A trip to North Carolina’s Wilmington and Beaches gives you the perfect excuse to feast. The region was named the “#1 Best Al Fresco Dining Neighborhood” in the USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards, after all, and Wilmington restaurants both in historic downtown as well as the nearby island beaches — Carolina, Kure, and Wrightsville — are plentiful and exquisite.

Expect to dine surrounded by nature, to get cozy with your dinner date, and to explore some truly exciting cuisine. No matter what type of food and drink you’re looking for, you can find it here.

1. Fresh-to-table Wilmington restaurants

Wilmington restaurants

Photo: Wilmington and Beaches

You won’t soon forget these fine-dining Wilmington and Beaches restaurants that take advantage of the region’s bounty, from fresh catch-of-the-day to just-ripe veggies, combined to create unique takes on Southern classics. Just remember to make a reservation!

Take your vacation celebrations downtown, starting with the James Beard-nodded Seabird and their spectacular Seasonal Seafood Tower (a feast unto itself). Add on the soft-shell crab or the crispy fried flounder — always locally caught — or keep it veg-friendly with the heirloom grains and sweet-corn-stuffed Cubanelle peppers piling up on their Vegan Plate. Pastry Chef Lydia Clopton’s desserts are a must, too.

Savorez blends local flavors with Latin flair — seared tuna tostadas, lobster ceviche, and vegan rellenos have consistently wowed diners. They also like to give Southern classics like shrimp and grits a Central American spin and show pork (a favorite ingredient here in North Carolina) some Latin love in dishes like tres cochinitos and carne con ancho.

Dine al fresco at Tarantelli’s Ristorante Italiano, where they fuse family recipes with local ingredients and fresh pasta to create meals worth moving here for. Their bright, fresh flavors in everything from seafood dishes (which feature local clams and shrimp, of course) to house-made pappardelle and mushrooms to veggie-packed plates of pasta and risotto are perfect with a bottle of wine and a table on the terrace.

At Rx Restaurant and Bar, the menu changes as farmers and anglers walk into the kitchen with what’s fresh; diners, on the other hand, should walk straight to the covered patio. Their okra fries (topped with locally harvested sea salt) and their smoked fish dip set the stage for entrees like sorghum-lacquered NC duck and the excellent catch-of-the-day.

The elegant patio and chic dining room at Port Land Grille reflect the attention to detail you’ll find on the plate at this spot. Working with sustainable farmers, ranchers, and fishers, they routinely deliver wood-grilled duck, steaks, lamb, and seafood dishes that will render you speechless — and only partly because you’re busy feasting.

In Wrightsville Beach, Oceanic Restaurant and South Beach Grill both know what they do best: bold seafood dishes in beautiful surroundings. The sea scallops at South Beach Grill get the five-star treatment, and the Grouper Linda — pecan-crusted grouper topped with crab and a decadent beurre blanc — has been a local highlight for going on two decades. Down the beach a few blocks, Oceanic stands with its feet in the sand and a slew of dining tables perched over the waves on its pier-turned-patio. Crab cakes, scallops, and their take on the Calabash-style seafood North Carolina’s famous for are the focus of this menu.

2. Noteworthy noshes

Food fans take note: Wilmington restaurants and their chefs have a lot of tricks up their sleeves. Practically wherever you turn, there’s a surprising and tasty bite to be had. Put these spots on your list.

The Green House Restaurant, Wilmington’s only fine-dining vegetarian restaurant, has earned a reputation for uncategorical greatness. Vegan cheeses and plant-based pâtés get the meal started, and hearty entrees like roasted artichoke with walnut pesto and their medley of seasonal veggies served over smoked grits are turning devoted omnivores to the veggie side with each bite.

Then there’s the Thai-focused, pan-Asian cuisine at Indochine, which transforms each table into its own feast. The dining room decor is reminiscent of Southeast Asia, but grab a table outside where gardens and pagoda-like structures make for a setting like none other in town.

When you visit Smoke on the Water, snag a seat on the deck and watch the Cape Fear River flow by. In dishes like the fried oyster po’boy, you’ll find a Carolina-meets-Gulf Coast masterpiece, while the brisket sandwich showcases the best of Lone Star-style barbecue (a bold move in North Carolina).

Downtown, the seafood at Circa 1922 gets the white tablecloth treatment, and dishes like their seafood paella, seared sea scallops, and butter-poached halibut are neighborhood classics. If sampling small plates is your thing, you can dine on local veggies, charred octopus, crispy calamari, or even the foodie favorite: roasted bone marrow.

Set within a renovated Craftsman-style home in Wilmington’s South Front District, Mariposa Tapas Bar serves Spanish tapas both inside and on their exquisite wraparound porch. Relax at your table at sunset and watch folks strolling by as you dig into shareable plates highlighting local shrimp, marinated Spanish olives, pork cheeks with piquillo peppers, and albondigas (classic Spanish meatballs).

And speaking of sunsets, they don’t get much better than on the expansive deck at The George on the Riverwalk. Dive into their menu of seasonal “Southern Coastal Cuisine” as you gaze out over the Cape Fear River and further on to the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA. Bonus: There’s a pet-friendly deck as well, so you can bring along the dog to enjoy the experience with you.

3. Diners, drive-ins, and dives

Can you even claim to have a food scene if Guy Fieri hasn’t shown up and filmed a segment or two in your town? He’s been to Wilmington restaurants a few times — here’s where and why.

Guy Fieri stopped by The Fork n Cork — a burger joint with locations in downtown Wilmington and Carolina Beach — for confit duck wings and Beef Wellington bites, two dishes done outrageously well. There are a dozen burgers also on the menu, and you can choose a range of toppings from tasty (bacon jam) to surprising and tasty (peanut butter), and options from brisket and the traditional beef burger to duck, lamb, and veggie burgers.

Locals love Sweet n Savory Cafe for every meal. Their big four-egg omelets and killer breakfast sandwiches (made with bread from their bakery) are total crowd pleasers. At lunch, they serve a bevy of sandwiches and comfort-food classics; for dinner, they dish up local flavors with international inspiration. Caribbean jerk steak, country-fried pork chops, seafood waterzooi (that’s Flemish), and mussels and frites are just some of the items you’ll be tempted by.

Home to some of the best pub grub in town, The Copper Penny served Fieri two favorites — the 109 Chestnut Chicken Sandwich and the true-to-Philly Hot Roast Pork Sandwich — to rave reviews. You should try them yourself.

Near Wrightsville Beach, Ceviche’s blends notes of Panamanian, Caribbean, and Central American cuisines with local ingredients. As the name implies, the ceviche is exceptional, but so is the Panamanian paella, the corvina a la plancha, the blackened scallops and pork belly, and any fish taco they have on the menu or on special.

With Southern California-inspired tacos and a distinct skater vibe, Nollie’s Taco Joint serves tacos, burritos, salads, and more. Marinated jackfruit, chili-lime tofu, and killer black bean tacos give veggie proteins center stage; skirt steak, locally caught fish and shrimp, and chicken hit those classic SoCal notes.

4. Island-style eats

Wilmington has a lovely downtown, but it’s also flanked by some absolutely gorgeous beaches. Head to the restaurants on the coast for distinctive island-cuisine flavors.

In Kure Beach, you’ll find Jack Mackerel’s Island Grill, a Caribbean-influenced seafood and steak joint with a second-floor outdoor deck. Sit up top and enjoy the breeze and views along with platters of broiled or fried seafood, salmon with mango crab butter, or a salad topped with seared tuna.

Using local ingredients and the freshest catch to create a menu inspired by the Caribbean and Polynesia, Salt Fish Restaurant in Carolina Beach delivers exceptional meals day and night. Fresh catch with coconut rice, seafood tom kha, Saigon noodles, and sweet-and-spicy shrimp salad are some of what you can expect to enjoy here.

Sitting on the deck at Havana’s, the people watching come gratis with dinner. Their seafood-focused menu features ceviche, Hawaiian-inspired tuna poke, fried seafood platters, and steaks. Go for their niçoise salad topped with tuna, some Cajun shrimp skewers, that exceptional ceviche, or settle in for their filet and smashed potatoes (a hit in every season).

In Wrightsville Beach, Poe’s Tavern offers up a huge outdoor patio and airy interior, the perfect place to enjoy a pint of craft beer and one of their creative burgers. Go for a classic all-beef burger like the Tell-Tale Heart (with a fried egg and cheese) or something like the Annabel Lee (a crab cake burger), and you’ll find a bite as inventive as it is tasty.

Shark Bar and Kitchen dishes up seafood tacos, sandwiches, wraps, and raw bar items only steps from the shore at Wrightsville Beach. Their blackened shrimp tacos, crab cake sandwiches, tuna poke, and seafood tower have quickly become pre- and post-beach faves.

5. Drinks with a view

Wilmington restaurants

Photo: Wilmington and Beaches

Between Wilmington restaurants and bars and those located on the nearby beaches, we’ve got more places with fantastic views than we can name. Here are just a few you should check out.

At Cloud 9, perched atop the Embassy Suites, you’ll have views of the Cape Fear River and two Wilmington icons: the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA and the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Nearby, aView, the rooftop bar of Aloft Wilmington, is a winner with tapas on offer and a slate of wine, beer, and sparkly cocktails that matches the skyline and the Cape Fear River flowing by.

Marina Grill gives you views of the busy Port City Marina, where pleasure boats, sailing craft, and yachts sit bobbing on the water. A full menu will keep you fed, and their bar — and its wall full of taps — will keep your thirst at bay.

Down in Carolina Beach, Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar delivers big ocean views in their dining rooms, on their patio, and at their tiki bar. The seasonal live music, sea breeze, and their selection of local drinks dress their flavorful dishes up to the nines. There’s also Hurricane Alley’s on the Carolina Beach Boardwalk, perfect for watching the waves roll in while you work your way through a sampling of local beer or explore their cocktail menu sip by sip.

6. Foodie tours and festivals

For foodies who fancy going deeper, you’ll find plenty of tours and festivals to keep you eating and drinking in Wilmington and Beaches, especially come autumn.

Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours are part tasting tour, part farmers market tour, and part cooking class with a local chef. You’ll sample something sweet or savory at five or six Wilmington restaurants and get to meet the chefs and owners behind the dishes. Meanwhile, in Carolina Beach, Tasting History Tours blend the flavors of the beach community with the history found there and at neighboring Fort Fisher. With them, you’ll be served bites from several restaurants and get to hear stories of how this region grew into what it is today.

Lighthouse Beer & Wine hosts a pair of festivals at the end of each October focused on the sudsy stuff: The Voracious & Rare Beer Festival brings hundreds of beer fans to Wilmington for one night to geek out about, discuss, and taste scores of rare beers and hard-to-find bottles. The Lighthouse Beer & Wine Festival, happening the same weekend, raises money for a local cause and brings 40+ breweries together to pour for the thirsty crowds. There’s live music, amazing food from local chefs and food trucks, and more to taste in one day than you’ll believe.

If you miss these, know that the Carolina Beach Wine & Beer Walk returns in November. This afternoon event will set you off with a map and a tasting glass, letting you explore the libations at several Carolina Beach restaurants. A good chance to get a peek at area favorites, it’s a fun event for locals and visitors alike.

Also in November, the third annual Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival returns to Wilmington. This one-day fest features whole-hog barbecue from legendary pitmaster Bill Eason, more than 40 bourbons to sample, a local-brews-only beer garden, music, a cornhole tournament, tasting seminars from master distillers, and more. The same month also sees Taste of Wrightsville Beach, a one-day event where you’ll be stunned by the array of flavors on hand — expect more than 40 booths pouring and plating fresh samples.

And remember: Any time you’re thinking of heading to Wilmington, take a peek at the events calendar at Wilmington and Beaches. It’ll have the most up-to-date information on what’s going on around town, making it easy to plan your perfect foodie getaway.