Chefs of the Coast: Restaurants and Recipes from the North Carolina Coast
Carlen Pearl, Chef-Proprietor and Jeff Lane, Executive Chef
1029 Colington Road
Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina 27948
“When we first opened, we were so small, we didn’t even have a waiting area. People just stayed in their cars in the parking lot. We would go out on the porch and holler, ‘Blue Chevrolet, come on in!’”
Carlen Pearl and her husband, Ken, had always wanted to have a restaurant. When they were finally able to put financing together, they figured they might serve 25 people for dinner. But within a few weeks, a rave review in an area publication brought in crowds, and they found themselves turning out over 100 dinners nightly. “It’s just always been that way ever since,” she recalls.
Carlen is from Virginia Beach, where her father, Kieran Sullivan, was stationed as a Navy pilot. Carlen’s mother, Helene, was French. Helene was raised by her grandparents in France and Algeria, lending both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences to her cooking. The family foresaw what was coming in Europe, and just before the outbreak of World War II they sold all their possessions and moved to the United States. There, Helene became a Navy nurse, met and married her father. She was the subject of several articles in the 1960s for her cooking and dinner parties in Virginia Beach. “We (four sisters) had to take off from school for at least two days every Christmas and help her bake cookies, pastries, cakes, puff pastries, for her parties,” Carlen recalls. Her mother taught her girls to cook in the style of traditional French families, with influences from the Mediterranean and North Africa thrown in.
Carlen moved from Virginia Beach to North Carolina when she was in college, about 40 years ago. “I have always loved the Outer Banks. I was studying to be a teacher and had a part time job as a waitress.” She taught school for a year, but she could not give up the dream of owning a restaurant. “When I was 7-8, my father retired from the Navy. We had eaten in this big house on the Eastern Shore, and I loved it so much, from then on I dreamed of having a restaurant in a house like that. So after we were married, my husband and I started trying to create a restaurant.” They operated their first restaurant, which had only six or seven tables, for two seasons.
“I was driving by the house that is our present location, in a maritime forest. All our friends had always commented that it was the prettiest house in the area. The land itself is among the oldest deeded properties in Dare County. An oak tree in the front yard is estimated to be at least 400 years old. I wrote a letter to the owners and asked to be notified if they ever considered selling it. At first, they were insulted, but later, they contacted us. We added a small kitchen and converted the laundry room into bathrooms; everything else is original.”
Carlen took a week’s class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, but by that time she and her husband had been operating a restaurant for years. “The experience caused an epiphany. I saw how they emphasized ingredients. I realized that was why people liked our food so much. We have always bought our food from friends and neighbors. We get produce from Riverview Farms in Columbia and George Wood’s farm in Elizabeth City; our pork comes from Smithfield, Virginia; crabmeat is out of Lake Mattamuskeet; scallops come from Wanchese boats; shrimp from Pamlico Sound; tuna and mahi from Oregon Inlet; flounder from Albemarle Sound and from the ocean, close by. Captains call us from their boats and tell us what they are bringing in. Colington is the soft shell crab capital of the world. One time my husband and I were eating in a restaurant in New York, and the waiter bragged that they were serving soft shell crabs from Colington.”
Colington Café is small and picturesque, with about 75 seats. Carlen injured her back and had to cut back on daily work in the kitchen, so they brought in Jeff Lane as Executive Chef about 14 years ago. He is a hands-on chef, not only creating daily specials but doing a large amount of the actual cooking every night. The regular menu retains her original recipes. Jeff worked at Joe’s Seagrill in Tidewater, Virginia, then came to the Outer Banks to cook at the Sanderling Inn. Richie Buscemi joined the kitchen staff 9 years ago, from Chefs 505 in Greenville, North Carolina. In addition to cooking, he maintains an organic vegetable garden that helps supply the restaurant. James Joyce is the third member of the kitchen team. The trio prepares an average of over 200 meals per night, each cooked to order.
This is a true farm to table operation. Bread is the only thing in the restaurant that is not made from scratch in house. The family tends an herb garden out back and grows heirloom tomatoes, as well.
Describing the menu, Carlen remarks, “We specialize in seafoods, but our steaks are really popular, too. We have a lot of filet mignon dishes on the menu. Several years ago, beef prices went sky high for a while. Lots of places started bringing in Australian beef, but we stayed true to what we had always done, never cutting any corners or reducing quality.”
When she describes what they have always tried to achieve, Carlen observes, “I just love making people happy with food and wine. I’m big on [food and wine] pairings. One big thing about this restaurant is people always say they feel like they are coming to someone’s home. My husband always emphasizes staff, too. Most of our wait staff has been with us for 15 years or more. Our daughter, son, and son in law all work here, too. It would just break my heart if anyone ever left here unhappy.”
In an article published about 10 years ago, Southern Living magazine called Colington Café the best restaurant for the best price on the Outer Banks. At least 75 percent of their summer customers are repeats from previous years, usually many years. For the last five years, the restaurant has received a Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor.