CAROLINA BEACH — Operating restaurants and bars has been a lifelong passion of Joel and Tarah Hartzler.
After a seven-year hiatus running successful eateries in both Portland, Oregon, and Asheville, North Carolina, they’re getting back into the restaurant game on Pleasure Island. The couple is in the midst of remodeling 604 N Lake Park Blvd., formerly Shagri-La, to become Seaworthy Kitchen and Bar. The goal is to open by late fall or early winter.
Joel Hartzler was putting final touches on a 12-top dining table Friday morning.
“We’re essentially changing all the surfaces, but nothing below the surface,” he said. “The Shagri-La owners had done some pretty significant renovations, including knocking down walls and putting up walls when they took over from what was Coast and Surf House before that. We liked the layout.”
The restaurant will be “light, bright and fresh,” in both cuisine and ambiance. Hartzler has installed shiplap on the walls and replaced the dark wood on the bar top with light maple. Overall, the restaurant will seat roughly 60 guests with a few outdoor seats.
Menu items will be seafood heavy, but also include charcuterie and a burger, likely steaks and chops.
“I’m not calling it a seafood restaurant,” Hartzler said, “because I don’t wanna be pigeonholed like that but we are going to take advantage of being near the ocean.”
The Hartzlers are bringing in the help of Joe Marple, a chef they previously worked with for five years in Asheville at their restaurant The Southern Kitchen and Bar. Considered a “stalwart of Asheville’s dining scene,” they sold it — as well as Rankin Vault Cocktail Lounge — in 2016 to move to Wilmington.
“We have a good working relationship with Joe,” Hartzler said. “And he makes good food.”
The chef is currently in the Outer Banks and will be transitioning to Carolina Beach in coming weeks. Hartlzer has created a shell of a menu for Marple to fill in with his own flavor palate and expertise. Seaworthy will focus on grilled and blackened seafood over fried Calabash style.
“There’s plenty of spots down on the island that I enjoy going to that already do that,” Hartzler said.
With Seaworthy located adjacent to Blackburn Brothers Fresh Seafood, Hartzler envisions the chef being able to walk over daily to assess the freshest offerings — ”see what was swimming that morning or the night before, and say: ‘I want five pounds of that for the fish tacos of the day.’”
An in-house chowder and “seafood version of a charcuterie board” are to be featured as well. The latter is similar to a seafood tower, popular on menus currently, though it won’t carry the $80 or $100 price tag.
“It’ll be scaled down a little bit, become more accessible,” Hartlzer said, adding it will feature homemade pickled vegetables, dips and sauces. “My favorite way to eat is, have a glass of wine and snack through a bunch of different things. So we want to offer that.”
A regular charcuterie board is also to be included on Seaworthy’s menu, along with six appetizers, four or so salads, and a handful of entrees and some handhelds.
Hartzler’s previous restaurant, The Vault, won best burger numerous times throughout local Best Ofs held by publications such as Mountain Xpress. However, he took the burger to Las Vegas for the World Food Championship.
“So I have a legitimate claim as the 15th best burger in the world,” Hartzler said.
It consists of grassfed beef, North Carolina-made bacon, white cheddar and a grilled bun. The item brought his name back into the restaurateur game on the southeastern coast, he said. At first Hartlzer was considering opening a spot in Carolina Beach’s Proximity complex, a mixed-use development under construction by Cape Fear Development.
“A friend of mine who knows the developers at Proximity actually went to Asheville and tried the burger at my former place and really liked it,” he said. “When the Proximity said they were looking for a burger spot to go there, my friend put them in touch with me. That’s what got me thinking about getting back into food and beverage.”
It’s all Hartzler has ever known in his two-decade-long career — well, aside from fitness. Currently, he’s operating CrossFit Carolina Beach, another passion. But his foray into the restaurant industry started when he was a teen in Goshen, Indiana. He worked at Southside Soda Shop, flipping burgers, waiting tables, even baking bread, and stayed on at the restaurant through college.
“I actually got my degree in art,” he said. “People ask me if I still do anything in art. I’ve often joked I do ‘functional collaborative installation pieces,’ which is to say a restaurant.”
He ended up opening two pubs in Portland before he married Tarah and moved to Asheville where they operated The Vault and Southern for almost a decade.
“Then we decided it was time for a change,” he said. “In Portland, we were near the Willamette River, the Columbia River and the ocean was only an hour away. Asheville was great, but we needed more water in our lives.”
They looked at moving to the Outer Banks and Jacksonville, Florida, but fell in love with Wrightsville Beach. Upon researching real estate and deciding Wrightsville prices were out of reach, they landed in Monkey Junction.
“When we moved there, we quickly realized we were spending more time coming to Carolina Beach than Wrightsville Beach — we just really liked the people we met down here and had friends on the island,” he said.
In 2018 Hurricane Florence ripped the roof off their Monkey Junction home. As it was undergoing repairs, the Hartlzers rented a place on Pleasure Island, further solidifying their goal to live beachside. They sold their home and made the move closer to the water and also to CrossFit Carolina Beach.
The plan is to run Seaworthy and CrossFit simultaneously. Hartzler anticipates hiring 10 to 15 servers and bartenders to oversee the restaurant. He will also devise the cocktail list for its bar program seasonally.
“Like the food, the focus is on fresh,” he said. “We will not buy sour mix, but make our own and have fresh squeezed juices.”
The food menu will change monthly, he anticipates. Seaworthy will be open for dinner only weekdays, and lunch and brunch on weekends at first, with lunch hours likely expanding in season. The lunch menu will remain the same as dinner, perhaps with an added sandwich or two, while brunch will vary, featuring biscuits and gravy and huevos rancheros, for instance.
Depending how the operation goes, Hartzler said a restaurant in the Proximity isn’t off the table, but it won’t be Seaworthy.
“I would say there is some chance of doing a different place there in a year,” he said.
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