MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. — The Sanitary Fish Market has so many waiters. A landmark of the Outer Banks, the seafood restaurant commands a legion of well-meaning-but-overmatched teenagers in restaurant-approved neon T-shirts.
It is a detachment large enough to take Russia in a land war. They would, no doubt, succeed where Napoleon failed, soldiering on to Leningrad without the burden of remembering drink orders.
That waitstaff confronts you at the Sanitary Fish Market only after the gift shop and that piscine odor blasting in from the sound. Perhaps it’s because you have so much time to watch the waitstaff as you wait for those drink orders — and that third and final salad with the store-bought balsamic vinaigrette. And the best fried shrimp not in a Piggly Wiggly freezer.
That abundant staff clogs the sprawling, hardwood restaurant as if they were all my grandfather lost in the mall. There are trays the size of Captain America’s vibranium shield and foldable stands like hotel cots, and minimally motivated bus boys as big as left tackles clearing tables at their own pace.
As if possessed of second sight, the staff loiters in only the most-trafficked areas — the aisles, the space between the open kitchen and the dining rooms, the gift shop and the hostess stand, which is tended at all times by at least three blondes trying their hardest to excel at “pretty.” But in their defense, the staff is very nice when they’re in the way.
The Sanitary Fish Market, founded in 1938 off the back of some guy’s boat, is a clinic in the execution of mediocre vacation dining. It claims room for 600 diners and, based on the website, is self-aware of its place on a pedestal, obviously built on the shoulders of dim-paletted tourists in hula shirts and cargo shorts. But the reputation is more than the restaurant. The Sanitary Fish Market serves generic deep-fried seafood. There’s other stuff — spaghetti! (really) — on the big menu, but deep-fried shrimp, scallops, flounder, catfish, etc. is on the marquee.
Pit the Sanitary Fish Market and Captain D’s in a Pepsi Challenge, and it’d be close. Although the Captain D’s would get there on time and for under $18.95. There’s nothing wrong with expensive, if it’s justified.
For two people on a Monday night, dinner cost $60. This included two entrees: 1) fried shrimp, fries, a salad (iceberg lettuce, two grape tomatoes and jar vinaigrette on the side) and a beer, 2) and a pick-three aquatic-protein combo meal of deep-fried mediocrity, fries, green beans, and peach sangria, which was the highlight — $8 and it’s served in a small fishbowl.
There is, however, great people-watching at the Sanitary Fish Market — the crying babies, the moo-moo-clad women, the men in what they no doubt consider their “good T-shirt,” and the occasional fanny pack.
The outdoor dining seems like it would be nice in the summer after 5. The inside decor is safe and textbook for a seafood restaurant, and there are pictures of all the famous people who ate there. They line the hallway to the bathroom. The restaurant’s original cash register sits in a glass reliquary out front, and there is, of course, a gift shop where for $14.95 you can dress like a teenage waiter. Garish color of your choice.
But the Sanitary Fish Market excels at being what it is.
It is, depending on your standards, a well-executed vacation restaurant that’s kind of untouchable because it’s been around for a long time and makes people in flip-flops feel like they’re at the beach. The hush puppies are good too, but fall short of “famous,” despite what the website tells you. Bill Ellis BBQ, some buffet barbecue dive previously mentioned, had better hush puppies. Maybe they could be famous? But the Sanitary Fish Market has the requisite over-sized menu, kitschy crap on the walls, and T-shirts to sell to anyone who wanted to be an advertisement when they were a kid. There is the vacation dress code: shirts and shoes encouraged; sleeves less so.
Go and know what you’re getting. The Sanitary Fish Market stands apart from the other seafood restaurants around it because those restaurants are generically anonymous and go out of business and re-spawn regularly.
For the uninformed tourist relying on Yelp or UrbanSpoon (neither of which had nice things to say), the Sanitary Fish Market’s age and name — the restaurant’s website says the owners named it “Sanitary” to assuage its teetotaling landlords — make it stand out. So does its proprietary spot by a marina. It would be better if the prices were lower and if the food had less in common with Long John Silver’s, but you’ll feel like you’re on vacation and you can get a T-shirt. Just please remember to exit through the gift shop.