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Our Team

Clarke Merrell, Chef/Owner

Chef and Owner, Clarke Merrell, created everything you see at Circa 81, from the custom-built bar, to the ever popular Circa 81 martini, Clarke has his hand in every aspect of Circa 81's operations.  Hear the Circa 81 story. Clarke completely renovated the restaurant space in late 2009 to truly reflect his style. Circa 81 then opened on January 20, 2010. Many people often ask where the name comes from. Clarke and his wife, Liza, were both born in 1981. Circa means "about or approximately" and they both thought it fit perfectly with the number 81. 

Clarke grew up working in the restaurant industry, as his parents took over operations at Atlantic Beach's DJ Shooters in 1988. Clarke takes great pride in providing customers with outstanding food and exemplary service. Clarke has grown to love entertaining, cooking, and creating memorable experiences for the many guests he has come to know during his culinary career. After graduating with a degree in Culinary Arts from the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida, Clarke has worked in a variety of restaurants and trained with some of the best chefs in the industry.  

In July of 2012 Clarke opened up the Twisted Spoon, a frozen yogurt. The Twisted Spoon gives Clarke an opportunity to offer another great family destination in Morehead City. In March 2013 Clarke opened up Beaufort Olive Oil Company, offering premium oils and vinegars, exotic salts and specialty provisions. BOOC allows shoppers to sample any of the oils and vinegars and see recipe and pairing suggestions. The products are free of additives and preservatives, organically grown and you can truly taste the difference. Clarke uses many of the oils, vinegars and salts in dishes at Circa 81. There are three BOOC locations - Beaufort waterfront, Morehead City waterfront, Emerald Isle. The stores also feature specialty cookware/kitchenware, culinary treats and many of Clarke’s favorite products.

In May of 2014 Clarke rolled out a new food truck, called the Dank Burrito. Dank means "fresh" or "of high quality". Clarke has created delicious, unique burritos and tacos using a variety of proteins, housemade salsas, slaws, kimchi and guacamole, just to name a few. The food truck operates all around Carteret and surrounding counties. The Dank Burrito opened its first restaurant location in October 2015 in Morehead City, while continuing to also travel with the food truck. In August 2017 a second Dank Burrito location opened on the Beaufort waterfront and in April 2019 a third location of Dank Burrito was opened in Raleigh at Transfer Co. Food Hall. Dank Burrito was named 2014 National Food Truck Rookie of the Year and 2016 Best Food Truck Graphic Design by

In 2019 Clarke also purchased and began renovations on a beautiful private event venue in Indian Beach called Merrell Estate & Gardens. Merrell Estate & Gardens is a gorgeous property nestled in the heart of the Crystal Coast with grand spaces, expansive greens and a stately, Southern charm. It is a popular destination for weddings and events of all sizes with a variety of unique spaces that flow together to accommodate any celebration or gathering - from an elegant ballroom, to a vast portico for covered outdoor seating or dancing, to a broad lawn infused with native flora, and more.

In 2020, Clarke started doing pop-up meals with Social Q Smokehouse and by early 2021 Social Q had its own location in Morehead City at 4047 Arendell, serving smoked meats and craft barbecue.

In 2023, Clarke opened up Prime Bistro and Wine Bar, an elevated dining experience that marries the classic with the contemporary, featuring wood-fired steaks, fine seafood, house-made pasta, and a robust wine menu.


Clarke was named 2015 Arnold Murray Small Business Person of the Year by the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce. Clarke's goal is for Circa 81 to provide creative, quality, delicious food in a beautiful setting. Offering small plates that are perfect for passing around the table in true tapas style, our dishes are meant to inspire and engage our diners.  So, start a conversation, relax and enjoy a fresh take on cuisine. Clarke developed Circa 81 in hopes that guests will try something new and different and truly have a dining experience. Circa 81 offers great wine and cocktails too, with more than 30 specialty drinks on our cocktaileria menu.  Our menu also includes medium and large plate selections - delicious sandwiches, homemade soups, local seafood and fresh-made desserts. Circa 81 also offers take-out and catering - just contact us for more details! Gather, Eat, Enjoy.

Liza Merrell, Owner

Liza was born in Des Moines, Iowa and then moved to Raleigh in 1996. Since she was born, Liza and her family spent every summer and many holidays in Atlantic Beach, as her mother is from Eastern NC. Liza attended Leesville Road High School and went on to Washington, D.C. where she attended The George Washington University and majored in Women’s Studies and Political Science. Liza was very active on campus and held a variety of leadership roles in GWU student activities. She was a member of Sigma Kappa sorority, where she served as Executive Vice President. While in college Liza worked on-campus at GWU, for a law firm, and at Springboard Enterprises, as a research intern.

Liza started working in restaurants as a high school job at the age of 15. During college summer break she also worked as a waitress in Atlantic Beach. She and her husband, Clarke, met in 2002 while Liza worked at Shooters restaurant and bar in Atlantic Beach, which was owned by the Merrell family. Liza and Clarke started dating in 2003 and were married in 2009.


After graduating from GWU Liza worked at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) in the Research Triangle Park, where she was the senior manager for all industry conferences. She then moved to RegEd in August 2006 as an Implementation Project Manager and worked as a remote employee with them until July of 2022.

Liza manages the front-of-house hiring, staffing and reservations for Circa 81. She coordinates all special events and caterings for both on and off-site events and Merrell Estate & Gardens. She also oversees marketing materials and websites for the businesses.

Liza and Clarke have two children. Liza is an active partner of One Harbor Church and has served on the Kids Ministry team. She is passionate about serving children in our community and served as a Guardian ad Litem for several years in Wake County. Liza serves on the Home and School Association (HASA) Board for St. Egbert Catholic School. She is a former Advisory Board member for Sigma Kappa (Gamma Phi chapter) at NCSU. Liza loves to travel and spend her days off out on the water or at the beach.

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