Friday, August 31, 2007

STILL WAITING FOR A MENU: Is the Cafe Phoenix the Worst Restaraunt in Wilmington, NC?-The short answer is yes

The long answer is yes -Almost twenty years ago, the Cafe Phoenix opened in Wilmington's (then) cuisine barren downtown. There were serious issues with crime, drugs and prostitution in Wilmington's downtown at that point (that have not completely gone away). There were a couple of decent places to go out in the (Chandler's Wharf complex which remains intact at its location near the riverfront was one such place). Mostly, people went downtown to drink and drink with a vengence as the bars downtown were traditionally rowdy (the gold standard for this was and is the Barbary Coast founded by legendary Wrestler/Lawman Buddy Best). More often than not, however, places such as the Pilot House (an elegant, but traditional place to dine in Downtown Wilmington dating from the late 70's that is still thriving) in Chandler's Wharf were the exception rather than the rule. Cafe Phoenix had much to do with changing this pattern. The restaraunt really brought what used to be called "Yuppie" cuisine into the forefront of dining in Wilmington using (then) newer ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes as a staple of their regular menu. The wine list was also sophisticated and the atmosphere was very pleasant with nice touches (olive oil with bread instead of butter!)

The success of this restaraunt spurred a kind of land rush to open upscale restaraunts, bars, coffee shops and the like. Places like Front St. News, DeLux, Cafe Atlantique, the Cape Fear Coffee and Tea Company, Crooks Corner, and Port City Java (see above) opened or had a boost in creativity and business as a result of Cafe Phoenix' example. Many of these places have closed (Crooks and Front St. News and Cafe Atlantique, (CA was often touted in the early 90's as "the most expensive restaraunt in Wilmington"and, therefore the best)have long ago closed usually due to poor, inexperienced management.

Cafe Phoenix
, however, lives on and it remains remarkably unchanged. The "look" of the place is nearly identical to the 1990 version with the same layout, color scheme and rotating art (the quality of which has always been uneven). The menu too remains similar, if not the same with the same salads, sandwiches as its 1990 incarnation-

Another aspect of this restaraunt has been its young, attractive waitstaff. Much of this has to do with the fact that Wilmington has a twenty five year legacy in the film and television producton business (One Tree Hill and Dawson's Creek are/were shot in and around Wilmington) This resulted in many young actors and actresses (who are typically a strikinng bunch) moving to Wilmington as a less stressful, less competitive alternative to moving to say LA or Manhattan. Many of these young hopefuls ended up being waiters/waitresses/bartenders waiting for their big break (which, as you may have guessed, never arrived for most). This group typically gravitated downtown because what passed for a creative center in Wilmington was located downtown at that point (the 17th St. studio was also located nearby as well). In the meantime, a certain sourness set in on the food and drink front in Wilmington as many restaraunts were rumored to hire or not hire waitstaff only because of their looks. This mindset, not unusual in Wilmington, postulates that good looks equals competency (or at least makes up for it).

The practice of this did not bode well for the long term prospects of satisfactory dining in Wilmington. And, on my recent trip to Wilmington this tradition apparently remains as I attempted to go to the Cafe Phoenix with family members for lunch. My group was the only one in the restaraunt and we sat and sat for almost 10 minutes without a glance our way. Two waiters shuffled around doing what appeared to be busywork, we tried to get the staff's attention, but they artfully avoided our attempts to make eye contact. We considered walking over to corral a waiter, or yelling across the restaraunt, but decided to attempt a graceful exit since the omens of a potentially bad dining experience were being clearly transmitted. At that point, we got some attention, but we simply went around the corner to the re-booted Dixie Grill, unwilling to forget the indignity of the shabby treatment.

It seems that a certain kind of apathy, if not rot has set in on the Cafe Phoenix. I did not even get to the menu which appeared to me to be at first glance pretty much unchanged since the 90's (and without anything resembling local or organic ingredients either). If I am wrong about this, forgive me as I did not have time to note the menu much or the food at all since I got neither the menu, nor, obviously, any food. I was "lucky" enough to read the menu in the entrance (I am assuming it was a current menu, perhaps they have forgotten to change the menu since that time?) The menu, the look and the staff needs to evolve or this restaruant, once vital will continue to see its cache erode and, possibly its clientelle go somewhere, anywhere else.

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I (Mark) have written for The Christian Science Monitor, Clear Magazine, Picture Magazine, Film Score Monthly, Dan's Papers, Rue Morgue, In Flight USA and a lot more publications that I can't remember.... My wife Lynn was a model with the Ford Agency and her photography has been featured in most of the publications I have written for...


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