Thursday, June 13, 2024

Fresh seafood, frozen drinks: Restaurant industry vets open Sandspur in CB this month

The Sandspur restaurant and bar has been a passion project for a group of six restaurant industry veterans, led by artist and local bartender Clay O’Neal, formerly seen behind the pine of Rx and Carolina Beach Tiki Bar. His fiancée Rebecca Milligan, along with partners Josh Novicki, Herbie Abernathy, Matt Hearn, Chuck Krueger and Axel Mercier own the 1,200-square-foot eatery, which opens this month. (Courtesy Google maps)

CAROLINA BEACH — Fresh, frozen, fun — three words that describe what’s coming to Carolina Beach just ahead of summertime.

Diners will be treated to fresh hand-crafted food — heavy on the seafood — and frozen drinks with a fun, old-school vibe at The Sandspur.

READ MORE: Small Bites: The Sandspur to open at CB, Soif de Vin closes, EOD’s new gin release

Located a block from the ocean at 103 S. Lake Park Drive, the restaurant and bar will open by the end of the month. It has been a passion project for a group of six restaurant industry veterans, led by artist and local bartender Clay O’Neal, formerly seen behind the pine of Rx and Carolina Beach Tiki Bar. 

“I’ve been saving my money and looking for places for a few years now,” he said, “and almost pulled the trigger at a little bar downtown.” 

However, a year ago, he and his fiancée Rebecca Milligan were coming off the shore from surfing and passed by a cottage for sale in Carolina Beach.

An interior designer for Jean Palmer Home, Milligan fell in love with the space. She has a penchant for historical and antique designs. 

“I cry a little inside when I see old buildings torn down,” Milligan told Port City Daily. “We walked in and it was all drywall with little character but a ton of potential — with its low-angled ceilings and quirky additions.”

The interior features warm tones of the ‘70s and tips its hat to its nautical surroundings — salvaged wood and antique porthole doors included. 

The Sandspur’s interior design was done by co-owner Rebecca Milligan, who homed in on an old-school ’70s vibe. (Courtesy The Sandspur)

“While we are a restaurant, we hope people feel right at home amongst old-school beach-house artwork and old family photographs from the owners,” Milligan detailed.

The upfit of the cottage began with all hands on deck, including partners Josh Novicki and Herbie Abernathy — two restaurateurs and bar owners of Cobra Cabana and Hot for Pizza in Richmond, Virginia (Abernathy also plays in the North Carolina band Valient Thorr). 

“We reached out to our friend Josh for advice,” O’Neal said. 

Novicki also was co-owner of Rx and Pembroke’s years ago. 

“We sent him photos and he said, ‘Jump on this!’ So we decided to build a team,” he added.

Filling it out are Matt Hearn and Chuck Krueger, both of whom own Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern, as well as tattoo artist Axel Mercier. 

The head chef is Brad Royal, who O’Neal worked with at Rx.

“Brad is super talented,” O’Neal said. “The things that he comes up with will blow your mind.”

A culinary graduate from Cape Fear Community College, Royal has been honing his craft in local kitchens from manna to Cape Fear Seafood, Seaview Crab Company to Blue Surf Arboretum. He has primarily been a sous chef but will lead the helm at the Carolina Beach establishment.

Royal envisions bright flavors, especially from the sea — light in the summer and moving to heavier ingredients in the cooler off seasons. 

“It will be fresh, never frozen,” Royal said. 

The menu will feature a few handhelds, including a fish of the day and a chicken thigh option. It will also contain one burger, but Royal assured it will be a stand out — made of elk or bison and topped with poblano chimichurri, pickled onion and avocado.

Royal’s North Carolina upbringing naturally leans toward a Southern style of cooking, yet he blends New Mexican flavors.

“I worked under Carson [Jewell] and Jameson [Chavez],” he said, referring to the current and former chefs of downtown’s fine dining establishment, manna. “I learned a lot about Southern cooking and butchering from Carson and New Mexican chiles from Jameson.”

At home, Royal often marinates meat he hunts, like venison — “I’m pro-farming and pro-hunting, full circle” — for 18 hours in chiles, coffee, salt, mushroom and beef stock. Some of those techniques will be brought to The Sandspur.

Fish tacos will change depending on what’s biting, and chips and salsa will be made in house, along with black bean hummus. Royal said there will be North Carolina peel-and-eat shrimp, head’s on, when in season.

The chef has developed relationships with local fishermen at 12 State and Seaview, as well as with farmers from Terra Vita, Red Beard and Alter Cross farms.

The goal of the menu is to be 40% static and 60% specials. Yet, Royal is clear he will not be beholden to finite ingredients; rather, the menu will be versatile depending on what is available day-by-day throughout each season.

Royal’s family has a beach house at Carolina Beach where he often fishes with his dad. The 33-year-old chef also lived on the island in previous years, getting his start in the kitchen at Michael’s Seafood at age 19.

“I talk to a lot of people who live and vacation here,” he said. “They always go, ‘We’re sick of eating chicken sandwiches. We’re full of French fries.’”

At Sandspur, Royal has included a rice bowl, served with grains, greens crunch and protein; the veggies, meats and sauces will rotate. He envisions a different take on sides than normally offered at the island’s run-of-the-mill fast casual eateries. Diners may see a melon wedge dipped in Tajin and lime or a butterbean and crab salad. 

In the height of the summer, salads will rotate, including fresh tomato doused in a Champagne honey vinaigrette or peach with Key Lime-agave vinaigrette.

“My main focus is utilizing stuff that tastes good,” he said. “A peach salad is a great example. They come in firm and by the next day, they’re perfect to top on a salad. And then the next day, when they’re barely holding on, that’s when you make your barbecue sauce for chicken wings.”

To ensure customers get top notch flavors in every bite, he said switching up options will be key — such as when the peaches have run their course for the salad, he could easily swap them for freshly shaved yellow beets.

Vegetarian and vegan diets also will be catered to, though Royal pauses upon the notion of offering “faux” meat products. 

“I’m a real food guy,” he said. 

Fresh vegetables, properly seasoned and doused in unique sauces, including cashew-based creamy vinaigrettes, will be offered. Tofu also may appear whether in the form of a sandwich or atop a bowl.

Prices will range from $13 to $18, though Royal said he also wants to offer summertime meals less than $10. He mentioned items especially popular on Southern beaches: the quintessential heirloom tomato and Duke’s mayo sandwich on Wonder Bread or homemade pimento cheese.

Eventually, the restaurant will open for a finer dinner experience, likely in fall, since summer at Carolina Beach bustles with a more turn-and-burn clientele. Royal said he’s looking forward to slowing down for locals and showing off items like pork shoulder, Hoppin’ John, braised collards, bacon jam and pork rinds, or raw oysters and tuna tartare, alongside whole fish dinners. Prices for the evening crowd would be in the upper $20s.

O’Neal confirmed the bar program will consist of a nice selection of wines — sangiovese, Châteauneuf du Pape, Riojas, a house Chianti, cabs and pinots. There will be local beers, such as Tropical Lightning from Wilmington Brewing Company, but also a selection to suit its anticipated surfing clientele: Pacifico, Modelo and Tecate.

The bar will be fully ABC permitted with a specialty craft cocktail menu, featuring concoctions for each liquor: gin, bourbon, rum, vodka, tequila.

A Brown Derby, for instance, will come with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, honey syrup and the customer’s choice of bourbon.

“Lately, Old Tub has been one of my favorites and instead of using demerara sugar, we use honey,” O’Neal said. 

There will be multiple margarita flavors, from classic to skinny to spicy versions, and in the future O’Neal said they’ll be bringing frozen drinks to the roundup. Expected frozen margs will be included, but so will frozen gin and tonics and other “secrets.”

The bar seats 12 at The Sandspur, to open this month. (Courtesy Sandspur)

The cocktail menu will change likely twice a year. 

The 1,200-square-foot Sandspur seats 34 indoors, including 12 bar seats. There is an additional 500 square feet on the front and back porches, featuring more seating, as well as a large backyard area peppered with picnic tables. Customers can order counterside, and there will be servers circulating for tableside service.

The back patio faces the Courtyard Marriott and Boardwalk rides on Pleasure Island. The team’s goal is to tackle it as the next renovation project in a year. O’Neal wants it to be a full-fledged courtyard, complete with an outdoor bar. He said the team is considering constructing it out of a shipping container or an old grain silo.

By that time, he hopes to have more events scheduled, too, including pop-up art shows, surf contests and eventually live music. 

The Sandspur will open seven days a week at 11 a.m., likely closing earlier on weekdays but staying open until midnight on weekends.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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