The iconic Blue Pete’s in Pungo is back in business and booming once again, helmed by twin brothers who have breathed new life into a Virginia Beach favorite.
Mark Edward Atkinson
Nick and Aristotle Cleanthes
When Aristotle and Nick Cleanthes, now 27, were growing up in the Back Bay area of Virginia Beach in the 1980s and ’90s, Blue Pete’s was the place for white linen occasions. Those in search of a special night out would drive twisting narrow lanes to get to Tabernacle Creek, where the romance of a thick canopy of sheltering trees was brought to full effect in the gloaming of humid late summer evenings.
First opened in 1972 by Pat and Betty Ann Ricks as a sandwich shop and bar in this rural enclave, Blue Pete’s—named for a resident of the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the American Coot, a.k.a. Blue Pete—soon evolved into a more formal establishment with a dressed-up menu.
The woodsy retreat kept its regional and national rep for great food for more than 30 years, but like so many rags to riches stories, the restaurant fell on hard times when the Ricks sold it in the early 2000s. It wasn’t until 2011, when the 24-year-old Kellam High School grads, self-employed since starting their own landscaping business at 17, took over and renovated the space, decayed from years of flooding and spotty occupancy, that former fans and regulars re-claimed familiar seats in the now-packed house.
Today, a reimagined and more casual menu featuring sweet potato biscuits and stand-a-spoon-in-it she crab soup, as well as blackened Mahi topped with house-made mango salsa, crispy calamari served with Thai chili sauce, and turf favorites honey-teriyaki marinated rib-eye and slow-roasted brisket (overseen by 23-year-old Chef Jesse Hubler) have re-established Blue Pete’s as the go-to restaurant in Pungo.
But it’s not just the food that has revivified Blue Pete’s for a new generation; it is the bonhomie of the brothers, lifelong fishermen and hunters, who see their ownership of the restaurant and its 15,000 square feet of land as part of a broader mandate for the preservation of Back Bay. Through their LLC, aptly named Back Bay Boys, they plan to expand beyond the restaurant business into hunting and fishing excursions.
Nick: A lot of people will come in here and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my God! I haven’t seen these people in 15 years!’ and they didn’t even know they were coming, but they reunited here. A lot of people have a lot of history in this place …. memories of childhood, high school, their first date, all kinds of stuff, so we’re keeping history alive. It’s been an eye-opener for us.
Aristotle: For us, it’s extremely important to greet every person who spends money in our establishment, because we want them to know that we appreciate them, that they are a blessing. We want everybody to feel like they’re home. This is our home, you know. We spend 5,000 hours a year here apiece. We don’t want people to come here once a year; we want people to come here once a week! Twice a day!
Aristotle: We’ve been cooking our whole life. Our father is a great cook, and our YiaYia [grandmother] was an exceptional cook. I think they have pictures of us cooking eggs on the stove when we were three years old.
Nick: We lived down the street our whole lives, and back then, nobody was allowed to fish here. We always used to say, ‘man; I just want to go fish off that dock,’ so now we let people do it because we always wanted to.
Aristotle: With Back Bay Boys, we’re taking the business into another realm, and that really fuels us. We want to help get kids back into Mother Nature. It’s something that is true to our hearts. Between fishing and hunting and kayaking and photography and canoeing, there’s something for anybody outside.
Aristotle: This is like the last untouched place of Virginia Beach. People think of the beach as a resort—exotic, crazy, hotels and ocean, and they don’t know that there are tractors here, there are cornfields and soybeans and strawberries, and that’s what so beautiful. I can ride 15 minutes and hit the concrete jungle, but I can also cast a pole or shoot a deer or shoot some skeet or ride 4-wheelers ... anything. And that’s what’s really special about this part of town.
Nick: We’re firm believers in opportunity. It doesn’t matter what you want to do in life, where you want to go, or your vision your dream or anything. When opportunities present themselves, you must seize them or they will pass you.
Nick: Worrying is like a rocking chair: It gives you something to do.
Aristotle: We always say living the dream doesn’t exclude the occasional nightmare. We had a cooler go down the other day, and we lost $3,000 of food overnight. We didn’t find out until 3 p.m. the next day, and we opened at 5, and we had a party of 50 people we were catering at 6:30, so we had to cook everything for the party and the entire restaurant, and act like nothing had happened. But there’s no quitting, so you just have to roll. We were running around like mad men, but everything turned out all right. It was a beautiful night after it was all said and done.
Nick: The only way to fail is to give up, so we’re not going to fail.
This article originally appeared Sept. 9, 2014. BluePetesPungo.com