You know what kind of place this is.
You can tell by the information rack in the doorway, bulging with real estate guidebooks and Auto Weekly newspapers. A metal “Seat yourself” sign points you to the interior of the restaurant. A drape of fishnets hangs from the brown-paneled back wall, above a framed picture of a trawler.
Over a row of booths, an old clock swings its pendulum, looking as if it’s been in place for 30, 40, maybe 50 years or more, and behind the cash register, a “new” electric Pepsi clock marks time in shifts — early lunch, lunch, late lunch. Early dinner, dinner.
There is no late dinner in places like this.
Wall-mounted phones still ring. People call to place take-out orders or to check hours. Cashiers say, “We close at 10.”
In places like this, you can sit anywhere you like. A waitress wearing sneakers brings sweet tea to your table in 16-ounce Styrofoam cups, lemon wedges partially submerged in the crunchy pellet ice. After she sets the drinks down, she tilts her hip upward to get to the straws tucked in her apron pocket, then fans them out like she’s dealing cards. In tandem, everyone at the table reaches for a straw and tamps it down to break its paper seal.
You already know what you want in a place like this: the combination platter. Fried flounder and oysters or Calabash-style shrimp, hush puppies, and French fries. Sometimes you might substitute a baked potato. Snow crab legs. Scallops.
A mound of coleslaw.
And more tea, please.
In places like this, waitresses raise trays high overhead and maneuver the dining room with a dancer’s grace. They refill the industrial tea brewers — Luzianne five-gallon barrels — constantly, and they shuffle pots on the four-burner Bunn coffeemaker like they’re playing the shell game; here go two with orange rims to denote decaf, here go two with black rims to denote regular.
They shovel ice from the 900-pound Scotsman cooler, a whale of an ice machine, into pitchers, and they pull plates of food from beneath the metal heat lamps in the kitchen. Everyone moves and dodges, bobs and weaves, swimming with the constant current of a busy eastern North Carolina seafood restaurant.
In places like this, children sit backward in booths with their parents. They hold onto to the top edge of the seat and crouch down, then peer over, eyeing diners at the next table. They fidget and squirm and wiggle like fish until the parents give a look and tell the child to sit.
In places like this, the children sit.
In places like this, the men in the kitchen wear T-shirts and tans and full-body aprons that loop around their necks. Young men who come in to eat with their young families wear sunglasses on top of their heads. Old men come in with gold watches and hairy forearms and wedding bands that look as if they’ve been in place for 30, 40, maybe 50 years or more. And there’s always a military guy — you can tell by his high-and-tight haircut and the respectful way he says “Yes, ma’am,” to the waitress when she asks if he needs more tea. He sits with his girlfriend or wife and child, and you remember that you’re in a place within short driving distance of eight significant military bases. You nod to him when you walk out.
And when you walk out, you tug on your belt loop to pull your pants up a little, and you rare back, belly tight as a tick. In places like this, you always eat too much. You pay and amble back to the table, which has been cleared by now, and drop a stack of ones and a five. It’s a good tip.
The food is only one reason we come to places like this.
We come to these places — the Sanitary Fish Market in Morehead City, Owens’ in Nags Head, the Provision Company in Southport, Fisherman’s Wharf in Wanchese, and hundreds more in between — because we know what we want, and we know what we’re going to get. And when we come in straight off the beach, our skin still warm from the sun, our legs crusted with salt, we know we’re welcome here.
You know what kind of place this is.
This is our kind of place.