Worth the Drive: A Fresh Look at Calabash Seafood

Perched on the banks of the Calabash River, The Oyster Rock restaurant’s oyster pit is separate from the main structure. “The birds, the sea trout, the flounder — the wildlife here is incredible, so to put a bar and a waiting area and an oyster pit on the water itself was a no-brainer,” says Patrick Legendre, general manager.

If you think you know Calabash seafood, think again.

Make no mistake, the breaded-and-fried style still sells like hotcakes — or hot hushpuppies — in this coastal town near the South Carolina border. But a few restaurants are putting a healthier, more inclusive spin on the seafood platter.

Along River Road in Calabash, N.C., competing signs direct diners to the many restaurants in the “Seafood Capital of the World.”

“When it comes to the menu, with our pan-seared scallops or fresh grilled fish, it’s something different than just the typical Calabash fried seafood that you’ll find in the area, that’s so storied and has so much tradition behind it,” said Patrick Legendre, general manager of The Oyster Rock restaurant.

Calabash-style seafood — served supremely fresh, lightly breaded and deep fried — took off soon after Lucy High Coleman opened her restaurant, The Original, in 1940. Fueled by plentiful catches and hungry tourists, other eateries followed — with nearly two dozen seafood joints in Calabash at one point. Somewhere along the line, the Brunswick County town of roughly 1,500 residents became known as the “Seafood Capital of the World.”

Brian and Mary Beth Copeland, from Raleigh, work their way through a bucket of steamed oysters. Fresh oysters are brought in — still muddy from the beds — and prepared in front of guests.

Today, nine seafood restaurants operate within walking distance of each other and the Calabash River. Visitors can walk along the dock, enjoy the scenic view and eat their fill of the catch of the day — prepared how they like it.

The Oyster Rock

The popular Deep Treasure is five seared scallops served with a risotto cake and lime beurre blanc.

In 2017, Dean C. Spatholt and Clark Callahan, owners of the nearby Boundary House restaurant, bought Coleman’s Original Seafood Restaurant from fourth-generation restaurateur Crystal Coleman-Nixon. A year later, in May 2018, The Oyster Rock opened with a contemporary American menu featuring hand-trimmed steaks, pork chops and a high-end take on fresh seafood.

Legendre admits it was a little intimidating to come into the spot occupied by Coleman’s Original.

“Calabash fried seafood has been a part of the history here in this area for quite a long time. And for us, the biggest challenge has actually been the idea of balancing tradition, with a new spin,” he said. “We have blended the old with the new by keeping it as close to home as possible.”

Freshly steamed oysters are also a tasty choice.

That means sourcing most of the fish and shellfish served at the restaurant from the waters just off the coast, as Calabash restaurateurs have done for generations. March is the tail end of oyster season in the Carolinas, and if they’re available, Legendre says, the Shallotte River oysters will be the best thing on the menu.

“We’re talking about the brininess, the saltiness that’s so distinctive to North Carolina oysters,” he said. “As good as the farm-raised are, there’s nothing compared to a wild cluster that’s coming right out of the river no more than 30 miles up the road and delivered to your table.”

He also recommends the popular Deep Treasure — five pan-seared, large diver scallops served with a lemongrass risotto cake and a kaffir lime beurre blanc. And, for the traditionalists, there’s a “Calabash-Style” platter on the menu.

Ella’s of Calabash

Kurt Hardee knows traditional Calabash seafood. He grew up at Ella’s, which was started by his grandparents Ella and Lawrence High in 1950. He now owns the family restaurant with his sister, and his children wait tables and work in the kitchen.

An outsized shrimp welcomes diners to Ella’s of Calabash, a family restaurant serving fresh seafood since 1950.

“Every memory of my childhood is basically in and around the restaurant,” Hardee said. “Of course, I started working here, busing tables when I was like 12 years old, and then I moved back to the kitchen and started cooking.”

Ella’s uses the same recipes as it has since it opened, pleasing generations of hungry vacationers. But to cater to changing tastes, the restaurant also offers its seafood prepared other ways. Roughly half of the seafood Ella’s serves is broiled, steamed or sautéed, Hardee says.

“One of our most popular items is our stuffed flounder. This is a couple of pieces of flounder broiled with fresh crab meat dressing and with boiled shrimp tucked underneath,” he said.

Bob Taylor ran a seafood market and a dockside ice cream shop for more than a decade before he opened the Waterfront Seafood Shack. He still owns several fishing boats and takes locals and vacationers on fishing and sightseeing excursions.

Ella’s still serves plenty of what Hardee calls “fried deliciousness.” The Calabash-style sampler plates are particularly popular, especially the generously portioned Deluxe.

“It’s kind of a little bit — not a little bit; it’s got a lot of everything. It’s got flounder, shrimp, oysters, deviled crab and scallops, and it comes with fries and coleslaw and hushpuppies. If you get that and you leave here hungry, then there’s something’s wrong with you,” he said.

“We don’t try to reinvent the wheel here. We’re just plain and simple and just try to serve great food.”

The Waterfront Seafood Shack

The Waterfront Seafood Shack is open from March through October. “I wanted people to be able to come and eat here and think that they had just gone and caught the fish or caught the shrimp and took it home and cooked it themselves,” says owner Bob Taylor.

Bob Taylor ran a seafood market and a dockside ice cream shop for years before he opened the Waterfront Seafood Shack, mainly because of customer demand.

“It’s kind of how Calabash got started, 60 years ago or more, when it was fresh off of a boat,” Taylor said. “We sold fresh seafood to the public, and, almost on a daily basis, I had people asking me, ‘Will you cook the shrimp for me, or will you cook this for me?’”

Patrons enjoy grilled shrimp and all the fixings at the Waterfront Seafood Shack in Calabash.

He remodeled his ice cream stand, and from March through October, the tiny eatery serves up local, wild seafood prepared to order — grilled, fried, blackened or broiled. With no indoor dining, just picnic tables and umbrellas, it’s not a fancy place. But Taylor says his customers appreciate the fresh taste and the simple, healthy approach.

“I wanted to get away from the fried stuff. We do fry it, if they want it fried, but we’ll certainly steam it, blacken it or grill it,” he said. “When we first opened up in 2014, it was probably 90% fried, 10% grilled or blackened. Now it is almost 50-50 with grilled and fried.”

In March, Taylor says he’ll be bringing in black sea bass, vermillion snapper, oysters and shrimp – ready to be cooked to order.

The informal dining spot specializes in fresh, wild seafood prepared to order and served with the traditional sides — coleslaw, french fries and hushpuppies.

A sampler of seafood stops

1. The Oyster Rock
Upscale dining establishment with a seafood-heavy, contemporary American menu.
9931 Nance St.
(910) 579-6875

2. Ella’s of Calabash
Famous for its traditional Calabash-style seafood, Ella’s also serves it broiled, sauteed and steamed.
1148 River Road
(910) 579-6728

3. Beck’s Restaurant
Established in 1940, Beck’s is still owned and operated by the original family. It specializes in fresh, local seafood, fried and broiled, steaks and chicken.
1014 River Road
(910) 579-6776

4. The Boundary House
The upscale restaurant serves a variety of fresh fish, prime rib, baby back ribs, steaks, huge salads and homemade desserts.
1045 River Road
(910) 579-8888

5. Captain Johns
At this casual restaurant, choose traditional Calabash style or opt for broiled, Cajun style, lemon-grilled, or sauteed seafood. Capt. John’s also offers aged Angus beef, chicken, grilled pork chops and oyster roast (in season).
9887 Oak St.
(910) 579-6011

6. Captain Nance
Captain Nance is a family-style restaurant offering steak, chicken and seafood lunch specials.
939 Nance St.
(910) 579-2574

7.Dockside Seafood House
Located on the Calabash River, visitors can take a walk on the boat docks before their meal. Open since 1955, the family-owned Dockside still serves large portions of the fresh, quality seafood that we became known for almost 60 years ago.
9955 Nance St.
(910) 579-6775

8. Seafood Hut
Opened in 1969 by Virgil and Joanne Coleman, this roadside stop is known for fried seafood and hushpuppies, plus burgers, steak and barbecue.
1125 River Road
(910) 579-6723

9. Waterfront Seafood Shack
Fresh, local, wild seafood prepared to order — grilled, fried, blackened or broiled. Also serving chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, fresh-baked desserts and more.
9945 Nance St.
(910) 575-0017

1 Comment

  • Paul says:

    If you haven’t tried the grilled pound cake at the Waterfront Seafood Shack you’re missing a treat.

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