by David Cecelski
A hot meal isn’t easy to find near the Great Dismal Swamp if you don’t know your way around the back roads of Camden, Pasquotank, and GatesCounty. It’s wild, remote country, with only a few villages anywhere nearby. Fortunately, I got help from a crowd of rangers and swamp rats at the Dismal SwampCanalVisitorCenterwhen I was there last week. They recommended several local eateries that I’ll share here. I’ve eaten at most of them over the years, but a couple of them were new to me and I look forward to trying them soon.
1. J&L Oasis and Grill, Main Street, South Mills.
This is just a convenience store grill, but the cooks prepare one special every day that is a hearty, home-cooking style meal. When I was buying provisions for my paddling trip there the other day, the special was roast beef and mashed potatoes—made from real potatoes, not instant. The J&L is the closest restaurant to the Dismal Swamp State Park and it’s just a stone’s throw from the Dismal Swamp Canal (pictured here), a historic ship canal dug by slaves two centuries ago.
2. Corapeake Country Café, NC-32 North, Corapeake.
This is a welcoming home-cooking kind of place that’s known all over GatesCounty for its Sunday buffet. You can barely get in the door after church on Sunday. If you’re visiting the Great Dismal’s western parts, perhaps via the Desert Road, this wonderful cafe is probably the most convenient place to eat that you’ll find anywhere near the swamp.
3. Belcross Bake Shoppe, NC 158-East, Belcross.
You have to drive all the way into the southern part ofCamdenCounty to find this bakery and deli, but everybody we met swore it was worth the trip. It’s located in an old service station/country store next to a roadside stand where the bakery owner’s father sold fresh fruit and homemade country sausage for 40 years. The café’s regular fare—sandwiches, soups, and desserts—has a great reputation, but the sweet potato biscuits are what is legendary. I’ve also heard that they make wonderful holiday fruitcakes using an old family recipe.
Everybody local I met around the Great Dismal had a favorite baked good at this shop—the chocolate bread pudding, the cream cheese brownies, the muffins or something else.
Belcross is just east of Camden, the county seat, and the bakery is open for early breakfast and lunch Tuesday to Friday, breakfast on Saturday, and is closed Sunday and Monday.
4. Quality Seafood, 309 E. Ehringhaus St., Elizabeth City.
I love fish markets that have their own cafes and this one in downtown ElizabethCity, maybe 20 miles from the state park, sounds like just my kind of place. According to our friends at theDismal SwampCanalVisitorCenter, you can select your choice of fresh fish at the market and they’ll clean them and fry or bake them for you right then and there. They’ll also steam crabs for you. We were told that the proprietor often lets church and community groups sell homemade baked goods in the cafe, so you know their desserts are good, too.
5. Peggy’s Country Café, NC 158-West.
This place is a swamp rat’s dream and an old favorite of mine. Peggy’s serves up hearty country dishes like pig’s feet and cabbage, salt herring, frog legs, and country ham, along with side dishes like baked sweet potatoes and collard greens, all for less than $7. When the local May peas are ripe in the spring, you can also expect to find them at Peggy’s. The café is located all by itself on a very lonely stretch of NC 158 that runs along the swamp’s southern outskirts. Look for it 6 or 7 miles west of South Mills, just past the turns for Newland Road and Lynchs Corner Road.
6. Colonial Restaurant, 418 E. Colonial Ave., ElizabethCity.
This is another place that I have liked for a long time. The Colonial is a downtown Elizabeth City institution and a great place to stop on the way to the swamp—it’s open at 6 AM, Monday to Saturday, the coffee is hot, the booths cozy, and the morning menu is full of filling dishes like bacon and eggs, corned beef hash, omelets, pancakes, country sausage and grits. Its founder, Nick Poulos, was a Greek immigrant who opened his first café on Colonial Avenue in 1924. Poulos died in 1974, but the current owners, Allen and Betty Meads, are doing a great job holding onto the spirit of the old place