The guide to eating in or dining out on the Piedmont lakes. The establishments listed here have water access on site or very nearby. Or we really, really like what they're sellin'!
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Try one or all of these waterfront or water-access restaurants next time you're, you know, hungry ...
River Wild! : Good Eats on Lake Tillery
“Gail, an expert at white-water rafting, takes her family on a trip down a river …” Oops. That’s the storyline for a 1994 Meryl Streep-Kevin Bacon film. What I need to tell you about is that new place on Lake Tillery called “River Wild.”
Unlike the movie where the river turns into a raging torrent threatening the lives of the entire cast of characters, beautiful Tillery is that quiet impoundment in Montgomery and Stanly counties where the Yadkin River magically morphs into the PeeDee, before running into four other rivers at Georgetown SC. Isn’t it funny how things are interconnected? It’s all very eastern, really.
But Tillery is more than that. More than a mere impoundment. Oh sure, it’s the source of drinking water for a whole raft of people, and the power company – this week, it’s Duke Energy – uses that water to turn the turbines inside the Tillery Dam, which generate electricity for folks all over south-central North Carolina.
And more. It’s a recreational paradise surrounded by bucolic countryside, where you still see grazing livestock and fields of waving grain. And houses. There are lots of houses of every description. It’s such a blend of people that you get that melting-pot feel the entire country had at one time. Or at least I thought it did. The country, I mean. Silly me. But the people here are, really are, nice. Friendly. The pace is some slower, probably a product of the preponderance of authentic southerners, and far more civilized than other enclaves in our region.
Part of that civilization is really good food, of course. And there are places, though fewer in number than, again, other parts of the region. But good. Very good. I suggest Lefler’s over on Highway 73, which has been around since the early years of the last century for a reason. But I want to tell you about River Wild. The new restaurant in Mt. Gilead. On Lake Tillery.
The Pimento Burger. I think it’s my favorite of the burgers, and it seems a good portion of other recent diners feel the same way. The house-made pimento cheese does it, you understand. There’s always a little twist, the mark of a good and creative chef, which makes menu items that may seem ordinary just stand out.
And then there’s the Bison Burger. The fully engaged I’ve spoken with endorse it with enthusiasm. It’s not something I’ve yet ordered, but it is on my list to try. And soon. The last evening I was there was a Saturday, with the usual waiting list for a table. I easily found a seat at the bar (I’m just glad I didn’t get the “table for one” announcement. These people are very caring.) and enjoyed the Flat Iron Steak with grilled asparagus and parmesan-crusted green beans.
I asked, as is my habit, for salt and pepper, but neither was required. That wonderful cut, precise grilling to medium rare, paired with perfect seasoning demanded nothing more. Except for the Mich Ultra. A nice red, like a Gundlach Bundschu Cabernet, for instance, would have been good, but I do have a budget. Did I say they have a full bar? They do. No Gundlach Bundschu, but probably whatever else you’d want. And friendly (see the theme developing) bartenders and wait-staff. It was a more than pleasant experience.
"Other items?" you ask. The Shrimp Tacos are popular, as are the Short Ribs. There’s Flounder and Shrimp & Grits, too. Next visit, though, the fried Mac & Cheese Bites are on my list. Did I say they have oysters? Yes, they do.
And ambiance. There’s that as well. The place is new, so it sparkles, and I have no doubt that will continue. It’s comfortable with lots of wood and natural finishes. The horn-like lamps on the bar are interesting and provide not only light, but a conversation starter, too, should you need one.
Remember the melting pot of people I mentioned before? They’re all going to be there, so be prepared for a short wait, especially if the weather is good. Good thing the marina – the one just downstairs, you know, where you left your boat – has free carpet golf and a huge sandbox to keep your kids entertained. And I won’t say a word if you decide to pick up that bucket and shovel to play in the sand yourself.
But seating is not a problem. There’s an efficient layout inside to accommodate a large crowd, and at least as much on the covered deck outside. As well as plenty of space around the fire pit for those chilly evenings a long way off just now. Oh, and live music.
Chris and Amber Solomon are the force behind this fine addition to the culinary scene in this rural part of the Old North State. They began in the business more than 25 year ago, so have honed the skills and hospitality on display at River Wild. Most recently, the couple ran a food truck, River Wild on Wheels, which continues to operate, offering catering and event services.
But the menu. There are the usual categories, with items you’d expect at a waterfront restaurant. Burgers and wraps and tacos. Salads and appetizers. And a surprising list of larger entrees, like that Flat Iron Steak. There are way too many to list here, but you can see a menu on-line at www.RiverWildNC.com or, better yet, make the drive to Mt. Gilead and see for yourself. Get the Bison Chili and Beer Cheese Nachos. You’re welcome.
And that movie. Remember that movie? The River Wild? The tag line the production company used in its promotions was: “The Vacation is Over.” No so fast, Mr. PR man. The vacation has just begun, and it’s holding court on the deck overlooking Lake Tillery from atop Lilly’s Bridge Marina.