave without trying the aptly named Bootlegger (skewered bacon pops with a sweet and tangy dry rub, coated with their signature maple vinegar). Many of their recipes are on their website, so grabbing a glass of vino and some tapas here is really more of a well rounded culinary experience than you’ll find anywhere else in Wilmington, because when you get home, you can recreate some of your favorites.
Crust’s motto is simple: “a grilled cheese joint.” The kitschy, pop culture referential menu is simple, the selection is straight forward, but the ingredients amaze. Offering vegan and gluten-free grilled cheeses, as well as funky martinis, local grilled cheese favorites include the Jurassic Pork (sharp cheddar, house pulled pork, root beer and chipotle BBQ sauce, and fennel slaw) and the Vince Vega (pimento cheese, ham, and fried green tomatoes). Considering Executive Chef Brian DeGiorgio is a Brooklyn transplant, it’s not a coincidence this grilled cheese joint—and even its cocktail menu, complete with Beyonce’s Knees (gin, honey, lemon, and star anise)—is a bit reminiscent of a hip Bushwick watering hole.
A little beyond Wilmington proper, this down home restaurant is known for its hearty and Guy Fieri-approved southern breakfast and brunch fare. There’s probably nothing on the menu that doesn’t contain heaps of butter, but that’s exactly why you go. One of the top favorites at this spot off the highway with rocking chairs out front is their Dirty South Biscuit (southern fried chicken tenderloin, bacon, runny egg, muenster and pepper jack cheeses with sausage gravy); the freshly made biscuits are just like a southern grandma’s, but the cumin flavored sausage gravy is a nice update to a classic. With an endless array of house made sauces, including Texas Pete’s hollandaise, the benedicts are a must-try, our favorite being the Smokey Mountain Benedict (smoked shoulder bacon, NC country ham, grilled onions, grilled tomatoes, spinach, and two poached eggs with smoked tomato hollandaise on an English muffin). For lunch, there’s no other choice but the famous “Diners, Drive-In’s & Dives” pick, Not Your Momma’s Meatloaf (house made meatloaf with ground beef and pork, fried egg, caramelized sweet onion, arugula, tomato, aged cheddar, herb aioli, and Texas Pete hollandaise served on a toasted bun).
What to See and Do
One of the main attractions in downtown Wilmington is this authentically restored World War II battleship doubling as a memorial for veterans. Touring all nine decks of the Battleship North Carolina gives viewers an insight into the lives of soldiers and crewmembers during war time. For just ten dollars a ticket, you can walk among the mess decks, see inside the Combat Information Center, and scour the bridge of the ship (open every day of the year).
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This doughnut shop has garnered a cult-like following with some of the most original doughnut flavors this side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Fresh baked daily—meaning once they’re out, they’re out—they serve doughnuts and doughnuts alone. Touting the title of “Buzzfeed’s Best Donuts in North Carolina,” and offering an endless list of doughnut flavors, including multiple varieties of gluten-free cake doughnuts, your sweet tooth won’t go unaddressed. You don’t have to be rolling to appreciate the crazy flavor combos offered like the Slimm Shady (chocolate glaze and salted potato chip crumbs); Dat Ghost Fire (ghost pepper infused chocolate glaze, jalapeno, and chocolate cherry whipped filling); or Loopy Morning (vanilla glaze and Fruit Whirls cereal).
Part of the allure of a city with so much history is the possibility of running into a ghost or two. Charleston has their haunted jail, Wilmington has their haunted pub crawl (because Wilmington is nothing if not a great place for craft beer!). As a result of the local film industry, the city is ripe with actors, so you better believe you’re going to get some great stories and possibly even spot the ghost of Blackbeard himself.
Everyone has that ice cream parlor they return to year after year on vacation. Boombalatti’s is that ice cream parlor for Wilmington. You’ll never be able to try every flavor, because the list of homemade ice cream concoctions (made with dairy from grass-fed North Carolina cows) spans more than three freezer cases—but Boombalatti’s lets you try a bunch with their pick-four mini scoops or eight mini scoops flavor trial packs. Good luck narrowing down your choices, though; there’s blueberry, vegan key lime and coconut, spiced apple cider sorbet, nilla banana wafer, coconut cream, chocolate cream pie, caramel macchiato, and on and on and on.
Where to Stay
For the full historical experience and to feel transported to another place in time, the charming Graystone Inn is a great choice. Boasting an elegant veranda with a forefront reminiscent of the nearby Bellamy Mansion, this boutique hotel with a 1900s interior is ideal for a romantic getaway. Rooms start at $379 per night, pending season.
The definition of a modern, millennial property, ARRIVE has thought about anything you might need, and even provides yoga mats. An onsite restaurant called Dram Yard with hip cocktails and bites make up for the lack of a traditional hotel experience. The name of the game here is chill, trendy, but no personnel frills. Rooms start at $199 per night.
If you’ll have a car and want to complement your cute city vacation with some ocean time, a stay in nearby Wrightsville Beach is recommended. Blockade Beach Resort has all the amenities of a typical beach property like pools, beachfront views, spacious rooms, onsite dining, and boat slips, but is only a quick drive from culturally prosperous Wilmington for the best of both worlds. Rooms start at $164 per night, pending season.
Have a favorite spot in Wilmington you’re willing to share? Let us know in the comments!
Header image courtesy of Walter Bibikow / Getty Images