When the owners of Blue Surf Café decided to expand to another location, they wanted it to reflect an evolution into a more full-service restaurant and an elevated experience.
The result of those efforts – Blue Surf Arboretum West – envelops guests from the moment they open the door.
Coastal comfort and relaxing ease are the obvious modus operandi of the restaurant. The cool blues and soothing whites provide an elegance to the space, but the atmosphere calls guests to take a deep breath and relax into the soothing feel.
Colleen Kochanek and her business partner, Stephanie Norris, have owned Blue Surf Café on Racine Drive since 2013 and have enjoyed the “super casual and comfy space with a great vibe” but knew that they could have a greater reach for those who may want more than just counter service.
Originally looking at building a new place downtown, Kochanek said that once Arboretum West developers Tribute Properties showed them the plans for the space, they decided to make it happen there.
“It feels like a whole different world than Racine,” Kochanek said about the new location off Military Cutoff Road north of Mayfaire Town Center. “We’re so happy we did it. There are not very many places along here.”
Officially opened July 6, the new restaurant is like the cool, more sophisticated older sibling to Blue Surf’s more informal college hangout near the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“We wanted a full bar and table service. We just wanted a more elevated experience from the cafe,” Kochanek said. “We wanted a bigger outdoor area since we love sitting outside.”
The outdoors is the focal point of the restaurant. Inside seating for 85 guests easily connects to the large outdoor space, nearly 2,400 square feet, anchored by a behemoth fireplace to keep diners warm in the coldest months
Using spaces in big cities like New York as inspiration, Kochanek channeled “the ingenious ways to make space bigger, and we wanted to do something like that.”
“Garage door” windows roll up to connect the indoor and outdoor bars and make the space flow seamlessly. Outside planters on casters allow for fluid changes of spaces for groups and meetings.
The large scale of the fireplace centerpiece changed the necessary selections of televisions and furniture sizes to fit the space appropriately.
Kochanek expects to serve regulars from their neighbors at the Arboretum West apartments and Arboretum Village townhomes, as well as guests from nearby Landfall and Middle Sound areas.
“It’s going to be a fun crowd,” Kochanek said.
Local artisans were employed as often as possible in the restaurant’s design. White concrete bar and tabletops with flecks of sea glass were crafted by a local designer, giving it both an urban and coastal vibe. Metalwork around the bar, including a hanging “cage” for liquor storage, continues that vibe. At night, the light catches the bottles through the metal meshwork above to create a spectrum of colors across the bar.
“Wilmington is a tight community, in a way, and I want to support local business if I can because I am a local business,” Kochanek said.
Blue Surf Café’s longtime chef, Jon Webb, took the helm at Arboretum West. Webb has had his “core team from the cafe and a strong succession plan” to establish the new kitchen and allow the existing location to continue to run smoothly. The new menu includes a few cafe favorites, as well as some new selections that will continue to be finalized.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Kochanek explained. “We have a great menu, but we may keep it on paper for a while to make sure we don’t have a dud on there and allow us to play with it a little bit.”
The bar is set with Wes Miles as the head bartender who uses his N.C. State University chemistry degree and seven years’ experience in Los Angeles to create refreshing concoctions using fresh juices and syrups.
Kochanek also was adamant that the new restaurant have a pastry chef, and her nameis Katie George.
“I love dessert. I wanted to have a chocolate cake and not just any basic chocolate cake, and Katie made it happen,” Kochanek said.
The process of opening a new restaurant during a pandemic has been challenging, especially in regard to supply issues and delays, as well as staffing availability.
“We have had staffing issues just like everybody else. We are in better shape with our servers and bartenders, but we need more kitchen help, so for now, we are going to dinner only for a week or so, and then hopefully, we’ll add lunch,” Kochanek said before the restaurant’s launch. “We need support staff around them [kitchen staff]. They work so hard and put so much effort in all the time, and then it’s tough when you can’t find people to relieve them.”
Kitchen equipment and construction supplies were often difficult to obtain, making completing the restaurant challenging.
Despite setbacks and delays, Kochanek is excited to share Blue Surf Arboretum West with Wilmington residents who crave a place to sit back, relax and have a good meal.
“I think we found that sweet spot. It is a casual, coastal feel but a step up. It is hard to marry the two,” Kochanek said. “The price point is good; don’t expect $100 meals, but you can expect to have a really good meal and just have a really nice evening.”