Located just 30 minutes north of the hustle and bustle of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, lies a quaint fishing town that has garnered the moniker of “The Seafood Capital of the World” for once having 30 restaurants within a square mile. It is also the birthplace of Calabash-style seafood.
In addition to its great seafood, Calabash, North Carolina, is a fun day trip offering a picturesque waterfront lined with shrimp boats: a marketplace that features works by Carolina artists: a block-wide mercantile offering a variety of unique wares as well as a Christmas shop; a local creamery dipping up delicious homemade ice cream and boat tour adventures.
A Bit of Calabash History
As far back as the 1930s, fishermen would gather under the trees near Calabash’s waterfront to cook the day’s catch in large pots. People from the town came to see what had been caught and to buy any leftover cooked seafood. Soon, enterprising locals began cooking up tubs of deep-fried seafood to sell. These open air-air venues were the beginning of several family-owned seafood restaurants that are still in existence today, each claiming to have been the first Calabash-style establishment.
Today, Calabash-style seafood is all about fresh seafood and the way it is prepared. The term refers to the method of cooking flounder, shrimp, oysters, clam strips, deviled crabs and scallops, which have been dipped in a dry seasoned cornmeal batter and then deep fried in hot oil. Unlike the heavy, greasy seafood often prepared with a wet batter crust, this style produces a light, crusty coating on the seafood. A Calabash-style meal traditionally includes a generous basket of Hush Puppies and a side of creamy coleslaw.
Where to Eat
Four of the original family-owned restaurants that still exist in Calabash, North Carolina, include Beck’s, Ella’s, Dockside and Coleman’s. They still offer a down-home, cozy, family-style atmosphere. Walls are decorated with family photos, historical relics and fishing memorabilia and the wait staff are friendly and welcoming.
An interesting tidbit of Calabash history: Jimmy Durante is said to have put Calabash on the map when he visited one of the early Calabash restaurants in 1940. Calling over the 23-year-old owner to his table, he told her: “I’m going to make you famous.” It wasn’t long after that visit that Mr. Durante began signing off his radio show with the words, “Good night Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are!”
The Oyster Rock
Some newer restaurants have recently sprung up offering fare other than just the traditional Calabash-style seafood. A recent one, The Oyster Rock, is a fun place to hang out and enjoy upscale dining, wine or a craft beer indoors, on the outdoor patio or on the riverfront boardwalk near the separate outdoor oyster pit where fresh oysters are cooked and served.
Whet your appetite with a glass of wine or a flight of beer, selecting from 24 on-tap beers. Then order a local favorite starter: “You’re In a Real Pickle Now”—a generous portion of fried Mount Olive (local) dill pickle chips served with house-made ranch dipping sauce. Another great option is “Ragin’ Cajun Oysters”—fresh shucked oysters topped with a mixture of Andouille sausage, bacon, crawfish shrimp, onions, peppers and cheese.
For the main course, the entrees seem endless, featuring both land and sea options. If you’ve never experienced a traditional Low Country Boil with Seasoned Carolina shrimp, tender snow crab cluster, corn on the cob, red bliss potatoes and kielbasa sausage—it’s an experience you won’t forget! You can also order traditional Calabash Fried Seafood with a choice of shrimp, flounder, oysters or scallops. I opted for the “Deep Treasure” entrée—large diver scallops with lemongrass risotto cake and kaffir lime beurre blanc. Others in my party ordered the fried oysters or a choice of fresh fish caught in local waters.
Once you’ve had your fill of seafood and history, head to Callahan’s Nautical Gifts and St. Nick’s Christmas Shop at Pea Landing which takes up a whole block. This expansive, 25,000-square-foot shopping area will delight adults and children alike with its nautical gifts, jewelry, crafts, collectibles and two million (yes, that’s correct) Christmas ornaments.
If you enjoy the visual arts, stop at the Sunset River Marketplace. This gallery/shop features over 200 North and South Carolina artists and artisans with displays of pottery, photography, blown glass, jewelry, sculpture, oil and acrylic paintings, watercolors and mixed mediums.
Another must before you leave is a stop at the Calabash Creamery (look for the life-size black and white spotted cows in front) offering 24 homemade flavors of gourmet ice cream. Their signature ice cream — Cow-A-Bash Crunch — features a smooth white chocolate base with chocolate cake crumbs. Or try the flavor of the month, then grab a rocking chair on the front porch and join fellow “lickers” for a cool blast of refreshment.
Calabash Boat Tours
Calabash Fishing Fleet offers a fun dolphin cruise right from the waterfront of Calabash. This two-hour Dolphin Adventure Cruiseincludes views of the beautiful island and Intercostal Waterway as you head out to sea through the Little River inlet. Once at sea, the Navigator will meet up with a working shrimp boat where eager dolphins await the raising of the nets to see what the shrimpers will discard from the net. There are also deep sea fishing and sport fishing charters available.
However you decide to spend your day in Calabash, you’re sure to experience a unique slice of history, great food, spectacular waterfront views and a relaxing, down-home vibe.
Article written by Destination Expert Sandra Chambers of Southern-Traveller.
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