Tidewater Oyster Bar

26 May 2023

Local oysters and seafood with a Cajun-Creole twist in Porters Neck

By Judy Royal  »  Photos by G. Frank Hart

As the owner of Kornerstone Bistro since its 2007 opening, Robert Pickens is a familiar name in the Wilmington restaurant industry. He’d always considered opening a second eatery in Porters Neck, but a conversation over oysters gave shape to the idea.

“A friend of mine had started an oyster farm and was telling me all about the oyster farming industry,” Pickens says. “He brought me some of his oysters, and I thought they were fantastic. I saw a great opportunity to highlight local oysters and provide another service to the community with fresh local seafood, and that’s kind of how Tidewater started.”

Tidewater Oyster Bar opened in June 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pickens said he signed the lease a month before the pandemic began, so he didn’t foresee dealing with temporary capacity limits and a drop in restaurant patronage due to a leery public.

“We went with it, and we had the same challenges as everybody else, but I think we’ve weathered the storm quite well,” he says. “We changed and adapted and did everything we could along the way.”

Pickens, a Mississippi native, grew up in the South but traveled all over the world as a chef on yachts and wrote a cookbook about Caribbean food. He says his main goal is to give people what they love.

“I’m well-versed in many different types of cuisine, but ultimately my job is to make people happy and provide them the best kind of food that works with their palate,” he says.

Pickens arrived in Wilmington in 2005 after seeking a more family-friendly lifestyle with his wife and children. He said he was tired of missing important events and looked at North Carolina because he had relatives here and wanted to be closer to them while raising his kids. Prior to opening Kornerstone, he worked as executive chef at Eagle Point Golf Club, a position he held for 17 years until last year.

Tidewater’s menu features North Carolina seafood with a nod to the Cajun and Creole influences of Louisiana, in contrast to the Mediterranean spin of Kornerstone just across the street. Oysters are the star of the show—with a traditional oyster bar with stool seating as the focal point of the restaurant—but there are plenty of dishes featuring other seafaring fare and even a few items for landlubbers. Customer favorites include Seafood Nachos, Raw Seafood Platter, House Gumbo, Cajun Pasta and an array of Po’ Boys, including fried catfish, shrimp, oysters and flounder. There’s also a New Orleans-style Beef Debris Po’ Boy featuring slow-braised shredded meat. Fried, Blackened and Steamed Platters are popular, and there are Steam Pots to Go in addition to the regular takeout menu.

Tidewater, open daily for lunch and dinner, has rotating drink and food specials. A recent visit offered Mahi Ceviche, Mahi Tacos and Blackened Shrimp Bay Scallops, and featured oysters included Topsail Wilds, Carolina Golds, Summer Salts and Rappahannocks.

A large mural on one wall of Tidewater declares North Carolina “the Napa Valley of oysters.” Pickens has decorated the other side of the dining room with black-and-white photos he took at Falling Tide Oyster Co., the catalyst for it all.

“The whole feel of the place is just a casual kind of feel-good Carolina feel,” Pickens says. “Go to the beach, come hang out, get some fresh seafood and just enjoy yourself. We’re not trying to be a Michelin-star restaurant by any means. We just want to provide good food to the community and highlight local ingredients.”

Tidewater recently added a front patio that can accommodate parties of all sizes for outdoor dining, including larger groups that may not be able to sit together indoors. The menu has also added a few brunch items on weekends, such as shrimp and grits, a breakfast bowl and beignets. In addition, Pickens is developing a lineup of Cajun-oriented specialties that can serve as family meals to go.

Don’t be surprised if you see more from Pickens in the future. He’s always thinking of ideas to improve Porters Neck, a part of Wilmington that is near and dear to him.

“It’s just my community that I’ve been in for 18 years now,” Pickens says. “My kids have grown up here, and everything we do is in this little area. I think we’re in a good position to do something when the right opportunity comes.”

So, what’s his secret to surviving the notoriously brutal local restaurant scene?

“I wish I knew,” Pickens says with a laugh. “I don’t know if there’s a secret. Hard work. It’s a 24-hour job. It never ends. There’s something every day, so you just have to keep a good attitude, remain optimistic and keep going with the flow. It’s definitely not an easy industry.”

8211 Market Street
Wilmington, NC 910.319.7500

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