For the better half of the last century Ocracoke has been a seafaring town, known for great fishermen. The US government had several sea-based operations here, including Fort Ocracoke (a Civil War outpost on Beacon Island), the first radar base in the world (spurred by the need to locate the German U-Boats that were ravaging the Atlantic Coast during the wars), and one of the best Coast Guard stations on the east coast, which is still thriving today.
Ocracoke is a tiny and charming town. The residents have their own dialect known as brogue, which many people lament is dying away and being lost due to the influence of outside dialects. The residential population has grown to just less than 1,000 people. The first bar on Ocracoke Island opened in 1979 (Howard's Pub), and by the 1980s there were several established restaurants serving alcohol.
Things changed in 2001 when Ocracoke beach was voted the #1 beach in America. Ocracoke tourism boomed. Houses went up, the ferries were jam-packed with SUVs and tourists, and it was nearly impossible to find a place to stay. During this time, I became a bit disenchanted with the island. Locals with whom I'd built relationships were overwhelmed with tourists who failed to appreciate and respect their culture, and had become distasteful of these 'invaders.' The line between 'locals' and 'tourists' grew stronger, and each group's disrespect for the other grew. Tourists increasingly took advantage of the island; invading dunes, for example, trashing hotel rooms, and treating hardscrabble local businesses with the indifference that one might treat a corporate store such as Walmart. And the disrespect went the other way too; some people who owned rental houses worked out all sorts of scams to take advantage of tourists-- we were hit by a few of these frustrating scams over the years. North Carolina saw major revenue potential in tourism here and hiked property taxes.
Then the recession hit and tourism dropped off. It was surreal-- one year the island was packed and brimming with people clamoring to spend their dollars, the next year it seemed like a ghost island, and everyone who owned real estate was suddenly struggling with this new property tax burden. Ocracoke faced another tragedy: in 2009 as the fireworks team transported the fireworks for the 4th of July show, a spark was somehow lit and the truck exploded, killing several people. They haven't had a fireworks show since.
Over the last few years, I've seen a gradual increase in balance, as faithful tourists return and locals accept the transition from a seafaring economy to a tourist economy. Many of the residents live in Ocracoke for just part of the year, and the increasing number of part-time residents has helped to blur the sharp delineiation between tourist and local.
The Flying Melon offers great breakfasts (they also serve dinner and have a bar that is open late-night), but boy, do they have a great breakfast menu. Sweet potato pancakes, pain perdu, eggs any way, fresh fruit and yogurt... They also serve some of the greatest Hatteras Chowder I've tasted in a long time.
SmacNally's is located just off the marina, and as you dine on the dock you can watch the fishermen bring in their catches. Seating is outdoor only, which means this is not a place to eat on a rainy day! The food menu consists of burgers, fried fish, curly fries, and for drinks you have a few choices of beers: Bud, Bud Light, Yuengling, Corona, or Red Stripe. It's a simple menu, but they know how to make a great burger. The best burger I've ever had in my life is served here. It's called the Greenhead Burger (named after the greenhead flies that plague the island) and it comes with pesto, provolone, and a slice of tomato.
They have live music every night, and if someone great is on the guitar, this can be a magical place to be entertained with some satisfying soul food.
Magical things happen on the porch at Zillie's, a store named after Ocracoke legend Barzilla "Zillie" O'Neal (1859-1936). This is an incredible shop that sells beer, wine, cheese, pantry items and sake. The front porch is scattered with tables, but there is no table service. The idea is that you buy your drinks and snacks at the counter inside, and then stake out a table and chat with the interesting people that gather around you. Zillie's has one of the greatest wine and beer selections on the island (read more about it here), but the most amazing part about this place is that the porch invokes a special feel of community. Every time I sit on Zillie's porch I meet some of the most interesting people; it's a place to learn, share, and be inspired by the diversity of our community. And don't miss the giant fig tree that grows right next to the porch.
*Zillie's sells cigars, and these are often smoked on the porch. If you love cigars, this is a major plus! If you hate cigar smoke, you might want to grab a bottle to go!
Ocracoke Coffee was the first coffee shop on Ocracoke Island, founded in 1996. This place has history: it was once the home of Ocracoke locals, Monk and Iva Garrish. They'd receive locals on their front porch for chats, news, and storytelling, and the front porch is used for these same things today. If you get there early, you'll find a crew of locals on the porch, waiting for the doors top open, and talking about the latest fishing gossip.
Inside you will find delicious espresso drinks, 4 different kinds of drip coffees, breakfast foods like bagels and granola, pastries, muffins, coffeecake, scones, and some of the most amazing and addictive smoothies I have ever had-- try Nuts and Joltz, a blend of bananas, peanut butter, and espresso.
Need to catch up on some work while you are on the island? You can relax in their seating area with your laptop and hook up to some WiFi. If you arrive during peak coffee-drinking times, be prepared to wait in a 15 minute line... and don't worry, it's worth it!
Ocracoke Coffee also sells Pat Garber's locally made yaupon tea. You can read more about yaupon here. Yaupon grows wild on the island and can also be found in a natural-habitat setting at Springer's Point.
Dajio gets its name from an acronym: Doug and Judy in Ocracoke. Doug and Judy are, of course the owners. This has been an interesting space to watch- I've seen it change hands several times over the last few decades. Dajio has two main dining areas: an outside region and an inside region. Inside, you will find a large dining area that has the feel of a huge screened-in porch. There is also an inner room with a piano and a few tables. As you walk through this restaurant, it is clear that this was once someone's house. The kitchen serves up lovely food. It's not molecular gastronomy but it's as close to fine dining as you will get on Ocracoke Island.
Outside there is a seating area with cocktail tables, walled in by a high brick wall dripping with ivy. There's a tiny stage and if you are lucky you will get to have a snack and a beer while you listen to a guitar player entertain the garden. A small pathway leads from this walled-in area to a wooden sports/beach bar, complete with bar games, a stage for a multi-piece dance band, and lots of wooden tables. Shirts and shoes are not required. When the sun goes down, most nights a dance band will rock the crowd to music that is a mix of Jimmy Buffet, Greateful Dead, and jazz. The real party, though, is out back by the restrooms. The kids who get jobs on Ocracoke during the summer hang out here after work. But the live music stops at 10pm (sound ordinance!), and then the party moves to either Howard's Pub of Gaffers.
The Jolly Roger is open all day, so you can grab a bite to eat even when the other restaurants are closed between lunch and dinner. The dining area is a dock that juts out over the water. Find a table by the edge so you can watch the pelicans. Try the chowder, the hushpuppies, and a pitcher of their house beer. You can catch some live music during the sunset.
Pony Island is a hotel, with a hotel restaurant next door. This is one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants on the island. It's a real establishment and I've been having breakfast here since I was a small child. When you enter this restaurant, you almost feel as if you are in the mess deck of a boat. This is the place to get a simple, no-nonsense breakfast for a great value. Stick to the basics-- coffee, grits, "pony potatoes," biscuits and gravy; you get the idea. They also serve a great dinner that features fresh local catch.
Howard's Pub is pretty much the first thing you pass on your right when you enter the town of Ocracoke from the north side of the island. This is an iconic establishment, opened in 1979 by Edgar Howard's son, Ronnie. Edgar Howard, a vaudeville entertainer by trade, had this to say when Ronnie opened the bar: "We'll have hard-core hippies, hard-core Yankees, and hard-core Southerners. We're going to mix them all and I hope they all get along." (Philip 2011)
In 1979, liquor hadn't been sold on Ocracoke for 50 years. The Howard's Pub opening was a big deal. In a way, the opening of Howard's Pub ushered in a new wave of restaurant establishments on the island, and initiated a new phase of island tourism. Though the pub has changed ownership, it's still an important place today-- the bartenders are long-term, seasoned employees. You can get fresh-shucked local oysters and either eat them or drink them in the famous 'oyster shot' (oyster, hot sauce and beer). The menu mentions how little filler is in their meaty crab cakes (in the Outer Banks a "good" crab cake has almost no filler, and crab cakes full of "filler" are rip-offs). The decor is what places like TGIFridays try to copy but never quite succeed in making it feel authentic (bumper stickers, license plates, college flags, and items of local significance cover every inch of the walls). The main dining room is lively and the service is fast and sassy. There is patio dining with huge tables for big groups-- you almost feel like you are in a beer hall. Think burgers, fried pickles, and one of the largest beer selections on the island. And.... you can watch the game on TV.