In the 12 years I’ve lived in North Carolina, I’ve eaten in just about every county and corner of the state. Food here runs the gamut from five-star fine dining to country food cooked the way the locals like it, but there’s a common thread that runs through every memorable dish: the food has a flavor that speaks to North Carolina. Whether you order Spanish tapas with a Southern twist; traditional barbecue with vegetarian options; or an inventive dish that plays with traditions, ingredients, and local flavors, you’re in a good place for food that satisfies, surprises, and showcases North Carolina on the plate.
Here are five spots across the state where I’ve had meals that keep me coming back for more.
Calabash-style Seafood (Calabash, NC)
On the far southeastern coast, not far from the South Carolina state line, sits the tiny town of Calabash. This fishing village is famous for its signature fried seafood and has been known the world over for almost 75 years.
It started with Lucy Coleman. She cooked up what she called a “mess of fish” for the fishermen each day when the fleet returned to port loaded with the day’s catch. As quick as she could, she took flounder fillets and shrimp, dredged them in a light, sweet batter, and fried them up.
Her food was a hit, and soon her dockside lean-to wasn’t enough to feed the masses, so they moved into a proper building where they could cook and serve people safe from the elements. Comedian and Big Band leader Jimmy Durante tasted her food on an overnight stop in Calabash in the 1940s and was so struck that he asked to meet “Mrs. Calabash.” After he met Lucy and complimented her food, he began to sign off his radio show with the famous line, “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”
Today, descendants of Mrs. Coleman continue the family tradition. Ella’s of Calabash, Beck’s Seafood House, and Coleman’s Original Calabash Seafood all serve Calabash-style seafood using the old family recipe. Plates of food at any of these restaurants are a smorgasbord. Fried flounder fillets, piles of fried oysters, the tangled strips of fried clams, and the mounds of curlicued fried shrimp can barely be contained on one plate, and your sides come separately just to make more room. Order a plate and eat it hot and fresh and fast; you won’t be sorry.
manna (Wilmington, NC)
Wilmington’s food reputation is growing, thanks in no small part to the dishes coming out of the kitchen at manna. Sit down for a meal here and at every step, from your cocktail to the appetizers to your entrée to dessert, you’ll find playful, flavor-packed food and drinks.
manna’s cocktail list is the best in the city, and many drinks, like the Devil Anse—cinnamon-infused bourbon, Granny Smith apples, and cherries—play on Southern mythology and flavors to make smooth drinking concoctions that match the menu quite well.
As for the menu, it’s a short, well-curated affair. Start with the Breakfast of Champions (beef tartare) or Clawed Howell (lobster, local greens, and a play on a famed local’s name) and move into the entrées. Every dish has a cheeky name like “Iron Chef: Bobby Filet” (beef filet) and “Take a Break Diver Eight” (scallops), but I usually go for “The Reel Deal,” their take on the fresh catch.
On my most recent visit, The Reel Deal was pan-roasted flounder served over spice-braised kale, brown butter roasted rutabaga, fresh radish, arugula, parsley, and a parsnip sauce. Every ingredient is as local as the restaurant can buy, and, thanks to the happy accident of having a small kitchen, incredibly fresh.
Dessert here is top-notch as well. The Cream of the Crop, a chocolate cremeux served with toasted coconut crumble, marshmallow, and lime ice cream, is rich enough to share—even though you’ll want one for yourself.
Luella’s Bar-B-Que (Asheville, NC)
Barbecue is a hotly debated subject in North Carolina, with the two main factions touting Eastern-style whole hog, vinegar sauce barbecue or the Western-style, shoulder and ribs, sweeter tomato sauce as the best. At Luella’s Bar-B-Que in Asheville, you can get a taste of both sauces and try some new barbecue that will set your taste buds soaring.
Luella’s is a little different. First, it’s in Asheville, a town where food and drink are king and queen. This mountain town is full of artists who paint, sculpt, brew, bake, and cook, and foodies have been flocking here for years. Luella’s is a spectacular addition to the dining scene, especially since their menu embraces both the traditional and regional flavors of barbecue and the contemporary, farm-to-fork, vegetarian-friendly philosophy found around Asheville.
Did I just say “vegetarian-friendly” when talking about barbecue? I did.
At Luella’s, you can get an order of ribs (excellent), beef brisket (also excellent), chopped pork (some of the best I’ve had, and I’m a certified barbecue judge), and tempeh. The tempeh, a locally made soy-based product, is the veggie surprise. The menu says it’s “almost blasphemous, but so good we’ll forgive you.” And whether you’re a vegetarian or not, it’s worth a taste. Served glazed with a sweet-hot sauce and impregnated with hickory smoke, you’ll hardly notice you’re not eating meat. The chef/owner told me that two of his frequent customers are both vegetarians, and they rave about this dish.
Mateo Bar de Tapas (Durham, NC)
One spot you definitely need to visit is Mateo, a Spanish tapas style restaurant in the heart of a former tobacco mill town. Mateo serves true-to-form tapas dishes that balance Spanish techniques and flavors with those found here in the South. A perfect example is the Almejas Pequeñas—clams served over boiled peanuts—which makes inventive use of the traditional boiled peanut.
Like the best restaurants in the state, Mateo utilizes the local bounty for their menu. North Carolina trout and trout caviar come from just a few hours west, while crab and shrimp come from just a few hours to the east; at the same time, other ingredients like sweet potatoes, cheese, and half of the hams available to taste come from just down the road.
Mateo’s been honored to be named among the elite group of James Beard Award Semifinalists, and when you combine the masterful way they blended the techniques and flavors of Spain and North Carolina with their expansive sherry selection, it’s easy to taste why.
Spring House Restaurant, Kitchen & Bar (Winston-Salem, NC)
Winston-Salem is an interesting town. One of two hyphenated towns in North Carolina, Winston-Salem reflects the heritage of both the hardworking, pious Moravians who founded Salem and the equally hardworking but also indulgent industry and tobacco barons who built Winston. Spring House Restaurant, Kitchen & Bar embodies both aspects of this city’s personality.
At Spring House, you’ll find a seasonally inspired menu filled with rustic foods found the world over, but prepared with regional flavors and local ingredients in mind. Take the General Tso’s Sweetbreads. It blends the spicy flavors of General Tso’s chicken and a whole-animal approach the original residents of Old Salem would’ve been proud of to create a mouthwatering dish that’s both rustic and refined. The same can be said for their Lobster Corndogs, which playfully pair lobster and a corndog-like hush puppy batter.