The Blue Point, an Outer Banks beacon
by MOLLY HARRISON photography by KEITH LANPHER
The northern Outer Banks on an off-season weeknight is dark; N.C. 12 stretches into blackness, not a vehicle in sight, and the businesses and vacation houses of Duck still await the first rush of spring visitors.
But one nook of this shuttered beach town is a beacon. Everybody, it seems, is at The Blue Point, their faces bathed in its golden light, their wine-fueled chatter filling the air. Inside, a bartender hustles to serve the crowd gathered around him and servers stream from the kitchen with plates for every seat in the house.
Co-owner John Power, lanky, slightly tan, wearing boyish specs and a loose-fitting oxford shirt, is besieged with greetings; he knows almost everyone here, from the village residents and the vacation-home owners to the staff members who’ve come in on their night off. He has a handshake or pat on the back for all of them.
With enthusiastic followers, farm-to-table fare and urbane interior, The Blue Point could pass for a trendy eatery in any major city. But its front-row Currituck Sound view and unbuttoned vibe are all Outer Banks.
And at 27, the local favorite is well seasoned. In fact, it was here at the beginning of the farm-to-table trend more than two decades ago and has attained the paradoxical status of being both an institution and consistently hip.
Power and Sam McGann opened The Blue Point in 1989. Power, who was running Chick’s Oyster Bar in Virginia Beach, had bartended in Duck and was pining for a life there. He persuaded McGann – a high school friend from Norfolk and a Johnson & Wales-trained chef – to open a restaurant in the village. The 50-seat diner with a six-seat oyster bar was an instant success.
“We were very lucky to be in the right place at the right time from day one,” Power says.
Their approach was to be contemporary, with a sophisticated setting, highly trained staff and hyper-fresh food. But the two have always struggled to define their creation. They’re still not exactly sure what to call it, but they know what they don’t call it: fine dining.
“We wanted to be about quality and hospitality without the fine-dining atmosphere,” says McGann, who is fastidious in everything from his choice of words to his clean-cut, fit appearance.
His focus has always been on quality ingredients sourced regionally: Rose Bay oysters, Holly Grove Farms goat cheese, Border Spring Farm’s lamb, Edwards & Sons sausage. That’s the easy part. The magic comes from the concepts and preparation. A sampling from the spring menu: char-grilled Pamlico Sound shrimp with lo mein noodles, garlic chives, pickled mushrooms, miso dressing and toasted benne seeds; local asparagus with a sunny-side duck egg, Niccole’s house-made ricotta, Pullman toast and crushed pistachios; and Dave’s cornmeal gnocchi and confit of Ashley Farm guinea hen with May peas, morels, wild onions, mustard seeds and shaved reggiano.
The only dish on the menu since the beginning is the pan-fried jumbo lump crab cakes. Customers refused to let them go away. This spring they are served with spring vegetable couscous, pickled cucumbers and preserved-lemon yogurt sauce. “Luckily I’ve been able to source fresh American crab meat all year round,” McGann says.
Power and McGann expanded in 2007, dropping the diner atmosphere for a more sophisticated look, with drop lighting, cork ceilings, warm wood and slate accents, and red leather seating. They doubled the number of seats and greatly expanded the kitchen and bar. They’ve also added an outdoor bar.
The new kitchen gave McGann and his staff the space to make more foods in-house, including sausage and pastrami, ice creams and sorbets, breads, rolls and tortillas, vinegars, mustards and pickled everything. “We’re really trying to teach ourselves something new all the time,” he says. It also gave them the opportunity to employ more people. The staff has grown to 60 in peak season.
Even before the expansion, the two also stretched out into new ventures. Together they opened and sold two more Outer Banks restaurants, Ocean Boulevard and Good Life Gourmet. McGann traveled and cooked with fellow James Beard Foundation chefs and ventured into the Tidewater restaurant scene with Vintage Tavern and River Stone Chophouse. Power opened and sold Duck’s Cottage Coffee and was in the bottled water industry in Virginia.
But they have dialed back on all that now and are focused solely on their original project. “Both of us are here full time again and, I believe, completely content,” Power says. “Not that either of us felt like part-time at any point.”
The co-owners have settled into their roles in the restaurant, with McGann in the kitchen and Power out front. “I’ve realized my role is better suited and I can get more accomplished in the kitchen directly,” McGann says. “I think I’ve learned to leave my experience at the kitchen door. And John is very good at what he does.”
And while they say their overall philosophy and original concept have not changed, McGann says they change little things every day.
“There’s that give-and-take of finding the balance of an old-school restaurant that has built its reputation on certain things,” he says, “and trying to stay fresh at same time.”