Back to Basics
Longtime restauranter expands her footprint
Wilmington downtown restaurant The Basics is really anything but its namesake.
Owner MARY LONG offers Southern fare such as biscuits and gravy, smoke-cooked pork, and fried green tomatoes, but with her own added gourmet twist.
Entrées are familiar but not ordinary.
Country fried chicken is smothered in Cholula hot sauce and white pepper gravy, while fried catfish is topped with roasted red pepper chow chow relish.
This month Long celebrates The Basics’ fifteenth anniversary in business. She is planning an open house to celebrate the special milestone for all her regular customers and neighbors.
The seasoned restaurateur has successfully brought her “grandmother’s cooking” to the city and converted those who questioned whether she was serving true Wilmington crab cakes in the beginning.
“I had to earn trust being the new kid on the block,” she remembers. “It took some time to convince customers to try a new hybrid of cooking that reminded one of comfort but is a little different, a little healthier.”
Long is taking the concept of healthier even further with her recently opened Plan B, located in a courtyard behind The Basics, 319 North Front Street. The intimate setting fits well for fresher and lighter snacks or sipping coffee, a clear change in direction from the hardier fare and fuller meals of The Basics. Plan B’s menu offers vegan options, fruit and cheese, charcuterie, and rotating daily specials of small salads and dips.
With the obvious new growth happening downtown, Long is hoping to provide quick, convenient options for those on the move.
“We are packaging a lot of our menu items as pick up for those taking a short lunch break or an easy dinner option for folks venturing out for the night,” she says.
The North Carolina native grew up around two talented grandmothers and a mom “who were really good cooks” and whose recipes serve as inspiration for The Basics’ menu.
The Brunswick stew recipe is “an old family recipe that we have been cooking for generations,” she says.
The menu is what she refers to as “an organic outgrowth” of all of her experiences, both personally and professionally plus a reflection of her own tastes. “It represents how I like to eat,” she says, “homemade salad dressings, fresh produce, slow roasted meats and barbeque, healthier soups.”
Long entered the hospitality industry not expecting it to become her career.
“It was a way to put myself through college,” she says.
Working various stints in restaurants before owning her own businesses was her normal at the time.
“I worked at a place in Chapel Hill called Spring Garden Bar and Grill,” she says.
While in graduate school at the University of Georgia in Athens, she worked in and owned two restaurants. Initially working towards a master’s degree in English, Long realized the academic world would not be stimulating enough for her. “I think the fast pace and the challenges of working in the hospitality industry always were a pull for me,” she says. “I knew I could never sit still long enough to be behind a desk or in a library full time.”
Long admits, however, the English degree comes in handy when writing menus.
There was always a calling to head back to North Carolina. Wilmington, a spot she used to visit on family vacations, was a natural choice.
“I have always loved the laid-back coastal vibe here,” she says. But starting a new restaurant in a new city was daunting. “I knew that opening a new restaurant in a city where I had no previous relations or experience was going to be the litmus test of my whole career,” she recalls.
Located at The Cotton Exchange, The Basics has Long’s touch written all over it inspired by her history working in downtown restaurants or in small neighborhood areas. The idea for her Wilmington restaurant came easily.
“The concept was a combination of two restaurants where I had worked in Georgia – one a very casual counter café and the other a casual fine dining spot that incorporated new flavors and techniques to traditional Southern cuisine,” she says. “I loved both types of restaurants and wanted the best of both worlds.”
The Basics delivers on that premise by offering different things to different diners: comfort food, fast casual, grab-a-bite before-class spot, or business lunch location.
Long achieved her goal, however, but has adapted to one big difference after moving to Wilmington.
“I was used to landlocked restaurants,” she says. “Learning how to work with such an abundance of fresh seafood was such a wonderful challenge.”
To view more of photographer Megan Deitz’s work, go to megandeitz.com.
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