To be sitting waterfront at sunset is one of coastal North Carolina life’s most precious moments. Friends make the view even more delightful, especially when they’re gathered around a crackling fire enjoying craft beer or cocktails and thinking smoked ribs for dinner. This is nightly scene at Smoke on the Water, a new restaurant tucked into a quiet cove of Cape Fear River.
Chef/owner James Smith is one of Wilmington’s most well-known cooks. Smith became famous for the juicy burgers and hand-cut fries he served on his Patty Wagon food truck. That led to his downtown restaurant Fork ’n’ Cork, where the burgers and more of Smith’s comfort food with a twist is served alongside great wines. Smoke on the Water extends Smith’s knack for comfort food with just enough flair. “It’s about food that people what to eat and come back for,” he said.
“Smoke” alludes to wood-fired meats, whether apple cider-brined ribs smoked over apple wood or brisket the Texan rubs with his own black peppery, brown sugar spice blend and smokes over hickory and mesquite for 14 hours.
But “smoke” some days refers to the misty haze that shrouds Cape Fear River some mornings. It’s a view commercial fishermen know all too well. That scene in mind, Smith offers steam pots full of jumbo N.C. shrimp or mixed seafood. Get oysters on the half-shell, a fried seafood platter or blackened shrimp tacos with smoked tomatillo salsa and avocado lime crema.
Smoke on the Water feels like a riverfront home. Sip cocktails on Adirondack-style chairs that furnish the huge wrap-around porch. Eat at tables outside or choose the enclosed patio on chilly evenings. The huge central indoor bar feels like one big outdoor gathering in spring and summer, when the weather warms enough to open garage doors. Arrive early, sip a drink, share a plate of tasso-wrapped shrimp “corndogs” and settle in to beat the crowds due at sunset.
Smoke on the Water is open 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations are accepted, and they’re recommended for sunset seatings.