photograph by Matt Ray Photography, Chris Hannant, Jeff Janowski

ORANGE BLOSSOM BAKERY & CAFE
HATTERAS

The Bevy of barefoot beachgoers at the counter of Orange Blossom Bakery & Cafe is growing. Long-haired surfers in swim trunks and sleepy vacationers in cover-ups stand in a line that winds out the door, across the front porch, and down the ramp to the parking lot. They’re all waiting for Apple Uglies.

The three-pound mess of hot, doughy, apple-cinnamon goodness isn’t pretty — hence the name — but that doesn’t matter when it goes straight from bag to hand to mouth. “People’s first reaction when they see them is, ‘Oh my God, those things are huge!’” owner Charley Pereira says. “And yes, they’re ugly, but when they taste them, most people are like, ‘Oh my God, this is heaven.’”

The three-pound mess of hot, doughy, apple-cinnamon goodness isn’t pretty, but that doesn’t matter.

Orange Blossom’s breakfast sandwiches and decadent baked goods — rum-raisin cinnamon rolls, apple and cherry turnovers, homemade Italian bread — attract their share of hungry customers, but it’s the Uglies that have made this Buxton bakery famous. “You break it open and apples and cinnamon come oozing out, and it’s all nice and warm,” Pereira says. “It’s really a lot of good ingredients that are cooked with a lot of love and attention. We’ve made as many as 700 Apple Uglies in a day.”

Apple Uglies have been a staple at Orange Blossom almost since the beginning, in 1979, when Doris and Allan Oakham converted a six-unit motel into a bakery. Every once in a while, Doris, now in her 90s, will stop by with her family for breakfast, and she’s proud of what’s become of the Orange Blossom. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of having Ms. Oakham come in and see that what she and her husband started 40 years ago is still going,” says Pereira, who bought the business in 2007.

He’s made improvements over the years, but much of what customers see — and even some of what they don’t see — has remained the same, from the wooden tables in the dining room to the mixers in the kitchen. The wood floors creak slightly as customers walk past photos of the old Orange Blossom Motel, surrounded by a grove of orange trees, and newspaper articles from the ’80s and ’90s, when the Oakhams ran the bakery.

“I think the end result is something that is special,”Pereira says. “There aren’t too many places like ours.

 — Katie King

47206 NC Highway 12, Buxton, NC 27920
orangeblossombakery.com

DRIFT COFFEE & KITCHEN
OCEAN ISLE

After five years of competitive surfing from Hawaii to Indonesia, brothers Michael and Ben Powell moved back home to Ocean Isle to realize a dream: opening a coffee shop. Drift Coffee & Kitchen is reminiscent of the lively and homey cafés of Australia and New Zealand. “We wanted to create a place that fosters genuine human connection,” Ben says. Their bright, open space features hardwood floors and healthy nibbles — acai bowls, banana bread, smoothies — and it’s only a block from the water, making it the perfect pit stop before a day at the beach.

 — Megan Smith

20 East Second Street, Ocean Isle Beach, NC 28469
(910) 579-3664, driftcoffee.kitchen

GULFSTREAM RESTAURANT
CAROLINA BEACH

Happiness comes from salty air and a hot breakfast. Those words, on a chalkboard sign inside Gulfstream Restaurant, have been a motto for customers for 40 years. At Gulfstream, the most important meal of the day isn’t just served in the morning — bless your heart — it’s served all day. The early crowd of surfers and fishermen fuels up on pancakes, French toast, biscuits, omelets, and flounder and grits. A five-minute walk from the ocean, Gulfstream is “pretty much the go-to” spot for breakfast in Carolina Beach, says co-owner Ed Thomas. But server Kathy Sprinkle, who’s worked at the restaurant for 34 years, says the Wednesday night fried chicken special packs in a crowd, too. She often hears, “I didn’t know y’all served dinner!”

 — Chloe Klingstedt

78 Myrtle Avenue, Carolina Beach, NC 28428
(910) 458-8774, gulfstreamrestaurantnc.com

BEACH HOUSE BURGERS
KURE BEACH

What do you feed the hangry people gathered beneath your flapping Walmart beach canopy on a hot summer day — the dripping-wet kids, the father-in-law who’s nodding off? Beach House Burgers will do you nicely.

It’s been open since 2010, when Frankie and George Turner bought a dingy white shack on the side of U.S. Highway 421 and painted it lime green. “Tropical,” Frankie says. You can’t not see it.

The Turners also own a diner on the Kure Beach Pier, and the burger at both places is identical — made from fresh ingredients and served nice and hot. “Someone told me the ones at Beach House are better,” Frankie says. (To reiterate: They’re the same.)

Perception is a funny thing. I’ve been to Beach House quite a bit, in all sorts of weather and at different times of day. But in my mind, every time I’m there, it’s July-hot and 30 people are in line waiting for their orders to be passed through the window. “The only thing that really stops people from coming is lightning,” Frankie says.

And the food? It’s good. Really good. Even better when you’re really hungry, which you are, of course. A day at the beach will do that. The menu is a straightforward list of family-pleasers: BLTs and bologna, onion rings and two-buck fries. In no time, you’re happy, full, and ready to get back to memory-making over on the pier, or down on the sand, or out in the waves. The great stuff, the stuff you remember exactly.

 — Jeremy Markovich

118 Fort Fisher Boulevard North, Kure Beach, NC 28449
(910) 458-8586

FISHY FISHY CAFE
SOUTHPORT

Perched on the Intracoastal Waterway in the Southport Yacht Basin, this teal seafood shack has reeled in boaters and island explorers with tropical cocktails, live music, and big fish tales since 2004. Waves lapping the dock pilings remind diners that Fishy Fishy Cafe is its own kind of island paradise. Boat slips invite seafarers to stop in for a bite on their way to Bald Head Island or their return from Zeke’s Island. All arrive hungry for coastal classics: calamari, fried shrimp po’boys, fish tacos. Owner Bridget Chirico designed the café as a beacon for island hoppers. She and her family are no strangers to travel, either. Originally from New York, they’ve lived in Chapel Hill and Singapore, but were drawn to Southport. “We loved the quaint, historic vibe,” daughter Brittany Chirico says.

 — Megan Smith

106 Yacht Basin Drive, Southport, NC 28461
(910) 457-1881, fishyfishycafe.com

SEASIDE FARM MARKET
COROLLA

Corolla, with its Jeep-friendly beach and roving pony population, is where you go on the Outer Banks to get away from it all. Seaside Farm Market makes it possible to stay away, too, by stocking everything you need for an all-local beach house supper. Snack on hot, boiled peanuts while you browse the sun-warmed tomatoes, corn, cukes, potatoes, peaches, and anything else in season. The fish counter is stocked daily with clams, blue crabs, grouper, mahi-mahi, and shrimp. Steamer pots with sausage and shellfish are stove-to-table ready. Dessert, a square of homemade fudge, is best eaten on your own deck — no tipping required.

 — Louise Jarvis Flynn

1787 Sunset Boulevard, Corolla, NC 27927
(252) 453-8285, seasidefarmmarket.com

SWAIN SEAFOOD SHACK
OAK ISLAND

After a day at the beach on Oak Island, warmed by the sun and still sandy from riding waves, families pile into cars and drive the two blocks to Swain Seafood Shack. There, they are greeted by a friendly hello from the Swain family. Chef Brett Swain prepares all of the traditional seafood and fixin’s: shrimp, snapper, oysters, fish tacos, hush puppies. He fries up the fresh, locally caught fish or blackens it with a seasoning mix — a family recipe — that he learned to make as a child. For dessert? A modern twist on an heirloom pie recipe that’s been in the Swain family for more than a century: a Key lime pie stuffed inside a coconut cake. (That’s right: pie-stuffed cake.)

Swain’s ancestors came to Oak Island in the 1700s with a land grant from the king of England. He grew up visiting his grandparents’ Davis Creek home — an old fishing cottage that the family lovingly referred to as “the shack.” When Swain and his wife, Towhee, decided to open a restaurant almost three years ago, they named it Swain Seafood Shack after the cottage because, he says, “I have such fond memories of coming here as a kid.”

 — Mary Katherine Walt

5119 East Oak Island Drive, Oak Island, NC 28465
(910) 448-5056, swainseafoodshack.com

THE BEACH SHOP & GRILL
TOPSAIL

Even when an old island favorite changes its name or ownership, it can still feel the same. Take The Beach Shop & Grill. In 1952, it was the home of Warren’s Soda Shop, which, according to Cheryl Price, was a “gathering place where you got your milkshakes, orangeades, and keys for the cottage.” Price and her husband, Jeff, bought the space in 2002 and have expanded beyond root beer floats and burgers. But it’s “still kind of like a soda shop,” Price says. Just like at Warren’s, young people work their first summer jobs here and return over the years to reconnect with the regulars.

These days, favorite dishes are made with locally sourced ingredients: The Southern burger is topped with fried green tomatoes and house-made pimento cheese. Fish tacos are dressed in mango-jicama salsa. And Price transforms Krispy Kreme doughnuts into an egg-soaked bread pudding with Myers’s Rum syrup. “People even eat it for breakfast,” she says.

 — Ayla Samli

701 South Anderson Boulevard Topsail Beach, NC 28445
(910) 328-6501, beachshopandgrill.com

BIG OAK DRIVE-IN & BBQ
SALTER PATH

On Bogue Banks, between the sound and the ocean, Big Oak Drive-In & BBQ has distilled the flavors of the beach into a burger — a shrimpburger. Massive oak trees shade the path to this classic drive-in, where customers line up, even tailgate, for a taste of island-style goodness, including Big Oak’s signature shrimpburger. In a steamed bun, the delicately battered shrimp balances perfectly with creamy coleslaw and tartar sauce. Owner Stewart Pickett explains, “The shrimp is lightly battered and fried — it’s not a lot of batter — and we put a lot of shrimp on the burger. People love it, and we don’t plan to change it.” Sure, you can find other drive-in fare at Big Oak, such as hamburgers, fries, and crispy onion rings, but the shrimpburger reigns supreme. “We’ve been doing it the same way since 1976,” Pickett says.

 — Ayla Samli

1167 Salter Path Road, Salter Path, NC 28575
(252) 247-2588, bigoakdrivein.com

SURF SHACK EATERY
HARKERS ISLAND

Anyone with a hankering for a fish taco or fried potato sandwich — “a Harkers Island delicacy,” according to Chef Ashley Surfass — knows to track down the eye-catching food truck Surf Shack Eatery. Surfass painted a mural on her roving restaurant that depicts the Cape Lookout Lighthouse framed by a red-orange sunset sinking into the waves. The real lighthouse is visible from the truck, too, which on weekends is always parked at Billy’s, a grocery and marine supply store on Harkers Island. Down the road, visitors can catch the ferry for the 10-minute ride to the iconic beacon. But first, they load up on supplies at Billy’s — and lunch at Surf Shack.

“It’s a boater’s and fisherman’s playground out here,” Surfass says. “It’s where I learned to surf, and it’s what inspired my mural.” From the window of her mobile masterpiece, Surfass jokes that her painting skills were not strong enough to get her into the Art 2 class at her high school, but her artistry serves her well now. Her shrimp tacos are made with local shrimp, and family recipes inspire the pico de gallo, aioli, and fried potato sandwiches stuffed with bacon or fried bologna. For dessert, she says, the fried Oreos are “life changers.”

 — Mary Katherine Walt

1016 Island Road, Harkers Island, NC 28513
(910) 328-6501, facebook.com/surfshackeatery

SUNSET SLUSH
OCEAN ISLE

On long, hot summer days, Ocean Isle boaters and beachgoers flock to the familiar, multicolored sunshine logo like desert nomads to an oasis. Since 2004, Sunset Slush’s pushcarts have patrolled Ocean Isle Beach and Oak Island, luring customers with their wide variety of sweet and refreshing Italian ices. “We’re out there every day, sometimes walking one to two miles a day,” says Devin Sellers, who co-owns the Ocean Isle Sunset Slush with his brother, Drew, and their mom, Susie. They’re among 70 independent owners of Sunset Slush businesses, but the carts got their launch on Ocean Isle. Of his rotating selection of 10 to 12 flavors a day, Sellers says that some of the favorites are swirly blends of blue vanilla, strawberry lemonade, and the best seller, mango — what he calls “liquid gold.” All of those kids with rainbow-colored smiles just call it summer in a cup.

 — Megan Smith

1 West First Street, Ocean Isle Beach, NC 28469
(910) 619-7724, facebook.com/sunsetslusoib.com

SWEET SPOT
EMERALD ISLE

For the past 18 summers, sand-freckled children and their families have flip-flopped into Emerald Isle’s Sweet Spot for the best hand-dipped ice cream around. “A lot of times, families start their vacation here,” owner Eli Patino says. “They’ll drag all the tables together for a mini reunion, and then they come back every night, all week.”
While waiting in a line that’s usually wrapped around the front of the shop — Patino serves about 1,000 scoops a day during high summer — sweet-seekers can fill a cellophane bag with old-timey candies: Goo Goo Clusters, Charleston Chews, Bottle Caps. “Regardless of their age,” Patino says, “everyone’s a kid in a candy store.”

 — Robin Sutton Anders

8201 Emerald Drive, Emerald Isle, NC 28594
(252) 354-6201, sweetspotei.com

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