The Cypress Grill is a place you just don’t want to miss; even if you don’t like fish. Sitting precariously on the banks of the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina, it has welcomed diners for over fifty years. Michael Stern, who does the Road Food column on National Public Radio calls it “the last of the old-time herring shacks.” Mr. Stern’s specialty is finding wonderful out-of-the-way eateries.
The original building of board and batten cypress was built in 1936 as a fish camp for the men who would go to the river to hunt, fish and tell tales; we still have fish camps, folks who like to fish and folks who like to tell fish tales.
It is all about the fresh water herring that used to be so abundant in this fast moving, turbulent river. Sally and Leslie Gardner have been the owners of the Cypress Grill for 34 years. Crystal McLaurin along with family members and a staff of eight folks help Miss Sally in the kitchen.
This is a family business; their five-year-old granddaughter Summer will tell you right off that she is the manager and I believe her!
For the past few years the herring population has dwindled dramatically and currently there is a moratorium on catching herring in the Roanoke.
Ted Gardner from Virginia Beach grew up on Gardner’s Creek (not far from the Cypress Grill) remembers when he could throw a net overboard almost anywhere on the creek and catch so many herring that it took several folks to haul in the catch. “We thought the herring would always be there.”
Last year the moratorium was temporarily waived for Jamesville’s annual Herring Festival on Easter Monday. We are all hoping that might happen again.
But don’t fret: they do have fresh herring, just not from the Roanoke. Miss Sally explains how they cook their herrings. (Forget what you thought you knew about herrings floating in cream sauce from Zabar’s).
At the Cypress Grill the herring are scaled, cleaned and then “notched” almost to the bone. They use a home-made scaling machine to remove the fish scales.
They are then lightly breaded and cooked either Sunny-Side-Up or Cremated. A Sunny-Side-Up herring is fried crisp and tender. A Cremated herring is super-fried. After you remove the backbone you eat all the meat and any other bones, usually without even using a fork. All that cartilage has to be good for you, doesn’t it?
You can also get corned herring. I remember going to Cypress Grill with my father. He would buy several buckets of herrings for a penny a fish. We brought them home and corned them in the same old crocks that we used to brine the fatback in the days when we had hog killings on the farm.
Herring Roe is a delicacy that is popular at the grill. Often the Gardners squeeze the roe out of the fish themselves. Then they ”meal” it, add country eggs and fry the roe cakes until crisp. They use only Abbitt’s Corn Meal, made right here in Martin County. Locals won’t use anything else.
Even if you don’t think you want to try herrings, you can get fried catfish, oysters and shrimp, all lighted breaded. They also have Rock Stew, and Miss Sally was quick to let me know that stew is not the same as muddle; muddle has crackers in it. Her Rock Stew is made from river bass caught right in the Roanoke. She starts with onions, potatoes and seasonings in a bit of water. This is cooked and then she adds the Rockfish (stripped river bass) on top. This way the fish is not cooked to a poultice.
The Cypress Grill has been written up in the New York Times, Southern Living, Smithsonian Magazine, Christian Science Monitor and Our State. Jan and Michael Stern, writers of Road Food praised the Cypress Grill on National Public Radio’s Splendid Table, just for starters.
If you go: The Cypress Grill is in Jamesville, North Carolina about 10 miles east of Big Mill Bed and Breakfast, just off US Highway 64. (About 110 miles south of Norfolk and 110 miles east of Raleigh) It is open each year from early January until the end of April for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Take cash with you; they don’t take credit cards, but you won’t need much money. Your entire meal with sweet and a piece of that great chocolate pie will be under ten bucks. 252-792-4175
Cypress Grill opens this year on January 10th, 2013 and closes April 20, 2013.
You have to experience this wonderful piece of Americana and local fare; it is who we are. We hope the Cypress Grill will always be there, but there aren’t any guarantees. For now, seeing that “Yes, we’re Open” sign makes me happy.
And this year the Cypress Grill opens January 10, 2013, closes April 20th. That weekend the folks of Jamesville host a Herring Festival…lots of fun.