09/1/08

Restaurant Review: Pop's Raw Bar & Grill

So where do you go in the middle of January, after a windy afternoon on the beach, wearing an old flannel shirt, a pair of Wanchese bedroom slippers, and a severe case of Hatteras hair?

The answer is Pop’s, of course. You’ll fit right in.

Not for the fancy set, Pop’s Raw Bar and Grill has garnered a devout local following by being a no frills, just fun restaurant in the heart of Buxton on The Outer Banks of North Carolina. People flock to Pop’s because they want a good burger and a good chat about local gossip, not because they want an upscale fine dining experience. For that reason, Pop’s is quintessentially Hatteras Island — or any small town for that matter.

And because of the neighborhood feel and hospitality, the popularity of Pop’s has grown, making the small local hangout an unlikely chain with a second location now open in Elizabeth City.

Jack Quidley, the owner of Pop’s, has been a Hatteras Island resident since 1948, and a fixture in the local restaurant scene throughout the decades. In 1974, he ran the Hatterasman Drive-In in Hatteras village, and in 1985, he moved on to the Lightship Restaurant.

Then Jack found himself with the opportunity to own his own restaurant, not just the lease, and he built Pop’s. That was just 13 years ago, though it feels like Pop’s has been a Hatteras fixture for as long as there have been roads connecting the villages.

Peeking out along Highway 12 and seating only 40 people at a time, Jack considers the small size of the restaurant a huge benefit.

“The size of the restaurant is on purpose. I wanted to keep the food cost down, and I figured I could do that by keeping the labor cost down,” says Jack. “And with a small restaurant, you only need a couple employees.”

And folks keep coming back for the simple, good menu, with equally good prices. Seafood standards are a favorite, from fishcakes to fried shrimp baskets, but there’s also burgers, barbecue, and a fat Philly cheese steak for meat lovers.

For first timers, Jack recommends a bowl of Hatteras clam chowder and the steamed shrimp. “The steamed shrimp is our best seller,” he says.

For 13 years, Pop’s has been successful, with occasional lines running out the door in the prime summer season.

“We’re busiest during the tourist season, but we have a large local base. They’re my mainstay — the foundation for the business. They’re the ones that made it,” says Jack.

Because of the large local clientele, Pop’s in Buxton stays open year-round, 11 a.m. until 9 p.m., six days a week

And with Pop’s in Buxton enjoying such success, Jack decided to jump on another opportunity and open a second restaurant.

On Oct. 5, Pop’s Raw Bar and Grill officially became a chain.

“The reason I opened a second Pop’s was because I wanted to bring local good seafood to other parts of North Carolina,” Jack says.

The new Pop’s is now open in Elizabeth City, and while the menu is identical, this Pop’s is much larger than the original, with seating for about 108. “At first we had 250 people a night, but it’s slowed down a lot now,” says Jack. “We had a few bumps in the road at first, because we were overwhelmed by the amount, but now we’re enjoying it.”

The Elizabeth City Pop’s also has a “train car” for patrons, about 30 feet away from the main restaurant and with its own kitchen, and guests can choose to eat in the restaurant or in the neighboring train. “It seats 24 people, and it’s the neatest thing around I’ve seen,” says Jack.

And since the opening, Jack has seen a few familiar faces from the island. “I get people from Hatteras at least once or twice a week coming in here. They already know the food, I guess, and I always recognize them.”

But whether you’re closer to the Elizabeth City or the Buxton restaurant, the good thing about Pop’s is that it will still be the same old Buxton bar that everyone pops into once in a while for a good meal, a couple beers, and a good conversation with the folks around you.

“I think the reason people come, really and truly, is the way you feel when you’re in there. You feel like you’ve known the people who work there all your life. There’s always people laughing, people picking on each other, and you feel like you’re home,” says Jack.

“The casual dress helps too, I’m sure,” he adds. “But in the long run, the good food and company brings them back. Not the dress code.”

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