The Inner Banks town of Washington, right where the Tar and Pamlico Rivers meet, has seen its own sea change over the past decade, and there’s no sign of slowing
The Inner Banks town of Washington, right where the Tar and Pamlico Rivers meet, has seen its own sea change over the past decade, and there’s no sign of slowing down. Little Washington, as North Carolinians know it, has long been a historic, peaceful coastal town. And now, thanks to the vision of longtime residents and newcomers alike, an assortment of restaurants, breweries, and shops are giving people even more cause to come downtown.
“Downtown Washington is just growing so fast,” says Bubba Summerlin, one of the locals behind Two Rivers Alehouse opening this summer. In addition to the harbor district’s wide, walkable sidewalks, new lighting and seating, and piped-in music, a wave of restoration has rolled through Little Washington’s historic buildings. One gorgeous example: A building that once served as a bank was lovingly redone and now houses The Hackney, a farm-to-table restaurant and gin distillery.
In Little Washington, warm breezes roll off the river, Southern hospitality is bolstered by new and innovative offerings, and there’s something fun to do every which way you look. Read on for tips on how to spend a day downtown.
Washington, North Carolina isn’t one of those places that you hear about every day. It isn’t even a place you look for. But it’s one of those places that finds you just when you need it most.
First, coffee. Swing by Rachel K’s Bakery on Market Street, just a two-block ramble to the waterfront, for a freshly brewed cup of Counter Culture coffee and one of Rachel’s famous baked goods — you can’t go wrong with a pecan sticky bun or a ham and cheese croissant — or skip breakfast and just go straight for the sour cream coconut cake.
Grab a table out front and read your copy of the Washington Daily News, one of the smallest newspapers in the country ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, until Pamlico Books opens at 11 a.m.
The bookstore, a new addition to North Market Street, offers a well-curated selection of national and local authors for readers of all ages. For young readers and children who aren’t there yet, the store also boasts a toy section brimming with puzzles, wooden toys, and Melissa & Doug favorites. Owners Tom and Deb Ryan, former teachers, decided to open the store after moving to town and realizing their new home lacked a bookstore. The store, which opened in early June, lives in a historic building and required a bit of restoration, but its original tin ceiling now shelters its wares.
Pause at the intersection of Main and Gladden Streets for some history at the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum, which offers a pictorial chronicle of enslavement and escape in Washington and Beaufort County. The town and its waterfront held a pivotal position in the Underground Railroad, with the Pamlico River offering a way to freedom for enslaved people who had escaped from inland plantations.
The museum is one of several North Carolina locations of the National Park Service Network to Freedom Sites, places that have verified connections to the route for Black Americans to gain their freedom. Housed in a restored Seaboard Coast Line caboose, the museum is staffed by volunteers, so call ahead before you go.
The Hackney on West Main Street has been swirling British and Southern culinary traditions since 2019, serving farm-to-table offerings — like beef Wellington with a side of collards — cooked with locally grown ingredients by Chef Jamie Davis. If you’re in Washington on a weekend, make a reservation for Saturday afternoon tea, their version of the traditional British service that features a tower of traditional Anglo treats like Victoria sponge cake.
The Hackney’s owners, Nick and Susanne Sanders, are also purveyors of another British tradition: gin distilling. The Hackney’s modern-style London Dry gin, called 1000 Piers for the Pamlico’s waterfront, took three years to develop and is a blend of more than 20 botanicals, many sourced from local farmers. You can find the gin at outlets across the state, but go to the distillery for a tour and a taste.
A stone’s throw from the Hackney on West Main Street, Two Rivers Alehouse is slated to open mid-summer. The brewery will offer at least 15 beers on tap, as well as chips and dips and meat-and-cheese plates — “not quite as fancy as charcuterie,” says Summerlin, who opened Two Rivers Alehouse with his friends and neighbors Jamey Pope and Tim Jackson. “We thought Washington needed a brewery.”
The Mulberry House, an ambitious project that includes a brewery, a private rooftop dining room and bar, a tap room, a 16-room hotel, and a coffee and tea shop, is scheduled to open July 19. The sprawling project took over the Fowle Building, an 1818 structure which once held a general store and a trading company that ran ships to the West Indies, owned by one of Washington’s most prominent families.
Today the clientele is different, but the perspectives are multinational: Chefs Andrew Wigger and Anh Do bring international perspectives, and promise a menu with Mediterranean, French, and Vietnamese influence. The prices range from approachable to date-night special, with a range of options in between. They’ll also deliver to local parks and even to your bed and breakfast’s front porch downtown — or your boat. “We want to set the standard for hospitality and also join the people here who have already started doing that,” says operations director Daniel Beedle, who, with his wife, Christine McGrath, the brand director, moved their family to Washington from New York to work on the project and call the town home. “There’s been so much progress already.”
If you just can’t stay away from the water, head to Captain Cooks Waterfront Restaurant down on Harding Square, and catch a river breeze and some live music (and a game of corn hole on Thursday nights). The casual menu fits the laidback scene: burgers, seafood, and reasonably priced, cold cocktails served in Mason jars.
And if, after all that, you’ve still got some energy, wander down the street to the North Carolina Estuarium, the first of its kind, and explore a wealth of exhibits that chronicle the area’s natural heritage.
But if it’s time to call it a day, park yourself on a bench by the waterfront and breathe in all the unexpected pleasures of Little Washington — and know that the next time you’re there, something new will catch your eye and lift your spirit.