Self-taught in Seafood
On the main drag of Oak Island Drive, a white metal building stands out. Multi-colored pastel shutters frame windows, while pictures of island sunsets and swimming turtles beckon diners to a tropical oasis. Palms and other beautiful flora line the teal entryway. Inside 6220 E. Oak Island Dr. awaits Turtle Island Restaurant and Catering, owned by Jeff Todd, Gerald Leonard, and Teresea Taylor.
Leonard, a Southport native, and Todd relocated to Oak Island 20 years ago and started Island Catering, one of the first catering services in the area. Once the business was up and running and the demand was strong, the duo expanded their culinary and entrepreneurial skills with Turtle Island Restaurant and Catering, a full-service restaurant in addition to the catering. As one may guess, the venture is named in part after Todd and Leonard’s volunteer work as nest parents with the Sea Turtle Protection Program on Oak Island.
Turtle Island has a casual, funky, south Florida feel. Inside, the horseshoe bar to the right of the entrance is warm and inviting; it’s the kind of place where the bartender will have your drink ready when you walk in the door. Freshwater aquariums and glass light boxes of shells transition into the dining area. A collection of turtles—some wire, some ceramic—is artistically displayed on one turquoise wall. The personal touch in the ambience is also reflected in the food.
Both self-taught, Todd and Leonard are inspired by coastal cuisine from the Outer Banks to the West Indies. They bring to the menu a combination of local and traditional fares like Lowcountry shrimp and grits, Ocracoke crab cakes, and Brunswick clam soup (that’s without cream). The flavor of the south islands can be tasted in the Caribbean Grilled Grouper with a pineapple, mango and mint salsa, as well as in the Jamaican Jerk pork and wings.
Leonard, as the executive chef, is joined by chef and kitchen manager, Renee Reed. Together they forge innovative dishes of seafood, steak, pork, chicken, and pastas using fresh and local ingredients as much as possible.
Best-selling dishes include fresh baby flounders and all-certified Angus beef. Popular fried seafood platters are also available. All of Turtle Island’s desserts are made in-house by Todd; favorites are the Turtle Pie (chocolate, caramel and pecans) and the house staple: Key lime pie.
Turtle Island is definitely a local’s go-to eatery. Some of the staff have been with the restaurant since opening 12 years ago, contributing to the neighborhood feel. Lead bartender, Willie Williams, “came with the building,” Todd muses.
Nightly food and bar specials are also a draw. Todd’s case in point: Wednesday night.
“A couple of months after opening, we wanted to get people in to see the menu,” Todd explains. “So the middle of the week, hump night, became steamer night. It has been a huge success.” Reduced prices are instated for the steamed seafood: oysters (in season), clams, and shrimp. Discounts also apply to the chicken wings:, including flavors such as Jamaican jerk, lemon pepper, buffalo, and boom boom (that’s with habanero peppers).
Added with the lively crowd, “The Turtle” becomes the place to be on Wednesday nights. The line of people that form before the doors open is a restaurant’s highest compliment—giving credence to the The Turtle Island Restaurant and Catering philosophy shared by Todd: “Great food doesn’t have to be complicated, and really good food doesn’t have to be overpriced or overstated.”
Turtle Island Restaurant and Catering is located at 6220 East Oak Island Drive. For more information on the establishment, call (910) 278-4944 or visit their Facebook page: Turtle Island Restaurant & Catering. Winter hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. until. During the summer, Turtle Island is open Tuesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. until. Along with catering, the restaurant building is also available for private parties.