What does a James Beard Award nomination really do for a chef? Well, it does a few things. It instills a hushed sense of awe. It's a nod from fellow chefs, foodies, and writers that your work is working. Excelling even. It's a pat on the back, a brief moment of exhilaration, in an otherwise brutally demanding business. And for Georgia-born Dean Neff, a 2023 nominee for Best Chef, Southeast (along with fellow Wilmington nominee Keith Rhodes of Catch), it means he and his highly collaborative team gets to keep pushing themselves and their innovative menu at Seabird in downtown Wilmington, NC, even further.
By Colleen Thompson
"The award nomination keeps us focused. In this often crazy world of running a restaurant and constantly evolving to be the best we can be, it's amazing recognition for the entire team of 35 at Seabird," says Neff. "We have been so grateful and appreciative that people have embraced Seabird and everything we set out to do from the beginning, almost two years ago, to tell stories through our food. We wanted to showcase the abundance of seasonal seafood, and how to do it sustainably in our community, and we wanted to do it in a space that felt authentically like Wilmington."
And it is a beautiful space. Working with Atlanta -based Smith-Hanes Studio, a complete renovation of two storefronts in a historic building on the corner of Market & Front Street that Neff admits inspired the entire concept of Seabird. "When I sold my share in Pinpoint Restaurant in 2019, I had no idea what I wanted to do. My wife Lydia and I both knew we wanted to open our own restaurant, but it wasn't until we found the space that things started falling into place," says Neff.
The beckoning to Seabird starts on the exterior of the building, with its striking retro-styled aquamarine neon-lit sign with the lyrics to the song by the same name, "Lonely seabird, you've been away from land too long," inscribed underneath. It’s a detail that’s clever and enticing and makes me want to explore inside.
On a Monday night, the restaurant is buzzing and packed to capacity, but it feels bright & airy, cloaked in elegant tones of aqua, navy and white. And while it feels like a 1930s seaside cafe, there is an understated modern sophistication with its curved lines, floor-to-ceiling windows, sleek white tiles, leather booths, and wood accents. And there's a splash of kitsch & quirky, too, with artwork installations of mermaids, sailing ships & seascapes. But there is no doubt that every inch of the space has been meticulously crafted to pair perfectly with Neff’s seafood-focused fare.
Neff is a chef who thrives on interaction and learning: with other chefs, growers, fishers, and farmers. "I think it's important to collaborate. That's how we learn and grow and get better. says Neff. "It's a big part of why I wanted an open kitchen so that diners can feel part of the conversation. I didn't want the kitchen to be closed off from that."
The menu at Seabird encapsulates Neff's love of many things: Southern food, seasonal ingredients, and seafood. And each dish on the menu feels a little bit like a love letter to Coastal Carolina, with elements of local ingredients woven through each & every one of them. Even when dishes sound like you may have had them before, you have yet to have them like this.
An oyster bar means the menu consists of the region's most prized bivalves, thanks to Hold Fast Oyster Company and Shellem Seafood. Start with a glass of Jean Aubron sparkling and order the oysters, Rockefeller, with Benton's bacon and a splash of Pernod. On the recommendation of Executive chef Mario Almeida, the smoked yellowfin tuna tartine, with sweet potato skordalia, olive salad, and Meyer lemon on top of seaweed sourdough is a fresh, salty, smokey, lemony bite that cannot be skipped. The swordfish schnitzel entrée might be one of the most unique and exciting dishes I've seen on a menu for a long time. "This dish was inspired by Mom," laughs Neff when I tell him it was my favorite. "I grew up in a time in the US when convenience food was just becoming a thing, and spaetzle and instant noodles were a trend. So, I wanted to pay a sort of homage to my childhood and include them on the menu." A swordfish filet is coated in panko, pan-fried, and served with spaetzle, rutabaga, and lemon mostarda, which paired perfectly with the Bodan Roan Pinot Noir. Don't leave without trying the Carolina gold rice, pistachio cream, cherry, and chocolate granola. Heaven in a bowl. I leave dinner humming the "Seabird" melody written by the Alessi Brothers in 1976 (and admittedly adding it to my playlist) and suddenly it falls into place for me. Neff has managed to create a nostalgic, feel-good space, almost reminiscent of another time. But delivers each plate of food with intention and thoughtfulness.
As for what’s next for Neff, "Oh, I definitely think there's a new restaurant on the horizon. Maybe within the next two years. We're having fun trying new things and seeing what our community gets excited about. We introduced ramen on Wednesday nights, and next we may offer ceviches or dumplings. So you never know, our next restaurant may be inspired by one of these. But, like Seabird, the space will dictate the kind of restaurant it will be. Either way, it will be on a much smaller scale."
In just under two short years, Seabird and Neff's team have brought a wave of optimism and reinvigoration to Wilmington's downtown restaurant scene, and they've gone a long way in creating buzz for the Port City as a foodie destination.
The final James Beard Award nominees will be announced on March 29, with winners recognized on June 5 in Chicago.