Owens’ Restaurant matriarch Clara Mae was born in 1946, the year her parents decided to move their restaurant business from Roanoke Island to Nags Head. Back then, everyone thought Bob Owens and his wife Clara were out of their minds for opening up shop on the desolate strip of land in South Nags Head. This was before the Outer Banks was a vacation destination when most outside business came from fishing charters and hunting parties.
But the Owens were visionaries and had a keen sense for what was on the horizon. They were to be at the forefront of new development on the beach, and not only is their business still going strong today, but the Owens’ operate with the same integrity and attention to detail that’s been the foundation of the business for seven decades.
Clara Mae remembers her father going to Engelhard for eggs, to Currituck for fresh produce, and to the ocean right across from his restaurant for fish. Owens’ was doing locally sourced food before locally sourced became a buzzword; back when local food was the only thing available to the few restaurateurs on the Outer Banks. And that tradition of authentic, native food is still a hallmark of Owens’ today.
Owens’ is the oldest restaurant in North Carolina that’s been in the same family, at the same location, since it opened. The fourth generation is beginning to take the reins on many of the daily operations, brought up by aunts and uncles, parents, grandparents, and even patrons. Owens’ is a family restaurant in every sense of the word.
“People have said that coming here is like coming home, and I feel like that’s the best compliment you could get,” says Clara Mae with a smile.
And it really does feel like you’re coming into the Owens’ home when you walk through the door. The building is decorated with family heirlooms, local history, and museum quality artifacts that have been given to the restaurant by longtime friends and fans. Taking a place of honor are Clara Mae’s oyster plates, something you’d have a hard time finding at antique stores these days. Staff, many of whom have been a part of Owens’ for 20 or 30 years, greet new and returning patrons with the same warmth and Outer Banks hospitality.
The food is always fresh, of course, but it also has staying power. Clara Owens’ crab cakes have been on the menu since 1946, and the recipe has remained unchanged. Owens’ offers innovative, trendsetting menu items too, but maintaining the consistency and integrity of the food they serve is always of the utmost importance. Everything that can be sourced locally is done so and the food is prepared simply and respectfully – something that can be felt with every bite.
No one leaves Owens’ Restaurant hungry. That was the name of the game in 1946, and it still holds true today. The restaurant is a vacation tradition held dear by hundreds of families, and it’s an important fixture in the permanent Outer Banks community as well. Owens’ isn’t just a place for visitors; it’s a fine dining destination for locals too.
When asked what makes Owens’ special, Clara Mae takes a thoughtful moment before answering. She’s sitting in the oldest part of the restaurant, where the original 34 seats were, surrounded by years of her family’s history. She speaks softly, but with a fierceness that demonstrates the love she has for this place.
“When you think about it – when you really think about it – the best moments of your life happen around a food table.”
There’s no way to count how many of those moments Owens’ Restaurant has seen over the last seven decades, but one thing is for sure – there will be many more.