When you drive by a place often enough, at some point you just need to flip on the turn signal and see for yourself what the joint is all about. That is what happened to me recently on my way to the Hatteras ferry dock, as I was headed to Ocracoke.
The Hatterasman restaurant sits on the east side of Highway 12, at the intersection of the Big Road and Eagle Pass in Hatteras Village. The popular eatery is a familiar blue icon for annual travelers, with an old boat and a handwritten sign out front proclaiming Ferry Food — which is one of my all-time favorite food groups. I was long overdue for a visit.
I got there around 3 p.m., when the lunch crowd had departed, and the dinner crowd was still on the beach. As the door closed, I was offered a quick “hello” and a “be with you in a minute” head nod, as an employee on a mission carried food to a waiting diner seated at an outside picnic table.
In no hurry, I nodded back and stepped aside to appreciate my surroundings. Support for U.S. veterans was the most dominant theme displayed. The owner is passionate about our vets and offers space for organized meetings and individual encouragement, as well as offering veterans 10% off their dining tab.
The place could, in the most positive framing, also be described as a dive. No air conditioning, no fancy décor, no wine list or anything that could even be considered pretentious. What you will find is layers upon layers of history everywhere. Local history is told on the backs of booths in the form of long-stuck stickers. They also have a friendly, helpful staff and pretty darn good food, if you remember that most everything listed comes from the no-frills side of the menu.
With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I ordered the closest thing they had to surf and turf. I tried the mushroom Swiss burger with fries and an order of grilled local shrimp, which also came with thin, seasoned fries. Both were served in to-go containers, so I could easily spread out my picnic as the ferry traversed the Pamlico Sound.
With a view of shallow water and tree stumps disguised as tumbleweed, I tried the shrimp. They looked perfectly cooked, and once I tasted them, it was easy to confirm that they were timed just right. Slightly seasoned with a spice blend that smelled like summer and steamed seafood, the shrimp were served deliciously hot with a side of matchstick fries and cocktail sauce.
The burger was hand-patted and covered in sautéed mushrooms and onions and a generous amount of melted Swiss cheese. I had mine with lettuce, tomato and onion, and you can have yours any way you want it, I was told. Still hot by the time I got on the ferry, the burger was generously sized and tasty.
While the menu might have familiar offerings, the location is one-of-a-kind. Whether your view is on the ferry or from an inside booth, you are guaranteed to see more than a few original sites.
Amy Gaw is a food entrepreneur who has eaten, cooked and written about food on the Outer Banks and surrounding areas for more than three decades. A clean food advocate with a focus on local seafood, Gaw is also a salt maker and the founder of Outer Banks SeaSalt.