Bordered by the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington sits in the heart of the East Coast’s seafood industry. While fresh fish appears on the menus at restaurants throughout town, nowhere highlights it as fully as Seabird.
Opened in 2021, every aspect of Seabird celebrates the abundant seasonal seafood scene in Wilmington from the swordfish schnitzel to the phytoplankton dirty martini. The white subway-tiled walls are a nod to New England’s old school oyster bars, and the cerulean seat cushions and ship’s cabin windows infuse the space with maritime couture.
Owner and chef Dean Neff developed his deep respect for the seafaring community while growing up in Savannah. He uses Seabird to inspire a similar connection between diners and the watermen and women in Wilmington. TLP visited Seabird to learn more about this new destination and Neff’s vision to highlight local, seasonal seafood.
Casting a Community Presence through Seabird
Have you always made a point of supporting the local seafood industry?
Chefs are so influenced by their childhood, and I grew up in Savannah. We would go out to the beach and fish for bluefish, flounder, and pompano. I was obsessed with cooking whatever we brought home.
I think seafood came with discovering Wilmington. Most of my cooking career had been landlocked. In order to be a true community restaurant, you have to be thinking about the community.
Wilmington has such amazing seafood to work with as a chef. Moving here was an eye-opening experience. The seafood here is so seasonal, like produce. People walk in and they sense it’s a seafood restaurant. They’re open to the experience of what we’re doing.
How does the location play into Seabird’s concept?
As a chef, when you’re looking for a new restaurant, it’s all about the space. I didn’t know—once I started looking for a space—what it was going to be. But this space seemed like a really central spot in downtown. That, along with this idea of “where do people go to get seafood in town?” This seemed central, and we wanted to make sure as many people could come in and enjoy the space. That’s why we do breakfast, lunch, AND dinner.
How do you go about finding the different purveyors you work with?
A lot of it’s word of mouth. The very first people we met when we were opening Seabird were organic herb farmers. Through them, we met a ton of different people.
One guy’s catching beautiful black grouper during the summertime. We met whelk and crab harvesters who’d go out into the marshes and forage for these ingredients. One of our main people, Steve at Steve’s Seafood, sources a lot of really great, consistent fish from three different docks he has. He always gets the local North Carolina stuff that’s in season, like lots of yellowfin tuna.
Matt Schwab [of Hold Fast Oyster Co.] farms the Seabirdies. He used to bartend before he left to farm oysters, and I still have him on call to occasionally help us out at events. There are a lot of divers and spearfishers we’ve worked with, and they bring you fish that are super fun, like spiny lobster. It’s all about relationships with the people who come in.
I always love meeting people who are doing new things and sustainability and thoughtfully harvested seafood. It gives people a sense of place, and most people want to know the stories about who’s bringing what food to you.
What’s the building’s history?
James Goodnight owns this building. I reached out when I was looking for the next restaurant and sat down with him to talk about my goals for the next space. He’s been a champion of historic preservation in downtown Wilmington. He’s really interested in people enjoying the space. And, as a restaurant, we could have hundreds of people a day coming into this space.
The conversation came up that we could hire a designer to make sure we created exactly what we want to be. I asked chef Ford Fry (of the Atlanta, Houston, Charlotte, and Nashville restaurants) for referrals. He recommended Smith Hanes Studio. We reached out and hit it off. Smith had friends in Wilmington and designed homes in Wrightsville Beach. He seemed to understand Wilmington.
Once we got Smith involved, we started working off of this picture we have of the building from 1930. And the design of the outside of the building was fashioned off of that photo. It was all designed to look how it looks back then.
What are your essential menu items people should try when they come to Seabird?
Definitely experiencing the oysters are a must. The habañero sorghum ribs are one of my favorites. I love the Eastern cioppiono. We have a lot of fun making the broth. I often take it home in a quart container, and the other night I was drinking it at a stoplight.
I also love the swordfish schnitzel. It came about because I wanted to do something with spaetzle on a plate. I grew up making it with my mom.
Then, of course, Jim’s desserts. What he brings as a pastry chef. It really made me realize what a great chef he is. He has a knack for putting savory notes into desserts. He makes desserts that are super thoughtful and balanced. You feel like you’re eating food, not confectioners sugar and egg whites. The rice pudding—I could eat that every morning for breakfast and every evening for dessert.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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