Carolina Beach Dine and Drink Report
This report is limited to the beach and/or destinations on the drive into or out of the beach. So Wrightsville Beach and the downtown areas are excluded.
A lot has changed over the last few years on the Pleasure Island restaurant scene. One can eat reasonably well without having to trek back into Wilmington. Don’t get me wrong….there are no Deluxe or Port Land and Grill type places and there may never be. But Jack Mackerels and Freddie’s are superior to many of the old school Wilmington institutions; many of which boast great views and uninspired menus. I’m looking at you Oceanic, Bridgetender, Elijah’s etc. If you throw in some of the neighboring Monkey Junction joints, like Portofino’s, Heck of a Peck and Dan’s Mason Bistro, one can eat very well with limited driving.
My reviews were culled from two different trips to the Beach in May and June of this year. One trip was just the boys and one was with my family. As you would imagine, two completely different perspectives. So here we go…..more or less in order of quality. True Pleasure Island restaurants first.
Jack Mackerels – This is a really fun Caribbean themed place; more so the décor than the menu. Seating on the inside, outside on the ground level and roof top seating. The roof top can be a bit of a wind tunnel at certain times. Probably not the best idea with small children. Most everything on the menu is good to very good. The best app.that I’ve had was the Pesto Escargot. Basically, escargot wrapped in won tons and fried with a basil sauce drizzled on top. This item is not always on the menu. The sashimi is good too….it just seems like everybody is doing this as a starter these days. The soft shell crabs, the Mumbo Jumbo Shrimp dish(?) and the coconut red snapper are also very good. Surprisingly, the Ciopinno was also pretty good. I thought the Jerked Tuna dish lacked the quality cut of tuna that was I was expecting….it did taste good though.. Also, the Wild Mushroom pasta was average in my opinion. The key to this place is the kitchen’s consistency. There aren’t any bombs on the menu. Good place for families or large groups….a lot of room. Decent bar inside also.
Freddie’s – Small, charming Italian restaurant that specializes in chops. They tout Barb’s salad dressing on their website....with good reason. Get a bottle to go. My favorite item so far has been the Shrimp Fra Diavlo. The lasagna is also good. I have yet to try their chops. Keep one thing in mind, the kitchen has a heavy hand when it comes to sweet sauces. This might just be my own personal tastes. I ordered the Steak James which was swimming in Amaretto. The liquor didn’t just accent the steak…..it drove the whole dish. Portions are huge so go early in your vacation and you’ve got, at least, one lunch covered. Good wait staff! This place is always packed…go early to avoid a wait. It’s a Kure Beach institution. I want to spend more time exploring this menu.
Black Horn Bar and Kitchen – Much like the two above, the name of the game here is consistency. Excellent bar food but it’s much more of a restaurant than bar. (at least during the daylight….haven’t really had a chance to do any serious drinking here) If you order to their strong suit, it’s all good. The strong suit would be excellent sandwiches and good soups/salads. The Meatloaf Melt is insanely decadent. I may have taken a few years off my life eating this sandwich but it was worth it. Think….gourmet hamburger with a basil garlic mayo sauce and white cheddar. Ask for the spicy ketchup. The Cubano is also another exercise in pure, gastro gluttony. Pulled pork, Virginia ham, pickles and Swiss cheese on sourdough bread; because, hey, doesn’t ever sandwich need two different versions of pig. It’s nothing like a true Cuban sandwich but it’s really good. I’ve never had a bad sandwich here. The sweet potato fries are also good. Sushi used to be on the menu but it’s been temporarily taken off. Not sure why. The Greek salad is good but get the dressing on the side. Tomatoes would be a nice addition to the salad. French Onion soup was excellent. The house specialties are a bit of a mixed bag. The menu description of the Knife and Fork Tuna Melt led me to believe the dish would be dry…..and I was not pleasantly surprised. The wild boar sausages are also on the dry side. The wings are pretty damn good but if you get the mild version….be forewarned they are very mild. The hot version in my opinion is just right. I haven’t tried the other two items in the house specialties section. If I’m nitpicking on this place, than I’ve got two suggestions: more seafood on the menu…..the place is about 50 feet from the Atlantic Ocean. Also, a better beer selection would be nice. All the usual suspects are on tap but I think they should put some thought into micro brews. How about some selections from the Brooklyn Brewery….the owners are from New York, after all. But good food, Sinatra in the background and me in my flip flops…..those are good things in my book..
Things drop off a bit after the top three. That’s not to say there aren’t good meals to be had.
- Shuckin’ Shack – Small, laid back oyster bar. This place operates on island time….20 minutes to get seated, 25 minutes to get the menu, etc. The night I was there I believe there were only two people on staff. So when the bartender/waiter comes over, be prepared or you might be in for long night….actually you’ll be in for a long night regardless. The oysters and shrimp were fresh. The hushpuppies were great! Your basic raw bar menu. Not polished like Heck of a Peck or Dock Street but, still, a fun place if you’ve got a few hours to kill.
- Tuscan Grill – I’ve only been there once....when they first opened up. The place was still working their kinks out. It seemed to have promise.
- The Gulf Stream Restaurant – A real locals place that is always packed. I’ve only had breakfast (decent) here but the lunch and dinner menus look more interesting. A stone’s throw from a commercial fishing dock so I’d imagine the fish would be very fresh.
- Kate’s Pancake House – Basic diner food. Not much to elaborate on.
I’d also recommend Sandpiper Subs, Michelangelo’s Pizza, the Trolley Stop and Cook’s Doghouse.
Monkey Junction/Myrtle Grove Restaurants – Normally, you can get to these places in about 20 minutes during the non rush hour periods.
- Dan’s Mason Bistro – This top shelf restaurant is well worth the drive. There is nothing like it in the true Pleasure Island area. Expensive but still a good value. My measuring stick for high end food in Wilmington is Deluxe and Port Land and Grill. In my opinion, this place is a notch below those two but still belongs in the same sentence. I’ve only been there once but tasted all the plates at our table. Everything pretty much rocked. The beef filet with a mushroom pate was the winner. Nice dinning space and great staff.
- Heck of a Peck – This is located right next door to Dan’s Mason Bistro. Well run operation specializing in, you guessed it, oysters. Limited menu but most of the basic raw bar items are there. I need to spend more time in this place.
- Portofino’s – Good Italian Deli/Restaurant. Point blank, the best meatball sub I’ve ever had. I normally like this type of sub a little bit saucier but most of the sauce is soaked up by the bread. The sandwich is about as big as my head and probably a little bit heavier. Most of the sandwiches that I’ve tried have been good to very good. We, sometimes, pick up the family style meals on the drive into the beach.
- The Drink Report
The Last Resort – I had a blast here. The bar’s boast of the being the smallest watering hole in the state is probably accurate. Stacked cases of wine and beer are in full view behind the bar because there is no storage. The inside seats probably 8 with the outdoor patio seating another 20-25. It seemed like it was a locals place though everybody was extremely friendly. They are normally pouring from six different bottles of wine posted on a chalk board. Six dollars for a glass of wine that you’re drinking out of a plastic cup seems a little bit excessive but, literally, there would be no room for a dishwasher. I don’t even recall seeing a sink. But it’s the beach, so you go with the flow. The place is situated right on a busy highway but, with your back to the road, the bobbing headlights cease to exist after a couple cups of wine. The wine was decent. The best I had was a Hob Nob Pinot. Cool Place!
And that brings us to the Fat Pelican – Easily one of the strangest bars that I’ve ever set foot in. And that statement is covering a lot of ground…from dank vampire bars in New Orleans to “home bars” throughout the Caribbean. The Pelican is a throw back to another era…or planet. Tacky memorabilia and beer inspired, bumper stickers cover most of the walls. My favorite one being, “ The doctor just called…he found blood in my alcohol stream.” The patron demographic went from a one year old in a stroller (bad parenting) to a 60 year old working behind the bar to a black lab sleeping in the door way. Your food options are pretty much limited to Slim Jims and pickled sausages floating in some pinkish, funky liquid. While most bars are moving towards smoke free environments, the Pelican, practically, encourages it. The toddler, the dog and myself were the only ones not smoking. No fans so the cigar and cigarette smoke rolls right of the propped open front door. The actual bar seats about 10 people while the lounge/family room holds another 20. But what really sets the Pelican apart from any other hole in the wall joint is the eighteen wheeler trailer body that is built into the back of the bar. The trailer has been converted into a walk in, refrigerated ice box….that holds 428 different beers from all over the world. Most of the great, American micro beers are well represented; from North Coast’s Red Seal Ale to Victory’s potent, Golden Monkey to several excellent beers from the Brooklyn Brewery. (my personal favorite). Somebody did their homework while putting this collection together. They also have 5 taps that are hidden behind the bar. On this night they had, not 1 but 2, Hawaiian beers. Who even new Hawaiian beer existed?
Aside from the haze of smoke, I liked this place. The small staff and fellow drinkers were very friendly. I will definitely go back….probably for a late afternoon beer before heading elsewhere for dinner. While my experience was cool, it’s probably best to tread with some caution in this place. My guess would be that every minute spent at the Pelican, past midnight, increases the odds of being on an upcoming episode of Cops. But all and all, the Fat Pelican is a wacky American original…high end brew pub meets the trailer park. Leave your pretensions at the door and enjoy some “liver entertainment.”(as one of the bumper stickers read)
Restaurants to hit on the drive to or from Carolina Beach
- Double Happiness – This place would be at home in any Chinatown in the US. Authentic to the bone! A place like this reminds you of the Indian influence in real chinese cooking. A perennial favorite of mine. The spicy Asam Laska noodle soup is awesome. The soup features mango, cucumber and fish. I’ll take this over Pho any day of the week. The double steamer dumplings are a good way to start. The sticky rice dumpling is the star in that group. I was surprised recently to see General Tso’s on the menu but I understand trying to appeal more to the mainstream. I hope this place can stay afloat. The lunch crowd is fairly scarce but I assume they do stronger numbers at dinner.
- K-38 - One of my favorite Mexican restaurants in the universe. Not authentic Mexican but a very authentic take on Southern California style Mexican food. Cilantro spiked salsa is awesome. Nice selection of hot sauces. Very laid back….so laid back that their sign in the front was missing for quite a while….didn’t matter, the place was always packed. The camarone verde enchiladas, habanero hell rolls and the tropical tuna rolls(kinda like Southwestern Sushi) are some of my favorites. We always hit this place on the initial trip to the Carolina Beach (salsa to go) or the trip back home. Eat well Wilmington!
Wow - what a wonderful report! I have to say that you may have changed my mind on a few spots. I had the worst meal ever at Freddie's (frozen pasta with jarred red sauce) - but may try it again in the off season. This time I will only order one of the chops. Also, had a cold meal at Double Happiness - with terrible service. Plus I thought the prices were pretty steep. But perhaps I will try it again... Thanks for sharing your research.
Dara - Sorry to hear about you bad experience at Freddies. You have to kinda keep my report in the right perspective. The CB food scene is much better than it was 10 years ago. But if I lived in downtown Wilmington, would I make the trip out for a meal?.....not unless I was combining the meal with a daytrip. As far as Double Happiness, I think the place is legit. The first time I went there, we had a waiter named Jimmy. As we ordered, he guided us thru the menu. He was pretty much like "no, no don't order that...order this". He talked, at length, about the different regions each dish came from. He hung out at our table A LOT. I liked his input because every dish he recommended was good. Some people, including a couple at my table, thought he came on too strong with his opinion. I never saw that waiter again but I still usually get the wait staff to give me suggestions on what's good in the kitchen that day. I've had pretty good luck that way. I have tasted other plates at my table that were average. I would give these guys another shot.
Oh cmon now Willie .....most people at the Fat Pelican don't live in trailer parks.....but most of them are working hard and will get their own trailer someday !!! Absolutely the best 60's bar I've ever been in ( including all the bars I went to in the 60's)..... just when you thought that there were no hippes left, you find the Pelican and you realize that all is right with the world !
re: cajun willie
Nice report, cw.
I've been to The Fat Pelican and it is an interesting place. It reeks, in a good way, of your standard nc coastal bar. Good beer and great people watching. There was another place I was to on the boardwalk, but I forget the name. About 10 yrs ago I witnessed a guy get the snot beat out of him there. Had the local DA calling me to testify. Very creepy!
Jack Mackerel's, eh? I'm shocked that there is one afloat out there. I opened a JM's in Charlotte NC about 10 yrs ago. It was a new concept developed by the guy who owns the first Dean and DeLuca franchise. Originally the D&D chefs developed their menu w/ lots of high end ingredients. But once the novelty of the place wore off, they ended up losing business and having to dumb down the menu (lack of a better term). They ended up shutting it down but apparently sold the rights to the name, etc. I actually waited on Jimmy Buffett when I worked there. He was in town for a concert. Nice guy.
I have been pleasantly surprised by several recent visits to Carolina Beach. The Gulfstream Restaurant is a great find, although a bit quirky. Its a diner-type place, with little atmosphere and does not serve alcohol. It also closes at 8:30 PM and is cash only. The standard menu is, well, standard, BUT they have nightly specials of fresh, local fish that come right off the charter boats moored across the street. I had a delicous king mackeral, super fresh, broiled with a little butter and lemon juice. Fantastic! And the sides are homecooked veggies...lima beans, fried okra, green beans, mashed potatoes, etc. And its so inexpensive I couldn't believe it...less than $9.00 for my king mackeral, 2 large side items and bread. I almost felt guilty paying so little. Like I said, its not fancy, but it is good.
We also went to Shuckin' Shack, and had a great experience there too. The peel your own shrimp were great...perfectly cooked and spiced with Old Bay. The service wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad, and they were very busy. I certainly wouldn't hesitate to go there again at all.
A great place for a drink and a decent app or lunch is the tiki bar at the Ocean Grill. The tiki bar is out on the remains of a fishing pier that one of the hurricanes partially destroyed. Great place to sit and watch the ocean, the beach and hear some live music.
Oh, and don't forget to hit Britt's Doughnuts...there sort of a cross between Krispy Kreme doughnuts and beignets from Cafe du Monde in New Orleans...and better than both!