2022 is shaping up to be an expansive year for the Wilmington food scene, as chefs and restaurateurs from the Triangle look to capitalize on the city’s strong growth and relative affordability. The city’s restaurants seemed to have weathered the pandemic better than their counterparts in the Triangle and Charlotte. According to the New Hanover County tourism board, visitor spending across the state fell by 32 percent the first year of the pandemic, while Wilmington and the surrounding beach towns did 10 percent better, losing only a little more than 22 percent of project visitor spending while seeing a noticeable uptick in visitors as the weather warmed. A new riverfront amphitheater began hosting live concerts, and a slew of apartment buildings and condos came online, bringing more full-time residents to a downtown previously known more for its raucous bar vibes.
As the dining scene in the Port City evolves away from the dichotomous choice of either laid-back tourist spot or country club atmosphere, a new breed of restaurant has taken hold, and Triangle-area chefs are noticing. Prolific restaurateur Giorgios Bakatsias, owner of Triangle restaurants like Parizade, Bin 54, and Vin Rouge, recently announced his first Wilmington restaurant. He will be opening a second version of his Chapel Hill Greek restaurant Kipos in Lumina Station, close to Wrightsville Beach.
The new Kipos will occupy the former 1900 Restaurant and Lounge space at 1900 Eastwood Road. It will take advantage of Lumina Station’s leafy setting, with Bakatsias designing an outdoor patio area that takes advantage of the center’s centuries-old live oaks, garden pond, and meandering shaded pathways. Regulars to his other restaurants, such as Durham’s Vin Rouge or Chapel Hill’s Kipos, will find familiarity in the emphasis on a lush, garden-like outdoor dining setting.
Earlier this month, chef Sunny Gerhart of Raleigh’s St. Roch Fine Oysters & Bar, a 2022 James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef Southeast, announced plans to open his second restaurant in downtown Wilmington. Olivero will sit in a renovated building at Castle and 3rd Street, with a menu drawing from Gerhart’s Spanish and Italian backgrounds.
For Gerhart, the move to Wilmington is something of a homecoming — the son of a Marine, he grew up in Jacksonville and would drive down to Wilmington to surf. Later he ended up waiting tables at Boca Bay and working at Wrightsville Beach’s Lighthouse Beer & Wine.
“When I have days off and the weather is nice, that’s the only thing I want to do, go to Wilmington, go to the beach, get some dinner, and see friends,” said Gerhart.
Both Bakatsias and Gerhart recognize that the changing dining scene in Wilmington makes the area ripe for expansion, especially at a time when real estate prices back home in Raleigh or Durham are at an all-time high.
“It has experienced a lot of change, and there are more great restaurants coming,” says Gerhart, referring to downtown Wilmington. “It’s certainly more cost-effective at this point to open a restaurant down there.”
“When I first started doing some projects in Wilmington the only thing that local leadership would talk about was tourism,” said James Goodnight, the Raleigh-based developer who owns the building where Olivero will be located. “In Wilmington I could tell people where to find a good meal, but I had a really hard time telling where to find a cool restaurant.”
Bakatsias’s Kipos and Gerhart’s Olivero will join Seabird, Dram Yard, and a number of other restaurants like Catch, PinPoint (which saw a new chef, Cameron Garvey, take over last fall), and Flying Machine at Wrightsville Beach, in a growing cohort of modern fine dining that does away with white tablecloths, encourages family-style sharing, and pushes the boundaries of what the city has had to offer in the past.
The opening of Dean Neff’s Seabird in the heart of downtown last April seemed to cement the Port City’s reputation as a dining destination, with both local and out-of-town diners flocking to the restaurant for a taste of the chef’s innovative take on local seafood.
“When I first moved to town the downtown area didn’t feel as accessible to everyone,” Neff recalled. He got his start in Wilmington at PinPoint, just a few storefronts away from Seabird. Neff remembered that the seafood found on a lot of local menus was often farmed salmon or foreign shrimp.
“When I was first at PinPoint there were maybe only three oyster farmers that I knew, and now there are just so many people farming oysters. It’s become a big draw.”
“People are, at a rapid rate, discovering that Wilmington is a great place to move to,” he said. “The cost of living is a little more accessible than bigger cities.”
As for the draw for chefs from the Triangle, Neff said, “It’s that sweet spot of being just two hours away, but you’re able to pull from a completely different pool of consumers.”
More recently, chef Joe Wolfson left Charleston to helm the newly reopened Dram Yard at the Arrive Hotel on 2nd Street. Wolfson’s menu of locally-sourced cuisine with Southeast Asian flare is a style of high-touch cooking that might seem more in line with some of Durham or Charlotte’s upscale restaurants, yet has quickly drawn a following since he took over the kitchen in February.
“The difference I’ve seen over the last few years are restaurants that are trying to be a part of the community,” said Gerhart, “rather than just catering to the tourist crowd.”
With Kipos Wilmington is set to open in a couple months, and Gerhart aiming for a late 2022 or early 2023 opening for Olivero, it would stand to reason that other Triangle area chefs may start eying the Port City as they look to expand. They’d do well to follow the playbook that Bakatsias and Gerhart seem to be drawing from, and that Neff and Wolfson have used so well — tailoring their restaurants to the local community and playing on the region’s strong ties to coastal cuisine.
“I’m looking to add to the experience of Wilmington. There are already some great local folks cooking some rad food,” said Gerhart.