Food as Story and Celebration

by Feb 20, 2024Restaurants & Bars

At Seabird in Downtown Wilmington, Dean Neff and Lydia Clopton take local seafood and ingredients to new heights.

Growing up in Savannah as the youngest of four siblings, Dean Neff always found a sense of freedom in cooking. While his parents worked and left his older sisters in charge, the kitchen was the one place he could go and experiment without constantly feeling monitored.

“I may have been a little bit of a pyromaniac,” Neff says. “I liked fire and the act of cooking things because it felt like something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, but yet I couldn’t really get in trouble for it, and so I loved it.”

At age 18 Neff left his hometown to attend culinary school in Atlanta. Soon after graduating he moved to Athens, Georgia, where he spent the next decade working at famed chef Hugh Acheson’s award-winning restaurant Five & Ten. It was there he first began to appreciate the connection between farmer and chef and the seasonality of the heritage-breed meats and heirloom vegetables coming through the kitchen door.

Dean Neff Seabird Wilmington NC

“It changed everything for me, because I began to focus on my food that tells the story of the ingredients and not as much the story about the chef,” Neff says.

“I realized there was room for me to grow in the cooking world with this newfound appreciation of season and farm and ingredient-driven food.”

While working his way up to the position of executive chef at Five & Ten, Neff obtained a business degree from the University of Georgia. It was during this time he met his wife, Lydia Clopton, who also worked at the restaurant as a pastry chef. The pair moved to Asheville, North Carolina, in 2013. There Neff served as chef de cuisine at renowned Chef John Fleer’s restaurant, Rhubarb.

After breaking his knee while trail running, Neff decided to take a break from the kitchen and began teaching culinary classes at AB Tech, where he also coached the college’s competition cooking team. Not long after, his friend and former Five & Ten regular Jeff Duckworth approached Neff about partnering to open a restaurant in Wilmington. Neff and Clopton decided to visit the Port City and knew right away it was where they wanted to build their future.

Salted Whole Fish Seabird Wilmington NC

“We looked around and felt an immediate connection to the city, and it felt familiar to me because it was very similar to Savannah where I grew up,” Neff says. “We moved here and opened PinPoint with Jeff, which was a great experience because it gave us an opportunity to have a stake in the ownership of our first restaurant. I’d helped open restaurants for other people before, but this was the first one that we really did for ourselves.”

In 2018 Clopton opened her own cafe and bakery, Love, Lydia, and in 2019 she and Neff sold their shares of PinPoint to focus on new adventures and the arrival of their first child. While Neff stayed at home with the baby and began planning for his next restaurant, Clopton ran her successful bakery business before being forced to shut its door during COVID.

However, it was not long before the couple announced their plans to open Seabird at the corner of Front and Market streets downtown.

“It felt like one of those moments where everything just fell into place,” Neff says. “’I’d learned how important this area is for seafood and how amazing the people are, from the oyster farmers to the fishermen to the crabbers. It became clear to me this restaurant needed to be a seafood restaurant, and it needed to celebrate all of the great things happening here in Wilmington, so that’s how Seabird was born.”

Neff’s menu changes with the seasons and highlights different types of seafood, meats and other selections local to the region. As the large sign outside the restaurant indicates, oysters are one of Seabird’s most prominent offerings, and thanks to area oyster farms, guests can enjoy them year-round. Wild oysters are available on the menu in the winter, as are oftentimes speckled sea trout, triggerfish, black sea bass and wild-striped sea bass. At other times of year, diners can find black grouper, hogfish, mussels, clams, shrimp, North Carolina caviar and even the occasional summertime spiny lobster.

Oysters Seabird Wilmington NC

There is a story behind each of Neff’s signature dishes, from the oyster and catfish pie inspired by friend and Londoner-turned-local Vic Roberts, to his wife Lydia’s famous brownie recipe used in the trifle sundae dessert, to the swordfish schnitzel with spaetzle inspired by Neff’s mother.

“It’s a German rustic dish that has special meaning to me,” Neff says. “In my days of cooking as a child, my mom and I always made spaetzle together, and I felt like I wanted to always have spaetzle on one of my plates in some way.”

Seabird Wilmington NC Dean Neff

Seabird’s well-designed and open-concept floor plan seats 70 guests inside, with additional seating along the horseshoe-shaped bar and several tables outside. A chef’s table sits in the center of the restaurant overlooking the open kitchen, and next to it lies the expo area where Neff or Jay Jones, Seabird’s chef de cuisine, stand to put the finishing touches on each dish as it comes out of the kitchen.

The decor’s coastal-inspired shades of blue and white mirror the restaurant’s avian namesake, something Neff says was inspired when considering what the Port City might look like from overhead.

“I imagined a bird in the area flying over the landscape of Wilmington and seeing it from the sky, and that view is very much about the marshes and the ocean,” he says. “That’s what we want it to feel like on the inside the restaurant, so from a design standpoint it had to feel very much like Wilmington.”

Seabird Restaurant Wilmington NC

With so many great restaurants downtown, Neff believes what makes Seabird stand out is the wonderful staff and the local, small-scale fishermen who contribute and collaborate with his team on a daily basis. For him, the restaurant serves as a place where guests can come and experience a true taste of the season and connect with the people in the area who provide the ingredients behind each dish.

“When people go somewhere, they want to be immersed in what’s happening in that location and have an experience that’s about the area,” Neff says. “We want to share the stories of the food, the ingredients and the people in the community who bring us the things that make our menu special.”

Want to go?
Seabird
1 S. Front Street, Wilmington
(910) 769-5996
seabirdnc.com

Photography by Leigh Roberts

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