Whether summer is in full swing, or the cooler temperatures of fall have crept through North Carolina, it’s always the best of times for the Crystal Coast. Beaufort native and restaurant owner Kyle Swain agrees and finds the positives no matter what the season. Either it’s the heat of summer and his restaurants are packed and bustling, or its fall when things slow down and he and his staff are able to enjoy a more relaxed pace. As any restaurant owner can tell you, it’s hard to appreciate the beauty around you when you’re stuck inside a kitchen or dining room.
For Swain, it’s even more difficult – he keeps a foot in two very different eateries, Beaufort’s Blue Moon Bistro and the Full Circle Café in Morehead City.
If Blue Moon Bistro is the beautiful and elegant southern debutant, Full Circle Café is her younger, bohemian chic, free-spirited sister. Luckily, area tourists and locals have access to both choices no matter what the time of year.
Growing up in Beaufort, Swain started working from the ground up at Clawson's when he was 13, developing a passion for food and cooking that would stick with him. After four years there, he transitioned to a new Mexican restaurant, Papagayo, where he ran the kitchen for three years, mostly during high school and his first year of college, and more restaurants would follow. He spent time at P.T.'s Grille in Wilmington and summer stints at the Coral Bay Club all while earning an undergraduate degree in anthropology/archaeology. He went on to graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, but soon decided it wasn't for him. Swain spent more than two years working with Gary Win and Harold Tharrington at Savory Fare in Durham then took a job at a new spot outside of Chapel Hill, The Governor's Club.
"It was a great opportunity to be part of an opening crew for a very reputable club," said Swain. "After about a year and a half, I moved back to Beaufort and with the help of two partners and opened Windansea restaurant on the Morehead City waterfront. I was the chef there for about five years and decided to leave my working position and take a break to find my new path."
To make that path a reality, Swain has surrounded himself with a winning team.
"Anthropology is the study of people. In this industry, it is impossible to do it by yourself, therefore it’s all about people," he said. "You HAVE to have a core crew that shares your vision. The social science studies have helped me manage people, often from various walks of life with different backgrounds. It is imperative everyone works together and that only occurs when there is effective leadership. Anthropology and archaeology has also taught me the importance of details, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. It’s my hope that careful attention to detail, from the back of the house to the front, is the most important reason we are still in operation."
Growing up in Beaufort he had “the quintessential childhood. So it was a logical progression to open a business that supports friends and neighbors that I have known all my life. My roots are here and plus it’s a great place to live. We have three stoplights here and we like it. It's safe, secure and a great place to raise kids,” said Swain.
Beaufort’s Blue Moon Bistro, which opened in 2002 in the historic Dill House on Queen Street, quickly gathered a following. It is sophisticated, but don’t be intimidated by the fancy vibe. Although there is an exclusive feel it is anything by pretentious. Being located in a coastal town, a casual atmosphere is a must.
“We have guests that come in after being on the boat in flip flops and shorts, and guests who come in fully dressed up for a night,” Swain explained, and the Blue Moon team welcomes them all. Nestled off of Front Street, the restaurant beckons its customers whether they are wearing a three-piece suit or board shorts. Blue Moon has the cozy ambience of a home rather than a fancy restaurant. Seating only 50, Blue Moon Bistro offers an intimate and one of a kind dining experience.
Guests are greeted with an expansive southern wrap around porch complete with plenty of seating, blue painted ceilings and lantern style lighting. Inside, this classic white beauty is dressed up with chunky cased windows, oak woodwork, wainscoting, and eclectic and classy décor. A charming fireplace sits the in the corner and pressed tin moons and suns can be found throughout.
Smells of simmering garlic and fresh seafood waft through the air and are enough to grab the attention of outdoor passersby. Some of the classic items from the Blue Moon Bistro menu are the catch of the day, Carteret County shrimp and grits martini, pork tenderloin and the Angus ribeye steak. While the farm to table trend has picked up major steam in recent years, it’s been at staple at Blue since they opened the doors in 2002. Although it is a small town Beaufort is quickly growing and evolving so there is much competition among these small local restaurants. However, Blue Moon Bistro stands out in the crowd.
“Our farm to fork mission, the daily prep, our feature changes and variety make us special. Tourists want local flavor and we get the highest quality products and pass that along. We are good, local folks trying to offer a great product and give people a taste of Beaufort,” explained Swain.
After nine months of renovation, Full Circle Café opened on Aug. 5, 2015, and features a similar farm-to-table philosophy.
"Currently, Jayson Scott is the chef de cuisine at Full Circle and brings talent, skill, and passion to the kitchen – qualities that are essential in my opinion in the service industry," Swain said.
Located on the Morehead City waterfront, it has a totally different vibe – a style all its own. As if he didn’t have enough on his plate, Swain decided to delve into another venture 15 minutes away. To some, Swain may be a glutton for punishment, to others he is living the American dream, doing what he loves.
Full Circle's building is from the 1950s and is full of retro character. Lime green concrete, blue plantation shutters and colorful wildflowers spilling out of planters and pots are sure attention grabbers. Located just steps from the water there is a bit of coastal vibe mixed with an artsy, industrial feel. Inside customers are greeted with a surfboard and walls covered in corrugated metal and raw pallet wood. These natural raw materials combined with vibrant art and exposed ceilings offer a juxtaposition that makes this place feel casually chic and effortlessly cool.
“We want the food to be fast and the restaurant to be casual with an emphasis on quality. It has to feel comfortable enough to bring the whole family, but also the perfect place for a date night,” said Swain.
In addition to a welcoming atmosphere, diners may notice the distinct wood fire smell that creeps up from the intimate kitchen. The brick oven is where some of the restaurant's most popular meals are created, including pizzas and daily fish features. The cozy outdoor seating patio is a quaint spot for a romantic date or a girl’s night out. With strings of twinkle lights, hanging lanterns and lattice walls it feels more an intimate dinner on a private backyard deck.
For this chef, “every day is like a catered event, it’s a chance to live your passion and practice your craft. It's an artistry that I get to share," Swain said. "What I like best about what I do is having the freedom to be creative each day. We are a relatively small operation and that helps to keep the stress to a minimum. And yes, after years in all types of restaurants, being small was by design. It makes the ever-present variables easier to manage.
"I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some wonderful chefs," he continued. "I learned in the trenches with no formal culinary training and draw upon all of my mentors’ talent, skill and work-ethic daily. It’s a labor-intensive business where 60-80 hour work-weeks are not uncommon. It simply takes time to take care of all of the details."
While neither restaurant is large, the eateries are proof that good things come in small packages. For Swain, this is exactly how he wants it.
“I want to grow a little each year. I want simple … nothing fancy. I want to keep it fun and not overwhelmingly hard to manage.”
It seems that Swain and his loyal crew is on the right track with the diverse menu, amazing atmosphere and incredible service.
“The food, wine, and service at these restaurants will rival bigger cities. A tremendous amount of skill and experience can be found at both restaurants and that along with our food and recipes are what keep people coming back.”
There is little down time, Swain admits, with paperwork, payroll, menu design and research development for two spots leaving barely enough time to even sleep. They sites do close one day per week so everyone can get some rest and Swain said he likes to spend time on the water, whether it's on a boat, fishing, surfing or simply sitting in a chair – looking through a cookbook, of course.
Does he have any advice for future restaurateurs or chefs? "I would highly recommend working in as many as you can, starting from the bottom up. It’s a very dynamic business and requires all parts to be functioning at their best, all the time, in unison. A lot of folks think a two-year degree at a culinary school or hospitality management school is all that’s needed. Those are wonderful things but there’s much more to this business that can only be taught by going through the years of work within the business itself. I would recommend a business degree, coupled with on the job training with great people that have already proven themselves. That’s a good formula."