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North Carolina seafood restaurants - which ones source locally?

  • m

I like my seafood to be fresh and local (having grown up 20 miles from working waterfronts in my youth, I got spoiled on the taste). Plus, I like to support local families and communities. So what seafood restaurants in NC feature fresh and local seafood for the bulk of their menu? I called a few of the places I like to frequent with some mixed results:

1) Catch Restaurant - Wilmington, NC - as expected, their strategy is to source from local and sustainable seafood. The blurb at the bottom of their menu proclaims as much. They proudly feature "NC shrimp" and "local oysters". I've found not everything is always available, but that's a good thing. http://www.catchwilmingtonnc.com/

2) South Beach Grill - Wrightsville Beach, NC - this place led to a disappointing phone call. It had always been a staple of mine at the coast, and I know in times past their menu stated that the seafood was fresh and whatever they were selling in the adjacent market. Well, I called them and asked whether the shrimp and oysters were local, and they flatly said "no" and left it at that. They didn't even volunteer where it was coming from.

3) Backfins Crab House, Wake Forest, NC - the blue crabs here are awesome, but I asked about the other seafood sources. Oysters there are from Louisiana, and shrimp are "not local but domestic." I overheard another table recently state that the calamari looked "too uniform" to not be prepackaged, but that's hearsay.

4) Red Barn Grill, Hubert, NC (or Swansboro, NC) - this is a place at the very end of the road that features a seafood market and working dock and is a favorite gem for locals. When I called and asked about whether the shrimp and oysters were local, they seemed surprised that I would even be questioning it, and said, "you can bet your bottom dollar." I'm really gonna have to try this place soon.

So, that's my roundup. Anyone know of any other seafood restaurants, especially ones inland near the Triangle, that stick to local sources? I like calabash-style, and unfortunately a place that sources well like Blu Seafood and Bar in Durham doesn't tend to feature that style too much.

South Beach Grill
100 S Lumina Ave, Wrightsville Beach, NC 28480

215 Princess St, Wilmington, NC 28401

Red Barn Grill
101 Red Barn Road, Hubert, NC

Backfins Crab House
110 S White St, Wake Forest, NC 27587

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  1. Gary's Down East, in Arapahoe, is usually second to none, especially when softshells are in season. However, I don't know their sources.

    3 Replies
    1. re: wb247

      I live here on Topsail Island and in the past years you could find fresh Seafood at most of the Restaurants now thanks to US Foods and Sysco that has been replaced with pre-breaded and frozen Seafood.I buy My Seafood from the Fishermen and take it home and cook it,Leave that crap to the Tourists who don't know anybetter.

      1. re: jellybear

        I am bringing our Family down for the first time in August.Are there any nice non- seafood places to eat at.We do like seafood, but are there any good alternatives?Thanks.My group is a little larger than most I don't like having to many bad dining experiences , besides that I don't want it to taint our visit.

        1. re: wifeneightkids

          where are you going? In the Jacksonville area, most of the choices you have will not be seafood restaurants.

    2. The Lone Cedar in Nags Head uses fresh local seafood and they grow some of their produce on site.

      8 Replies
      1. re: mpjmph

        wow, great rec. from their website:

        "At Basnight's Lone Cedar Cafe you won't find frozen, imported or farm-raised seafood of any kind. You won't find frozen meats, canned vegetables stored in chemical preservatives or mass produced desserts.

        Here's what you will find on the menu at the Lone Cedar Cafe:

        * fresh-caught fish, crabs, clams, squid, shrimp and oysters-brought to our docks daily by local watermen, cleaned and prepared onsite;
        * steaks from the top 3% of all beef produced in the United States;
        * pork and poultry products are from North Carolina farms;
        * just-picked vegetables brought from local farmers;
        * recipes seasoned with an assortment of insecticide-free, fresh herbs;
        * delicious, down-home, handmade desserts by our resident pastry chef.

        1. re: mikeh

          A word of warning though, they do not take reservations and are often very crowded, especially during peak beach tourist season. If you do go and have a long wait they have a very nice deck over looking the sound and you can check out the raised beds where they grown herbs and tomatoes.

        2. re: mpjmph

          Food there could be the most outstanding anywhere but I don't eat there because of the

          Other places on the OBX just as good, or better, imho.

          1. re: goodeatsinadive

            Please disclose those other places. Thanks!

          2. re: mpjmph

            Lone Cedar is amazing BUT a bit expensive. Especially for a large group. I had the best Prosciutto Wrapped Scallops there! OMG. Our whole family was thrilled with the place. We didn't have a reservation and yet we got right in pretty much. Waited only a tiny bit. The place was packed. You should dress fairly nicely though, altho' we were pretty casual and we had no problems. For more casual and less expensive I would go with Awful Arthurs. They also have a few NON seafoody places there. One of them was Cajun, I forget the name now. We also had terrific Thai food at Thai Gardens. Unbelievabley good.

            1. re: RisaG

              Lone cedar is not amazing. I had the most bland, mediocre piece of tuna there with no sauce. I also had sugar snap beans that were missing a really good chance if they weren't frozen. After my one visit, I would also avoid a crab dip appetizer, which was more like hot cream cheese and horsradish dip with no crab to be seen.

              1. re: veganhater

                This is surprising in a few ways. They source a lot from local farmers and have their own garden, so not sure why you were getting frozen beans.

                1. re: mikeh

                  It could have been how they were cooked, or overcooked, but they were watery and tasted like frozen versions. I thought the same thing after reading their testamonial on the menu. Everything we did have was completely underseasoned, and the fish ordered (Tuna and Spanish Mackerel) was served naked, with tartar and cocktail sauce on the table. I will give them one more try this summer and report back.

          3. Check with 22 North on Wrightsville Beach http://www.22northwb.com, I haven't been there for more than a year but I believe that they get a lot of thier seafood from Mott's Channel Seafood. Also, I believe, Mark's on Market (Wilmington- Ogden area) sources locally http://marksonmarket.com/. Heck of a Peck Oyster Bar, Wilmington, works with the NC Marine Fisheries to help restore oyster beds in the area and in 2006 received the Pelican Award from the NC Coastal Federation for thier conservation efforts (I think that makes them worthy of a visit).

            You have to remember that seafood is seasonal and some areas are over fished or destroyed by polution. You can't pull oysters from many creeks around Wilmington because of polution in the water. When buying seafood I always go for wild and as local as possible. If NC or SC shrimp aren't available in the winter Ithen I would happily take Gulf Coast shrimp. As long as it is not farm raised and from outside of the US.

            1 Reply
            1. re: seaglass910

              This is a very good point. My underlying objective is going with restaurants whose menus reflect the seasonality of availability. I'd prefer those like Catch or Lone Cedar that change their menu up to reflect what's available, but I'm also fine with Gulf Coast shrimp, etc. What I don't want to do is go to seafood restaurants that source their product from Sysco or US Foods (as the other poster mentioned, most seafood restaurants these days do) or those that go the prebreaded/prefrozen route. The truck should be coming from the docks or US-17 South, not from I-40 West...

            2. Tryon Palace Seafood in New Bern gets their stuff from local fisherman; the owner is an ex-commercial fisherman himself.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Naco

                Looks like their hours are 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Gonna make it over there soon.

              2. Kemp's in Raleigh is run by the same family that runs the North Carolina Seafood Restaurant at the Farmer's Market there. I always heard all their seafood was local. You should try both these restaurants if you haven't already.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Lewes17266

                  I checked with Kemp's and their seafood is not "local" per se, although their distributor sources from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic. Close...but not quite.

                  Still have to check with the Farmer's Market.

                  1. re: mikeh

                    Twin Creeks which is right at the bridge before you cross over to Sunset Beach. The owners also own a Seafood Market. I know a few people who work there, everything comes from local sources.

                    You can tell the diffenece when you eat there, one of the only places I'll go myself or take company.

                2. mikeh, I recalled this unusual name from Raleigh when we lived there several years ago. It is Hieronymus. They had a seafood restaurant in Cary and one on the coast also. There were trucks around town selling seafood with that name on its side.

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: Lewes17266

                    apparently they closed up shop a good 5 years ago for their Triangle location. Too bad, because I found an old article about how all the seafood they served was from the NC coast.

                    It's too bad that local seafood isn't approached with more demand around these parts considering the strength of the slow food movement and farm-to-table excitement that the Triangle seems to have. In my opinion, the taste difference is even more poignant with seafood, which is tempermental and highly-perishable. I don't know if it's just lack of exposure to it, but it seems that folks are much less inclined to demand fresh, local seafood both from a "supporting a local way of life" p.o.v. and from a palette p.o.v. Even when you go uber-casual like Calabash-style fried, it's the difference between a tasteless entity being a mere vehicle for the batter and cocktail sauce, versus the batter accentuating the unctuousness of the underlying shrimp or oyster or what-have-you.

                    1. re: mikeh

                      My guess is that this is a case of people cooking this kind of thing at home. When I was a kid, we fished a lot and cooked what we caught, and almost never ate at seafood restaurants as a result.

                      1. re: Naco

                        yeah, this is what we did when I lived in Florida and had a nice patio, yard, and portable burner where I could set out the deep fryer or the skillet. My quarters are too small nowadays to pursue those options, and cooking seafood inside really reeks up the place.

                        I see the Red Lobster parking lot right around the corner packed every evening, so there must be some nascent demand there...

                        1. re: Naco

                          That's exactly what I was thinking. For the most part we caught our own. Sometimes we would go to a seafood market and get shrimp or oysters to cook at home. On a few very special occasions we would go out to eat and the restaurant happened to serve local seafood, but we rarely went out specifically for seafood.

                          1. re: mpjmph

                            And to a great extent I think you the same thing applies to other foodstuffs. We've always had abundant farmer's markets and produce stands down east, not to mention other sources that might be less visible to someone not from the area. I grew up on a farm and we always had fresh corn and peanuts and assorted specialty crops, and we'd trade for others. Someone was always going hunting or fishing and would give away or sell the excess, so fresh seafood and game weren't hard to come by. Many times, the social networks and higher knowledge level in re: ingredients makes many of the facets of the urban dining landscape superfluous.

                            1. re: Naco

                              The Saturday farmers market at N Hills Shopping Center (open til noon)
                              has someone selling fish and shellfish that supposedly comes from day boats- they sell to better restaurants in the area. So far we've just tried what we were told was red snapper and it was excellent. The market also has vendors selling organic vegetables- much needed in Raleigh- it's not the Carrboro Farmers Market but it's a start. I hear fresh flowers are offered on Thurs. at N Hills farmers market.

                              1. re: anonj

                                Fishing is not like farming, it is like hunting. Wild caught (vs. farmed) seafood is not sourced locally these days for two main reasons. Even farmed fish (particularly farmed salmon) can be deadly to the ecology.

                                1) Is fishing a given fish ecologically acceptable to responsible people?

                                Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood watch is a fabulous resource.

                                2) Is it safe to eat it? This is the one that hits me harder.

                                Environmental Defense Fund tracks fish and contaminants.

                                I don't know anyone in the fishing industry who tests a significant (in the mathematical sense) percent of their catch in order to see if it is safe. Ask any fishing source about testing for contaminants such as mercury and/or PCBs and mostly they will stare at you blankly or mumble or say, "oh OUR fish don't have that problem".

                                I grew up eating bluefish, a local north carolina catch. EDF these days does not recommend it to anyone for health reasons, at any level of eating. This makes me sad.

                                The long and short of it is that if our ponds and lakes and rivers and oceans are polluted and contaminated, then "local" hunted fish are no longer a valid justification on their own.

                                1. re: fussycouple

                                  I just wonder though whether these huge omnibus seafood distributors that supply both national chains and individually-owned seafood joints a) practice sustainable seafood to any higher degree than local industries would; and b) whether the sources they are using for their catch use fish that's any less contaminated. Probably not.

                                  1. re: mikeh

                                    Oh you are absolutely correct. It's just that "local" for seafood doesn't really guarantee you anything either. It's a real lose / lose situation, unfortunately, and as a consequence we eat less fish, which is really too bad.

                                  2. re: fussycouple

                                    If you happen to catch some small bluefish, I would not hesitate to eat them. It's the larger blue's that have built up toxic levels of mercury. Unfortuntately this holds true for most game fish. The larger the fish, the higher the toxicity.

                      2. I have eaten at the Red Barn since you posted this.

                        My husband had a platter of fried scallops and shrimp. I had a platter of fried clams and oysters. Everything seems to have been fried together in oil that was past its prime. Everything pretty much tasted the same, owing to the oil I think. We left shrimp, clams and scallops on the plate and finished the indifferent coleslaw and hush puppies.

                        The Red Barn is located near a small RV park and a boat ramp, so they have a sizable captive audience there.

                        I may have just been an off day (a Sunday afternoon), but I don't see any reason to go back to find out.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: BeaN

                          My mother in law lives very close to Red Barn and in the near 15 years I've been married I'd only once gone there and that was just for a breakfast biscuit. I decided to try out the seafood last time I was there due to this thread. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was bad but I don't think I would recomend it either.

                        2. Bistro By the Sea in Morehead City sources everything locally and will always be an outstanding meal. It's on Hwy 70 on the right hand side as you come into town, in front of the Hampton Inn.

                          Also, check out http://www.carteretcatch.org for lots of info on where to find locally sourced seafood around morehead city, beaufort, atlantic beach, emerald isle, swansboro, and other surrounding areas.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: wb247

                            Careful saying that a restaurant sources "everything" locally. BbytheS has oysters on their menu. The NC oyster season is closed. They also have salmon on the menu. Not sure where that's being caught in NC. Then you have the lobster tails. I don't think there's a commercial lobster catch in North Carolina. I may be wrong.

                            1. re: JayL

                              Yeah, I know for a fact that BbytheS doesn't source everything locally. I think they have a separate insert in their regular menu that features a few dishes that are sourced locally - this insert changes daily. At least they are honest and upfront about it and make it easy for you to pick out the local stuff.

                              As for "Carteret Catch," the requirements are that the restaurant has to source at least ONE (just one) product locally to be able to put up the banner and be part of the program.

                              1. re: JayL

                                I apologize - that was misleading. I meant everything possible and that "local" was a focus of the menu. You caught my hyperbole.

                            2. Why did you limit your question regarding local seafood to shrimp and oysters?

                              I am at Wrightsville Beach right now and stopped into a few fish markets. I didn't see any oysters for sale and, when I asked about the shrimp, I learned that not all of it was local.

                              Each market had a nice variety of local fish, however, ranging from flounder to trigger fish to sea bass, among others. I wouldn't be surprised if South Beach Grill does serve a number of local fish dishes. I'll ask later this week.

                              1. Mike, while what you seek is a wonderful idea, unfortunately it doesn't work in practice.

                                As several have pointed out, not all seafood is in season at any one time. Also, if you depend upon local fisherman soley, you are at a disadvantage when their catch is off. And don't forget that ALL seafood is flash frozen. This has to be done as fishing boats are usually out for days at a time and rarely are able to keep their catch in live wells.

                                My suggestion would be to check the local newspaper and find out what is running right now and then call around to local restaurants and see if they are serving it. Right now Dolfin and Wahoo are running (SC Coast) for us and that is what the local restaurants are serving.

                                Lastly, some locally owned restaurants have their own fishing boats. Ask around.

                                1. Couple of contributions to the thread:

                                  I ate at Gary's Down East in Arapahoe(mentioned upthread) over the weekend. They get good marks for clearly indicating which seafood items are local- there's a list on the front of the menu. I had softshell crab, which was very good, but not up to the level of Tryon Palace Seafood/Stingray Cafe. Hushpuppies and other sides(fries, slaw) were very meh. The hushpuppies and fries were lukewarm. We were there around 6:30pm on Saturday, so it wasn't an odd hour. It's a good choice if you're out riding down that way, but not a destination restaurant.

                                  Mrs. Culpepper's Crab Cafe in Morehead was good as well, and has Thai food as well as seafood. One of the owners is a fisherman and is happy to answer questions about what's local and in season and what isn't. They have a buffet, which is actually okay, but ordering a la carte seems to be the way to go. It's definitely a locals joint, and that's what most people seemed to be doing.

                                  1. Catch, Red Barn and I'd add Oak Island's Pelican Seafood to the list. Recently had perfect whole fried black sea bass there.

                                    1. Made another stop at Stingray Cafe/Tryon Palace Seafood today and had a couple of excellent fried whole spot. What other places will cook the whole fish for you? The tails are my favorite part.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: Naco

                                        Pelican Seafood at Oak Island was advertising fried spots a couple of weeks ago.

                                        1. re: billyjack

                                          I wasn't so much looking for spot in particular(although they are a favorite of mine), as I was places that will fry the whole fish, as opposed to a fillet.

                                          1. re: Naco

                                            Ah. Can't think of many that have it on the menu although I'm sure there are some that would do it by request. Most Thai restaurants offer whole fish, along with some Chinese (although they are not very likely to be local).

                                            1. re: billyjack

                                              Yeah, authentic Mexican places will usually give you a whole fish by default, but as I was discussing with another poster a while back, the quality is usually pretty bad.

                                      2. Does anyone know about Triangle Area restaurants that source locally? Fins? Fishmongers, Blu, Seaboard 18, Docksides in Chapel hill, Squids? Also for those living in the Eastern part of the state waht about Sandpiper's in La Grange?

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: burgeoningfoodie

                                          Sandpiper is a chain with locations all over the eastern part of the state. I highly doubt that they use much local seafood.

                                          If you want that kind of old-school Q-tip seafood joint experience in that general area, the Dixie Queen in Winterville is good. There's a Farmville location also, but the original one in Winterville is better). They have a very good cocktail sauce, which is really what everyone goes there for. It really complements the food well and takes it up just a hair from "slightly above average for the area".

                                          The menu is kind of quirky- there are tiny extra charges for things like extra cocktail sauce and extra utensils, goofy warnings about fish bones, etc. You see the same kind of thing around the restaurant- the busboys wear these retro paper hats, there are signs warning the wait staff not to talk to the kitchen staff, etc.

                                        2. Update: just got back from spending 5 weeks around the Tallahassee, Florida area, and the seafood mindset around those parts is so different from what we have along the NC coast. While I was there, I ate at or inquired at nearly a dozen different seafood places, both in Tallahassee itself and along the coast. Every single one was sourcing seafood locally, and changing their menu up so that they would only be serving locally-available seafood. This time of year, that includes shrimp, oysters, mullet, redfish, trout, and stone crabs. In fact, the only restaurant of any kind I found that had seafood on the menu but was sourcing from elsewhere was a sandwich-style eatery in town known more for their bar scene and where only a couple of sandwiches are incidentally seafood.

                                          Compare this to North Carolina, where despite local Carolina Shrimp and other seafood being in abundance right now, most seafood restaurants along the coast aren't going through the trouble of obtaining these products. Case in point - T&W Oyster Bar in Cape Carteret recently returned to its original owner of 35 years. A lot of people down there are saying it's "better than ever" and the pinnacle of simply-fried seafood along that stretch of coast. I called them yesterday and asked what of the seafood on their menu was local. They said, "uh....yeah, we get all our stuff in" (cryptic to be sure). So I repeated my question, to which the lady stammered "none of it."

                                          So what gives? With the Florida cast net ban and all, it's no easier to physically obtain a local product down there than it is here. Forgetting all environmental considerations for a second (and many times, wild-caught local seafood that we have around here is more environmentally-conscious than the farmed stuff that Sysco trucks in), the local stuff really does taste better. Further, you'd think that locally-owned joints would want to support their local economy, an important component of which is the local fishing industry.

                                          So yeah - I need to give credit to the NC restaurants that serve a local product. Tryon Palace Seafood/Sting Ray Cafe has local shrimp, spots, flounder, trout, black drum, and red drum in right now. Catch in Wilmington is doing all-local as usual. Gary's Down East does local flounder, Pamlico Sound shrimp, Atlantic Coast scallops, and either Atlantic-Coast or Gulf Coast oysters. Pelican Seafood on Oak Island does the local thing religiously as well.

                                          Finally, as for Red Barn Grill, you're right - it's just not very good. I'd forgotten how good simply-fried seafood can be. At Red Barn, everything tastes the same, and some of it is kinda rubbery.

                                          5 Replies
                                          1. re: mikeh

                                            What gives is that coastal NC is by and large very rural, and a very large percentage of local people fish for a living or for a hobby.

                                            1. re: Naco

                                              That seems to describe the "Forgotten Coast" portion of North Florida perfectly too. The population down there totals in the thousands. Most folks there own a fishing boat or knows someone who does so they can head out on their own. Yet, they still head on over to Posey's Steam Room or Spring Creek Restaurant to enjoy the daily lunch special and the conversation. It would be presumptuous to say that Tallahassee drives the market there any more than Wilmington drives the NC coastal seafood market.

                                              The dynamic of the NC coast seems so different despite a basic cultural and socioeconomic similarly.

                                              1. re: mikeh

                                                I don't think it's presumptuous at all- Tallahassee is a decent sized city that's fairly close by. Wilmington is much smaller and more isolated geographically- it's in the far southeastern corner of the coast, and the geography of the NC coast splits the region up a lot. I grew up in the northeastern part of the state, and Wilmington might as well have been a couple of states away. Also, in places like Hyde, Washington, and Tyrell counties, there are hardly any restaurants *at all*, although things were better before Hurricane Isabel. Most of the NC coast is hit by the double whammy of being very rural and relatively far away from a city.

                                                One thing I thought of is that local seafood markets in eastern NC started to go the way of the dodo in the last couple of decades. They were mostly black owned, and most small towns used to have one- but I have no clue why they went away.

                                            2. re: mikeh

                                              My guess is that what comes of of the Sysco truck is cheaper than the fine seafood that local fishermen are bringing in. Plus, it's already portioned and ready to cook. For the most part Americans seem to expect that a menu is the same all the time - they want to eat what they want to eat whether it is in season or not. Add to that that mediocre is ok to a lot of folks. A lot of people eat to socialize, eat to fuel the machine. I have to remind myself that not everyone obsesses about food the way that I do.

                                              Where is Gary's Down East?

                                              I'll be looking for an opportunity to try your recommendations.


                                              1. re: BeaN

                                                Gary's Down East is in Arapahoe, east of New Bern. It's not bad, but Tryon Palace Seafood in New Bern is a lot better.