Cruising along the N.C. coast on U.S. 17 with a hankering for a hamburger? Try Shallotte. Craving chicken? Wilmington's a good bet. But if it's seafood you're salivating for, quaint and colorful Calabash is the place to go. Just one mile from the S.C. state line, Calabash takes pride in being “Seafood Capital of the World.”
Calabash is approximately 200 miles from Charlotte, about a 4-hour drive, one way.
Take U.S. 74 East to N.C. 130 (just west of Whiteville); take N.C. 130 southeast to Shallotte, then U.S. 17 South to Calabash. From Myrtle Beach, just take U.S. 17 North to Calabash.
To see and do
Jimmy Durante – the old-time singer-comedian who made fun of his sizable “schnozzola” (nose) – used to end his radio shows and TV appearances by saying, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are!”
According to folks along the N.C. coast, this unusual audience farewell came about after a visit by Durante and his troupe to Calabash in 1940. The group stopped at a restaurant run by 28-year-old Lucy Coleman. Engaging in some light-hearted banter with her over the course of his meal, Durante apparently enjoyed both the meal and the company. He told Coleman, “I'm going to make you famous” and, as he was leaving, Durante bid a cheerful “Good night, Mrs. Calabash.” It soon became his signature sign-off.
Though Durante kept mum about the meaning of the phrase, friends and neighbors of Coleman were pretty sure they knew what it meant. Though the story can't be verified, there's no denying Calabash is the “go to” place when it comes to seafood.
Back in the 1930s, during the Depression, locals would meet village fishermen as they docked at day's end to see what they had caught. This soon led to what became known as “fish camps,” where fresh seafood was cooked outdoors, under shady oaks, in large tubs of hot grease. The locally preferred method of cooking was to lightly batter the fish in very fine flour and fry it briefly – creating distinctive Calabash-style seafood.
Over time, these outdoor fish camps attracted the attention and favor of folks 25 miles down the road in Myrtle Beach. Indoor restaurants naturally followed in Calabash.
Within the community, there's still a debate about who started the fish camps. Some say it was Lucy Coleman, others say Ruth Beck. They were sisters, and, in 1940, each opened a restaurant. Nearly 70 years later, both businesses are still going strong. The Original Calabash Seafood Restaurant (Coleman's) operates along the banks of the Calabash River; the Old Original Calabash Restaurant (Beck's) sits just off N.C. 179, the main highway through town. A sister-in-law of both, Ella High, opened the town's third restaurant in 1950; and still another eatery, the Calabash Seafood Hut, was opened by one of Coleman's granddaughters.
Not too many years ago, Calabash, with a year-round population of only 200, was home to 20 restaurants!
The population has since grown, but there's no question as to what gives this coastal town its identity. Before or after dinner, check out Callahan's of Calabash. An interesting store selling all manner of beach items and souvenirs, Callahan's specializes in nautical gifts. Down by the docks, it's also possible to charter boats for sport fishing or to go on a two-hour dolphin adventure cruise on the inland waterways. Gary McCullough