Savor: Out-of-this-world Atmosphere

BY Kevin C. ODonovan

Atmosphere defines a restaurant and dictates the dining experience of the diner but there’s no single recipe that guarantees an exquisite experience every time. In the coastal area where there are so many choices in dining with atmospheres described as everything from “stuffy” to “lunar ” successful eateries find the right combination to put them over the top.

Michael Collazo chief designer of the seven-month-old Nicola’s on Oleander Drive has his own theory.

“You have to have three things — comfort level service and the food ” Collazo says. “And you have to maintain that standard all the way down the line.”

Collazo says his goal in designing a restaurant’s atmosphere is creating something that is only going to exist one time in the universe. Each design is limited to one application making each restaurant a destination in itself. 

As colorful as the Carolina Coast it calls home Nicola’s is bursting with bright oranges yellows and blues dominating the windows and walls sobered slightly by the dark wood of the more masculine bar area. Curved handcrafted floating lighting units cast a soft light on a mix of intimate tables and suede-backed booths.

The blending of innovative design bold use of color and strategic lighting gives Nicola’s an atmosphere not found at any other area eatery; imaginative and playful yet serious about the dining experience.

Sometimes the perfect atmosphere comes naturally as with Airlie Road’s Dockside Restaurant and Marina. Perched on the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway passing through the door of venerable Dockside propels you into another world including arguably the best view in the area.

Rustic tables chairs shady umbrellas and cooling breezes off the water provide the background. The attached marina produces a procession of salt-sprayed sunglasses sunny faces and hungry boaters coming to while away a lazy afternoon. The Dockside nearly forces a diner to lean back relax and admire the real star of the show the expansive view of the Intracoastal Waterway and Wrightsville beyond while enjoying what Dockside rightly describes as “the best of coastal Carolina culture and tradition.”

Dockside has survived multiple hurricanes and a recent change in ownership with its usual casual aplomb. Pair all this with some of the area’s best fried seafood and you’ve got an atmosphere that’s hard to beat. As new owner Lionel Yow says “I want Dockside to continue its tradition as the place to be relaxing with friends celebrating with family or making new friends and enjoying the best of life away from our workaday world.”

Any talk of atmospheric restaurants in the area would be severely lacking without mention of serial restaurateur Ash Aziz’s downtown flagship Circa 1922. Circa the first restaurant to bring tapas-style eating to Wilmington also brought with it an unusual concoction of concepts.

Circa’s interior combines dark woods period lighting exposed brick and paintings by artist Edward Hopper to complete the illusion of a Roaring ’20s speak-easy. This flapper-esque aura coupled with a menu that allows your choice of countless combinations from different dining traditions creates a truly unique experience.
In the tapas tradition of pairing many smaller differing dishes and flavors to create a larger whole Aziz proves that it’s possible to have sushi without traditional Japanese décor to have duck pastrami and filet mignon in the same meal and to have the all the elements of his vision come together in a singular experience.

“We want folks to come in enjoy the food and not feel confined to traditional eating — salad-entree-dessert ” says Circa manager Matt Noller. “You choose. You can eat in rounds paired with wine or order as you go along. There are no rules.”

From downtown to midtown to on the beach our area provides many choices for fine dining but these three have that special kind of atmosphere that keeps diners coming back for more season after season year after year.