Bobby Zimmerman has been thinking about opening his own restaurant for years. He even contemplated concepts that would work in different areas of Wilmington. When the former Pembroke’s space opened in The Forum, he had what he believes is the perfect idea, one that combines community with a love and knowledge of good food.
“I thought it was the right fit for this area,” he said. “We are going to be a great neighbor and share this information we have.”
The hybrid restaurant and butcher shop, which he anticipated opening in January, had many specifics in place before it had a name. True Blue Butcher & Table came to him only a few months ago, and it seemed to express the sense of excitement and trustworthiness he wanted to convey for this mix of carefully curated gourmet products and menu that blends traditional French with modern American.
Instead of being intimidated by the eateries that have come and gone in that space, Zimmerman said he has just tried to think of the best way to capitalize on The Forum’s traffic flow. His answer to that is to make True Blue a destination for foodie needs throughout the day and the week.
Breakfast and lunch will be available at the butcher counter during the week. In addition to ribeyes, country hams, Japanese Wagyu beef and charcuterie cut to order, the space will also have other retail goods from Charlotte-made honey to a line of spice blends formulated for True Blue with the help of Asheville-based Spicewalla. For each, he wants to be able to tell buyers the details behind the products, like the date the olives were picked for a limited-production oil from Spain.
“We want to share these stories,” he said.
True Blue aims to get a fun and social atmosphere going with a menu of cocktails created by Wilmington’s Joel Finsel and a raw bar menu that includes East and West Coast oysters. Wednesdays through Sundays, the raw bar selections will be half-priced 4-6 p.m.
“We want to start the party right,” he said. “Let’s be social. Let’s have fun.”
On Sundays, look for brunch in addition to breakfast and a simplified family-style menu for supper in the evening, with choices of fried chicken, steak dinner or fish fry with all the fixings. Zimmerman sees True Blue as a place where people can stop in for a bite to eat, to-go items or goods to prepare at home. From Wednesday to Saturday, the dinner menu will include snacks, charcuterie plates and entrees from burgers and house-made pastas to dishes featuring specialty meats, such as North Carolina-made Lady Edison pork.
“We really want to reflect how people eat now,” he said. “If you want to come in for a snack or shared plates we can do that. Or if you want to have a full dinner.”
Some of the dishes Zimmerman is excited about are the bowl of breakfast (with grits or sweet potatoes, oven-dried tomatoes and poached eggs), an updated version of the classic Salad Nicoise, a simple snack of a petite cauliflower souffle, and the Throwback, which is an homage to one of his earliest mentors, of beef tenderloin, port, Stilton cheese and potato roasties.
“I think the beef-by-the-inch will be great too,” he said. “We can custom cut exactly what someone wants.”
Zimmerman was one of those chefs who fell in love with the restaurant business as a teenager, and he was soon working full time while also attending school. He moved with his family from Iowa to Biloxi, Mississippi, during a casino boom.
“I was one of the youngest,” he said. “But I was on the team that opened new restaurants for the casino.”
He moved from vegetables to appetizers as he continued to gain experience. That eventually led to culinary school and a career in fine dining.
“Every chef has that moment they realize they’re not going to be Thomas Keller,” he said. “I think of it this way: I’m not Michael Jordan, but I still want to play basketball … We played spin-the-globe, took a leap of faith and moved to a place we’d never seen before.”
That place was Wilmington, with a position of executive chef at the Country Club of Landfall. Soon, he was loving the idea of being so close to the beach and mountains and within driving distance of so many interesting places. Zimmerman’s career then took a slightly different path when he worked for North Carolina food distributor Southern Foods.
“I was a brand director, and it was great. I got to hang out with local farmers and work on local development, figuring out the best way to take products to market,” he said. “It was a deliberate choice. I wanted to refine the way I cook and learn some more of the skills I might need.”
Part of what he did learn will be evident at True Blue, he said, through the relationships he’s created to bring unique products to Wilmington.
Those familiar with Pembroke’s might be surprised at the new look. The restaurant is smaller, for one. A wall has been put up to create a new storefront beside True Blue.
“And we’ve given it a pretty significant overhaul,” Zimmerman said.
He said he wanted to maximize the light and give the restaurant a contemporary, but still comfortable, feel. The Coastal Succulent is providing the organic decor, and the restaurant’s color scheme includes creams, beiges and slate blue.
“At first, I didn’t really want blue in the space,” he said. “But it’s amazing how much a brand and a sense of purpose guides you.”
True Blue is at 1125 Military Cutoff. As of press time, the plans were to begin serving breakfast at 8 a.m., lunch at 11 a.m. and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.