Decor? Doesn't matter. Ambience? Forget it. Great food? Ah, now you're talking. For an authentic coastal experience and great food, here are our favorite dives for 2013.
Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island, Florida
In just one year of operation, Timoti's (pronounced TIM-oh-tees) has earned a fiercely loyal following for its local and wild-caught seafood—especially fried shrimp and fried clam strips. The restaurant nestles in the historic downtown area of Fernandina Beach on the northern end of Amelia Island, near the galleries and shops of Centre Street; 904/310-6550 or timotisfryshak.com.
Sunbury Crab Co.
When a restaurant's Web site includes both "directions by land" and "directions by sea," you know you're in for a treat. Sunbury Crab Co. sits near the end of a road on an offshoot of Dutchman Bay. Its multi-level decks overlook the docks where the family-owned restaurant hauls in its super fresh seafood; 912/884-8640 or sunburycrabco.com.
T.W. Graham & Co. Seafood Restaurant
McClellanville, South Carolina
Like an apparition from the 1950s, the restaurant rests under moss-shrouded live oaks in the fishing village of McClellanville. Unpretentious, it nevertheless turns out sophisticated Lowcountry cooking. You really should start with the creamy, buttery blue crab, shrimp, and corn chowder, and finish with a slice of one of Claudia's homemade pies—Key lime, if it's available; 843/887-4342.
Shuckin' Shack Oyster Bar
Carolina Beach and Wilmington, North Carolina
You know you're going to have a good time when the menu arrives printed on a piece of cardboard from a beer carton. The Carolina Beach location sticks mostly to steamed seafood, all of it excellent. Oh, there's also "Surf n' Turf (Our Way)"—oysters, shrimp, or crab legs with chicken wings. The newer downtown Wilmington spinoff faithfully reproduces the original, except that the bar's on the left as you enter, not the right; 910/833-8622 or shuckinshackoysterbar.com.
Flip Flops VB Grill
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Despite the shopping-mall location, you'll feel a relaxed, beachy vibe as soon as you walk in this colorful, cheery place. The Caribbean-accented menu features plenty of seafood, but we love the BBQ fish tacos—which come dressed in a savory mango sauce different than anything we'd consider "barbecue." At three for $13, they're a delicious bargain; 757/427-3547 or flipflopsvb.com.
Rock Hall, Maryland
Locals hang out here for the steamed crabs, the cream of crab soup, and the latest gossip. Don't skip the crab cake just because it's not "jumbo lump." It may use smaller bits of crabmeat (as was the Chesapeake Bay norm not so long ago), but it tastes terrific. The kitchen also turns out juicy, flaky fried fish. The restaurant consists of just 11 tables next to a seafood market, so go early. Or get your meal to go and picnic at Ferry Park; 410/639-2325.