NC Oyster Tour/Tasting

Straight from the Source on the NC Oyster Trail

It’s the perfect time of year for a coastal culinary adventure!

ABCDs of Shellfish Farm Tours

As the days warm, it’s time to try a N.C. shellfish farm tour!

Because these tours are offered by boat and on land, you have many options to choose from.

Consider which tour is best for you by visiting our map tool at NCOysterTrail.org/map and selecting the category ‘Shellfish Farm Tours’.

Don’t know where to start? Consider some of the following fabulous tours below!

What is the N.C. Oyster Trail? And where are the Wilmington-area stops?

by Allison Ballard on April 25, 2022 | Wilmington StarNews

North Carolina loves its oysters. The aquaculture industry in the state is worth an estimated $30 million – and there are those who’d like to see that number grow to $100 million by 2030, despite some of the challenges the industry faces like habitat loss and a decline in some oyster populations. 

One of the recent efforts to help was the creation of the N.C. Oyster Trail. Three local groups, the N.C. Coastal Federation, N.C. Sea Grant and the state’s shellfish growers association, partnered for the project and compiled a list of businesses, educational centers and events from across the state to boost oyster tourism. 

The idea is to help people learn where they can eat oysters, tour a shellfish farm, or even volunteer to support the industry. But what does that look like in Southeastern North Carolina? Here are some of the places on the map in Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties.   

Rusty Hooks Dockside Grill at 4907 Fish Factory Rd, Southport N.C. on April 20,2022.
Rusty Hooks Dockside Grill at 4907 Fish Factory Rd, Southport N.C. on April 20, 2022. ALLISON BALLARD/STARNEWS

Oyster-friendly restaurants 

Twenty-four eateries across the state are on the Oyster Trail. And a good percentage of them, 10, are located in the area. All of them are known for serving local oysters. At Brunswick County’s Rusty Hooks Dockside Grill (4907 Fish Factory Road in Southport) you can watch the boats come and go on the Intracoastal Waterway as you enjoy the local seafood.

Although the locally based Shuckin’ Shack has locations in Wilmington, Leland and Carolina Beach, it’s the Surf City restaurant in Pender County that was singled out for the Oyster Trail. Look for more than eight varieties of oysters daily on their menu, several of which are always from North Carolina waters. It’s at 13460 N.C Hwy 50.

In the Porters Neck area, Tidewater Oyster Bar at 8211 Market St. offers various farm-raised oysters year-round. And in Ogden, the menu Catch Restaurant from chef/owner Keith Rhodes at 6623 Market St. has a variety of local seafood, including oysters and other shellfish.

There’s also Coquina Fishbar at 890 Town Center Drive at Mayfaire in Wilmington. Oysters pop up in several menu items, from raw and baked to salads and sandwiches. Wrightsville Beach Brewery (6201 Oleander Drive, Wilmington) is committed to serving sustainable seafood and is also known for their classic dark beer, the Oysterman Stout. 

In downtown Wilmington, PinPoint Restaurant at 114 Market St. offers oysters year round and their Monday night special, with half-price oysters and wine, has become especially popular.

N.C. oysters on the half shell at PinPoint Restaurant at 114 Market St. in downtown Wilmington.
N.C. oysters on the half shell at PinPoint Restuarant at 114 Market St. in downtown Wilmington. ALLISION BALLARD/STARNEWS

Seabird (1 South Front St.) serves a variety that’s grown especially for the restaurant, and also hosts regular oyster specials. There’s also Three10 restaurant at 1022 N. 4th St. in the Brooklyn Art District.

Seaview Crab Company Kitchen & Deli at 1515 Marstellar St. takes the seafood from their market and makes dishes that can be picked up to eat at home, or enjoyed at their outdoor seating area.

Chef Brandon Stark at Seaview Crab Co. Kitchen & Deli. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO
Chef Brandon Stark at Seaview Crab Co. Kitchen & Deli. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS

Markets and more

Speaking of Seaview Crab Company, five locations (including the one on Marstellar St.) are also on the N.C. Oyster Trail. Others include 580 River Road SE in Belville, and Wilmington markets at 6458 Carolina Beach Road, 2009 Castle Hayne Road, and 6250 Market St. Look for varieties of cultured and wild oysters and oyster shell recycling containers where you can drop off your shells. 

Seaview Crab Company. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO
Seaview Crab Company. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS

Carolina Beach Oyster Co. sells CB Salts and will deliver them to your door if you live near its North Topsail Beach location. The N. SEA. Oyster Co. is in the process of expanding to a larger production facility it calls The Oyster Barn at 674 Old Landing Road in Hampstead. They sells their oysters at the Wilmington Farmers Market on Saturdays, which is located at Tidal Creek Co-op.

Soundside Oyster Farms offers oyster delivery of bags of 50 or more oysters year round. It’s available throughout the week in the Wilmington area. They’re at 2029 Watts Landing Road, Hampstead. 

Local oysters at an oyster roast in Wilmington, N.C.
Local oysters at an oyster roast in Wilmington, N.C. ALLISON BALLARD/STARNEWS

Take a farm tour

Cape Fear Oyster Company, at 2204 Scotts Hill Loop Road in Wilmington, offers chartered boat tours and educational trips to oyster farms.  Ghost Fleet Oyster Company in Hampstead farms oysters in Topsail Sound. It can also arrange a sunset cruises and boat tours with a stop at a local restaurant. 

Middle Sound Mariculture grows oysters in Masonboro, Stump and Topsail sounds. Take a farm tour and then buy some of their oysters direct.

Allison Ballard is the food and dining reporter at the StarNews. You can reach her at aballard@gannett.com.

by Amy Beth Wright on January 12, 2022 | StyleBlueprint

Explore the North Carolina Oyster Trail — a celebration of the region’s oyster farms, oyster bars, gourmet markets, and more — and take a closer look at 10 must-visit stops along the way!

Ideal for hobby culinary travelers and oyster lovers alike, North Carolina’s Oyster Trail is a unique network of oyster farms, oyster bars, gourmet markets, seafood and oyster festivals, conservation and education organizations like the North Carolina Aquarium, and — delectably — many restaurants featuring farmed North Carolina oysters on the menu.

North Carolina’s farmed oysters, celebrated on the oyster trail, are infused with freshness and salinity, and offer myriad environmental and economic benefits. Jane Harrison, a coastal economics specialist with the North Carolina Sea Grant, explains that oysters filter water, improve water quality, and provide a food supply for humans and other animals. And, because wild oyster reefs protect the coastline from erosion and are habitats for spawning fish and crustaceans, the increased popularity of farmed oysters allows wild oyster reefs to benefit from protection and restoration. Oyster farming also economically sustains coastal fishing communities that currently face a diminished supply of wild seafood to harvest.

Sounds like an absolute win-win to us! While the North Carolina Oyster Trail has a wide variety of stops along the way, we’re focusing on our favorite travel activity: eating. Below, 10 North Carolina chefs and restaurateurs share their unique oyster preparations, from fried to raw to nestled at the bottom of a shooter. Perspective about the trail’s importance from North Carolina chefs and sommeliers “filters” throughout!

North Carolina’s oyster trail pays homage to this tasty delicacy. Image: Amy Beth Wright
Working oyster farms like this one are found along the NC Oyster Trail. Image: Amy Beth Wright

Blue Water Grill and Raw Bar | Manteo, NC

Blue Water Grill seeks out “as many local farm-raised oysters as we can find,” says sous chef Tim Gard, who sources from Savage Inlet in Nags Head, Devil Shoals on Ocracoke Island, and Slash Creek Oyster Company, Hatteras Salts, and Sticky Bottom Oyster Co. on Hatteras Island. A colorful oyster shooter is a house signature, the oyster layered with lemon horseradish sauce, cucumber puree, vodka, and Bloody Mary mix. Tim describes the trail as a powerful resource. “If we can show our customers how important this is and what a treat it is, hopefully we can spread that enthusiasm to other areas and other industries, improving not only the quality of our product, but the local economy as well.”

The oyster shooter at Blue Water Grill is a sight to behold. Image: Blue Water Grill

Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar | Ocracoke Island, NC

Ann Warner has owned Howard’s Pub, a seasonal restaurant on Ocracoke Island, for 32 years. She describes Ocracoke Pamlico Sound oysters as “plump, juicy, salty, and delectable.” Howard’s Pub serves oysters raw and steamed on the half shell, and a popular Oysters Rockefeller features creamy spinach, bacon, and melted cheese. At the bar, an oyster shooter is prepared with chilled vodka or cold draft beer, hot sauces, and a little spice and comes in a souvenir glass. Ann notes that oysters contribute positively to “our economy, health, and wellbeing.”

Next time you’re in Ocracoke Island, NC, stop into Howard’s Pub for some fresh oysters on the half shell. Image: Howard’s Pub

JK’s Restaurant | Kill Devil Hills, NC

Spurgeon Stowe, owner and oyster farmer at Slash Creek Oyster Company on Cape Hatteras, often hand delivers oysters 60 miles north to JK’s, an Outer Banks mainstay known for unparalleled 30-day house-aged steaks. JK’s sommelier, Dennis Perry, recommends a white wine that has body, like a barrel-aged, buttery chardonnay, to complement the Baked Oysters Rockefeller, which features spinach walnut pesto and Parmesan cheese. For raw oysters, he suggests that any dry champagne is a wonderful complement. Wines from Chablis as well as Muscadet, which Dennis describes as “dry, high acid, lean, and austere,” cut through the salinity, achieving the same effect as a squeeze of lemon.

Spurgeon or his wife and business partner, Katherine McGlade, will take visitors (call ahead to book) onto the water for a peek into the submerged white boxes sheltering thousands of burgeoning oyster seeds, and the floating bags incubating growing oysters destined for the premium half-shell market.

Oysters at JK’s come from Slash Creek Oyster Company on Cape Hatteras they are fresh and incredibly tasty! Image: Dennis Perry
Bags of oysters from Slash Creek Oyster Company waiting to be enjoyed. Image: Amy Beth Wright

PinPoint | Wilmington, NC

On its raw oyster menu, PinPoint features Tarheel Tiderunners and Soundside Salts from Stump Sound on Topsail Island, and Dukes from N. SEA. Oyster Co., on the Topsail Sound. All are served with crackers, cocktail sauce, and an apple and ginger mignonette. An NC Oysters Steamed Buns appetizer features buttermilk fried oysters with local lettuces, beet and carrot slaw, and creamy sunchoke vinaigrette. And, pork belly and pepper jelly oysters are baked with lemon cornbread crumbs, white wine, and Parmesan.

The raw oyster menu at PinPoint is a must-try for oyster lovers! Image: PinPoint

Saltbox Seafood Joint | Durham, NC

Defined by his commitment to fresh, local seafood, Chef Ricky Moore sources oysters from Ryan Bethea’s Oysters Carolina, on Harker’s Island in the Outer Banks. Ryan is quoted within North Carolina’s Oyster Blueprint, the long-term statewide vision behind the Oyster Trail, as saying, “People just need to be educated that they’re safe,” noting oyster farming has no environmental detriments.

Chef Ricky’s shucked oysters are from Mattamuskeet Seafoods, discovered on one of Moore’s many journeys to the coast in search of briny, plump oysters in a nicely framed shell, with clear “oyster liquor.” He recommends Saltbox‘s Oysters Piccatta with Prosecco, and appreciates the trail’s focus on educating consumers about why it’s important to buy and eat local oysters, noting that awareness “kickstarts consumer confidence.”

Saltbox Seafood Joint is a humble establishment with a menu that is anything but. Image: Baxter Miller
The presentation is just as decadent as the main feature. Image: Baxter Miller

Seabird | Wilmington, NC

Seabird, helmed by James Beard Foundation-nominated chef Dean Neff, is a restaurant and oyster bar in a historic building near the Wilmington Riverwalk. Raw oysters include Dukes from N. Sea Oyster Co., a high-salinity oyster that Dean describes as “impossibly more perfect in January and February, as the gills become green,” and a medium-low salinity oyster from Seabirdie Holdfast Oyster Company cultivated in Stones Bay in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina. Permuda Petites from Three Little Spats Oyster Company (whose oystering roots date from the 1800s) are farmed in Stump Sound, between Topsail Island and Permuda Island.

Chef Dean describes these as having “super balanced buttery salinity,” with tasting notes of seagrass, sea bean, iron, and umami. In addition to lemon, hot sauce, champagne mignonette, and saltines, a house sambal cocktail sauce is made with locally grown aji dulce, cayenne, padron, biquinho, or Trinidad Perfume peppers, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass. A Muscadet like Oysterman, from France’s Loire Valley, is recommended. Oyster farming “not only brings a new and sustainable industry,” says Dean, “but also brings awareness to water quality issues and the importance of preserving our pristine coastline.”

Oysters in their natural state at Seabird come with a variety of accoutrements for a full flavor experience. Image: Andrew Sherman

Sea Level NC | Charlotte, NC

For Sea Level NC, restaurateur Paul Manley prizes rounded oysters with “a solid upper shell, no boring sponge or crumbly hinge, a deep cup, uniform size from good sorting habits, a good chipped lid for smooth slurping, freshness, and a great meat-to shell-ratio, indicating they’ve not been harvested too soon.” At happy hour, Sea Level Salts are available for $1 per oyster, sourced primarily from Morris Family Farms in Sea Level. Paul’s companion restaurant in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood, The Waterman Fish Bar, offers a similar special.

Sea Level NC in Charlotte features pristine oysters for the slurping. Image: Sea Level NC

Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar | Surf City, NC

Shuckin’ Shack owners Jason and Beverly Simas source local oysters broadly, from Three Little Spats Oyster Company, Ghost Fleet Oyster Company in Hampstead, Middle Sound Mariculture in Wilmington, and many others. They look for “steamers,” which have roughly a three-inch shell and plump meat, and a 2.5-inch oyster for the raw menu with clear and plentiful brine, a shell with a “nice deep cup,” and medium-high salinity.

Chargrilled oysters are placed on an open-flame grill with added melted garlic butter, chopped cooked bacon, jalapeno cheddar or Parmesan, and fresh scallions. Pair them with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that is “bright with vivid aroma and zesty acidity.” Shuckin’ Shack is on the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch Committed List, and partners with the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. The Simas recycle all shells and appreciate the trail as a means of informing the public about how invaluable oyster farming is to local waters.

In addition to oysters, you can enjoy a tasty lobster dinner at Shuckin’ Shack. Image: Shuckin’ Shack

St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar | Raleigh, NC

Here, the world is the oyster, and chef and owner Sunny Gerhart’s New Orleans roots guide the menu. Raw oysters come with fried saltines, a house mignonette, horseradish, Tabasco, and house-pickled banana peppers. On the raw menu are two high-salinity oysters from the North River area in eastern North Carolina, plump “Beaufort Brinys” and petite Sea Cups. Also find Slash Creek Oysters, Carolina Dreams from Stump Sound, and Core Sounders, a medium-salinity oyster.

The Tchoupitoulas Street Special is a showstopper, with 18 “shucker’s choice” oysters, peel ‘n eat NC shrimp, and blue crab claws. St. Roch’s Roasted Oysters are served “BBQ’d, pimento’d, garlic butter’d, or crawfish’d.” For brunch, the Fried Oyster Hotcake comes with sunny eggs, crispy chili, creole cane syrup, whipped ricotta, and chives.

St. Roch’s roasted oysters are explosively flavorful! Image: Anna Routh Barzin

Wrightsville Beach Brewery | Wrightsville, NC

Owner, brewer, and “head oyster shucker” Jud Watkins grew up oystering with his father and grandfather, and as a result, Wrightsville Beach Brewery is committed to sustainability and environmental protection. In addition to po’boy sandwiches, pizza, and a Caprese salad, the brewery features Shell’em Seafood’s wild harvest singles in a special “Redneck Rockafella” dish with house-made pimento cheese, North Carolina collards, and bacon. Fried Oyster Bites are served over kimchi-spiced collards; both pair well with a medium-bodied beer like the brewery’s Airlie Amber Ale or Coastal Honey Lager.

Oysters over greens at Wrightsville Beach Brewery offer a decidedly Southern twist on this delicacy. Image: Wrightsville Beach Brewery

Happy trails!

by John Griffin on June 28, 2021 | The Outer Banks of North Carolina

Oysters are delicious. I like them raw, steamed, roasted, and fried. But delicious isn’t the only attribute that makes them amazing. Oysters are a keystone species which provides an ecosystem for many kinds of fish and plants by creating and maintaining reef habitat. In addition, each oyster filters 50-60 gallons of water every day, contributing to improved water quality. 

North Carolina’s shellfish industry generates $27 million annually to the state’s economy and employs 532 North Carolinians. Just over half of that value comes from farmed oysters. And unlike wild caught oysters, farmed are available throughout the entire year. And if you’re wondering, I eat them all – wild and farmed oysters are both yummy.

In 2020, those who know oysters to be amazing – folks like myself – worked together to launch the NC Oyster Trail. The Trail is administered by North Carolina Sea Grant and North Carolina Coastal Federation in partnership with the NC Shellfish Growers Association and copious oyster lovers and volunteers. It offers unique tourism experiences centered on our state’s tasty oysters. Along the Trail, you will find oyster farm tours; restaurants and markets that sell N.C. oysters; artists that make art with oyster shells; and aquariums, museums and educational centers where you can learn pretty much everything about my favorite North Carolina mollusk – you guessed it, the oyster.

In the Outer Banks we have five oyster farms featured on the Trail: Cape Hatteras Oyster CompanySlash Creek Oysters, and Sticky Bottom Oysters on Hatteras Island; and Savage Inlet Oysters just south of Nags Head; Ocracoke Mariculture on Ocracoke Island. Some farms offer tours on boats to see their operations while others sell to local restaurants and direct to oyster eaters.

Restaurants on the NC Oyster Trail in our area include Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar in Manteo; The Froggy Dog Restaurant & Pub in Avon; and Flying Melon Café, Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar, Plum Pointe Kitchen, and Ocracoke Oyster Company on Ocracoke Island. They offer oysters prepared creatively every day and serve both wild-caught and farmed oysters. Travelers between Hatteras and Ocracoke Village now have two choices to reach their destination, the express passenger ferry or car ferry. Ferry schedules and more information can be found here

Additional organizations on the NC Oyster Trail include the Dare County Arts Council, with supported artists that incorporate oysters and other ocean and marine themes in their art. Outer Banks Adventures will traverse along shallow waters on their airboat and tour active oyster beds and oyster reefs. North Carolina Coastal Federation hosts an oyster farm demonstration and living shorelines site in Wanchese. Here you can also learn more important tips to care for North Carolina’s coast and marine environment. At Hatteras Island Ocean Center you will find oyster exhibits, have the opportunity to experience the wetlands and coastal forest by launching a kayak, or even attend special coast related programs and events.

Visit the Trail’s website (NCOysterTrail.org) to discover more oyster adventures. You can plan a whole day around oysters or enjoy just a few hours – take an oyster tour, have a wonderful meal, or buy oysters to prepare at home. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find North Carolina oysters to be delicious – buttery, creamy, sweet, salty, zesty. They draw their unique flavors from our coastal environment, producing a taste that can’t be beat.

© 2022 NC Oyster Trail.