“That was an odd time—it’s a really complicated, almost abstract experience, thinking about opening a restaurant when you don’t have space yet,” he says. “You’re working towards something but you’re not completely sure what it is.”
A few months later, Neff located a historic building on a prominent corner in downtown Wilmington that would become Seabird, a seafood bar specializing in oysters, cocktails, all-day, locally sourced fare, and an elevated, celebratory atmosphere. After securing the location for Seabird, Neff and Clopton began the lengthy process of renovating and restoring the historic property. The couple utilized three design firms to create their perfect space.
The resulting restaurant opened in May 2021 and is an elegant ode to North Carolina’s coast. Reminiscent of a captain’s quarters, the dining room and bar marry warm, hardwood accents with clean, gleaming tile, sleek leather booths, and a color palette peppered with aquatic blues.
Eager to utilize Seabird’s thoughtfully constructed dining spaces, Neff has intermittently offered breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner service since opening. The concept currently offers grab-and-go coffees and pastries, dinner, and weekend brunch, with intentions of beginning its weekday full breakfast and lunch offerings anew in the future. Even while lunch is paused, Seabird’s physical location remains open for guests to utilize nearly all day, which was an intention Neff held for Seabird even in its earliest stages.
“During the day, it’s much more laidback, and you can post up and do work in the space and have a baked good and coffee,” he says. “Then, at nighttime, Seabird becomes this sort of oyster bar concept. People love eating oysters, and having someone take a lot of care in shucking them the right way and plating them makes people feel special.”
Neff maintains that the physical Seabird space dictated, in large part, the menus, and Seabird’s offerings are no less meticulously crafted than its atmosphere. The locally driven, seafood-focused fare is a homecoming for the chef. Raised in Savannah, Georgia, he grew up fishing and preparing fresh seafood. After attending culinary school in Atlanta and cooking in a number of mainland kitchens that focused on fresh, local ingredients but not seafood, Neff was due for a return to his coastal culinary roots.
Seabird’s menus showcase Neff’s deep love for the flavors of the ocean, as well as various other culinary traditions that have influenced him. The restaurant offers oysters aplenty; there are usually at least three available raw options, as well as oysters barbecued, broiled with hollandaise, and served Rockefeller style. In other dishes, Neff uses sustainably farmed seafood and more local ingredients to bring an innovative approach to classic applications.
Take the Eastern Cioppino, which infuses a traditional Italian stew with Southern American coastal flavors by way of clams, black drum, shrimp, scallops, andouille sausage, and potato fennel. Or the Swordfish Schnitzel, a dish inspired by Neff’s childhood cooking with his mother, in which breaded swordfish is served alongside marigold spaetzle and lemon jam.
“The schnitzel makes sense to people conceptually, because it has a German sort of direction to it,” Neff says. “But it takes ingredients that are local and gives the schnitzel a new sense of time and place. Sometimes when people see a concept like this, they ask ‘how did you come up with that?’ It’s just really simple once you explain it, because I think people can sense the dish does have some sort of context somewhere else.”
At the core of the menu is, of course, seafood, sourced from sustainable suppliers from North Carolina and other regional markets. The weekend brunch menu includes a crab cake benedict, N.C. shrimp, and oyster po’boys. And at dinnertime, even the grilled steak, one of Seabird’s sole dinner entrées for landlubbers, incorporates oceanic ingredients; accompanying sliced tomatoes are briefly placed against Kombu seaweed, which adds a rich, salty flavor.
“Even when people order steak, we still give them a little bit of the ocean on their plate,” Neff says.
The bar’s robust cocktail program also bears the influence of the ocean, with signature drinks like the Seabird Martini, a zesty blend of olive oil–washed gin and plankton brine, adding a marine flair to the drink list. During the day, the bar does double duty as a counter-service coffee spot. Customers can order from a focused yet inspired menu that includes drip and iced coffee, espresso drinks, teas, and a variety of pastries, like olive oil muffins and scratch-made biscuits, from house pastry chef Jim Diecchio.
Before opening Seabird, Clopton owned Wilmington’s Love, Lydia Bakery & Cafe, which specialized in pastries. Thus, Seabird’s daytime café is nothing new for the couple behind the concept. Although weekday breakfast and lunch are temporarily off the table, the restaurant’s grab-and-go coffee and pastry offerings and weekend brunch menus add extra streams of revenue to Seabird’s dinnertime service.
While the concept opened its doors one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, when health guidelines made it difficult for restaurants to operate both fully and responsibly, Seabird has developed a strong customer base. Guests seek out not only its thoughtful, local food and beverage programs, but also the atmosphere that Neff and Clopton curated so carefully.
The brand’s downtown location and warm, spacious bar and dining spaces offer an elevated, all-day spot for locals and beach tourists alike—whether they are waking up with morning coffee or toasting a special occasion with a sophisticated dinner.
“People come into Seabird and they order champagne and oysters and they celebrate, “ Neff says.