One Phenomenal Pie: Atlantic Beach Pie

  • By Bill Smith
  • Photography by Lissa Gotwals

Atlantic Beach Pie was just a vintage recipe until Chef Bill Smith revived its popularity.

atlantic beach pie feature

When I was growing up in New Bern in the ’50s, people believed as absolute truth that if you ate dessert after a meal of seafood, you would probably die. In the back of my mind, I thought that maybe this rule was just a way to trick me into eating fewer sweets. There was one exception, though: lemon pie.

If you asked why, you were told something about lemon and fish. Therefore, many seafood restaurants on North Carolina’s coast served Atlantic Beach Lemon Pie, if no other dessert.

The best thing about the pie wasn’t the lemon flavor, but its salty, cracker-crumb crust — made with Ritz or saltine crackers — which distinguished it from sweet piecrusts made with crushed cookies or graham crackers.

I remembered that pie when I was asked to teach a group of chefs and food writers from the Southern Foodways Alliance about eastern North Carolina’s food traditions. After some research — a phone call here, an old church cookbook there — and some experimentation, I developed my version of the Atlantic Beach Lemon Pie.

at Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill, NC.The original had meringue, but I opted for whipped cream sprinkled with coarse sea salt. I crumbled saltine crackers for the crust. My recipe requires half a cup of lemon or lime juice, or a mix of both, and condensed milk. I served the pie to 600 Southern Foodways guests, and then brought the recipe back to my restaurant, Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill.

To my surprise, the pie became a sensation. Word of it eventually reached Melissa Gray, who has a series called “Found Recipes” that airs on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

We did a segment together, and when the story aired on a Thursday, almost immediately my staff started saying that we were running out of Atlantic Beach Pie.

The next day, my baker made more pies, but customers cleaned us out again. This went on all weekend.

And just when I thought the phenomenon of Atlantic Beach Pie had subsided, I got an email from the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. Could I make Atlantic Beach Pie for 700 people? Of course.

This pie will be the death of me.


Atlantic Beach Pie

For the crust:

  • 1½ sleeves of saltine crackers
  • to ½ cup softened unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons sugar

For the filling:

  • 1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • ½ cup lemon or lime juice, or a mix of the two
  • Fresh whipped cream and coarse sea salt for garnish

Preheat oven to 350˚. Crush the crackers finely, but not to dust. You can use a food processor or your hands. Add the sugar, then knead in the butter until the crumbs hold together like dough. Press into an 8-inch pie pan. Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes or until the crust colors a little. While the crust is cooling (it doesn’t need to be cold), beat the egg yolks into the milk, then beat in the citrus juice. It is important to completely combine these ingredients. Pour into the shell and bake for 16 minutes until the filling has set. The pie needs to be completely cold to be sliced. Serve with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt. Yields one pie.

Bill Smith is known for his book, Seasoned in the South, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and listed in Food & Wine’s Best of the Best. He’s also known for creating original, now iconic dishes at Crook’s Corner.

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This entry was posted in Food, May 2014, Recipes and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

84 Responses to One Phenomenal Pie: Atlantic Beach Pie

  1. Karen Mann says:

    I grew up in Morehead City and was always told you couldn’t eat sweets after seafood, particularly crabs. Lemon pie is popular down there, and the Sanitary has a good one, but I’ve never heard it referred to as Atlantic Beach pie.

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  3. I grew up in New Bern in the 60’s and unfortunately for me never heard of Atlantic Beach Pie. Got to try it soon!

  4. Trudy says:

    I loved that.recipe for Atlantic Beach Pie. I have had it many times. I want to know if you have ever heard of a Milk Pie? It is made with regular milk. NOT evaporated or sweetened milk.

  5. Lifesart says:

    Nice! I have fond memories of Atlantic Beach pie while I was in college in the early 70s. Thanks for the memories and the recipe and this website!

  6. Jam Gourley says:

    I am hoping you can tell me why the crust isn’t working for me. I used 1 1/2 sleeves of saltines, etc, but it never came together like a dough – seemed way too crumbly, so I added more butter, then when it cooked it was too buttery. How long should it take in kneading to get it to come together like a dough? And I’m using the long sleeves of saltines; was the recipe using the short stacks of saltines?

  7. DIANNA Hovis Richardson says:

    Would love to get the recipe you were perfecting on the Spanish Bar Cake that A&P use to sell,. We use to buy all of our groceries at A&P and my grandfather was the produce manager for years.Can still taste the sweet raisin spiced rectangular loaf cake with the real sweet white icing.

  8. Pingback: A&P Spanish Bar Cake Recipe | Our State Magazine

  9. Jami Bryan says:

    I would love to have the Spanish Bar Cake recipe! Our son was stationed at Cherry Point and lived in New Bern. We so enjoyed visiting the area. Thank you!

  10. Kay Rowland says:

    This sounds like the original recipe for Key Lime Pie. It was made with the sweetened condensed milk but with a regular pie crust (not a graham cracker crust, makes the pie too sweet) The original Key Lime had no topping either. It was just a wonderful blend of sweet and sour goodness that made your eyes cross with bliss.

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  12. Nancy says:

    Can this be made with gluten free crackers? I’m gluten intolerant and so many desserts are off limits :(

    • dot says:

      I would think there would be no problem. My daughter has celiac and I plan to make it and use Gluten free crachers.

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  14. Jane Smith says:

    These memories are wonderful of Morehead City – where all my relatives had homes and vacation homes, spent all my childhood vacationing there. I would just love for someone to please send me the Spanish Bar Cake recipe! It holds so many memories for me.

    Thanks in advance to anyone who can email me that recipe!


    • ourstate says:

      Hi Jane, We’ve been in the kitchen working on perfecting a Spanish Bar Cake recipe. It’ll be posted online soon. Thanks!

    • vickie says:

      U can get it online, just type in spanish bar cake, 1st one that came up was which i really don’t like but there is more sites to choose from

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  19. J E T says:

    I would love to have the Spanish Bar Cake recipe if possible. Sounds wonderful!

  20. Pingback: Atlantic Beach Pie | Lynna's Wonderful Life

  21. Phyllis Williams says:

    Great to know that someone else remember not being able to eat dessert if fish was for dinner, especially ice cream. I just told this my daughters, now I can show this in print. I would follow the recipe exactly, deviation change the taste, if you ate the original versions.

  22. Juel Duke says:

    My parents, Buck & Juel Duke were part owners in Cap’t Bill’s in the mid to late 1950’s. My dad made the lemon meringue pie with Ritz crackers. To my taste, the meringue helps balance the richness of the filling. He claimed to have gotten the recipe from a restaurant in Yorktown, VA. I make these pies every now and then. Great pie and great memories.

    • Diane Poag says:

      Have not ever seen your parents’ name in any of the history of Capt. Bill’s. Would love to talk to you! Please contact me.

      • Juel Duke says:

        send me an email and I’ll see if I can fill in some of the blanks on Cap’t Bill’s. I have a few pictures, too. My parents also owned the Atlantic Beach Ocean Pier. Raymond and Lib Duke, uncle and aunt owned the Sportsman Pier at the time. We moved away in 1959 or 1960, I was 5 in 1960.

    • Diane Poag says:

      My husband and I own Capt. Bill’s Waterfront Restaurant. Our Down East Lemon Pie is extremely popular. It is not a meringue pie. We make a special topping for the pie…smooth and creamy!

    • pam hartigan says:

      Made the Atlantic Beach Pie and It is fantastic! My husband and I cannot stop thinking about the leftovers in the frig……….I think it is distinctive using the Saltine crackers and not Ritz crackers. I had trouble with the crust also and would probably use a 9″ pie pan next time.

  23. Liz Browning Fox says:

    I have made a version of this pie for years. I had several citrus trees in pots on my Chapel Hill porch, so the filling was whatever combination of citrus that produced that year…….Meyer lemon, Lime-quat, Key Lime, etc. I always found the popular key lime pie too sweet, and found that with a cooked filling, it could be made less sweet and more tart. I always use meringue, since I didn’t want to waste the egg whites. I look forward to trying it with Saltines.


      My mother made this pie with a graham cracker crust in the ’40’s, Eagle Brand Condensed Milk published the recipe.
      Does anybody have a chess pie recipe? The hospital cafeteria in Danville VA is the last place I’ve had it.

      • Angela says:

        Chess pie is basically pecan pie without the pecans.

      • Marcia Callicotte says:

        Yes I have a delicious Kentucky Chess Pie recipe shared with me by my mother-in-law that I’ve been making since the 60’s.

        Also my mother passed down a similar lemon meringue pie recipe made with a Ritz cracker crust. The saltiness of the crackers toned down the sweetness of the condensed milk.

        Both pies are so good.

      • jane says:

        chess pie recipe i think is located on angus barn website

  24. Nicole says:

    I’ve made this pie twice in one week and both audiences loved it. Question for others out there though, how can I make the crust stay together better? Crumbles easily.

  25. debbie c. says:

    I have made the Spanish Bar cake very similar to the Ann Page one that A&P used to sell. I would be more than happy to share the recipe!

    • Diane Poag says:

      I would love to have the Spanish Bar Cake recipe! Love the recipe!!!!!!! Thanks so much!

    • Lois Barrett says:

      I would love to have the Spanish Bar Cake recipe also. Could you email it to me? Thanks so much. I have not thought about the A & P grocery chain in a long while. My family shopped there when I was growing up.

    • Judith T. says:

      Debbie, you must have been inundated with requests for the Spanish Bar Cake recipe, but I see that they have subsided a bit! I would so appreciate it if you would email that same recipe to me! It was one of my favorite foods that I could eat when I was pregnant with my 1st child in 1965…I would send my husband to the A&P grocery store where we lived in Virginia Beach to get one about once a week!!
      Thank you so much for your kindness!
      Judy Thompson

    • Lois Hullander says:

      Would love to have the recipe…..please send. Thank you!

    • sharon says:

      Please send the Spanish Bar Cake recipe. That was my Dad’s favorite cake!
      I would love to taste it one more time!

      Thanks and have a blessed day!


    • myra h says:

      Spanish bar recipe please!

    • Brenda Jones Ingram says:

      I too would like to have the Spanish Bar Cake recipe.

    • Dianne Benton says:

      Would love to have the Spanish Bar cake recipe.


    • Jayne VanGraafeiland says:

      Please send spanish bar cake recipe – my Dad bought it EVERY week from A&P – it and their “tea rings” were our only desserts. Would love to make one as a surprise for my brother who talks about it all the time!!

      • pam hartigan says:

        I remember my Mom and Grandmother always had an A and P Spanish Bar Cake with their coffee. Would love the recipe also.


    • Jeff Blackwell says:

      I’d love a copy of the “Spanish Bar Cake” from Debbie. Thanks.

    • Trish says:

      I would like the recipe for Spanish Bar Cake, please. Thanks!

    • Lisa Duncan says:

      Debbie C:
      I just love to cook and I absolutely love a lemon pie. Please send me the recipe :)
      I am so excited. Thanks

      Warmly & Blessings,
      Lisa D

    • Peggy Lamoureaux says:

      My husband loved the Spanish Bar Cake when we could get it. I would love to have the recipe. Thanks!

    • Sue says:

      Please send me the Spanish Bar recipe.

    • Janet Hunt says:

      I would also love to have the Spanish Bar Pie!

    • Judy M says:

      Would love the Spanish Bar Cake…. we used to freeze it for summertime consumption.

    • Ron Wagner says:

      Please send me the Spanish Bar Cake recipe. Thanks.

    • Maxine Allen says:

      I would love to have the Spanish Bar Cake Recipe! Thanks!

    • Debra Smith says:

      Would love to have the Spanish Bar Cake recipe!

  26. Rene says:

    I made the pie for Mother’s Day! It was fun to make a crust from saltines as I had never had that before. It turned out great. My mom was happy for me to leave the remainder of the pie so that she could share the rest with her neighbors. It was a hit! Bill Smith’s banana pudding is great too!

  27. Anne says:

    Sounds delicious. Could you please give me the weight for 1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers, as I live in the UK and will have to use a substitute that will be packaged differently? Thank you!

  28. Donna Meyer says:

    This sounds great and I would love to try it. But I live in Mexico where saltines do not come in “sleeves.” So how many individual crackers does this recipe call for? Thanks.

    • Margaret Benedetto says:

      There are 36 saltine crackers in a sleeve so a sleeve and a half would be 36 plus 18 or 54 total crackers. Geez, I did that math without common core.

  29. Bronwyn says:

    I’ve had it, and I love it. As a kid my dad used to sell a two-crust lemon custard pie that I would beg him to bring home. This reminds me of that a lot. Now I have to find a sub for the Spanish Bar Cake that was Dad’s favorite, which I haven’t seen in 35 years.

    • Allynna Stone says:

      I have occasionally found the Spanish Bar cake in the freezer section of the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store. The last time I looked for it about a month ago, they did not have it and the baker had no clue what I was talking about!

      Good Luck~it is delicious!

    • Fern says:

      Was the bar cake made by merita? Did it have sweet, white icing? Loved it!!! Wish I could find it again. Fern

    • marlene says:

      try for the Spanish Bar Cake recipe.

  30. Ann W says:

    Our first meal when we made our annual trek to Morehead City/Beaufort was to go to the Charter for Crabby Dan and Lemon Pie…. still my favorite meal at any beach after all these years.

  31. bj. bolling says:

    Does the lemon.juice need to be fresh ?? I remember this pie from my childhood at AB

  32. John Willis says:

    Sorry. I can’t get as excited about “your take” on the “Down East Lemon” pie that you have adapted! If you had done a little more research you would have discovered that Down East cooks and the famous seafood restaurants of Morehead City used Ritz crackers for the crust and always topped their dessert masterpieces with a lightly sweetened meringue! The high whipped meringue and the saltiness of the Ritz crackers combined with a light-tart lemon filling… is the taste that patrons look for in this traditional and much loved desert! Don’t take my word for this. Ask around for Albert’s version at Captain Bills. His lemon pies were the “must have” finish for seafood dining for decades!

    • Lifesart says:

      And my sister-in-law’s grandmother, on her island in Maine, made it with saltines. so you just never know! She was a cook at a small diner-like place, known for her pies in the 30s and 40s. Sometimes she would put meringue on top, sometimes she made a sweet sour cream topping, sometimes nothing at all. She had customers that liked all versions, one version or another. Life is wonderfully variable!

    • Kristy says:

      He mentions Ritz crackers and meringue as being parts of the original pie, so I’m pretty sure he did his research. He also clearly states that this recipe is his version of a classic. There’s nothing wrong with trying something a little different!

    • Lisa Logan-Roussell says:

      Ahh, if you had read the article, he mentions the Ritz crackers and Meringue and his choice not to use them.

    • Nina Mason Moser says:

      John, I was so glad to see your response about the pie! My dad had his 1st Mason’s Restaurant in Morehead City when I was about 5 or 6 and I remember the cook, Odessa, made the lemon meringue pie then but I could not remember the saltines! Now I know it was Ritz crackers that she used. They were so good!

  33. Nice. I grew up in Morehead City.

  34. mike says:

    This article is “right on” I (66 yrs) have vivid memories of the seafood restaurants in MC(Capt Bills, Sanitary and Charter) and the Lemon Pies. My Parents/Family would drive fron New Bern to enjoy.

  35. Alice Goodwin says:

    Why don’t you use whole eggs? Will the recipe work with whole eggs? I don’t want to waste the white of the eggs.

    • Mary K. says:

      In response to not using the egg yolks, they were originally used to make the meringue. Will do fine to use them if not making a meringue which this recipe doesn’t call for!

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