Seafood described as fresh and local at restaurants on the Georgia coast isn’t always so, despite close proximity to fishing grounds along the state’s 100-mile coastline. “The reality is that less than 10 percent of [Georgia] restaurants use our local shrimp,” says John Wallace, owner of Poteet Seafood, a Brunswick distributor. It’s worse for fish. Catch limits and regulations can make commercial saltwater finfishing unprofitable. Last fall, hurricanes interrupted the catches for the few Georgia fishermen still working, and the storms and other factors limited local supplies of flounder, snapper, and grouper.
To find out if a restaurant’s seafood is truly local, “the only thing to do is ask and hope they tell the truth,” Wallace says. Some tips: Seek out the Wild Georgia Shrimp decal on entryways and menus; order whiting, a shrimp bycatch, when possible; be skeptical of fish provenance in late winter and early spring (when fisheries close while fish spawn); and expect fried oysters to come from Texas or Louisiana, at best. One local catch that can always be trusted? Blue crabs. They’re abundant but messy to eat, which is why most restaurants don’t serve them.
Luckily, enough coastal restaurants do local well and fess up when they don’t. Here’s a selection of standouts.
Sunbury Crab Company
Order a basket of steamed blue crabs, and the server trots out a placemat, a wooden mallet, and a bucket for the piles of cracked shells you’re about to create. There’s nothing tidy about dismantling a blue crab for its succulent meat, but the chaos is worth it. The Maley family, which built this restaurant from the ground up, harvests its own crabs and oysters from St. Catherine’s Sound, a short boat ride up the Medway River from the restaurant’s marina. (Sunbury is about an hour’s drive south from Tybee or north from Jekyll.) Clusters of wild local oysters are served steamed when in season, from fall to spring. Finfish isn’t always local—the chef tries to catch enough trout himself to keep customers satisfied—but the quality is high. On a recent visit, breaded redfish commanded space in a stuffed fry basket, and a bone-in flounder was served spiced and grilled—head removed, tail on. 541 Brigantine-Dunmore Road, Sunbury, 912-884-8640
Retired paper mill worker Larry Geter made a name for himself in Camden County and Jacksonville as a James Brown impersonator. He’s so proud of his likeness to the soul star that he keeps comparative photographs posted on a sandwich board that leans against his roadside restaurant. All manner of proteins come freshly fried out of Geter’s makeshift outdoor kitchen—from alligator to chicken gizzards. Deep-fried blue crabs, whiting, and conch fritters, served with a tangy homemade conch sauce, are worth a stop. You won’t miss the place: Bright yellow signs and 14-foot-tall pink flags scream “Doo Dads.” 99 Kinlaw Road, Woodbine, 912-674-7824
The Fish Dock
Perched on a tall bluff skirting the Sapelo River in sleepy McIntosh County, the Fish Dock is the closest the Georgia coast comes to a true sea-to-table restaurant. Owner Charlie Phillips is a fishing industry legend in Georgia. He owns Sapelo Sea Farms, the largest clam farm in the state, leases wild oyster beds, and operates a legion of fishing and shrimp boats. All that catch eventually becomes bowls of clams steamed in wine and butter, blackened whole margate or black sea bass, and soft-shell crab sandwiches in a dining room that overlooks Charlie’s fleet. 1398 Sapelo Avenue, Townsend, 912-832-4295
Savannah’s no-frills port city roots are on display at this low-slung bar tucked beside the Thunderbolt Bridge, en route to Tybee Island, where newspapers cover the tables. Nelson’s Quality Shrimp, just a net toss away from Desposito’s kitchen door, keeps this half-century-old marshside establishment stocked with Georgia brown shrimp. Choose blue crabs (boiled) and shrimp (garlicky or deep fried) over the trucked-in oysters and Alaskan snow crab legs. 3501 Macceo Drive, Thunderbolt, 912-897-9963
Best of the rest
In Shellman Bluff, Speed’s Kitchen (1191 Speeds Kitchen Road) is good for fried shrimp and deviled crab and Hunter’s Cafe (1093 River Road) for a grouper sandwich or steamed wild oysters.
In downtown Woodbine, Captain Stan’s Smokehouse (700 Bedell Avenue), a popular spot for barbecue and nightlife, sautés local shrimp in garlic and vermouth.
This article appears in our July 2018 issue.