The Dish: Ups, downs seasoned the food scene during the year

Click here to read article Star News - By Liz Biro
With America's economic woes rising to a boil in 2008, Cape Fear restaurateurs could have said, "Put a fork in me; I'm done."
Some of them did, locking their shops and considering career changes. Mostly, though, they forged ahead, much like the region's food scene. Motivated by homegrown ingredients, hip locations and diners always wanting the next delicious thing, food merchants boldly seasoned a difficult year. Some of what I predicted in 2008's first installment of The Dish came true. More servers went beyond simply telling us food was "local" to revealing exactly where it came from and, occasionally, how it was produced. Chefs took a few extra chances with those ingredients, offering daring tastes between the usual wedge salads, sesame-crusted tuna appetizers and grilled steaks. Bartenders went out on limbs, too, joining the mixologist trend with drinks like lavender martinis and lemongrass-infused vodka. But, by and large, those in the food business played it safe, launching proven concepts and allowing the economy to supply the bumpy ride. Winter activities Riverboat Landing's rebirth as The Union Cafe opened 2008 on a high note. The historic blue building, downtown at Market and Water streets, was long-cherished for its balconies and stunning Cape Fear River views, but the decor and menu seemed dated next to newer restaurants nearby. Owners Steve and Sophie Kohlstedt hired Deluxe restaurant creator John Malejan to help with renovations. When the doors reopened in February, diners saw a warm, contemporary interior and matching new-American menu. Meantime, Front Street Brewery owners established a second location uptown. Main Street Brewery moved into the defunct, corporate-owned Smokey Bones at Mayfaire, bringing along Front Street's signature microbrews and pub food. Yet, the story that would haunt the city's food-service news was already taking shape. As these new restaurants celebrated openings, others closed: Lumina Station's Opus, downtown's CK Gourmet, Mayfaire's Qdoba Mexican Grill, and Lazeeza Mediterranean Grill and Danny's Pastry Shoppe, both on 17th Street near New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Two restaurateurs refused to surrender. Brothers Nick and Vincent DiNapoli remade their Fratelli's Italian Buffet, on Market Street's north end, into the table-service Cafe Basil Italian Grill when patrons said they preferred personal service over buffet portions. Spring births Spring openings and expansions hardly indicated an economic recession on the horizon. Spirited Johnny Chen and his brother Andy dashed back and forth between their three Wilmington Nikki locations when they announced plans to open new Nikki's restaurants in Wilmington, Leland and Myrtle Beach. The fourth Wilmington location, they revealed, would contain a sushi conveyor belt from which patrons could select a steady stream of choices. Downtown, former Lazeeza Mediterranean Grill owner Melissa Bausch unveiled Mediterra in the building where Wilmington restaurateur Ash Aziz tried various concepts including the Italian restaurant Prima. Up the street, beloved Thai spot Rim Wang closed briefly before reemerging as Charin of Thailand with a similar menu and some of the same owners On College Road, near Longleaf Mall, Flaming Amy's Burrito Barn owners Jay and Amy Muxworthy unveiled the funky semi-self-service noodle house Flaming Amy's Bowl. Carolina Beach Road's Bon Appetit, celebrated for its breakfasts, lunches and catering service, added dinner to the bill. Menus also were revamped at downtown's Charlotte's Uptown Eatery, which traded comfort food for deli fare, and Water Street Restaurant, which updated its American menu. Summer sizzles The year's boldest move was the transformation of Pavilion Place's Fibber McGee's into steamy Shadow Bar. Plans called for Chinese buns, decadent desserts and sexy cocktails to be served while live shadow dancers entertained revelers. Summer proved that even venerable restaurateurs had to rethink their operations as the economy settled into a funk and diners stayed home. K38 Baja owner Josh Vach altered his decade-old Kiva Grill at Porters Neck to reflect his popular K38 brand on Oleander Drive. Favorite Kiva selections remained, but K38 Baja-style dishes dictated the new, less-expensive menu. Thierry and Patricia Moity shuttered their Zooi Euro in the Forum and stuck to their well-regarded Caprice Bistro downtown. Bento Box's Lee Grossman quickly purchased Zooi Euro and went to work moving his popular, tiny Forum sushi bar into the larger space so that Grossman could offer cocktails and Asian small plates. Downtown, the former Stone Ground Baking Company became host to Coastal Cupcakes, a bakery specializing in cupcakes. It was among many summer openings that defied economic gloom-and-doom predictions. Other freshmen included two hookah bars - Jerusalem Wraps and its Middle Eastern food market on College and Hookah Cafe in the former Folks Cafe on Market Street. Joining them were the anticipated new Nikki's fitted with its sushi conveyor and Islands Fresh Mex, both on Racine Drive; Stonewall Grill in the long-empty Kohl's Frozen Custard on College Road; La Costa and San Filipe Mexican restaurants in Leland; Piccolo Milano in Shallotte; and additional Wilmington locations for Ken's Bagels and Deli and PT's Old Fashioned Grille. Not everyone was so lucky. Mayfaire's Artisan Cafe and WOW Cafe and Wingery ended business, as did College Road's Organic Arts Cuisine, Lumina Station's Max's Prime Steakhouse, Wrightsville Beach's Savannah's and Wahoo Willy's near Porters Neck. Despite ups and down, Wilmington's presence grew on the popular foodie Web site Chowhound, thanks in a large part to regular poster Andie Reid. The Wilmington woman used her real name to tell visitors where to find the city's best restaurants. Reid went on to start her own restaurant review Web site. Falling down As America's economy nosedived, autumn brought the passing of darling Dan's Mason Bistro, on Masonboro Road, and persistent rumors that more closings were coming. They did. Downtown, Tayste perished, and infant Owen, a new diner from Dixie Grille owner Brian Mayberry, ceased operations in the former Front Street Diner. Meantime, young Mediterra and mature Water Street Restaurant closed for winter. Across town, Shadow Bar went back to being comfortable Fibber's. Still, restaurateurs remained hopeful. Owen Dunne, of downtown's popular Odessa, brought the nightclub concept to Lumina Station but added an Asian-leaning menu. Downtown, chef Hakim Clemmons confidently introduced the fine-dining Aubriana's at what was Mickey Ratz nightclub. Pastry chef Roberta Campani chanced her first-ever bakery, La Gemma, in the past Danny's Pastry Shoppe on 17th Street, and investors joined to start the seaside-themed Surfs bar and restaurant in the cavernous Old Eastwood Drive space that had hosted Wilmington Ale House. Former Wall Streeter AJ Plinio started working on the sports bar Southpaw in downtown's former Tayste, and the Korean couple CJ You and Hye Park moved here from Ohio to open Wasabi Japanese restaurant in University Landing's former Mineh. For every place that closed, it seemed, another was opening. Capt'n Bill's Backyard Grill owners began creating a banquet hall in Los Mojarras soon after the Market Street Mexican placed closed. Shortly after the nearby tortilleria turned off its griddle, the Latin American Bakery La Imperial fired up ovens a few doors away. Coming seasons Near year's end, a Wilmington foodie asked if I was tired of writing about restaurant closings, but I didn't feel as if I had witnessed so many considering all the new stores. The year had been troubling but also exciting. The Cape Fear area became a livelier dining destination where numerous restaurants and food markets offered assorted cuisines, chef's dinners, wine tastings, and interesting twists such as Port Land Grille's November event that paired bourbon cocktails with dishes containing the liquor. Market research firm Mintel closed the year by stating that although 2008's financial turmoil had hurt restaurants, the industry was determined to thrive in 2009. Mintel predicted more comfort food and cool cocktails, fresher food, new Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors, and storytelling about how food is prepared, where it comes from and why it's good for you as restaurateurs "try to make diners happy next year." Having followed Cape Fear's food scene in 2008, it sounded like food businesses here had a jump on the trends, and I've already heard about great new restaurants coming. So instead of predictions for 2009, this year I think I'll just make a toast. To eating well, eating adventurously and, above all, eating out. Have a hot food tip for Liz? E-mail her atliz.biro@starnewsonline.com.