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Remember when going to that favorite restaurant at the beach during the summmer was almost as memorable as the beach itself? I said almost because, years ago, the attraction was solely the beach because there was not a whole lot else. Not the ten mile strip of restaurants, outlet malls, putt-putt golf, movie theaters, etc. that distract visitors today. -Back then, if the restaurant had a powerful air conditioner and plenty of fried shrimp, that was enough.
There's been great seafood up and down the Carolina Coast for many years. Having lived in both Virginia and North Carolina, I've found there are two basic destinations in North Carolina when going to the coast; the northern part is comprised of the Outer Banks (OBX) and Southern Outer Banks (SBX). OBX and SBX span from Currituck to Hatteras Seashore and Occracoke. The southern part is known as The Crystal Coast and comprises towns like Oriental, Morehead City, Wrightsville Beach, and Atlantic Beach down towards Myrtle Beach across the border. Tarheels either go to the northern part or the southern part but it is surprising how few visit both. Both areas of the North Carolina Coast have great restaurants and I'd like to tell you about a few.
Owens Restaurant, Nags Head
For years, both areas have had many family favorites for seafood but for Outer Banks fans, Owens in Nags Head was and remains THE destination for that special meal while vacationing at the beach. It started as an isolated destination sixty years ago in Nags Head. Back when Nags Head was comprised of the shingled, ocean front Grand Ladies of the Outer Banks, smaller fisherman's cottages and little else. Since then, Owens has grown in size and stature while keeping to its Owens family roots; fresh seafood, great sides and surprisingly good steaks. Dining there is low key and old school (they still serve those crocks of cheese spread with the Lance cracker assortment basket!) but with a constant focus on quality and generous portions. -The seafood mixed grill of shrimp, tuna steak, scallops, and beef steak is probably my favorite meal. Period.
Santitary Seafood Restaurant, Morehead City
When you mention Morehead City, almost everyone will immediately smile and suggest Sanitary Seafood, an ancient restaurant on the waterfront. On February 10, 1938, two partners, Tony Seamon and Ted Garner, opened a fresh seafood market on the Morehead City waterfront. A small building had been rented from Charles S. Wallace for $5.50 per week with the understanding that no beer or wine would be sold and that the premises be kept clean and neat. The name "Sanitary Fish Market" was chosen by the partners to project their compliance.
Everyone's been to Sanitary and everyone has a t-shirt. In fact, I'll bet you that you cannot go out on a Saturday in Raleigh during the summer and not spot a few -usually in day-glo colors worn by highschool students. My Daughter attends summer camp near there and it's a tradition to eat at Sanitary on their trip to Morehead City. Her favorite is butterfly shrimp. They follow this up with a stop at Dairy Queen. Nice camp.
The Oceanic, Wrightsville Beach
Built upon an old fishing pier, The Oceanic boasts two main attributes that make it a must when visiting Wrightsville or the other surrounding beachs. The food is excellent and, like Owens in Nags Head, their steaks are surprisingly good. The other thing is the view. Sitting perched out on the end of the pier eating a fine meal at sunset is about as good as it gets. In addition, there is usually live music at the very end of the pier. Because the experience is so good, it gets really crowded, especially during the height of vacation season. -Seemingly half of Raleigh is in Wrightsville on summer weekends!
Dockside Seafood Restaurant, Wrightsville Beach
As much of a fixture as The Oceanic is at night, Dockside is at lunch. Located in a marina, the scene is Carolina Beautiful - relaxing, beautiful scenery and laid-back, beautiful people. And the food ain't bad either. Grad a crabcake sandwich or catch of the day for a great inexpensive lunch and lounge around outside on the deck for hours.
Nags Head Pier, Nags Head Restaurant
While all of the afore-mentioned restaurants are excellent, none could really be described as a 'secret' or a 'dive.' The Nags Head Pier Restaurant is both. And I really, really love it. I discovered it while fishing off of the pier with my brother Stretch years ago. Actually, my Brother was fishing while I was busy de-tangling my fishing line. Taking a break from the action, I noticed a small diner tucked in behind the tackle shop.
Turns out, the little restaurant has an outstanding view and specializes in breakfast. Country ham n' two eggs over hard while the sun comes up is a great way to start the day.
Look for my upcoming blog on bygone dives at the beach or on the way to the beach in my upcoming post Bygone Beach.