Food & DrinkFood Features

The Waterman Fish Bar Gets Its Sea Legs at New Cornelius Location

Going coastal

Looking onto a patio from the lawn, a few people sit at a table with lights strung above them leading to a large sign that reads The Waterman, with blue sky above.
The Waterman Fish Bar in Cornelius utilizes a system of movable windows and breathable blinds to blend interior and exterior space while still protecting patrons from sun or rain. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The Waterman Fish Bar, located on South Boulevard near Ideal Way, has reimagined the neighborhood seafood joint in the South End area. Boasting a domestically farmed menu, an indoor/outdoor venue, and a rooftop patio with a great view of the skyline (for now), The Waterman has become one of the most popular seafood spots in the Uptown area.

Now Paul Manley, co-owner of High Tide Hospitality, which runs the restaurant, believes he can make similar waves off the waters of Lake Norman.

Having repurposed a venue that was previously home to Cowboy Restaurant — a steak, chicken and ribs joint on Bailey Road in Cornelius — Manley recently opened his second Waterman location in hopes that the Lake Norman crowd will take to it the same way the South End crowd has.

“Casual seafood in the Lake Norman area is a little under-served. We feel we can cater to that,” Manley told Queen City Nerve. “We’ve gotten to the point where we’re a pretty trustworthy brand in South End, but Lake Norman is a totally different crowd. That trustworthiness starts all over again.”

Paul Manley, wearing a hat, glasses and white button-down shirt, holds a plate of oysters out to the camera.
Paul Manley, partner at High Tide Hospitality, at the new Cornelius location of The Waterman Fish Bar. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

According to Manley, however, that process doesn’t mean simply taking the same concept and replicating it exactly for the northern part of the county.

“People have different tastes, different expectations,” he explained. “Just because you walked in with your recipes and brand doesn’t mean it will work the same way in a new venue. There’s some brand refinement that needs to happen — something that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Since opening in April, Manley has been keeping a close eye on all of the receipts coming out of Bailey Road, including not only what customers are ordering, but what they’re not ordering at all — or what they’re ordering once then never again.

After two months of fine tuning, Manley said The Waterman’s second location is beginning to gain its sea legs.

Enjoying high sales among its new clientele, Manley credits the new location’s success to the restaurant’s founding principles mixed in with a few changes along the way.

Keeping things local

One of the most important founding principles is the fact that, just like the South End location, The Waterman in Lake Norman sources its menu entirely from Carolina coastal farms.

“We externally import 95% of the seafood that we consume as a nation,” Manley said. “That’s a massive trade deficit — the definition of a trade deficit. We [at High Tide Hospitality] built our seafood restaurants under the premise that it’s all domestic. The whole idea is to celebrate the Carolina coast.”

An assortment of plated food from The Waterman's menu, including shrimp over rice, salmon over salad, a burger with fries and a pink cocktail.
Menu items from The Waterman Fish Bar. (Photo courtesy of High Tide Hospitality)

And that can mean something new each and every day at The Waterman.

“Whatever is caught that very day on the Carolina coast has the potential to be put on the menu,” Manley says. “Basically, half of the menu is written daily.”

This gives chefs the autonomy to create whatever dish the fresh ingredients inspire them to make.

What one chef will decide to feature at the Lake Norman location will rarely be the same “Daily Catch” special that day at the South End location. The staff looks forward to seeing what comes in each day, as can be seen in a recent Waterman Instagram post depicting an excited Charles Landry, South End’s culinary director, showing off a huge red snapper that had just arrived. 

That is not to say the menus are completely different, however. The Waterman in Lake Norman has kept classic menu staples like oysters on the half-shell and the lobster roll — not to mention the hugely popular lobster mac ‘n’ cheese.

But it is the variety in fish featured between the two locations that allows for The Waterman to better cater to its target demographic, Manley says.

Next to a bar hangs a large black-and-white painting of a Black man in crabbing gear holding a large crab. It is titled The Waterman.
“The Waterman” painting by local artist Sarah Helser graces the interior of the new Cornelius location. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The Waterman is open for brunch, lunch and dinner, with brunch available on weekends from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

That menu includes options such as the Lobster Bene, which features butter-poached lobster and two poached eggs on a buttermilk biscuit; and the Smoked Salmon Tostini, house-cured smoked salmon on a small piece of toast with avocado spread, caper, fresh dill, red onion and charred lemon.

The all-day food menu ranges from expected seafood items like NC trout and Creole shrimp & grits to more inland Southern fare such as chicken & waffles or the Spring Mountain chicken supper.

The Barmacist serves

The Waterman’s brunch menu also brings its own selection of “boat drinks,” which is what the restaurant calls its cocktails, including the Shipwrecked Mary — Smirnoff vodka, Charleston Bloody mix, an Old Bay salt rim, jalapeño, olive, bacon, and shrimp — and the aptly named Brunch Punch, which mixes Malibu Coconut rum, Blue Curacao, simple, lemon, pineapple, Sprite, and brandied cherry.

The all-day boat drink menu gets even more creative, curated by Azure “The Barmacist” Cassidy, who was brought on as High Tide’s beverage director in 2021. Though Cassidy works as the bar manager at another High Tide establishment, Sea Level in Uptown, plenty of the options at The Waterman were Sea Level collaborations, which is another way to say they were Cassidy’s creations.

A masked woman with red hair and a blue shirt pours a teal blue drink from a pitcher into a martini glass.
Azure “The Barmacist” Kassidy at work behind the bar. (Photo by Alex Flores)

That includes the famous Topside Treasure, which can be seen on multiple tables whenever you stop by The Waterman regardless of the time of day. The drinks garner a second glance thanks to the creature inside — a gummy shark frozen into a Blue Curaçao iceberg, floating in a sea of Teremana Blanco Tequila.

There are a number of other boat drink options, including Cassidy’s Seasonal G&T and Fish House Punch, the latter being always on draft.

There are also a couple mocktails on the menu, as well: a Buzz Kill and a Cosnopolitan.

With every new customer, Manley and his Lake Norman staff learn more about the differing tastes of the Cornelius population. And with every new day, The Waterman floats closer to its goal — the embodiment of a solid and trustworthy neighborhood seafood joint for north Mecklenburg.

Ryan Pitkin contributed reporting to this story.

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