Sanitary Fish Market & Restaurant may be one of the most famous restaurants in the Crystal Coast and southern Outer Banks region. Located on the edge of Downtown Morehead City, with a huge sign that can’t be missed by travelers passing through, the waterfront restaurant has welcomed decades of patrons who crave local seafood and an on-the-water view.
Sanitary Restaurant first opened its doors in 1938 as a 12-stool restaurant with a small kerosene stove and an ever-changing selection of dishes that was brought in by local fishermen. Today, the restaurant can seat up to 500, but still has local fare as the prime attraction on its lengthy menu. Southern favorites like shrimp and grits, fried popcorn shrimp, and Bogue Sound clam chowder can all be found, as well as a wealth of fried or broiled seafood platters. Seasonal specialties are divided into “inshore” and “offshore” categories, while meat lovers will also find a nice selection of steaks, sandwiches, and other land-lubber dishes. A special bar menu and kids menu is also available, and desserts and milkshakes are also on-hand to appeal to a sweet tooth.
A famed destination for Crystal Coast visitors for more than 75 years, Sanitary Fish Market & Restaurant remains a beloved restaurant in Downtown Morehead City.
The founders of the Sanitary, Jesse Lee “Tony” Seamon and Vernon Jackson “Ted” Garner, Sr., first met during the depression as they both took jobs loading scrap iron at the Morehead City port. Tony was born on a farm in Mecklenburg County in 1924, turned from farming to the construction business to build sidewalks. Ted left a farm in Newport to attends barber’s school and opened a barber shop in New Bern. Several years later, he moved to Morehead City, where he worked at the port and in the retail fish business with Roland Barbour, his brother-in-law, for three years. While working with Roland, he operated a small fish market on the waterfront.
For years, Tony operated a small fishing boat (the Mary Ethel) that he bought for $75, but by 1935, he needed a bigger boat. He wanted a boat big enough to take into the Gulf Stream. So he borrowed $500 from Harry Freeman (which he paid back within a year) to buy a fishing boat, the “Monnie M”. The new boat had accommodations for 8, and the clients could eat and sleep aboard. The rates were $20 per day for 6 or fewer people and $25 for 7 or 8.
Tony and Ted entered into a partnership where Ted would “drum up” fishing parties and Tony would take them out to fish aboard his party boat. Ted’s market also supplied Tony with ice and bait. The two partners became affectionately known by townspeople as Captain Tony and Captain Ted, and the names stuck for the rest of their lives. Many people in the community also referred to the business partners as T & T Combined.
During the party boat excursions, Captain Tony began to cook on board the boat. Parties would go out to Cape Lookout or elsewhere in the area, and Captain Tony would cook what they caught right on the boat. He recalls, “I really didn’t know how to cook, but that seafood was so fresh that all you had to do was cook it, and it tasted good. I learned on that boat that what made seafood good was to have it really fresh.”
The Monnie M was the real beginning to the Sanitary because once Captain Tony started cooking on board, the natural evolution was to a land-based restaurant. Indeed, people began urging him to open a seafood place ashore where they could enjoy seafood without having to go fishing to get it. An article in the Southern Fisherman in 1949 recounted the following conservation between the two men, as Tony was “loafing” at Ted’s place. Tony said, “A fellow told me today I ought to open a restaurant serving seafood like I cook on the boat.” “It’s an idea,” Ted concurred. Tony replied, “What say we try it together?”
So, on Feb 10, in 1938, Captain Tony and Captain Ted opened a small restaurant with a seating capacity of 20, 12 stools at a counter and two tables seating eight. They had a waiting line on the first day. The building was on the waterfront opposite the Carteret Ice and Coal Company. They rented it from Charles Wallace for $5.50 per week and bought everything they needed from the dimestore. It was the first restaurant on the Morehead City waterfront. Captain Tony once fondly referred to that first building as “looking like an oversized outhouse set out over the water.”
The building’s proprietor stipulated that the building had to be kept very clean. To show compliance with the cleanliness requirement and to let the public know that it was a very clean place suitable for a family dinner, they named it the Sanitary Fish Market. As John Tunnell, long-time Manager at the Sanitary, said, “Most fish markets at the time were always dirty, so Captain Tony and Captain Ted called it the Sanitary because they wanted people to know it was clean.” The building’s owner also stipulated that no beer could be sold, and no drinking could take place. The “no alcohol” rule was one that Captain Tony and Ted stuck with long after they owned the building and it was still in effect until recent years.
Not long after they opened, the health inspector came knocking. He asked Captain Tony and Captain Ted if they knew they needed a permit to run a restaurant. The two young entrepreneurs knew nothing about the health laws, but fortunately Earle Hubbard, who was then with the local health department in Carteret County and Marley M. Melvin, the state sanitation officer (and later the executive secretary of the State Restaurant Association) told them what they had to do, and he let them stay open, even though they had broken quite a few health laws. He said they were serving good food and deserved to stay in business. The two owners quickly complied with their list of requirements, which included a hot water heater, a three-compartment sink, and a sterilization tank. In 1939, when they received a piece of paper from the State Board of Health that said “Certified Restaurant”, Tony went up on the roof, paint brush in hand, and inserted the word “Restaurant” on the Fish Market sign, giving it its famous name, Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant.
For several years, Captain Tony continued to operate the Monnie M, supplying fresh fish to the Sanitary, whose slogan was “They slept in the ocean last night.” A large seafood platter cost 85 cents, and diners could eat all they wanted for $1. The first cash register wouldn’t ring up more than $3.99. Business was strong, and soon there were lines of people waiting for a seat in the restaurant. In 1942, Captain Tony stopped operating the fishing boat and joined Captain Ted to devote his time to the restaurant.