Constructing a dream from brick and mortar: If you're a rancher that might mean a stable. A hotelier puts up a resort. A carpenter creates a fully decked-out woodworking shop. And a trio of chefs in Pittsboro opens the Postal Fish Company, named after the venue's previous life as a post office.
After twenty years of marriage, chefs James and Marcey Clark have finally married their interests in this new project. The Clarks met at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, where James studied culinary arts and Marcey became a pastry chef. James was raised in the South, with much of his time spent on the Pasquotank River and frequent trips to the coast.
The third chef, Bill Hartley, comes from Westwood, New Jersey. From a young age he was lured by the siren song down the shore.
Marcey is a native of New Hampshire, a place that also breeds a love of seafood and very high standards for it. She's quick to call shenanigans on any jumped-up, inauthentic New England fare, including a bastardized lobster roll that James once contemplated serving.
The Clarks and Hartley met in 2008 when James took the helm of the Grande Dunes in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The men have cooked together since then, with a four-year stint at Crossroads Chapel Hill at The Carolina Inn, where they expanded the seafood menu and introduced a range of under utilized, less familiar fare. These fish, often disparaged as "trash fish," are more sustainable, and far less over-fished, than their more popular, glamorous cousins.
So, what do three saltwater-soaked chefs who practically have gills want to do when they grow up? Open a fish house.
They knocked the idea around for years before finally taking steps to make it happen. In the summer of 2016, James and Hartley went all in and left their positions as executive chef and sous chef, respectively, at the Carolina Inn.
They chose Pittsboro because they liked the vibe of the quirky, artsy village, and the only nearby seafood joints were the kind with drive-through windows. They also happened to live there and relished abandoning a commute. The Clarks have two daughters—Paige, ten, and Madison, almost seventeen—so being close to home and being their own bosses meant more family time in an industry notoriously selfish with the lives of its practitioners.
They crowdsourced on Kickstarter to get seed money for the project. In less than thirty days they reached their goal and got to work.
Since 2014, they'd been eyeing the old post office just off the main drag in Pittsboro. It was a sleek mid-century modern building with good bones and not much else. After the post office moved in the late nineties, the building fell into neglect, and the history becomes sad, and a little murky. At one point it might have been an illegally run Indian restaurant. But its final function is not in dispute—it was used as batting cages.
The restrooms were left in horrific condition. Marcey says she would never have let a child use those frightening facilities.They, along with the rest of the interior, were gutted.
The chefs did the demolition work themselves, with nothing more than sledgehammers and reciprocating saws. In six weeks they had completely cleared the space. Asked if they'd had fun doling out the destruction, Bill answers in his customary laconic way, "The first day we did." That is, until they woke up on day two "sore as hell."
They drew up plans with architect Taylor Hobbs. After a remarkably worry-free construction, completed within budget and almost on time, the team had a clean, open space flooded with lots of natural light. The plans also included a small private dining space in the back corner. Soon, with the addition of a barn door, the corner can be completely closed off from the main dining room for private events.
The interior decoration features pieces from various sources including the tin roof from the Clark family's hunting cabin in both oyster and cocktail bars. Hanging in the private dining room are copies of prints made during the last Carolina Inn renovation, from a set of late-sixteenth-century drawings by John White. White was one of the first English colonists in the Americas and governor of the Lost Colony. The prints depict fish that he observed on the coast. Hartley's mother designed much of the rest of the interior.
Each chef insisted on certain must-have items for the building and furnishing of the fish house.
James wanted windows in the kitchen after decades of cooking in spaces with no visible hint if it was noon or midnight, April or September.
Hartley wanted an open kitchen. Their cooking is entertaining for the main dining room, and especially intimate for those seated at the oyster bar, which fronts the cooking space. Both chefs were adamant about a wood-fired grill. The medieval-looking wood grill has a metal wheel, which lowers and raises the food to regulate cooking temperatures.
Marcey's dream machine is the Hobart twelve-quart, two-hundred-pound commercial mixer. New ones go for around $4,500. For now, she's brought her personal seven-quart Kitchenaid Pro to the restaurant. Marcey's signature key lime pie has become a permanent menu fixture, and her coconut cake has won rave reviews.
The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, and brunch on Sundays. The chefs are planning to open for lunch by summer. Even after more than two months, it is still, and will continue to be, a dream in progress.