Ocracoke Island Offers Relaxation and a Pirate’s Chest of Edible Treasures

by Janean Flowe
seafood wrap on a plate

by David Coburn

As if Ocracoke Island doesn’t have enough to offer with its world-famous beaches, laid-back island vibe and swashbuckling history — yes, Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, hid out and met his demise here — hungry visitors will find a pirate’s chest of culinary treats fit for the foodie.

The variety is even more impressive when you realize this sliver of barrier island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks is mostly uninhabited. As part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, all 16 miles of beach from Hatteras Inlet on the north to Ocracoke Inlet on the south are protected from development.

Aerial view of Ocracoke Island

Silver Lake harbor

The center of activity is unincorporated Ocracoke Village, four square miles of year-round homes, vacation rentals, businesses — including upwards of two dozen spots to chow down or slake your thirst — and living history clustered around picturesque Silver Lake harbor near the island’s southern tip.

You’re never far from water here. At some points, the island is little more than N.C. 12, the scenic two-lane that runs from Silver Lake to the Hatteras ferry docks, separating the dunes and wide beaches on the Atlantic side from the tidal marsh and thickets of windblown red cedars that hug Pamlico Sound.

Still recovering from Hurricane Dorian’s devastating flooding in September 2019, which closed the island to visitors for several months, and COVID lockdowns in 2020, resilient Ocracoke is bouncing back in fine fashion, with almost all the island’s businesses and eateries back in operation in 2021.

Isolation defines island – and its food

The first thing you need to know about Ocracoke is that it’s not easy to get to. Unless you have a boat or small plane, it’s accessible only by ferry. From the N.C. mainland, it’s over two hours from Cedar Island or Swan Quarter to Silver Lake. The ferry from Hatteras Island to the north end of the island is an hour.

But the island’s isolation has helped Ocracoke retain an authentic character that is unique. You won’t find a single traffic light, putt-putt golf or chain anything. Listen to native islanders and you can pick up hints of the brogue — the so-called “Hoi Toider” dialect — that Ocracokers have spoken for centuries.

Ocracoke is no resort destination: It’s a sandy slice of small-town USA with 797 residents, a K-12 school, volunteer fire department, Fourth of July parade and its own newspaper. Family plots dot the village, a reminder of generations who weathered hurricanes, wars, isolation and pandemics over the centuries.

The same authenticity carries over to the food. No cookie-cutter eateries here. Everything’s one of a kind, and like the tourists who throng the beaches every summer, local menus reflect an international blend, with Italian, Greek, Mexican, Mediterranean, Thai, Vietnamese and, of course, American flavors.

Ocracoke Lighthouse

Ocacroke Lighthouse

Plenty to do and see

Of course, nobody comes to Ocracoke just for the food. The island’s natural beauty, slow pace and location off the beaten path make it the perfect antidote to civilization for anyone eager to kick back and unwind. Even the ferry ride is therapeutic, helping you reset your clock to “island time.”

Ocracoke is a mecca for birding, shelling, fishing, or just enjoying uncrowded beaches — rated among Dr. Beach’s Top 10 — where it’s easy to slip into the island’s patented “Ocra-coma” state of mind. There are three beach access points with parking off N.C. 12 and more access ramps for four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Those interested in more active pursuits will find plenty of options on the water, including surfing, parasailing, jet skiing and exploring serene tidal creeks by kayak. In the village, there’s plenty to explore on foot or by bike, including the Ocracoke Lighthouse — North Carolina’s oldest still in operation today.

Walking distance from the 1823 lighthouse is Springer’s Point Nature Preserve. A short hike through a maritime forest of ancient live oaks brings you to Pamlico Sound and Teach’s Hole, the channel where Blackbeard and crew of the Adventure met their fate at the hands of the Royal Navy in November 1718.

World War II buffs will enjoy learning about the naval base built on Silver Lake during the war. At the British Cemetery, stop to honor seamen killed in a German U-boat attack just offshore in 1942. North of the village, visit a monument to the Beach Jumpers — precursors of the Navy Seals – who trained here.

At the National Park Service Visitor Center on Silver Lake, relax in an open-air pavilion as park rangers dish on topics from shipwreck lore to barrier island ecology. On N.C. 12 six miles out of town, stop by the Pony Pens to see the descendants of shipwrecked Spanish mustangs that washed ashore centuries ago.

A culinary treasure map and tour

After all that activity, you’re going to be hungry. If you’re part of a group, the most stressful experience you might encounter during your visit to Ocracoke is deciding where to eat. The variety of food options has been known to spark a family squabble or two over the course of a weeklong stay on the island.

For a beachy vibe and great beer selection, try sprawling Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar on N.C. 12, named for Blackbeard quartermaster William Howard, who parted ways before the fateful battle, returning later to buy the island. It’s American pub fare with lots of seafood. The Oysters Rockefeller appetizer is a treat.

Just next door is 1718 Brewing, Ocracoke’s only craft brewery (yes, the name is another nod to the infamous scalawag). Belly up to the bar for a wide, ever-changing menu of craft beers — and enjoy a crab-stuffed soft pretzel from Plum Pointe Kitchen, a restaurant that shares space with the brewery.

Taste buds ready to head south of the border? There’s always a line at Eduardo’s Taco Stand on N.C. 12, with its lineup of tasty tacos and burritos featuring the fresh catch and regional Mexican specialties like the savory pork carnitas taco. Taqueria 504suazo’s offers up a mix of Latin-American and American fare.

plate of grilled fish, rice and carrots

Flying Melon

Venture off N.C. 12 for hidden culinary treasures on Back Road. For fine dining in a casual atmosphere, try the Back Porch – the crab beignets are scrumptious — or the Flying Melon, whose fans swear by the Parmesan-encrusted flounder and pecan-encrusted drum, both featuring a lemon beurre blanc sauce.

Continue down Back Road and you’ll find Ocracoke Coffee — island mecca for coffee drinks, smoothies, bagels and other breakfast munchies — and Zillie’s Island Pantry, a gourmet shop that serves food inside and outside on a pet-friendly deck and boasts an impressive selection of high-end beer and wines to go.

shrimp wrap on a plate

SmacNally’s Waterfront Bar & Grill

Back on N.C. 12 around Silver Lake you’ll find Dajio — the island’s other fine-dining (but casual) option – and SmacNally’s Waterfront Bar & Grill. SmacNally’s seating is all outside on a deck with a spectacular view of Silver Lake. Try the Fried Jalepeño Bottle Caps but be forewarned: They might be habit-forming.

The Jolly Roger, the only other open-air, full-service waterfront restaurant offering patrons a picture-postcard view of the harbor to go with their fried oyster sandwich and frosty cervesa, has been closed since Dorian. The eatery’s owners (and legions of loyal fans) are hoping for a 2022 reopening.

A newcomer to the island’s culinary scene, Stockroom Street Food serves up an eclectic mix of Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, Mediterranean and Southern cookin’ — including vegetarian options — from the rear of the shuttered Community Store. Order ahead and pick up or eat at tables overlooking Silver Lake.

Cash- and takeout-only Thai Moon in Spencer’s Market offers great vegetarian options and standards like Shrimp Pad Thai, spring rolls and savory satay skewers. Spencer’s is also home to Helios’ Hideaway, offering Greek favorites like hummus, fresh-baked pita bread, baba ghanouj, tzatziki, falafel and salads.

Hankering for something other than seafood? Try Jason’s and Sorella’s for spaghetti and meatballs and pizza, head to Ocracoke Oyster Company or Jerniman’s for house-smoked barbecue and ribs or grab a burger and crinkle-cut fries at cash-only food truck Old Salt Sandwiches & Such next to the Variety Store.

Whatever the ethnic twist, expect menus loaded with local shrimp, oysters, tuna, mahi-mahi, flounder, drum and other seafood offerings just off the boat. And given that local restaurants thrive on the tourist trade, a family-friendly atmosphere and casual dress code are the order of the day everywhere you go.

If you’re staying on the island and want to eat in, you’ll find meat, produce and other staples at the Variety Store and seafood at Native Seafood and Ocracoke Seafood Co. — the latter operated by the nonprofit Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association to help preserve the island’s fishing traditions.

For dessert, the Fig Tree Bakery and Deli and Sweet Tooth offer treats, from fudge to made-to-order birthday cakes. For ice cream, try The Slushy Stand or the Fudge & Ice Cream Shop. And several stores carry an Ocracoke delicacy — fig cakes and preserves made from the fruit of the trees that thrive here.

Harbor on Ocracoke Island with ferry

Ocracoke Mainland Ferry

THINGS TO KNOW IF YOU GO

  • Ocracoke is a seasonal tourist destination, so most of the island’s restaurants and fish houses close sometime in early November and reopen around Easter.
  • If your furry friend is along, most restaurants with outdoor seating welcome pets, including SmacNally’s and Ocracoke Oyster Company.
  • Heading to the beach or ferry? Grab something at the Back Porch Lunch Box, Stockroom Street Food, the Fig Tree or any of the island’s three food trucks — Eduardo’s, Taqueria 504suazo’s and Old Salt.
  • For breakfast, try Stockroom Street Food, Eduardo’s and Taqueria 504suazo’s for hearty grit bowls and breakfast burritos. Jerniman’s and The Pony Island Restaurant offer a full breakfast.
  • The line at Ocracoke Coffee can be lengthy, so go early or try The Slushy Stand or Magic Bean if you’re trying to catch a ferry or mind the long wait.
  • It’s hard to know what spice level to order at a restaurant you’re not familiar with. At Thai Moon, you can bet “Thai hot” will satisfy the heat lovers in your group. It’s scorching.
  • Some eateries on Ocracoke serve beer and wine only, but there’s an ABC liquor store next to the Variety Store. No “island prices” here: It’s state-run, so prices are the same you pay elsewhere in North Carolina.

(Photos: David Coburn and Getty Images)

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