By Jesse Wood
Aug. 6, 2014. If you ask co-owner Mike McKibbin, Mike’s Inland Seafood in Boone serves the best damn seafood in the state.
“People will drive all the way from Raleigh to just come up and eat and turn right around, and people from Florida will say, ‘Why don’t you put one down in Florida?’ They say it’s the best seafood they’ve ever eaten,” McKibbin said. “Jim and I will put it up against anything on the coast. They can’t touch us because of our quality.”
While McKibbin’s name is Mike, he wasn’t the namesake of the restaurant. In 1981, Jim Mizner, who moved to Boone from Georgia to attend Appalachian State University, where he was a heavyweight wrestler, bought into the restaurant when it was located downtown, where Boone Bagelry is at today.
A couple years later, Mizner moved the business to the Greene’s Motel, where it operated for about year. That’s when McKibbin, of Hawaii, who was also athletic and played on the ASU soccer team that made the national rankings in the ‘70s, came on board. In those initial years, McKibbin would work the breakfast shift, attend school in the afternoon and return for dinner.
“Back then, there were not seafood restaurants around. It was something that Boone needed,” McKibbin said.
(McKibbin added that while he’s always loved seafood, the only thing he ever “caught” was the bus in college. Mizner, on the other hand, grew up fishing with his dad from Florida and his mother from the coast of Rhode Island.)
Then in 1984-85, Mike Inland’s Seafood moved to U.S. 321, near where the Cornerstone Bookstore is located today. McKibbin and Mizner tried to buy the location, but the bank wouldn’t lend them the money; they said it was “jinxed” because so many business had failed before Mike’s Inland Seafood arrived, McKibbin said, laughing when retelling the story.
The restaurant operated on the Blowing Rock Road strip for about 14 years before the owner of the property jacked up the rent to where the local independent restaurant couldn’t survive in that location.
“We hated to leave, but there was no way we could pay $10,000 to $12,000 a month [after paying $2,500 per month], so we bought this property,” Mizner said, speaking from one of the dining tables inside the restaurant located off of N.C. 194 at 128 Perkinsville Dr.
Mike’s Inland Seafood even opened a second store in Banner Elk that operated for about 14 years. With the inconsistency of the seasonal economy in Banner Elk, McKibbin and Mizner decided to shut that operation down once the Boone location at Perkinsville was up and running.
Throughout the many moves, Mike’s Inland Seafood has maintained a loyal following, which has been necessary since it’s no longer in a highly visible location on the strip. As mentioned earlier, McKibbin and Mizner chalk this up to the quality of the food and the skilled preparation.
“For one, we are really picky about the type of seafood that we eat and serve,” McKibbin said. “We only serve the highest quality flounder and shrimps and everything could be cheaper, but if we were to buy the cheaper stuff, our customers would go. It’s taken us years and years of different product lines to find the ones we like.”
Mizner noted that everything is cooked to order – “nothing ahead of time” – and items like the crab cakes, hushpuppies and onion rings and all the sauces, dressings and breadings are made from scratch. And they’ll rattle off the longitude and latitude of where all of the seafood comes from: perch and cod from the North Atlantic, shrimp and oysters from the Gulf Coast and the flounder from Alaska, for just a few examples.
And the menu has evolved over the years.
“There are more menu offerings and different ways of cooking the meals, more selections of sides for customer,” Sharon McKibbon, the wife of Mike.
(It’s a family affair with Jim’s wife Elizabeth and Mike’s wife working at the restaurant throughout the years and all of their children at one time or another getting in on the action. The Mizner’s son Clay just graduated from Watauga High School and recently began working at the restaurant and the McKibbin’s children, Lindsey and Jason, who are both grown now, also took part in the family enterprise.)
In addition to seafood, Mike’s Inland Seafood takes pride in the steaks, chickens and salads that are served. Sides include hush puppies, cole slaw and choice of potato – French fries, baked and sweet. They have special offerings for those who are vegetarian or gluten free and those that have allergies, too.
When McKibbin and Mizner were running the restaurant along U.S. 321 in that prime location in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the chain restaurants hadn’t arrived in the fashion that exists today, squeezing the “slices of the pie” for everybody. And before then, no chains existed.
“Back in the early ‘70s, there wasn’t much up here. The Town of Boone was a very unique little place in that there weren’t any franchises in the ‘60s or even as late as the ‘70s. What brought the McFranchises was liquor by the drink. When I was in school here in the early ‘70s, Boone was a dry town – no beer or wine. In Blowing Rock, you couldn’t buy cold beer, only hot,” McKibbin said. “Boone basically had very few restaurants. Jack Pepper’s Restaurant, The Peddler Steakhouse, the Mountain House. It was like going to your house to eat. Everything was small and independent.”
Today, the times are tough for not only Mike’s Inland Seafood, but all the independent restaurants in the region. The brands have the national advertising, which makes it even tougher to compete, when visitors come to the area and are familiar with the chains and unwilling to try something new.
“They know what they are going to get,” Mizner said. “It’s not going to be good, but it’s not going to be bad – mediocre.”
This, however, is unlike Mike’s Inland Seafood. If you just walk into that door and give their cuisine a shot, you’ll come back because it’s just that good – and you know they take pride in the food that they are serving as well.
After more than 30 years in the restaurant business, McKibbin and Mizner will talk about the grind of the restaurant business, the 80- to 100-hour work weeks, the ever-rising food costs and competition from national franchises.
But if they had to do it all over again, Mizner said he would jump at the opportunity – just like he did more than 30 years ago.
Mike Inland’s Seafood is located at 128 Perkinsville Drive. It’s open six days a week: 11:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Saturday – closed on Mondays.