A Bite-size History of Outer Banks Restaurants

By Beth P. Storie

How do you mark the passing of time? By your age? By the seasons? By how much those around you have grown up…or old? All legitimate clocks, as they go. But for many who have lived or vacationed on the Outer Banks for a long time, we can also count the years by the businesses that have come and gone. We could use shops as a meter, but, good lordy, the research on that would be mind boggling due to the vast numbers of them. That said, who shopped at The Galleon Esplanade or bought cheese and “fancy” wines at Scandia Cheese Shop or cool, handmade jewelry from R and R Junction? (Oh, the memories! That era of the mid-70s on the Outer Banks could be a story all on its own. It was a wild and wooly place then!) But for this feature I decided to take us on a walk down memory lane through restaurants that have charged form, name, cuisine and sometimes location.

You might be interested in how I found out all the intriguing information I’m about to give you. Well, for a little more than 20 years, my husband and I published a series of books called The Insiders’ Guides. Our oldest was the one for the Outer Banks, and we updated it every year from 1979 until we sold the company in 1998, having at that point close to 100 Insiders’ Guides across the country either in print or production. What a source of history they are! Since we wrote up every shop, restaurant, night spot, recreation, attraction and more, by looking at the guides sequentially, I was able to get a fascinating 20-year snapshot. Since we sold the series, except for a couple of years gap, we’ve had the annual updates for our OneBoat/OuterBanksThisWeek destination magazines and online sites. 

Dareolina Cove Nags Head MenuThe first thing that grabbed my attention was that it was not until the 1982 edition that any restaurants in Kitty Hawk were noted – Trade Winds and House of Krause. And, at that time, there was nothing to write about except general history in points north. The community of Sanderling had begun, but there were no restaurants in Duck or Corolla. In fact, the first restaurant to show up in Corolla was the Gazebo. Our writers described it as “the first real restaurant” in that area. It only served wine and beer because Currituck County, where Corolla is located, didn’t allow liquor by the drink. In that same edition, there were only 11 restaurants in Kill Devil Hills, 12 in all of Nags Head, three on Roanoke Island, nine on Hatteras Island and only three on Ocracoke. Contrast that with the 320-ish eateries open in 2015.

Meanwhile, down the beach, here are some of the highlights from the first three editions of the guides, 1979-1982.

Top of the Dunes, located in the Sea Ranch Hotel, was a swank spot that even sported a piano bar in the evening. Through the years, it changed to Alice’s (named after the owner, Alice Powell), Third Street Oceanfront Grill and Dining Room, Oceanfront Trellis and the Beachside Bistro. It remains a vital part of the hotel’s draw today due, in part, to being one of the few oceanfront restaurants on the entire Outer Banks these days.

All of us of a certain age recall Sound Side, the fabulous restaurant/bar/music venue that was situated – guess? – on the sound in Kill Devil Hills. It was the first place that served a vegetarian menu on the Outer Banks, and they attracted some incredible bands. Remember Blue Sparks from Hell? It was the most amazing gathering place for the 18-35 crowd (the legal drinking age then was 18), but it closed in 1985. What’s there now? Condos. Yep. But then David Menaker, who co-owned Sound Side, opened up a new restaurant called the Blue Moose Café, which eventually became the ever-popular Hurricane Mo’s (which, by the way, started at Pirate’s Cove).

Papagayo Kills Devil HillsPapagayo’s, a super popular Mexican restaurant that had a sister restaurant in Chapel Hill, opened in 1982 in the Croatan Inn. With its two oceanfront decks, totally cool vibe, hip nightlife and yummy food that didn’t center mostly around things that swam in the ocean, it remained one of true Go To spots through 1995. In 1996, local guys Will Thorpe and John Kirchmier relocated a restaurant, Quagmire’s (more on it later), that continued to draw the crowds through 2003. In May of 2006, the landmark hotel was torn down, taking with it the memories of plenty of folks who are now pushing middle age (assuming we all live well past 100) and replaced with…condos. Yep.  

Restaurant by George in Nags HeadThough it had opened more than 10 years before we started writing the guides, the Skylark restaurant in Nags Head was still thriving in 1981, as were A Restaurant, By George (this was THE place to see and be seen as soon as it opened in 1976, due in part to the way Mike Kelly, who managed it before he went on to create his own fabulous restaurants, treated every single person who walked through the door. You felt almost famous. I don’t know who of you reading this remember, but for the first few years it was open, after dinner waiters would bring around a box full of long, vibrantly colored cigarettes for the ladies. You’d choose one that matched your outfit and puff away…right there in the restaurant…it was a different time), The Carolinian, The Wharf, Owens Restaurants, Seafare and Darolina Cove (another oceanfront restaurant during that day). I actually worked at The Wharf in the summer of 1976 and at the Skylark the summer of 1979. Skylark stayed open until 1982, when it became The Food Factory, then MP 16, then Island Eye from 1993-98, then Bushwackers for a few years, followed by SOS Enterprises, then landing on the South Beach Grille it is today. 

On the Nags Head/Manteo Causeway, the scene was hopping in 1982. Spencer’s Seafood Safari (which changed to The Ships Wheel in 1986 before being torn down to become a fishing access for the Town of Nags Head), Daniels’ Seafood (where Basnight’s Lone Cedar is now), The Dock (morphing from The Oasis that featured the Barefoot Coeds and today as Oasis Suites) and Tale of the Whale were taking advantage of the panoramic sound views.

Green Dolphin Pub TshirtOver Roanoke Island way, long before 1982 you could go to Fernando’s Ale House (if you dared…it was a pretty rowdy place at times. We remember one night when a local guy was pushed in, butt naked, in a grocery cart. Perhaps it’s best for all that the rest of the story remain untold), but by that year it became the Green Dolphin Pub, owned by the Sommers family for two years, then owned by two local women for some years, then becoming its present-day Ortega’z, a restaurant popular with locals and visitors for their Southwestern cuisine. Before any of these restaurants, it was the neighborhood Esso station. Also serving mostly locals then were the Duchess of Dare, where you went for all the local gossip and which today has been transformed into 108 Budleigh, a wedding venue. Sir Walter’s Steak House, in the downtown building with the bright red tin roof where you can now buy antiques, was a cavernous place with decent steaks. Their filet mignon sold for $4.50. For years before it was the steak house, it was the local pool hall. Did I say already that it was a different time?... 

And Hatteras Island? Well, much different from what you might assume, due to the number of hurricanes that have devastated the area, there are three restaurants — Quarterdeck Restaurant, The Gingerbread House and Frisco Sandwich Shop — still operating there that were in existence in 1982 or before. They might not be owned by the same people or serving exactly the same food as then, but they’ve been faithful servants to hungry diners, and they must be doing something right, right? Other Hatteras Island restaurants that had a very long run were Channel Bass in Hatteras Village, which closed in 2012, and The Pilot House, which was fairly new in 1979 and served islanders until 1986 when it burned to the ground, then opened back up from the spring of ’87 until 2001. 

On Ocracoke, in 1979 there were only three restaurants – The Island Inn Dining Room, Capt. Ben’s, which operated in its location on the edge of town from 1978 until 2009 (but its owner, Ben Mugford, had run a restaurant on the island since the ‘60s) and The Pony Island Restaurant, which is still serving great food. 

By the 1986 edition, four restaurants were noted in Duck (but remember that it was still officially Kitty Hawk then; Duck didn’t become an independent town until 2002): Barrier Island Inn, which today is Sunset Grill and Raw Bar; The Sanderling Restaurant, which is still there today under the name of The Lifesaving Station; Duck Deli – still serving; and Osprey Landing Gourmet, which served a Baby Boomlet Special pbj that contained “no sprouts, no onions, no strange gourmet mustards or mayo.” 

The mid-80s were a boom time for restaurant openings. RV’s, owned by RV Owens and big Jim Clack, a 14-year veteran of the NFL who played for the Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers, opened in Nags Head in June of 1982 on the Nags Head/Manteo Causeway. One of our writers described their handicapped ramp as being long enough to look like the plume ride at Disney World. It was a popular place where football and fun were spoken in a lively bar scene. The food was pretty good too. Today, Sugar Shack is the restaurant holding down this sunset-central location now. In 1984, RV opened a second location in Kitty Hawk that then became Frisco’s and is now Longboard’s Island Grill. 

MexeconosSkip down the beach road to Kill Devil Hills and you found one of the most imaginative restaurants the Outer Banks had ever – and, perhaps, has ever still – experienced: Mex-Econo. Say that name to some people now who were in their prime party years during that time and they’ll get misty eyed. This place was as wild and fun and forward as you could find. The door handle was a hand, there was an elaborate pulley system that opened and closed the door, the walls were covered with items that earned it a reputation as a place not suitable for kids or those who thought inside the box and the music was loud. It was just about perfect. And the food was just as imaginative. Here’s how our writer put it, “Another special that sounds gross but tastes heavenly is the Sautéed Eggplant and Smoked Oyster Taco with Scallions and Pumpkin Guacamole.” They also served color-scheme meals – as in red food or green food. And, in a twist that I’m sure brings a chuckle to Survivors of Mex-Econo (the name of their Facebook page…I’m not making this up), the building is now The Fraternal Order of Eagles Lodge.  

Gandalf and Co logoA bit farther down the beach road brought you to Gandalf’s, which opened in April of 1984. It was a page out of a Tolkien book (just think how popular it would be now with the refocus on Lord of the Rings), and it was a fine little café where the owners, Bob and Jan Kannry, interacted with guests, played superb jazz in the background and cooked up tasty meals. Unfortunately for all, it burned in 1987. A few years later, in 1989, the Quagmire’s guys restored the building (yes, the same Quag’s that moved to the Papagayo’s location later). Then in 1992, Tortuga’s Lie started its reign here, where it’s still on the favorite list for locals and visitors these 23 years later and recently expanded to try to keep up with the crowds.

Elegant Pelican opened on the sound in Nags Head in 1986 and served breath-taking sunsets. Within two years, it was the new restaurant owned by Mike Kelly, of A Restaurant, By George and Kelly’s fame, and Doug Tutwiler. It was an immediate hit with foodies…as well as sunset watchers. The fox, raccoons and other wildlife were part of the live entertainment that could be viewed from the huge soundside windows and decks. They served an appetizer of escargot over bean cakes that this author would have opted to live on if given the choice. The restaurant changed its name to Pamlico Jack’s in 2009 and adopted a bit of a livelier personality, which only made it more popular. Today, the live entertainment has expanded to people who sing on their outdoor ship deck, the crowd’s enthusiasm buoyed by well-made drinks.

1986 was also the year that Café Rene opened in the then-new Waterfront building in downtown Manteo (having also had a location within the famous Galleon Esplanade in Nags Head). The décor was as fluffy then as it is decidedly unfluffy now as Avenue Grill. But the food was pretty darn good. Even better, it became a venue for a short-lived Outer Banks Jazz Club that brought some fairly well-known Windham Hill label artists to little ole Manteo – as in Shadowfax! It closed in 1988, and in 1991 Clara’s opened, owned by the famous local restaurant family that operates Owens’ Restaurant and (then) RV’s. It then went through several incarnations – The Waterfront Trellis and Adrianna’s – before settling in as Avenue Waterfront Grille. That same year, in 1981, the Weeping Radish Restaurant and Brewery opened as did the Ship’s Galley, which became Poor Richard’s in 1992. The Radish, as locals used to call it, moved to Currituck some years back but not before making a lot of people happy with their delicious (and strong!) beer. Poor Richard’s is still a great sandwich stop, but it’s also the happiest after-hours bar in town with live entertainment most nights. 

Map with Elegant Pelican and SkylarkBy 1991, the only Corolla restaurant noted was Horsefeathers in the Corolla Light Village Shops, opened by the Quagmire guys, so I have to assume the Gazebo had closed. By then, Blue Point and Elizabeth’s Café and Winery had been open for two years and were setting a new standard for food all over the Outer Banks. Elizabeth’s closed last year, after many Wine Spectator awards through the years. But Blue Point, 25 years old now, is still considered by many people to be one of their favorite restaurants anywhere in the universe.   

Seafare MenuIt’s amazing to look back and see how quickly the Corolla and Duck dining scenes changed in the first half of the 1990s. By the summer of 1996, there were 11 restaurants in Corolla and 12 in Duck! When you consider that the road into Corolla had only been open to the public for 12 years by that time, you begin to imagine the exponential and fast change that took place in that area. See if you recall some of these Corolla eateries that enjoyed their time in the restaurant sun: Nicoletta’s Italian Café, Horseshoe Café, Smokey’s Restaurant, Grouper’s, Mane Street Eatery, Neptune’s Grill and Arcade or Leo’s Bakery. There then and still kicking were Corolla Pizza and Deli, Cosmo’s Pizzeria, Tomato Patch Pizzeria and Steamer’s. 

Lost in Duck’s history from that era are Duck News Café, Fish Bones Raw Bar & Grill, Herron’s Deli and Restaurant and Swan Cove. And, as we skip to the south, let us tip a hat of remembrance to Southern Bean, Da Kine Hawaiian Kitchen, Petrozza’s Deli, Chardo’s, Zanzibar, The Sands, It’s Prime Only (this place might get the prize for the number of restaurants that have rested there for a time: CW’s, Prime, The Plantation, Firefly, Mykanos…there were others), The Clove (where Blue Moon is), Soundside Pavillion, Windmill Point, Down Under in Rodanthe, The Mad Crabber in Avon, Bubba’s Bar-B-Que (gosh, they had one of the funniest radio commercials ever – any of you remember the guy calling the name Barbara over and over in his sleep and his wife going off on him til he changes it to Bar-B-Que?… Maybe you had to be there, but I laughed every single time), Cockle Creek down Ocracoke way or Café Atlantic. There have been some good ones through the decades.

Which brings us to the last thing I want to note: From our very first Insiders’ Guide (and way before, for some of these) until now, there are an elite few restaurants that have faithfully – and obviously consistently – served food that people come back for year after year. Let us end by raising a fork to Port O’ Call, Owens’ Restaurant, The Dunes, Sam & Omie’s, Quarterdeck and Pony Island Restaurant. You are timeless.


About the Author Beth P. Storie
Beth Storie first came to the Outer Banks for the summer of 1976. She fell in love with the area and returned for good three years later. She and her husband published the national guidebook series, The Insiders' Guides, for more than 20 years and now are building OneBoat guides into another national brand. After spending time in many dozens of cities around the country, she absolutely believes that her hometown of Manteo is the best place on earth, especially when her two children, six cats and one dog are there too.