A tale of two restaurants

On our recent vacation in the Wilmington area, we ate out several times. We hit favorites like Front Street Brewery in downtown Wilmington and HarborMasters in Carolina Beach – both truly excellent establishments, consistent in both food and service. We also hit up a couple of new-to-us restaurants, and it’s those I want to talk about here.

The first was Big Daddy’s, a Kure Beach icon. It’s been in business there for four generations, and used to have a great reputation for both food and service. I sure hope the current generation can turn it around, because it sure doesn’t look good.

The second was Atlantic Seafood in Southport. They’ve only been open a few years, but goshgolly someone’s doing something right there. We actually ended up eating at Atlantic because of our experience with Big Daddy’s – Ken still wanted some good seafood and he got it!

Like most vacationers, we were looking to get the most bang for our buck. We also wanted some great seafood (it being the beach and all). So our first day there, we went to Big Daddy’s. It was surprisingly not busy, for a holiday week at the beach. They said it was because most folks were up at Carolina Beach for the fireworks. I don’t know about that, given that the other restaurants on that block were all quite busy. (It remained that way for the rest of the week, too – every time we drove by, we noted the number of cars and customers there and across the street. Sad.) We asked to sit outside but were told it would be a long wait – not because there were no tables open, but because there were only two waitresses out there (there were waitresses standing around inside twiddling their thumbs, one even asked if she could go home).

It is not an inexpensive restaurant and we wanted to see if we could do an appetizer and share the biggest combo plate, then split a dessert. Ken asked the waitress (a most unhappy person) how big the portions were and she said, “They’re HUGE! Plenty of food for two.”

First we ordered the crab dip with toast points. It was … okay. Just … okay. Needed salt. I’ve made better at home from recipes I found on the internet. But it was okay.

Then the waitress (still sad and unhappy) brought our meal. It was definitely NOT okay. We had ordered the $20 seafood combo platter… flounder, shrimp, and oysters, with french fries. There was a handful of greasy fries buried beneath a small piece of fish, six shrimp, three oysters… it was barely bigger than a child’s plate. In fact, we asked each other if they’d made a mistake. The nervous-looking manager came over, asked us if we had a problem… um, yes sir, we do. Back home we pay half as much for twice this much food… and this isn’t even local-caught/fresh. “Oh no, I can’t do that, but I’ll bring you some more shrimp” and he practically ran away. He did, a few minutes later, bring us a few more shrimp.  The taste of the food was barely acceptable… the portion was barely enough for one…maybe if we’d gotten the seafood at Long John Silver’s or something, it would have met our expectation. Needless to say, we didn’t bother ordering a dessert, and we didn’t need to ask why all the waitstaff was so unhappy. Almost $50 spent, and we actually went back to Mom’s and got a snack because we were still hungry.
A few days later, we ate at Atlantic Seafood.  The first thing we noticed is that every employee seemed genuinely happy to be there… even the guys cleaning tables. Our waiter, Ryan, was friendly and personable. On a whim, we decided to do exactly the same thing that we’d done at Big Daddy’s – crab dip and seafood platter.

The crab dip was truly excellent. I mean TRULY excellent. I’m not sure what spice they put in it, but as a connoisseur of fine crab dip at many restaurants, I’d call this among the best I’ve ever had. And there was a lot of it, too. I like that in a crab dip.

Then our waiter brought our food – now this is more like it. An enormous piece of flounder with lots of shrimp, oysters, scallops, and french fries. Essentially the same meal we got at Big Daddy’s – but more than enough food, and delicious (the oysters were perfect! and the flounder was incredible.) We brought home enough for Ken’s lunch yesterday… so really, three servings and we were stuffed. At – get this – the same price. So Big Daddy’s can’t do enough food for one person at that price, but Atlantic feeds three? Amazing.  Then Ryan offered us desserts that looked so good I wanted to cry because there was no way I could eat another bite.

So there you go – a tale of two restaurants. Next time we’re in Wilmington, we’ll either take the ferry or drive all the way over to Southport to eat…yes, it’s worth the drive!

And we do hope that Big Daddy’s can recover from whatever has sent them into this tailspin. Ken has googled restaurant reviews for them and it seems their food and service are consistently bad. We’d be willing to try them again if they clean up their act. We’d even be willing to go and do some consulting to help them. Or maybe call Robert Irvine?

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