When Chris Vlahos took over the family business — Kitty Hawk Pizza — in 2004, he had big plans in store for the longtime location.
“My parents had the building built in 1983, and our family ran the Kitty Hawk Pizza ’til 1999. It was very much a family business,” says Vlahos, who owns the restaurant with his wife Marlee. “My parents were there every day. I worked after school and weekends, and my brother and his wife worked there after he finished college.”
From 1999 to 2004, Kitty Hawk Pizza was leased out to a different owner, but the family took it back in the summer of ’04 for one final season before re-opening as Barefoot Bernie’s Tropical Grill & Bar.
“We did that to reestablish what our parents had build and to give us a bit more time to get everything in line for the remodel,” he says. “So the idea of Bernie’s was built in late-2003 and finally came to life in 2005.”
Barefoot Bernie’s quickly established a solid reputation for its relaxed vibe, great food, great service, great drinks and reasonable prices.
Vlahos says it’s all about the positivity and passion his staff brings to the table.
“We have some of the best staff on the Outer Banks. It feels most times like we are just one big family,” he says, adding the staff boasts more than 35 people year-round, and more than 60 during the high season. “The first word in our employee handbook is the definition of the word ‘passion.’ It starts there: You gotta have passion for everything you do and believe in.”
The restaurant is able to stay open throughout the year because it made an effort from the beginning to attract a year-round clientele. Part of the secret to its success in that effort is its series of special themed nights.
“Mondays we do Burger Night, where we freshly grind meat and create a very unique specialty burger that is visually out of this world and that will blow up your taste buds. Tuesday is Tapas and Wine, which we donate a portion on the proceeds to the Outer Banks Hospital for Breast Cancer Awareness. Wednesday is our Gourmet Taco Night where, again, we try and create five ‘knock your socks off’ tacos, so our guest can experience something different. Thursday is Sushi Night with Milo that we have been doing 10-plus years now.”
Every other Friday, Bernie’s hosts a Taps Takeover so patrons can experience different styles and flavors “from great little breweries that are trying to get there name out there,” he says.
The eatery also is a popular gathering spot for sports fans, thanks to its more than 20 flat-screen TVs that broadcast NFL, NCAA, MLB, NHL and other league packages. “We’ve got pretty much all your sports needs covered.”
The menu also has something for everyone with menu items inspired by Asian, Caribbean, Mediterranean and classic American fare.
Want a burger? Try the “Bernie” Burger, a half-pound of ground Angus Sirloin with lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickle on a Kaiser roll, served with fries.
If you love seafood, try the Scallops Charleston, which features sea scallops baked with red peppers, mushrooms and creamy Alfredo sauce topped with a crispy panko-Swiss cheese crust, or the honey-glazed salmon, which includes seared Atlantic salmon with a sweet honey-mustard glaze.
Meat-eaters can sink their chops into Brazilian spiced and grilled steak, or treat their palate to a grilled 10-ounce bone in French-cut pork chop with an apple-fireball cinnamon bourbon glaze.
Vegans can partake in a variety of fresh salads or the Southwestern Veggie Burger.
The menu also has eight dishes that are less than 550 calories for calorie-conscious folks.
There is also a kids menu with favorites like grilled cheese, hot dogs, mini hamburgers and more — and, of course, the menu remains true to its roots with a variety of fresh-made specialty pizzas and pasta dishes.
When asked to choose a favorite item from Bernie’s menu, Vlahos hesitates.
“Oh, wow, that’s a hard one. It’s like asking someone to pick their favorite child. I think I’d have to say the Cuban-style steak: The chimichurri sauce is bursting with flavor, jasmine rice, perfectly seasoned black beans and house-made pico de gallo,” he says. “It was probably the first dish I created on the menu, and it inspired the vibe of Bernie’s. We cook with spice and flavor — and we’re not afraid of it.”
The name has changed, and the menu has changed, but the soul of the family-owned business is the same.
“When my father owned Kitty Hawk Pizza, he made sure that every pizza tasted the same, whether it was the rush of July or the dead of winter. He’d also always stay open to the hours posted, he’d keep the ovens on while he cleaned up, and if anyone walked in late and the oven was on, you better believe they would walk out with a pizza,” Vlahos says. “Guests want to know you’re there for them and their meals will taste right time and time again. … Constancy and reliability, it’s that simple.”