A Place Like Home

Wilmington’s Seabird restaurant and oyster bar has landed

By Wiley Cash
Photographs By Mallory Cash

Chefs Dean Neff and Lydia Clopton are sitting at a table inside Seabird, their recently opened seafood restaurant and oyster bar in downtown Wilmington. It is midafternoon, and sunlight streams through the high windows along Seabird’s west-facing wall. The hum of breakfast has passed, and the dinner crowd has yet to arrive. Reservations have been fully booked since opening night. In this rare quiet moment, the couple pauses to reflect on what brought them together, what brought them to Wilmington, and what has kept them in the restaurant business since their chance meeting more than a decade ago.

Given their shared history, it should come as no surprise that Neff and Clopton use the word “our” a lot. After all, they share a family, a restaurant and a past. But when the chefs discuss Seabird, it is clear that their use of the word extends beyond their personal and professional relationship to the place they now call home.

“Seabird is a small, community restaurant,” Neff says, “and I hope it’s a place that feels like part of our community.”

Partnerships with local farmers and small-scale fishermen support Seabird’s efforts to be good stewards of the environment, says Neff. The restaurant’s crew is treated like family, and menus vary based on seasonal availability. “Our food is going to develop from our relationships with the people in this community.”

Neff and Clopton’s relationship began 12 years ago in Athens, Georgia, where Neff was the new sous-chef at Hugh Acheson’s now-iconic restaurant, Five and Ten. At the time, Clopton was working toward a biology degree at the University of Georgia. “I was baking a lot at home,” she says, “and my roommate said, ‘You should try doing this professionally.’”

A friend of Clopton’s worked at Five and Ten. Neff remembers the day that Clopton came in for her interview. When owner Hugh Acheson asked if she’d ever baked professionally, Clopton admitted that she hadn’t. But Acheson must have seen something in the eager young baker. Neff remembers him saying, “Great. When can you start?” Neff must have seen something in her too, and, soon, she would see something in him as well. Romance ensued. From Athens, where Neff eventually became executive chef at Five and Ten and worked with Acheson on his first cookbook, the couple ventured to Western North Carolina, where Clopton and Neff both found themselves working with some of the South’s best known chefs and restauranteurs: Neff helped John Fleer open Rhubarb, a farm-to-table restaurant on the square in downtown Asheville. Clopton worked at Asheville’s Chai Pani, known for its innovative Indian street food, and also helped open Katie Button’s Nightbell, a cocktail bar beneath Cúrate, another Button restaurant lauded for its “curative” Spanish cuisine.

Next, Clopton was baking wedding cakes out of the couple’s home while Neff taught in the culinary arts program at Asheville-Buncombe Tech and coached the school’s competition cooking team. “I loved what we were doing, but I knew that the longer we did it the harder it would be to get back into a restaurant,” Neff says.

And that was when Athens returned to their lives in a surprising way.

A man named Jeff Duckworth had long been a regular at Acheson’s Five and Ten. Back when Neff was chef, it wasn’t uncommon for Duckworth to find his way into the kitchen after enjoying a meal. He would always say the same thing to Neff: “We should go open a restaurant somewhere.” Years later, Duckworth tracked Neff and Clopton down in Asheville to let them know he was leaving Athens for Wilmington. He said he was ready to prove how serious he was about partnering with Neff.

Although the couple had never visited Wilmington, it had been on their radar. “Back when we were in Athens, we had a list of places that we were considering moving, and Asheville and Wilmington were on it,” Clopton says. “And it just happened.”

The first time Neff and Clopton drove across the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the river below and the city nestled on its banks before them, they knew this was where they would make their home, both in the restaurant business and in the community.

The partnership between Duckworth and Neff opened as PinPoint in May of 2015, and Neff immediately understood how important local support would be to the success of any small, community restaurant. “We thought that being downtown would get us a lot of tourists, but the space didn’t lend itself to that. You had to really know about it,” he says. Local support grew, and so did a buzz that carried beyond the city and state. While Neff loved his time at PinPoint, he grew eager to strike out on his own.

“I sold my shares to Jeff in 2019, and I wasn’t sure at that moment what I was going to do,” Neff says. “We’d just found out that Lydia was pregnant, and then I learned that I was on the long list for the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast, and it all kind of reinvigorated the idea that I wanted to open our restaurant in the way we wanted to do it.”

In the midst of all these changes, Clopton had opened Love, Lydia, an upscale bakery near downtown, where her offerings, especially her focaccia, made a name for themselves. According to North Carolina-based food and travel writer Jason Frye, “Lydia was willing to step out and take some chances. It wasn’t the typical stuff. She did things like bring sesame seeds to her focaccia, and that and other choices she made showed a full and thorough approach to food.”

Neff hoped that Clopton would be willing to bring that same full and thorough approach to a shared venture. “She’s a details person,” Neff says. “And I knew that if we did this restaurant together then we would spend more time together, and everything — from the front of the house to the back — would be better if she were here.”

It turns out that the couple would be spending a lot of time together. In quick succession, their son was born, the pandemic hit, Clopton closed her bakery, and, finally, in May, Seabird opened to rave reviews.

Neff credits the name of the restaurant with his obsession with maps and aerial views. When thinking of names, he pictured a bird flying over Eastern North Carolina, gazing down upon the expansive landscape from which he and Clopton would draw both ingredients and inspiration. When someone tipped him off to the song “Seabird” by the Alessi Brothers, Neff knew they had chosen the right name, especially when he read the lyrics Lonely seabird, you’ve been away from land too long. Those lines are now featured beneath the restaurant’s marquee at the corner of Front and Market Street in downtown Wilmington.

While both subtle and bold details inform the visual aesthetic at Seabird, clean lines, floor to ceiling windows, and textures varying from natural wood to textiles, create a space that feels durable and robust yet finely appointed. But make no mistake; while the restaurant is gorgeous, the menu is the focus.

Jason Frye cites the smoked catfish and oyster pie as being among his favorites. “It’s a masterclass in subtle flavors,” he says. “The oyster is stewed until tender, and the smoked catfish is done lightly, so the smoke comes in, but it doesn’t overwhelm the creamed collards and celery broth or the potato-flour pastry that sits on top. With every bite, one flavor leads into the next. At the end, you don’t come away from it feeling like you’ve read a collection of short stories. You feel like you’ve read a novel.” And that’s exactly what Neff and Clopton want the food at Seabird to do: tell the story of the community it comes from.

After more than a decade of working solo or for other chefs or alongside business partners, Dean Neff and Lydia Clopton have come home to Seabird, and they’re inviting locals and visitors to join them. Food, stories, family, community: All of the ingredients are here.  PS

Wiley Cash is the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, will be released this year.

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