WILMINGTON — Former PinPoint executive chef and James Beard semifinalist Dean Neff plans to open a high-end seafood restaurant in a renovated historic building on the corner of Market and Front Street this spring.
The restaurant will also serve breakfast, high-end coffee, and a small lunch menu with the possibility of serving late-night cocktails. It will take the space of the old River Rat dive bar, which is serving as an art gallery called Anchor Light until the end of the year, and beside it The Whiskey, set to vacate later this fall.
Neff, who was named as a semifinalist in February for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef category for the southeastern region, said his eyes have been set on the location since Raleigh-based York Properties took over the historic building several years ago. The real estate company’s strong reputation of refurbishing old buildings in Raleigh and Wilmington encouraged him to stay downtown, just around the corner from PinPoint.
“I knew that finding the right space was going to be the distinguishing factor as to whether I did something or not,” Neff said.
Both parties decided the restaurant would be a good fit for the building, and in February Neff sold his PinPoint shares to his partner, Jeff Duckworth. It had been a great partnership, according to Neff, but it was time to have full control of his own vision and destiny moving forward.
James Goodnight, the son of Raleigh billionaire-software developer Jim Goodnight and an active investor in historic renovation projects in downtown Wilmington, owns the building.
“It’s an ideal tenant for a space like that,” Goodnight said. “With a cool, historic building you want to bring back that old character. And a restaurant gets so much foot traffic through there; people can really appreciate what’s been done.”
After finding archived photos of the building taken sometime between 1927 and 1929, Goodnight’s team decided to refurbish it in a way that resembles its original architecture — prismatic glass above the plate glass store windows, a remanufactured tin ceiling, and old beadboard paneling on the back wall. He said the State Historic Preservation Office is involved with the renovation process.
“We decided to try to do something honoring [those photographs],” Goodnight said.
And for Goodnight, Neff’s vision of an upscale seafood restaurant combined with breakfast and lunch menus will not only help draw an ideal tenant to the second floor, it will also be a welcome addition to Wilmington’s fine dining scene.
Fresh catch near the Gulf Stream
Neff grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and enrolled in the Atlanta Culinary Arts School after graduating high school. For the next 12 years he worked alongside Hugh Acheson in Athens, helping him open various restaurants in the area and write a cookbook. He and his wife, who now owns Love, Lydia, then moved to Asheville where Neff helped another award-winning chef John Fleer open Rhubarb restaurant.
These experiences, combined with Wilmington’s prime geographic location for catching fresh and diverse fish and a childhood surrounded by seafood, led Neff to focus primarily on seasonal fish and shellfish for the new restaurant, which he expects to prepare in an exposed kitchen.
“What’s great about Wilmington, something that’s been really inspiring for me, is the abundance of great seafood year-round and the way that it is so seasonal, like produce,” Neff said. “But I also found another factor to be interesting — that the Gulf Stream is closer than it is in Savannah. So people here are actually able to source a wider array of fish by going out 30 miles as opposed to 65. And that’s a big deal on a boat. Obviously there’s less abundance of fish in an area if people have to go twice as far to get it.”
He said many of the fish he’ll be serving are found in the deep waters of the Gulf Stream — fish like mahi-mahi, yellowfin tuna, hognose, snapper, and black grouper in the summertime. And the area is rich in shellfish like Stump Sound oysters, stone crab, blue, crab, and whelk (sea snail). Neff said many oyster farmers are now even beginning to grow scallops.
Future customers should expect a seasonal approach to the menu, which will also include “thoughtful vegetable dishes.”
“I don’t want to force something that doesn’t fit,” Neff said. “I want to be a little bit flexible. And I’ve cooked long enough that I can always change what I’m doing and focus on different things.”
He’ll also offer seasonal cocktails inspired by food and seasonal ingredients, like the muscadine (grape) and holy basil whiskey sour he created a few years ago, featured by Garden & Gun.
Ultimately, Neff believes his vision for the restaurant aligns well with the spirit of the building, one he remembers seeing in “major disrepair” before Goodnight and York Properties began refurbishing it.
“I feel like the sky’s the limit in that space,” Neff said. “We’ve got great visibility and the building’s going to be beautiful … [W]orking with York Properties — they’ve done some really beautiful restaurants and I’m very confident that we’re going to bring something that is an iconic Wilmington restaurant.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815