The Dish on Dining Out

By Molly Harrison

You’re going to eat well on the Outer Banks. Steaming-hot shrimp with a sprinkling of Old Bay seasoning and a side of melted butter. Fat morsels of jumbo lump crab meat piled into cakes. Rich, silky she-crab soup with the perfect blend of sherry and cream. Battered oysters, flash-fried to crispy perfection, dipped in a tangy tartar sauce. Hatteras-style chowder of sweet baby clams, potatoes and a clear broth. White, flaky rockfish fillets as you like them — fried, grilled, broiled or blackened. Raw yellow-fin tuna sashimi with ginger and soy sauce.

Seafood is definitely the star of the show in most local restaurants, much of it caught right along these shores. Every day commercial fishermen (and women) bring in the bounty of the sea, and it doesn’t take long to get that seafood from the boat to your belly.

Gone are the days when the only seafood dinner you could get was fried and served with hushpuppies and cole slaw. Of course, that classic combination is still available, but the Outer Banks restaurants have evolved greatly. Now the fashionable catch-phrases for local restaurants are “contemporary coastal cuisine” and “Southern coastal cuisine.” Many local restaurants are definitely in tune with trying to serve as much locally harvested seafood and local produce as possible.

If you’re not a huge fan of seafood, or if you like a little variety in your diet, don’t worry. Every restaurant offers more than seafood. Steaks, chicken, duck, lamb, pork, pasta and vegetarian options are offered on local menus. There are plenty of alternative restaurants on the Banks today, from Chinese and Japanese to Thai to Italian and Mexican, and there’s a wide range of atmospheres, everything from contemporary fine-dining with a dress code to the most casual, come-as-you-are eateries.

The best thing about Outer Banks restaurants is that the vast majority of them are locally owned and operated. Chain restaurants are trickling in, but for the most part restaurants are run by hands-on restaurateurs and the food is prepared fresh by an on-site chef. This individuality allows for a much more intimate dining experience. The owners welcome you personally and are truly happy to see you. The chef has the flexibility to change the menu or offer specials that reflect the freshest ingredients available.

There are hundreds of restaurants on the Outer Banks from Corolla to Ocracoke. We are certain that you’ll enjoy many great meals during your vacation. Consider these few tips to get the maximum pleasure from your dining experience.

Outer Banks Dining Tips

We’re here to help you get the most out of your Outer Banks dining experience.

Be Patient Outer Banks restaurants are definitely busiest in the summer. Keep in mind how many people there are on the islands and that the restaurant staff is doing their best to serve them all with a smile. In the summer, don’t expect to always walk right in, be seated and having a cocktail within the first five minutes of your arrival. However, during fall, winter and spring you’ll rarely have a problem getting into your restaurant of choice.

Reservations Most restaurants on the Outer Banks focus on first-come, first-served seating, though some do take reservations. If you have your heart set on a particular restaurant, call ahead to see if they take reservations. Those restaurants that do reserve tables usually fill up quickly. Call for reservations as early as possible – before your arrival if possible.

Prime Hours The majority of diners want to be sitting down to eat between 6 and 8 p.m., but everyone can’t eat at the same time. If you don’t want to wait for a table, go out early or late. Most restaurants open for dinner between 4 and 5 p.m. and don’t close until 9:30 or 10 p.m. in the summer.

The Waiting List One note about waiting for a table: If, in the height of summer, you get to a restaurant that has a 45-minute waiting list, you should probably stick it out rather than drive around looking for a restaurant that has a shorter wait. In the summer most everyone has a waiting list, and you’ll waste time driving around.

Busiest Nights Weeknights tend to be the busiest nights in Outer Banks restaurants in the summer months. This is because of weekend check-in days. Most people arrive on a Saturday or Sunday and don’t want to go out the day they get in or the day they’re leaving. So you can bet that most people go out Monday through Thursday nights. That said, you can also bet that pizza delivery restaurants are busiest on Saturday and Sunday nights. Plan accordingly. In the off-season, the busiest nights in restaurants tend to be the weekends.

Early Bird Specials If you’re willing to go out early, typically between 4 and 6 p.m., you are likely to catch some very good deals. Many restaurants offer special discounts in the early hours to encourage patrons to come out before the nightly rush.

Do Lunch Eating out for lunch instead of dinner is a great way to avoid the summer crowds and save a little money. Plus, restaurants are more kid-friendly at lunch than at dinner.

Eat at the Bar If the wait for a table is long, keep an eye out for a seat in the bar area. Most restaurants have a bar menu with appetizers and some even serve their full menu at the bar. Many restaurant bars also offer happy hour food and drink specials in the bar in the late afternoon/early evening, which is a great way to get the restaurant experience without the expense of a full meal.

Large Groups Some restaurants are more suited to large groups than others. Buffets tend to have seating that easily accommodates groups. If you have a large group of people who want to eat together, call ahead to your restaurant of choice to see if they can handle your party. And even if they don’t accept reservations, they will appreciate a warning that you’re coming. Keep in mind that, in the summer, most restaurants will not seat a large party until everyone in the party has arrived. Also remember that many restaurants automatically add an 18 percent tip to the bill for large parties; be sure to ask about that.

Feeding a Crowd Instead of going out to a restaurant, consider take-out. Steamer buckets filled with crabs, shrimp, clams, potatoes and corn are a very popular way to feed a crowd. Many food markets and delis offer crowd-friendly prepared meals to go, like lasagnas, macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie and salads. Another option is a personal chef. Whether for a night or a week, a personal chef can keep you out of the kitchen when you’re on vacation.

Local Seafood Fresh, local seafood is obviously the tastiest because it didn’t have to travel very far to get to your plate. But you’d be surprised at how much seafood that’s served on the Outer Banks is not local. If eating local fish and seafood is as important to you as it is to us, look for the Outer Banks Catch logo on the door or menu of the restaurant or seafood market. Or you can ask. But keep in mind that some of the seafood served here could never be caught here. Don’t embarrass yourself by asking if the Alaskan crab legs or wild-caught salmon are local!

Special Dietary Needs Vegetarians and vegans have far fewer options than they should on the Outer Banks, but that doesn’t mean they’ll starve when you’re here. Most establishments offer little more than the obligatory pasta dish for vegetarians, but some restaurants have some real vegetarian fare. Many restaurants now offer gluten-free options as well.

We hope you have many great meals while you’re on the Outer Banks. Remember to reward good restaurant service with a good tip – 15 to 20 percent is the standard.

About the Author Molly Harrison
Molly Harrison is managing editor at OneBoat, publisher of OuterBanksThisWeek.com. She moved to Nags Head in 1994 and since then has made her living writing articles and creating publications about the people, places and culture of the Outer Banks. When not working she practices and teaches yoga and spends as much time as possible outside and in or on the water with her husband and two children.