Sunny Side Oyster Bar

By Taylor Logeman and Eliza Williams – 2014

Peering out the car window, camera poised against my face, I did my best to keep up with our unofficial tour guide’s rapidfire flow of synopses of each town’s point of historical interest.  It seemed that no sooner would he conclude one tidbit of the town’s railroad background, when he change gears and move straight into the role the Roanoke River played in the town’s history. Brent Kanipe, the leading PR figure for the little town of Williamston, had graciously offered to drive us around this quaint riverside North Carolina community.  He never ran out of fun facts and points of interest to share with us.  From the passenger seat of his jeep, Eliza continued to ask him questions, as I snapped photos and furiously scribbled notes in the backseat.

But as the afternoon reached its end, Brent announced, “Oh, and you simply cannot leave Williamston without checking out Sunny Side Oyster Bar.”  So there we went.  A small wooden – for lack of a better word – shack, which sat placidly off the side of a vacant road, appeared in sight minutes later.  Strains of classic rock instantly greeted our ears, and a colorful collection of neon beer signs stretched across the back wall.  To our left stood a wrap-around bar, with tables, chairs, and booths on our right.  Though the next room housed several pinball machines and other barfly classics, this front room had only a game of “hook and ring,” which would later keep several young men busy as activity would pick up that night.

Brent introduced us to the owner.  We began asking her questions, to which she had several long-winded responses.  They’d bought the bar years ago, and were most famous – obviously – for their oysters.  Patrons from hours away made the trek to little Williamston to enjoy this seafood delicacy.  Although in recent seasons had forced them to raise the price of their oyster dishes, business nevertheless remained consistent, and prices had begun dropping once again.

Then she offered to show us around in the back.  An entire other room lay behind the liquor bar, which held a centered horseshoe-shaped oyster bar that pointed toward the kitchen.  Walking around, I noticed buckets placed periodically around the bar – shucking buckets.  Then she opened a door on the right, and beckoned us outside.  A pair of small brick rooms, attached to the building only by the roof, housed all the oysters (buckets by the dozen!), a rinsing sink, and the steamer, an archaic, copper-colored mammoth that looked like a misplaced anachronism from the 1930s.  Given the owner’s tone, it was a miracle that it still even functioned.  We all laughed at its expense.

We vowed to return for dinner that night, and we did a few hours later, after compiling our findings from the day’s discoveries.  When we’d first visited, a mere dozen or so people had been in the building, probably ten of who were employees.  Now, the parking lot was packed, as were the entrance, the bar, and the tables – even the pinball and ring toss games.  This was definitely the town’s culinary pride and joy, and that Friday night was teeming with lively activity.

We were told the wait would be around forty-five minutes to an hour, and determined to join the experience – we plopped down to settle until they called our name.  We didn’t mind; we had grabbed our laptops to synthesize all of our photographs, not to mention attempt to make sense of all our scrawled notes from the past few days.  It didn’t take long for one of the older locals, a friendly gentleman named Francis, to come wander over to ask us where we were from (because we had clearly come from elsewhere).  We enjoyed a jovial conversation, sharing with him the reason for our visit and all that we’d learned throughout it.  Francis was fascinated, and he was happy to add his own two cents of knowledge regarding the town’s history.  I continued to pull together my notes, strewn among scrap pieces of paper and my notebook, rapidly typing away, adding occasional tidbits Francis would share.

After a while, one of the waitresses entered the room, and announced with finality that the restaurant’s capacity had lengthened the wait – to a minimum of two hours.  Most, crestfallen by this discouraging news, left.  Some, like us, stayed put.  At the very least, we reasoned, we’d be up that long working on our piece.  Might as well wait to be fed!

But only twenty more minutes passed until we were called to be seated at the shucking bar in the back.  This, as we’d witnessed earlier, this was where the magic happened.  The shuckers suddenly appeared from the kitchen, walking toward us to claim their own grouping of four customers each.  A well-seasoned looking gentleman, who appeared quite well accustomed to and not the least bit fazed by the madness of the scene, approached us to take our orders.  Floyd, we later learned, had been employed at this oyster bar for forty-one years.

Originally from the Eastern Shore of Maryland myself, and an avid lover of quality seafood, of course we would be ordering plenty of their oysters and shrimp.  In addition to our shrimp platter, which we generously doused in cocktail sauce, Floyd placed before us each a small porcelain dish, in which he would plunk a freshly shucked oyster, and here would continuously replenish our dishes throughout the meal.  He was quite deft – it was clear this certainly wasn’t his first rodeo.  The moment I finished an oyster and placed down the shell, before I knew it a new one had taken its place.

Our fellow patrons were wonderful.  I could go on and on sharing the conversations from that evening.  To my left was a couple that frequented the bar, despite that they were from Raleigh and drove three hours each way to get there.  To Eliza’s right sat a trio of duck hunters who visited the area for obvious reasons.  After they finished up and left, a younger couple replaced them, also regulars of Sunny Side.  Upon their suggestion, and continued prompting, Eliza tried what they referred to as a Red Rooster.  A Sunny Side specialty – a hot-sauce-drenched oyster atop a Saltine cracker, topped with a jalapeno pepper, and capped once again with their bright orange house habanero sauce – was a fiery favorite, at least among the select few who could handle it.  As if throwing back shots of liquor, the three of them tilted their heads back, downed their Red Roosters entirely, and waited as their mouths and throats were rendered afire.  The couple, heavily tattoo-clad, shared with us that they’d seen plenty of full-grown men dissolve into tears after braving the flaming hot dish.  (And, thankfully, I captured the entire ordeal on video.)
Thoroughly and happily stuffed, we thanked Floyd and returned to our hotel room.  I fell asleep that night, dreaming of dancing red roosters atop piles of bivalve mollusks.