WILMINGTON — Dean Neff drove by the corner of Front and Market streets numerous times over the last few years, looking up at the historic building that once housed local bars River Rat and The Whiskey. Its potential magnified in his mind’s eye, as he envisioned what a restaurant could be in the space.
Neff is best known in Wilmington as the founding chef of Pinpoint. He sold his shares in the eatery in 2019 and since has been looking for the right space to open his newest concept.
As fate would have it, the leases of the former bars were not renewed, giving Neff the opportunity to pursue his dream. Seabird will be opening by mid-April.
“It will focus on all-things seafood and the seasonality of seafood in this area,” Neff told Port City Daily on Monday.
Seabird will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, but Neff said it will offer so much more as it begins to operate and find its footing in the community.
“All the restaurants I’ve been a part of have been community restaurants, meaning we focus on season and relationships with people who bring us food,” Neff said.
A community culinary hub
Having worked in the industry for the greater part of two decades or so, Neff has been trying to figure out the best way forward with his passion. The reality is: Sometimes this industry can be grueling, with long hours, weekend and holiday work, high staff turnover, and creative pressure.
“There was a time where I was considering: Do I continue on this road?” the 2019 James Beard semi-finalist said. “I had this idea in my head of things that needed to fall into place the right way in order for that to make sense.”
He and his partner, pastry chef Lydia Clopton, had a new baby over the last two years. So balancing family and career became more important than ever.
“I came from restaurants in Georgia where I was working 70 hours a week and on a salary, and when I would factor what I made per hour, it was very depressing,” he said. “We want to create a restaurant and space that can be in business for a while, and create longer term jobs. And, as we grow, the people who work with us grow as well.”
Thus in Seabird land, the word “sustainable” is more than a trendy term for localized food. It means building a workforce and culture that takes care of its employees.
“We’re really trying to focus on people not overworking themselves,” Neff said. “And I think that’s the biggest part. . . . being more transparent, being able to have these conversations with staff, and make sure that we are exploring all ways to meet their needs.”
Neff will be hiring a 25- or 30-deep workforce to begin with, paying a competitive, living wage. More importantly, he will be scheduling four-day work weeks for the most part — five days on occasion.
The same attention to detail has been given to launching Seabird at the right time. Originally slated to open in 2020, the process has taken a bit longer. Neff has been working with Raleigh developer James Goodnight, who owns the building at 1 South Front Street.
“James is very much into bringing these old buildings back to a better state,” Neff said. “He made me feel really good about the whole relationship when he said, ‘I think a restaurant is the perfect thing for this building because it will allow the maximum amount of people to enjoy the space.’”
They sought the help of Old School Rebuilders of Wilmington, Maurer Architecture of Raleigh, and Atlanta designer Smith Hanes to bring the space to life and make it “feel like Wilmington.”
Light blue-greys and ox-blood red will color the walls, mixed in with creamy tiles. Local art by Janette Hopper and Lindy Schoenborn will permanently decorate it, as accent draperies will be hand-crafted by local seamstress Susan Covington.
“You know, it’s a community space,” Neff said. “We wanted to include as many people locally as we could.”
They built into their plans a Clipso ceiling, which reduces acoustics across the bar and the dining rooms.
“Soundproofing was a really big concern — it’s always a concern,” Neff said. “I have read that the number-one complaint on restaurant review sites has nothing to do with the food but the noise.”
Neff wants the eatery to focus on health and wellness; it will even have a section of specially curated food magazines and books. He has also toyed with opening it for yoga classes and other programs once Covid protocols ease.
The 2,600 square feet design will incorporate four separate areas under one roof, the chef said. The U-bar will be more laid back and allows customers to see each other and interact if they choose. An open kitchen will be at the center with banquette seating and booths flanked on either side.
“Another feature I really wanted to have was a chef’s table, right in front of the kitchen window,” Neff said.
It’s situated between the dining room and bar and eventually will be available for diners looking for specialized Seabird experiences. Yet, Neff wants it to be for all price ranges too.
“Typically, people think of a chef’s table as something super high end,” he said. “I think on some nights we might have that experience, but I also like the idea of having something that’s outside of the box at a lower price point. We’ve played around with doing different types of nights, like one that features dumplings — handcrafted gyozas we make with our own dough, using seafood that’s really delicious and special. It will be fun for us to create this thing and make it new.”
He wants to host family-oriented chef’s tables, even – make them interactive between the kids, the chef and the person running the expo line.
A private dining room will be able to hold 12 to 16 diners for smaller gatherings. As well there will be outdoor dining, with four or five two-tops situated along Front Street, as well as two or three three-tops on the sidewalk facing Market Street.
Seasonality and sustainability
First, Seabird will open with a focus on breakfast and dinner only. Morning hours will sell quick grab-and-gos, like biscuits and pastries — “maybe cured sturgeon,” Neff said.
It also will have an evolved coffee program, utilizing Durham’s Counter Culture brand. Sarah Dodson will head the program.
“She’s wonderful — she’s an artist,” Neff praised. “And some people consider coffee an art. She thinks about coffee like it’s an art form.”
Neff will open for lunch eventually, serving oyster po’ boys and shrimp rolls, among other items.
Dinner will come with various seafood towers and oyster-bar favorites, as well as sides and entrées, carefully crafted with localized and high-end ingredients. He will source from local farms and fishermen as much as possible.
He also already committed to working with heirloom varieties of rice, grains and vegetables, and products like Anson Mills and Allan Benton’s bacon.
“I love using Benton’s on Oysters Rockefeller,” he said, “because it’s such a powerful, delicious ingredient and adds so much flavor to a Rockefeller base.”
How many dishes will be on the menu remains to be determined. He has settled on oysters, clams and mussels procured from the North Carolina coast for the oyster bar.
“Seabird will have a yellowfin tuna harissa salad, a seaweed salad, smoked crab legs,” Neff listed. “We will have smoked catfish pâté — things that are just fun that you can enjoy with an order of some bubbly or Champagne, and sit down and share. Hopefully, the sharing part will increase as we get through Covid.”
The restaurant also will have entrées, including two meat dishes most likely and four to six main seafood dishes.
“I grew up in Savannah, fishing and cooking fish as a very small child,” Neff said, “and being in Wilmington was a really familiar place because I think there’s a lot of similarities between Savannah and Wilmington — both in the types of fish that we see here and the kind of seasonality of it as well.”
But Neff will explore beyond seafood. He has become known for treating vegetables like stars in his cooking; hence, there will always be vegetarian or vegan options. Neff said he went vegan for a year to learn more about crafting thoughtful, delicious dishes in a plant-based lifestyle.
“I’ll never forget during that time I went to a chain restaurant and they served me a giant plate of boiled broccoli and carrots that were crinkle-cut,” he said. “And I thought to myself, There has to be something better than this. That’s not substantial vegan cooking — you wouldn’t live long eating just that. You need lentils and nuts and oils that are healthy, and seeds and greens.”
Ever since, Neff said he has treated vegetable cookery with more respect, often taking items like butternut squash, cauliflower, and mushrooms, and preparing them with a rub or brine. The chef said by merely basting them as they roast or adding herbs to them amplifies flavor, just as if cooking any protein or meat.
“And they’re every bit as satisfying, as long as you have the right components on the plate,” he said.
Homemade condiments also will shine on the Seabird menu: cocktail sauce, gribiche (French tartar sauce, with an egg base), and recreating something called “Shed Sauce.” Neff used to serve it at a Calabash-style seafood restaurant in Savannah when he worked there as a teenager.
“It was kind of like a mayonnaise-based, Worcestershire and horseradish sauce,” he explained. “I think having great condiments is something that makes people crave your food.”
Breakfast items will run upward of $7-$11, lunch will be $14-$17 and dinner will be $20 and up for entrées, though a la carte items will be offered.
His wife, Lydia, well-known for the art of pastry making, will consult on Seabird’s dessert menu. Neff said she will have a handful of trademark items always available. A seasonal cake will be included, as will her famed coffee cake during breakfast, plus various cookies.
“We also are going to have one of my favorite things ever: coconut cream pie,” Neff said. “And we’re going to have lots of ice cream.”
While Neff said they will experiment with unique flavors, none will go too overboard: in other words, no fish ice cream.
“About three years ago, I was watching the original ‘Iron Chef,’” he said. “It was funny because it was all being translated, but when the actor tried the fish ice cream, she was like, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever had in my life.’ At Seabird we want to make sure that ice cream stays delicious.”
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