Here’s how it happened: fancyish restaurant, inland city, my parents in town. My dad ordered oysters. Real oysters, that is: raw, on the half-shell. The Toad gazed at the shells, the tray of ice, the crackers in their cellophane. “I love oysters,” he said.
“You definitely don’t,” we all said.
“I do,” he said, and his grandfather, eager to indulge him, handed one across.
Friends, would you like to witness a restaurant go all but silent? Hand a 7-year-old his first oyster, then another, and another, and watch him eat with both surprising expertise and true happiness. Then order him a second half-dozen.
“See?” he said, eyes bright.
“You want oysters?” I asked him. “For real? I think I know where we can go.”
“Me, too?” his little brother said.
Certainly, I told The Wee. Four-year-olds may eat oysters, too. We’ll do a little research, wait for the season to come around, and head east.
Sunny Side Oyster Bar in Williamston is the second-oldest continually operated oyster bar on North Carolina’s coast, co-owner Doug Chesson tells me. It’s a white-and-green clapboard building that dates to 1930, and, to my boys’ delight, it also features freestanding 1980s-ish video games in the bar. We arrive on a Friday night and there’s a short wait, so Doug’s wife, Christine — along with everyone else at the bar — tells me she’ll watch the boys while I take a quick tour. The overriding sense here is that we’ve been let into a broad, sprawling family. Or heaven.
Doug and I chase a quick path outside from the bag room to the wash room to the boiler. There are cedar chips and oyster shells everywhere. “That’s a new boiler,” he says, pointing at a machine the size of half a car. “Our old one came out of a Laundromat. Everything we do is steamed.” Cooks are jogging between the rooms. Everything smells like the sea. They serve 50 to 75 bushels of oysters per week. They’re open September to April. They close each night, Doug says, “when the last person is fed.”
Back inside, Christine tells me that the Friday after Thanksgiving is their busiest night of the year. “Well, really,” she says, “all of November is like a town reunion. People drive in from as far away as Mount Airy, or even Richmond, then go back home the same day.”
It’s easy to see why. We get seated at a huge horseshoe-shaped counter, and our shucker, Griff, who’s been doing this for 40 years, delivers oysters into yellow glass bowls. We also order a little broccoli with cheese. My little one is not super-into oysters, though he does try. And my big one? The Toad can’t quite get an oyster bar to go quiet with shock, but he earns a few approving glances here and there. The Toad eats his fill and then some. The Toad approves.
Williamston’s not quite a day trip with two small boys, so we stay the night and wander the Outer Banks a bit the next day. Back at Sunny Side that evening, there’s a two-hour wait. I hatch a plan: I’ll order a pound of steamed scallops (for variety’s sake) and some house-made hot sauce to go, we’ll find some fast food for the boys, I’ll procure some cheap beer from a gas station, and we will sit in the grassy lot next to our hotel and have our supper all the same.
What is Thanksgiving, then, if not eating scallops from a Styrofoam cup while the sun sinks into a stand of pines opposite an empty baseball field? The breeze freshens, and the boys are laughing, chasing napkins in the grass. My wife, not much for shellfish, is back home and my family’s flung all over the Eastern Seaboard and the holiday proper is still weeks away, but I sip that cold, bad beer and watch the boys play. I am overcome with gratitude — for this food, this life, this odd, lucky evening. I am thankful. I am happy. And soon enough, I’m full.
Sunny Side Oyster Bar
1103 Washington Street, Williamston, NC 27892