Family attempts refinding Calabash as Mom visits beach 'one last time'

J. H. Osborne • Feb 16, 2020 at 6:30 PM

Last week I wrote that Mom and I were prowling old stomping grounds up and down the Carolina coast — giving her a look, and tastes, of places she hadn’t visited in many years. Her “go to the beach one last time” included a trip to eat in Calabash, N.C.

The first year we took a family vacation to Myrtle Beach, best guess 1972, a highlight of the trip had been a drive up to Calabash for fresh seafood. Dad did so based on a suggestion from a Mead coworker. Even us kids, whining in the backseat questioning why we had to drive “so far” just to eat, loved the food we found at Calabash. For years we rented houses in Crescent Beach. That’s well north of downtown Myrtle Beach, but just south of North Myrtle Beach. But still, sitting three abreast in the vinyl backseat of our 1967 Dodge Dart — windows down and floor vents open, as air conditioning was not yet an expectation — it seemed like a long drive to Calabash. Even after that first trip. Even after we knew we wanted to eat there.

This trip we were staying at Litchfield-By-The-Sea, which used to seem, to us, even farther away than Calabash. So when we (Mom, my sister Pamela and her husband, Larry Fagans) decided to go to Calabash for lunch, we expected it would take us an hour or more. We were wrong, thanks to bypasses and freeways that didn’t exist in the early 1970s. Pam’s intent was to duplicate Mom’s first Calabash experience. She’d researched online and determined Captain Nance’s Seafood was likely the first place Dad ever took us to at Calabash. It’s at the end of the street and right on the water (the Calabash River). It is pretty much in the center of the lineup of restaurants there. We’d passed several others on the road headed to the riverfront. I pointed out one looked like my kind of place (a simple roadside fish camp). It was called the Calabash Seafood Hut.

Captain Nance’s was terrific. Great service, excellent food and a wonderful view of the boats docked along the river. It dawned on me that as a child I hadn’t understood the geographic location of Calabash. It’s not on the shore, but sits along the Calabash River, near the river’s intersection with the Intracoastal Waterway, off the Little River, which leads to the ocean. Whew. We noticed a sign as we walked into Captain Nance’s that noted the restaurant opened a few years after our first visit. Pam asked the cashier on our way out what it had been called in 1972. “We weren’t here,” was the answer. “It’s always been Captain Nance’s.”

When we explained we were searching for the first place we ate at in Calabash back in ’72, the nice lady said we probably ate next door at what then would have been Coleman’s. It would look different today, she explained, because it had changed ownership, names, and undergone renovations over the years.

It made no difference to Mom. Captain Nance’s fulfilled our goal of experiencing great food at Calabash. Truth be told, we probably did eat at Captain Nance’s at some point in the 1970s, because Dad liked to try different places. By the way, my sister-in-law later told me her favorite place to eat at Calabash is “the Hut.” We think next time we go we’re going to have to work in more trips to Calabash, to try more restaurants. After all, it’s not that far when you’re an adult. As for Coleman’s, I found news articles online from a few years ago that noted “Coleman’s Original Calabash Restaurant,” a family-owned business since the 1940s, and one of the first eateries to open in Calabash, had closed for good.

While our foray into Calabash met or exceeded Mom’s expectations, changes to “the beach” left her disappointed when it came to reminiscing about other places we’d frequented in our Grand Strand heydays. The oceanfront house we’d rented years in a row at the main intersection in Crescent Beach? Gone. Long gone. In its place: a high rise. The building next door, which had housed a small arcade that kept us kids busy with its baseball machines and other games, is still there. But it isn’t an arcade. Mom didn’t recognize much of anything. Neither did I. We drove along the “first row” as much as possible all the way south through downtown Myrtle Beach. Mom didn’t recognize much there either — the one exception being the Gay Dolphin. When we were kids, going through the Gay Dolphin would have been a half-day adventure. On this trip we just drove by. We already had our souvenirs. And they weren’t the kind you can buy.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at josborne@timesnews.net.