WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH – Last fall, chef Gary Walker, formerly of 1900 Restaurant and Lounge, took over the toque at 22 North in Wrightsville Beach. The famous restaurant-turned-nightlife establishment at 22 Lumina Ave. — once owned by Jim Radle and bought by Casey Rhyne a few years ago — underwent a quarter-million dollar renovation in the past six months, Walker said.
“The entire front of the house, from the moment you walk through the door, to the most remote parts of the restaurant, has been completely gutted and restructured,” he said.
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Where two bars once served the establishment’s patrons, only one remains, although much larger and more extensive, located towards the rear of the restaurant. A neutral color palette of black and white marble slate modernizes the space, which has a 180-seat capacity. Four- and two-tier tables are in the center, with six-tier wraparound booths on risers around the perimeter.
“It’s a lounge vibe,” Walker said, perfect for his vision of being a communal dining hotspot, with a menu centered around small plates.
Walker is hesitant to call the dishes “tapas” — “because we’re not Spanish,” he said — but instead wants to offer high-end, affordable cuisine. He works within the bounds of inflation, experienced both on the business side with rising food prices and with diners who may be limited by rising bills.
“Higher quality food, high quality ingredients, but without breaking the bank,” he described.
Prices range from $8 to $20 and portions are always healthy, he said.
“But you won’t get itis,” he said.
“Its” is chef lingo for being full – to the point of lethargy, something easily avoidable with small plates.
Encouraged to be shared with others, small-plate meals have grown in popularity over the past two decades, as they allow more freedom – on the wallet and the stomach – to eat as much or as little as one wants. without giving the impression that money or food is wasted. It’s also more forgiving for adventurous diners; individuals can sample an item that otherwise would not have been ordered if it was a larger portion or a singular meal.
Walker’s menu isn’t too original, although thoughtful in its selection. Classic shrimp and grits appear, a recipe he’s been keeping close to the waistcoat since working with Sean Brock, who ran Husk in Charleston a decade ago.
On the A daily hike to 22 North, Walker said he makes a stop at the seafood market, Motts Channel, located near the Wrightsville Beach drawbridge underpass.
“I know the people who fish there,” he said. “So in addition to the complexity and explosion of flavors there, it’s comforting to know where the food comes from.”
A five-cheese crab dip, firecracker shrimp and crab legs are on the menu, alongside a cola-braised rib dish served over polenta. It’s topped with roasted root vegetables and peppercorn demi-glace, and hats off to the days Walker spent working at Port City Chophouse, the Landfall steakhouse that closed earlier in the year.
“A long time ago, one of the things they made was sweet tea braised ossobuco,” he said.
Walker adapted it to include deep soy and Coca-Cola. “The carbonation of this acts like an acid, so I don’t have to add a crazy amount of wine,” he said. “And the sugars in it give it a little sweet pop with the salty base broth.”
A gourmet burger menu is also offered at 22 North. Offerings range from traditional to spicy, with “The Cowboy” featuring bacon, smoked gouda and fried jalapenos. An Asian-inspired Bulgogi features garlic, ginger, sesame, scallions, quick kimchi, and Thai chili aioli. Vegetarians will find a black bean alternative, and handhelds cost between $14 and $16.
“I would love, in the future, once the business starts rolling, to do burger flights on Wednesdays,” he said. “Bring them on a wooden slab, three or four burger sliders and try some crazy fun stuff.”
Apps, such as tuna poke tacos, and sides, like macaroni and cheese and smoked gouda, flesh out other offerings among a handful of salads.
A pastry chef who studied culinary arts at the Art Institute of Charleston, Walker cooks up three desserts: a berry cobbler, a chocolate cobbler and a banana cheesecake ($6 to $8). He has high hopes of starting to produce fresh bread, like Texan toast for grilled cheeses for kids and buns for burgers.
The menu will change seasonally and Walker offers more produce from local farmers. It will also add blackboard specials, which could include a random burger and fresh catch, he said. Brunch is also on the way.
22 North is open for dinner from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. It opens on Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m. for lunch.
After dinner service, the space transforms into a nightclub, with a DJ spinning tunes until 2 a.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, a late-night menu of mozzarella sticks, spring rolls, fries and “simpler food items” is served, Walker said. .
“So instead of having to leave and get a slice of pizza, you can have a beer, sit at the bar and have a basket of chicken at 1:30 in the morning. Why not?”
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