June 27, 2001 – Greensboro News & Record
By Tom Steadman, Staff Writer
Wilmington Ð In recent years, they were practically Greensboro fixtures.
Anne Steketee had spent a dozen years making diners comfortable and crafting the wine list at Southern Lights restaurant, where she served as general manager. A few miles away, at Noble’s Battleground Avenue restaurant, chef extraordinaire Shawn Wellersdick was pleasing the palates of the area’s more upscale diners with creative preparations of duck, tuna, vegetables and other dishes. In fact, Wellersdick’s creations were the backbone of that restaurant’s original menu.
Many area residents thought things couldn’t get much better.
Then they did, at least for those locals who frequent the North Carolina coast. Steketee and Wellersdick married and moved to Wilmington, where they’ve opened their own fine-dining restaurant along the causeway to Wrightsville Beach.
“We really didn’t want to leave Greensboro,” Steketee says. “We had lots of friends there. But we still see a lot of them because they come to the beach here.”
In fact, the Port Land Grille is just on the mainland, but it is so close to Wrightsville Beach that Wilmington’s famous old drawbridge is within sight of the restaurant.
Port Land Grille they named it because Steketee and Wellersdick had long been enchanted with the Pacific Northwest, particularly the lifestyle in Portland, Ore. In fact, they had dreamed of opening a restaurant there. But when they visited Portland a year ago to scout out things, they found the city too big and too expensive for starting a business.
They already had moved to Wilmington, where they had helped to open the upscale Under Current restaurant downtown as part of an ownership group. But that partnership fizzled. So instead of moving cross-country to Portland or across the state to Charlotte (another location they had considered), they decided to stay put and open the restaurant of their dreams.
“We realized how much we really like things here,” Steketee says. “We just really love the people. They didn’t want us to leave town. We had customers trying to find restaurant locations for us.”
Location is not a problem these days. The Port Land Grille is in Lumina Station, named for the Lumina, a famous pavilion that drew crowds to Wrightsville Beach for 68 years. The new Lumina is an upscale blend of shops, restaurants and offices, built in a retro style that features big porches and rocking chairs, set amid lush landscaping.
The restaurant itself is a pleasant blend of understated elegance, decorated by Steketee in soft, solid colors. Vintage photographs from Wilmington’s past line the walls. The couple have assembled an able staff of servers, assistant cooks and other employees around them, including Al LaChance, who spent nearly 15 years bartending at Noble’s restaurants before moving recently to Wrightsville Beach, where he lives on his sailboat.
“A lot of regulars from Noble’s come in here,” says LaChance. “They say that this place is similar, but everything’s a step up.”
Steketee’s offering of top American wines is a popular draw. But make no mistake. It’s Wellersdick’s cooking that has customers lined up outside for up to two hours on Saturday nights. So what if dinner checks can run into three digits?
News & Record food critic John Batchelor raved over the new restaurant, awarding 4 1/2 stars of a possible five and saying it was worth a drive to Wilmington just to eat there.
For starters, how about some lightly smoke shrimp and lobster tail over creamy sweet potato, then maybe pan-fried sweetbreads, followed by prime beef tenderloin, followed up by chocolate truffle torte for dessert? Or just taste what Wellersdick can do for duck or tuna.
“My main focus is on taste,” says Wellersdick, who came to Greensboro in the early Ô90s after graduating at the top of his class at Johnson & Wales University’s famous culinary arts school in Rhode Island. He began a long career with Jim Noble, the renowned Greensboro chef who parlayed his talent into a string of successful area restaurants carrying his name.
In the kitchen, Wellersdick is a blur of motion in a white apron, checking entrees in the ovens, whipping up sauces, turning meat on a woof-fire grill with plumes of hickory-scented smoke rising to the ceiling.
“He’s just a ball of fire in the kitchen,” Steketee says. “He never slows down.”
True enough. Though they’ve been operating a restaurant near Wrightsville Beach since November, the couple rarely get to the beach just down the road. On the rare days they aren’t working at the restaurant, they spend time with their 4-year-old son, Logan. On workdays, Steketee’s mother, Fran, keeps Logan.
“We’ll get down to the beach some day,” Wellersdick promises. But not right now. He’s got to get back to the kitchen.