The Crystal Coast is located on an 85-mile stretch of land along the Atlantic in North Carolina and is known for its pristine beaches and idyllic small towns. But part of what’s putting the Crystal Coast on the proverbial map is its food scene—notably its local restaurants, menus filled with fresh seafood and its diversity of food offerings. A recent issue of Cooking With Paula Deen highlighted a handful of the Crystal Coast’s best local restaurants in Morehead City, Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle and Beaufort. Another magazine puts the Crystal Coast’s food scene atop its other main attractions like fishing, history and outdoor exploration as the best reason to visit the area. And it’s not just the local restaurants that are worth exploring; the Crystal Coast hosts a number of outstanding food events and festivals each year that bring in thousands of visitors to celebrate everything from seafood to chocolate to wine. If you’re looking for a culinary getaway destination that will take you on a food and wine journey, it’s time to explore North Carolina’s Crystal Coast.
The first leg of a foodie tour through the Crystal Coast should come with some of its most famous local eating establishments and markets. You know, they’re the ones that end up on best-of lists for both local residents and visitors alike because in addition to serving or selling amazing food, they also have great service. Here’s a look at a few of them.
Tucked away in Atlantic Beach, Amos Mosquito’s Restaurant and Bar is a family-owned beach restaurant with a casual atmosphere, but an upscale menu that’s serious about seafood. This is Southern seafood with a twist. You’ll find influences of Creole and Caribbean on the menu, but you’ll also find some Asian twists, too—most notably on the restaurant’s sushi menu, oyster rolls and rolls featuring steamed shrimp and wasabi. And then there’s the view. “The view of Bogue Sound in the moonlight,” writes one visiting author in a recent article for Charleston Living magazine, “was compelling enough to want to linger over an adult beverage and relax into the moment.” Inside is just as intriguing, with draping Spanish moss and mosquito motifs on glasses and other decor. This is a comfort food restaurant where you can find pasta dishes like macaroni and cheese and penne, but you’ve never had it the way Amos makes it. Plus, it’s a great spot to take the kids, where they get to roast their own s’mores right at the table for dessert.
Promise’ Land Market
Do you ever walk into a local market with shelves full of great local beers and wines, and you wish you could try a few before picking the best one to take home with you? That’s what you can do at Promise’ Land Market in Morehead City, a place that Afar magazine called a “beer and wine nirvana.” It has the largest (and growing) selection of craft brews and wines in the region, as well as a beautifully curated amount of gourmet cheeses, meats, fruits and other specialty food items. You can meet a friend or two at the market and sit at the bar to try one of the beers on tap or wines by the glass. It’s cozy, comfortable and uniquely North Carolina. Read more on this great wine brew shop in “Feel Like a Local at Promise’ Land Market.”
Beaufort Grocery Company
Despite its name, Beaufort Grocery Company isn’t a simple grocer. Instead, it’s one of Beaufort’s best restaurants housed is in a white beach-style cottage with a vintage storefront sign and outdoor tables. Inside, there’s a checkered floor, warm wooden furniture and an impressive menu. For more than 25 years, its owners Wendy and Charles Park have been absolutely wowing first-time and repeat guests with savory dishes like Carolina crab cakes, ahi tuna napoleon, and pan-seared shrimp and scallops. “What we’ve liked to always do is take those traditional dishes from the past and modernize them,” says Charles in this behind the scenes video. (Charles is the executive chef; Wendy is the pastry chef.) “The key to our menu is small, local, fresh,” he adds. The recipe works. Beaufort Grocery Company is one of the top-rated local restaurants on TripAdvisor and is a consistent recipient of its Certificate of Excellence.
The Friendly Market
This mom-and-pop shop in Morehead City is a go-to spot for locals looking for delicious homemade pies and seafood dips. When visiting The Friendly Market, shoppers can try out some of the many gourmet items like pickled asparagus, sweet pepper and apple relish, local honey, and kale chips—all items are locally sourced from nearby farms. It’s also the perfect place to shop for flowers, herbs and other garden supplies if you’re spending some extended time at a vacation home. Find out more about this fresh Morehead City destination in “Great Food & Family at The Friendly Market.”
Blue Moon Bistro
If you’re looking for a romantic dinner spot in the Crystal Coast, you will want to consider Blue Moon Bistro in Beaufort—upscale dining with some surprises. Located inside a historic house, the dining room feels warm and inviting (complete with a fireplace) where you can choose from dishes like pan-seared grouper, teriyaki tenderloins, and Creole-style shrimp. Blue Moon Bistro, once named one of the top 25 great restaurants from the Triangle to the Coast in Raleigh Metro magazine, prides itself on its farm-to-table cuisine and its massive wine list.
Ruddy Duck Tavern
If you like fresh seafood, ocean views and mermaids (yes, mermaids) Ruddy Duck Tavern in Morehead City is your place. Located on the edge of the harbor, the restaurant serves satisfying meals like crab and spinach dip, shrimp burgers, Voodoo Killer (burger with habanero sauce), and cajun-style jambalaya. In the middle of the restaurant, a giant open bar anchors the space that’s decorated in vintage nautical decor including boat motors, swordfish, and golden mermaid statues. Savory dishes like the blue crab and spinach pizza are favorites among locals. “Our staff here are people who wanted to be by the water,” says Fabian Botta, co-owner and executive chef, in this video feature on Ruddy Duck. “One thing I always say to them is that Ruddy Duck is a good restaurant anywhere in the world. It doesn’t have to just be in Morehead City…People make a point to come in here.”
This restaurant with a hole-in-the-wall appearance looks unassuming from the outside, but it’s one of Crystal Coast’s hidden gems. Since 1959, El’s Drive-In in Morehead City has helped diners journey back in time to an era when drive-up dining was all the rage. But your only option isn’t just beef here; this is the Crystal Coast after all. Instead, you can order oyster or shrimp burgers for window-side service. Paula Deen even called El’s burgers one of the best burgers in America. Enough said.
Beaufort Olive Oil Company
If you thought you knew everything there was to know about olive oil, Beaufort Olive Oil Company will prove that you don’t—in a good way. The company, which has four locations in and around the Crystal Coast, stocks olive oil flavors inspired by international recipes from Morocco, Argentina, Portugal, Spain and many other countries. Additionally, the shop offers balsamic vinegar tasting and olive oil sampling. The stores are owned by the executive chef and owner of Circa 81, another popular Crystal Coast restaurant.
NEW IN TOWN
While many of the favored restaurants in the Crystal Coast have been here for a decade or for several, other new spots are opening all the time. One of them isn’t a restaurant at all—it’s a bright, colorful, graffiti-covered food truck that smells of delicious salsa and taco seasoning. Chef and owner Clarke Merrell established Dank Burrito as a way to give the Crystal Coast an infusion of interesting flavors in well-known Mexican and Latin dishes. Dank Burrito’s menu includes cajun-fried mahi tacos, a prime rib cheesesteak burrito, and Asian pulled pork tacos. But it might be Dank Burrito’s truffle mac and cheese that keep guests coming back for its melted smoked gouda bowl with truffle oil topping. Not near the food truck? Stop by their new brick and mortar location in Morehead City to sample their innovative menu.
In Atlantic Beach, Idle Hour Biergarten is a new popular joint where you can dig your toes into the sand and enjoy a selection of imported beers. Located in a white cabana-style house, the biergarten is known for its innovative approach to German cuisine—combining Bavarian recipes with North Carolina ingredients. Items on the menu include a grain mustard crab cake sandwich, a schnitzel sandwich (with Carolina slaw), and porchetta fritters with pulled North Carolina pork. There are plenty of imported ales, porters, stouts and lagers to wash it all down with, too.
Opening recently in the fall of 2015, Pescara Wood Oven Kitchen in Atlantic Beach is a new waterfront restaurant serving Italian and Southern seafood fare. While diners can order traditional pizzas and pasta, its creative dishes like squid ink fettuccine with seafood, clam spaghetti carbonara and limoncello tiramisu are what’s getting this new foodie destination some attention in its early days.
Sometimes, the best way to try a sampling of all the great food offerings is to opt for a food festival, where a number of local restaurants serve some of their favorite dishes. The Crystal Coast hosts a number of excellent food and wine events each year. Here are a few of them:
North Carolina Seafood Festival
For 30 years, Morehead City has been hosting the North Carolina Seafood Festival to unite chefs, fishermen, and lovers of seafood to try out delicious new recipes. Attendees go from tent to tent to sample innovative flavors devised from talented local chefs. In addition to the food tastings, the festival hosts several workshops about the seafood industry, with live music playing throughout the event. The event is one of the largest festivals in the state and continues to raise money to support non-profit organizations and raise awareness of the seafood industry. Shining Example voted North Carolina Seafood Festival as the “Festival of the Year” award in 2015 with more than 100,000 people in attendance.
Beaufort Wine & Food Weekend
Lovers of vino and food, rejoice! Beaufort Wine & Food Weekend is an annual celebration with massive wine and beer tastings, tasting competitions, and displays of local artists’ works. Beaufort Wine & Food also hosts other culinary events throughout the year including Oyster Roasts (oysters served steamed, fried and seasoned), chef competitions (with live tasting contests), and Fine Art debuts for local artists. They also co-hosted a special “Blind Pig” event in fall 2015 featuring local ingredients and chefs. Be sure to watch out for more unique foodie fun this year!
Carolina Chocolate Festival
Lovers of all things sweet will want to jump at this chance to snack on sinfully delicious treats at Carolina Chocolate Festival in Morehead City. During this event, guests can visit dozens of vendors serving chocolate cakes, chocolate bars, chocolate ice cream, and much more. Other exciting attractions include the chocolate spa, which doles out massage and spa treatments using chocolate lotions and oils. The event also features a Cocoa 5K/Fun Run that begins at the Crystal Coast Civic Center to burn off some of those sweet calories.
Annual Clam & Scallop Festival in Salter Path
Located in the middle of Bogue Banks, Salter Path is a hidden gem of beach surrounded by forested dunes. Each year, the area hosts an Annual Clam & Scallops Festival for attendees to enjoy new and local recipes, listen to live traditional music and meet chefs from nearby seafood houses.
The Crystal Coast has several culinary tours available from local guides to sample the wonderful flavors of North Carolina. Hungry Town Tours is a popular host company, taking guests to explore various restaurants and wine tasting by biking or walking. Some of the culinary tour stops include brief visits to restaurants, olive oil tastings, wine tastings, and an eco-ride on a boat with a local fisherman.