Chef Dean Neff is immersed in a conversation with guests at Seabird when he notices Conor MacNair of N. SEA. Oyster Co. walking through the dining room, still sporting gear
Chef Dean Neff is immersed in a conversation with guests at Seabird when he notices Conor MacNair of N. SEA. Oyster Co. walking through the dining room, still sporting gear from collecting the mollusks. MacNair carries the bounty to the open kitchen, where one of Seabird’s skilled shuckers will prepare the oysters as orders come in.
It’s not an unusual scene. Most weeks, N. SEA. delivers 700 to 800 of its Dukes oysters to the Wilmington seafood restaurant and oyster bar, whose menu features North Carolina-farmed oysters year-round and wild-caught oysters seasonally. The oysters are served on custom-made plates in a bright dining room that’s inspired by the ocean: warm wood tones contrast with the off-white tiles and cream-colored drapes; blue chairs and counters glow under round light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.
“When people come in, they’re getting an experience they can’t get anywhere else,” Neff says, “because it’s completely representing the community of Wilmington.”
Since opening Seabird in 2021, Neff has been intentional about shaping the menu. The smoked catfish and oyster pie for example, is an adaptation of a traditional British fish pie recipe given to Neff by a customer who hails from England. When customers ask, “Where on Earth did you come up with this?” Neff, a two-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southeast talks about how they use North Carolina catfish and oysters. “We do our version that represents our place,” he says.
Neff likens his first view of Wilmington, in 2014, to a big reveal as he drove over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and saw the beautiful riverfront scene with its historic buildings. Just a year later, he and his wife and co-owner of Seabird, Lydia Clopton, moved to the coastal city.
Neff’s first venture in Wilmington was PinPoint Restaurant on Market Street. In 2019, he sold his shares to his partners; he was ready for his first solo enterprise. When it came time to find a site, Neff chose the Solomon Building — a three-story structure built in 1920 for commercial use — because it offered a chance to help preserve a piece of the city’s history. The building stands on the corner of Front and Market streets downtown, just steps away from the Wilmington Riverwalk along the Cape Fear.
Neff loved the idea of natural light flooding in from the large windows and all of the people-watching that guests could do from the inside. Extensive renovations — earning accolades from the Gertrude S. Carraway Awards of Merit and the Historic Wilmington Foundation in 2021 — included restoring the tin ceiling and wood floors and matching the windows to those in a photo of the building from the 1920s.
Last summer, Neff spent a long day at MacNair’s oyster farm in Hampstead. Memories of shucking oysters on the dock and eating them with hot sauce are never far from Neff ’s mind. That day symbolized the authentic connection that he’s building with the local community.