Authentic Coastal Cuisine

Authentic Coastal Cuisine

Savor fresh, local seafood on the coast

Thanks to the bountiful sea and many bays and rivers, along with farm-to-table vegetables and more, many restaurants along the North Carolina coastline feature food that’s true to its environs – from steaming hot hush puppies to just-steamed blue crabs to fresh fish caught that morning.

From the Virginia state line to the South Carolina border, it’s easy to find a classic coastal Carolina meal. These recommendations aren’t meant to be all encompassing, but rather geographically and stylistically diverse. When eating out, look for award-winning North Carolina wines on wine lists. Plus, stop at one or more of the plentiful seafood shops to take home a taste (and catch) of the coast. Here are some tasty picks starting up in the Outer Banks and heading all the way down the coast to Calabash.

Since 1985, Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant and Tavern has offered one of the area’s best fine dining spots. Located in Nags Head, Kelly’s specializes in the creative use of fresh local seafood – flounder, crab, shrimp, oysters, and more are all on the menu when available. Those who can‘t decide go for the "NC Seafood Collection" and veteran visitors know they can’t go wrong with one of "Kelly’s Klassics" – favorite dishes for 20+ years.

About six miles south, Owens’ Restaurant is another coastal classic. Originally opened in 1946, Owens’ is literally a slice of Outer Banks history. The Hatteras-style clam chowder makes for a great appetizer, while entrees include "Carolina Bouillabaisse," "Seafood Outer Banks," and "Miss O’s Crab Cakes." After homemade dessert, history buffs will enjoy the collection of local maritime artifacts.

Down on the causeway heading to Manteo, it’s hard to take your eyes off the view from Basnight’s Lone Cedar Café. However, those who do will see and savor some seriously creative local fare.

The Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry takes visitors to Ocracoke Island. Several options on Ocracoke include: Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar Restaurant, which features great waterfront deck, prepared-to-order "fast food," live music, and lots of locals; Jolly Roger Pub & Marina, offering fresh seafood and sublime sunsets; Back Porch Restaurant, where you’ll find fresh seafood and a popular screened porch, with casual lunches at the nearby Back Porch Lunchbox; and Café Atlantic, which promises lots of seafood combos and a tasty Sunday brunch.

Sprawling Sanitary Fish Market & Restaurant has been a Morehead City landmark since 1938 for good reason. The hush puppies are legendary, as are the varied seafood-oriented baskets and other fresh seafood constantly heading out of the kitchen. Still family-owned and -operated, the Sanitary also features a fresh seafood market next to the restaurant. Nearby, in front of the waterfront Hampton Inn Morehead City, Bistro-by-the-Sea features creative preparations of Carteret Catch local seafood.

Down on the Cape Fear Coast, Wilmington and its nearby beaches beckon with several top restaurants serving up the local catch. Catch Modern Seafood Cuisine just outside historic downtown features the fresh seafood creations of Top Chef contestant and James Beard nominee Keith Rhodes. Wrightsville Beach’s Oceanic at Crystal Pier has a seafood-dominated menu, outdoor dining, and expansive ocean views. Further south, Michael’s Seafood in Carolina Beach is famed for its award-winning Captain M’s Seafood Chowder.

Those arriving in Southport by land or sea head straight to Yacht Basin Provision Company. This waterfront favorite usually has a line before ordering at the counter and grabbing self-service drinks while awaiting freshly prepared fare. Provision Co. favorites include seafood chowder, steamed shrimp, crab cakes, a great grouper salad sandwich, and some seriously tasty hamburgers.

When a style of coastal cooking earns its own name, you know it’s authentic. That’s what happened down in Calabash, where Calabash-style fried seafood was born (and is now served all over the map). To get the real deal, head to one of several tasty restaurants in the tiny waterfront town (often called "The Seafood Capital of the World"). They all fry up Calabash favorites like shrimp, varied fresh fish, and more. Wherever you choose to dine, plan to start with ubiquitous (and delicious) hush puppies and wash it all down with some sweet tea served by friendly wait staff with oh-so-Southern accents.

Fun Fact:
The entertainer Jimmy Durante frequently dined at Coleman’s, calling the restaurant’s Lucy Coleman ‟Mrs. Calabash” and later closing his show by saying, ‟Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”

Lynn Seldon

Request your Travel Guide

Download or order FREE guides and maps

Discover Project Project 543

Explore unique spots across North Carolina

See all of our videos »

Close X