Three Words: Salsa. Cheese. Eggs.

Sundae Horn
Sue, Vince, Noel and Daniel
Sue, Vince, Noel and Daniel

Jenny and I met a few weeks ago at the Pony Island Restaurant for breakfast.

For some strange reason, perhaps because of this article I was planning to write, we looked over the menu. Why? We knew what to order: Salsa Cheese Eggs. “What else were we going to get?” she asked. What else, indeed?

Salsa Cheese Eggs (a delicious concoction of hash browns, eggs, cheese and salsa) may be an obvious choice, but for a lighter appetite, there’s also Pony Potatoes*, Bacon, Egg and Cheese biscuits or Pecan Hotcakes. Or you can always order the classic Two Eggs with choice of bacon, sausage or ham, grits or hash browns, toast or biscuits. Doesn’t that make your mouth water?

The Pony Island has always been a popular place with both locals and tourists. And this winter, it has been the only restaurant open for breakfast.

On the day we were doing our “research” (Salsa Cheese Eggs), we took notes on the action around us. Our server, Noel Goodwin, was efficiently tending to her tables. Customer Earl O’Neal was occupying his regular table and chatting with passersby. Owner Sue O’Neal was visiting with the other patrons, making everyone feel welcome. There was a table of hunters (“Just think,” Jenny said. “They’re already halfway through their day.”), and more visitors and locals. All were enjoying the hospitality and tasty food.

When Sue had a chance, she sat down and joined us in reminiscing about good times on Ocracoke, and great breakfasts we’ve had at the Pony over the years.

“The funny thing is,” Sue said. “When I first started coming to Ocracoke for the summer, I always said I could never work at the Pony because the mornings are too intense for me. And here I am!”

So, how did she end up at the Pony? By marrying local boy Vince O’Neal, who comes from a long line of fishermen and cooks.

Vince grew up on Ocracoke, after his dad, a native Ococker, retired from the Coast Guard when Vince was six years old. He graduated from Ocracoke School, and served in the Coast Guard for eight years before coming back to the island. Sue says he always wanted to move back home to run a business and raise a family.

Sue, meanwhile, grew up on another island, a world away. She traveled from Staten Island to Ocracoke with family to visit, and ending up working here during the summers. She moved here for good in 1993, and married Vince in ’96. Together they have three children, Katie, Carson, and Noah, and they all keep the tradition going of good food and family friendliness at the Pony.

The Pony Island Restaurant has been a popular place to eat since it opened its doors in 1959, when it was called, simply, “The Ocracoke Restaurant.” Founding owners Alex and Marie Eley were local entrepreneurs who also started the Trolley Tours and opened the Trolley Stop, a walk-through ice cream shop where the Flying Melon Café is today.

Sue says the building “really hasn’t changed much” over the years. It has the same footprint and the same charm as always.

The Eleys sold The Ocracoke Restaurant to the Esham family (owners of the adjacent Pony Island Motel) in 1972, then the Eshams sold it to James Barrie and Ellen Gaskill, who ran it for 10 years before selling to Vince O’Neal and retired Coast Guard chief Peter Stone. Vince bought Peter out in 1995. In the summer, former owner Ellen Gaskill still cooks breakfast and dinner. Roger Lee Parsons is another longtime kitchen employee.

Noel (our server) started working at the Pony as a busser when she was 14 years old.

“She was so quiet then,” Sue said with a laugh.

“That was twelve years ago!” Noel said, clearly a happy employee.

Daniel Palacios (our breakfast cook) came out of the kitchen to tell us, “I love my job. I have the best bosses and work with the best people and I’m always happy here. ”

Isn’t that sweet? He’s not alone in his sentiments. The employees at the Pony are the image of one, big, happy family. They’re also happy to have winter work when most island businesses are closed for the season.

Sue said that staying open this winter was Vince’s idea. After closing for the holidays, they re-opened for breakfast every day (7 – 11 a.m.) and brunch on Sundays (all the breakfast menu items 7 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.; sandwiches, fried chicken, and shrimp 11 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.) There are also Sunday brunch specials each week like roast turkey or a seafood combo.

“We decided to be open this winter because we heard from the hotels that it would be nice for visitors if some place was available for breakfast,” Sue said. “And we have a great local following, – lots of local to-go orders. The weather’s been so pretty and there are some people here, so we’re glad we stayed open.”

Vince mentioned that they’re trying to put healthier things on the menu like Multigrain Hotcakes, Veggie Muffins, and the Seafoam Scramble (egg white with tomato and spinach), which led to Jenny’s question about a particular menu item.

“How many people order Fish Roe scrambled with eggs?” she asked.

Vince said the fish roe dish is “an acquired taste,” but people who really love it expect to see it on the menu when they come back. In a subsequent visit to the Pony (all in the name of research), I mentioned that conversation to my fellow breakfasters. My husband Rob said that when his family visited the beach back in the day, his parents always ordered fish roe with eggs. They loved it, he said. Well, I guess it takes all kinds.

In the spring, the Pony will expand their hours, as usual, to include dinners. The warm weather will allow them to use the new deck they built last year for extra seating.

“I always thought it would be so pretty back there,” Sue said. “It’s so nice on summer mornings.”

The deck extends off the back of the restaurant, and adds ten tables during the busy season. The new space is also perfect for a wedding reception; about three or four such celebrations are held at the Pony each year.

So, what’s the best part about working at the Pony? I asked Sue.

“I love seeing the same faces year after year,” she said.

During the season, the Pony Island Restaurant is the place to go for delicious seafood dinners, including their famous fish cakes. They’ve been featured in Our State magazine, and, in 2010, Vince and his mother, Peggy O’Neal, cooked and served more than 400 fish cakes at the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association’s exhibit at the North Carolina Seafood Festival in Morehead City. Vince is a strong supporter of local commercial fishermen. The fish you eat at the Pony is as fresh as it gets.


* Pony Potatoes are, hands down, the best hangover cure known to humankind. Not that I know this from experience, of course.

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