WILLIAMSTON — This is the 16th and final story in our "Open Road" summer series.
Come September, the hungry always flock to a neon-lit clapboard building on the edge of this town to devour one of the sea's most peculiar gifts.
It's oyster season, and at Sunny Side Oyster Bar that means the doors are open for customers willing to wait as long as six hours to savor a bucket - or five - of oysters.
"It's hard to understand sometimes," said Bermey Stevens, one of four owners and a native of Williamston, which is less than two hours east of Raleigh by car. "We're not on a cliff or by the shore. We're in a parking lot. But people come. A whole lot of people."
Before U.S. 64 bypassed Williamston, beachgoers passed right by Sunny Side, on the town's commercial strip. Now, to find it, you need to know where to look.
Oyster season is just getting started and will bump along through the months with "R" in their names - September to April. Sunny Side tries to keep delivering into May, closing for the season around Memorial Day. The oysters come from all over, with the local catch becoming available in November.
On Friday night, the phone kept ringing, and Steven's daughter, Hayden, patiently told customers to come on in. Yes, she told a few, Griff or Geezer are working tonight.
At Sunny Side, shuckers are celebrities. Patrons call ahead to make sure their favorite is on duty; some diners ask for an autograph on their smudged placemat decorated with the crew's photos. A few shuckers, like Elbert "Griff" Griffin, have been prying open oysters at Sunny Side for more than 40 years.
On Friday, the customers lined up around the U-shape bar were a mix of locals and travelers. Some celebrated special occasions; others came to satisfy a craving that grows in the fall. Regulars have brought first-timers, and there are even a few oyster haters in the mix. These customers devour bowls of steamed shrimp, scallops or crab legs.
Arlene Rideoutt of Raleigh didn't have the heart to tell her friend Melanie Womble of Wilson that she didn't eat oysters.
"You should have seen the excitement on her face when she told me where we were going tonight," Rideoutt said.
Womble got over her guilt when her shucker unleashed a plump oyster into a bowl before her. She was ready with a Saltine cracker.
How they like 'em
At Sunny Side, customers slather their oysters in combinations of cocktail sauce, melted butter, horseradish and Texas Pete hot sauce. They decorate them atop Saltines. Shuckers will make you a house specialty: a Red Rooster. The concoction of "oyster-meets-all-things-hot" balanced on a cracker is so potent that you'll be able to track the burn from your esophagus to your tummy.
The traditions at Sunny Side are older than most of its patrons, and even the current owners.
The late C.T. Roberson ran a grocery store on the site and decided in 1935 to shuck oysters for people at night. It was nothing fancy: just oysters and some shrimp. No hushpuppies or slaw. No greens or dessert.
In these early days, Sunny Side had a rough-and-tumble quality. Customers brought beer in brown bags and washed down their oysters with abandon. These days, there's still plenty of beer, but the bartenders pour and keep tabs.
The mantle passes
In the early 1990s, Roberson fell ill, and townspeople feared that would be the end of Sunny Side.
A group of young men, natives who'd come home after college, decided to buy the place. Sunny Side was a town jewel, and they were loath to see those neon lights go dim.
"It was an experiment to see if four friends could go into business and remain friends," said Bill Jones, one of the owners. "Well, it worked."
Each of the owners has a day job, but come night, they are dishwashers and oyster steamers and moppers.
On Friday, Doug Chesson, a general contractor, lugged a bag of oysters to the back, dumped them onto metal grates and hosed them down. In a cement room next door, Stevens, an insurance consultant, wound plastic timers and loaded buckets of oysters into a giant steamer. Shuckers came in and out, hollering about a forgotten order or pestering Stevens about timers that won't quit chirping.
"It's synchronized chaos," Stevens said, drenched with sweat. "And most nights, absolute fun."
email@example.com or 919-829-8927