Jenny Scarborough
Bob and Ruth Toth are the best bosses ever.
Bob and Ruth Toth are the best bosses ever.

The Cafe Atlantic will close forever after four more dinner services.

Customers are sad. Owners Bob and Ruth Toth are happy. They want to take a vacation together, in the summer. Alaska! That has not been possible for them for the 25 years they have owned, managed and worked in their restaurant, which opened in the spring of 1989.

Saying goodbye to the Cafe is bittersweet, like the chocolate cream pie.

Ruth was hosting one night when a long-time visitor told her how much the restaurant meant to her. "She told me she didn't think they'd come back to the island if they couldn't eat here. Both the lady and I ended up in tears. We bonded," said Ruth.

The Cafe Atlantic developed a devoted following. Plenty of diners show up for the uniformly good food and--as a waitress there, I'm fairly sure this is mostly true--reliable service.

Fresh North Carolina seafood has always been the star of the menu. Landlocked diners have learned that drum, sheepshead and dolphin are all actually fish, delicious fish. "Bob and I truly value those regular customers who only get to eat one meal a year with us," Ruth wrote in the intro to her Cafe Atlantic Cookbook.

Nadia, Beatle and Kathy are part of the Cafe Atlantic family.
Nadia, Beatle and Kathy are part of the Cafe Atlantic family.

Tim and Tammy Hester from Greenville, NC have been eating at the Cafe for eleven years, twice a week during their fall visits, except for the year the restaurant closed early after Hurricane Irene.

"We are so sad and going to miss it," said Tammy. Her favorite dish was the seafood fettucine. Tim usually orders the grilled platter, but this year opted for the fried platter, because "fried flounder was looking mighty good to me."

"We love Cafe Atlantic so much we came 480 miles just to have one last meal here. We're going to miss you a lot," said Michele Coleman of Hershey, PA. She and her husband, Brett, learned the restaurant was closing from a columnist in their hometown paper.

Letters containing effusive praise have been arriving. Ruth posts them on our staff wall, where we also post things customers say that amuse us, and invitations to parties.

Local support made the restaurant a success. There have been nights in the spring and fall that I only served a few people I don't know. Without ever having had an advertising budget, the restaurant relies on local business, repeat customers, and word of mouth. Bob and Ruth always wanted their restaurant to be affordable and accessible.

It became a place where islanders celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. The Cafe has hosted wedding parties, family reunions, and groups savoring their big meal out. "I always make the Cafe a stop for any important dinner," said Emily Lyons.

25 Years of Delicious

Or just for a delicious, satisfying meal any night of the week (except Tuesday!). "We'd eat here every night if we could," said Kathleen O'Neal. Her husband, Ronnie, often picks up desserts to go on the nights they don't eat out. He likes the cream pies, layer cakes, and (almost) anything chocolate.

There are so many regulars it is impossible to name them all. Everyone has their favorite dishes. Ruth knows to call Grace Gaskill when tomato alfredo soup is on the menu, and Teresa O'Neal when polenta with shrimp is the special. Candy Gaskill is on the call list for chocolate bread pudding, and Andy Todd is alerted to the presence of chocolate strawberry layer cake.

Bob knows exactly how to grill the beef for Sandy O'Neal and Mary Fulcher Swain ("I want it done"), and can tell you who is in the dining room based on the orders on the line.

25 Years of Delicious

Though the business has been on the market, it has not sold. Restaurants are a labor of love. The product is perishable, profit margins are low, staffing is always a challenge, and food service is a high stress environment.

"Ruth knew what we were getting into. She'd worked in restaurants before," Bob told a customer on a recent night.

Bob had no clue. He'd worked on dredge boats for the state, and wanted to work for himself. Ruth was a public school educator, who'd spent many of her summers working in kitchens and restaurant hospitality. She credits her time as a prep cook at the Back Porch Restaurant, working with chef Debbie Wells, as giving her the confidence to start her own endeavor.

25 Years of Delicious

One big lesson they learned? "Never say never," said Ruth. "Bob told me, 'I'll do anything but cook. I'll do anything else.'"

Due to an early staffing issue, Bob stepped in to the kitchen, and has been running the line ever since. He now admits he's a cook, and can even be coaxed to emerge from the back long enough to accept praise from diners.

The first Cafe Atlantic menu was hand written by Ruth, and photo copied. A calligraphy pen was cheaper than professional printing, said Ruth. A cup of soup cost $1.95. Desserts were $2.50. A crab cake entree--the same formula on the menu today--was $12.95. "Crab cakes have been a mainstay," said Ruth. Her winning recipe was praised by Gourmet magazine's Jane Lear as being "the finest crab cakes I've eaten in a very long time."

Remember lunch at the Cafe? BLT's with pesto mayonnaise, felafel with a side of tabbouli, or that amazing tuna salad in a tortilla shell? Does anyone else remember the California melt?

Ruth's mother was the secret weapon behind the Cafe's early lunch success. "She used to plant 100 tomato plants. She'd haul them to Swan Quarter to put them on the ferry," said Ruth. The ferry crew was happy to shuttle the produce, and Ruth would pick up the homegrown tomatoes.

Bob and Ruth employed many of their nieces and nephews over the years. Ruth's large family probably accounted for the bump in sales during August, she said. Her sister-in-law, Catherine Everett, said Cafe meals were always a huge part of their family vacations. Catherine fondly remembers beach days at South Point and sending Joe into the village to pick up take out sandwiches for their five children, who are "now grown." Three fifths of those kids put in some hard hours at the Cafe. Only one chose food service as a profession.

Locals are a huge part of the Cafe Atlantic's success.
Locals are a huge part of the Cafe Atlantic's success.

It seems silly now, said Ruth, but offering grilled seafood on Ocracoke was an innovation in 1989. The Cafe was the first Ocracoke restaurant to put in a grill rather than a flat top griddle, and the first to feature tuna.

Ruth encountered her first tuna in 1976, while working in a restaurant in Buxton. "There was this big dark red piece of fish," said Ruth. She asked the owner what he was going to do with it. "He said, 'Somebody give it to me.' There was no way he would serve that in his restaurant. He said, 'All you can do is boil it and can it,'" remembers Ruth, who has since prepared and served thousands of pounds of tuna.

The Cafe was also the first island restaurant to serve brunch, which Ruth introduced because lunchtime on Sundays were slow. The first brunches "maybe 35 to 50" people were served. Then people got a taste for Ruth's huevos rancheros, her pancakes, ricotta stuffed french toast, chicken and broccoli crepes, and eggs scrambled with avocado and bacon. My personal favorites: shrimp and grits ("bacon grease is the secret," she told me once), and lemon ricotta pancakes with strawberry butter and citrus syrup. I want to marry the lemon ricotta pancakes.

Brunch became a mish-mash of churchgoers (servers were always tickled to take care of Wilbur and Macky Bell, because they ordered mimosas straightaway after worship), post Saturday-nighters ordering the same mimosas (the ones who woke up before noon were disappointed), the library ladies, couples, families, and NPS employees eating buttermilk pancakes.

Offering special tapas nights and hosting guest chefs was another way Ruth offered innovative dining on Ocracoke.

It is a cafe. The tables are close. Customers start to chat and discover things in common. Slices of birthday cake get sent to neighboring tables. People lean over to murmur that you must absolutely try the goat cheese appetizer. (It's pronounced chevre, like Chevrolet.) You can always count on running into someone you know.

Restaurant crews become families, with all the love and bickering that implies. At the Cafe, there is a large extended family. Cindy Fiore--praise her--set up fair and efficient systems the servers use to this day. She still comes in from time to time and joins the crew for a salad before the restaurant opens. "I don't know where I'm going to get my salad after this," she confessed.

Sarah Fiore started as a busser at age 14, worked at the Cafe for 24 years, and still pulls a guest star shift from time to time when needed.

25 Years of Delicious
Photo by Roy Terretta

Former employees are spread to the four corners of the world, said Ruth. They send Christmas cards with photos of their children, which Bob and Ruth proudly display on their refrigerator.

Most of the current staff has been with the restaurant for years. Babies have been born and grown into little people who know Bob can always be counted on for the gift of a sugar cookie. Before the shift begins there are often a few staff kids around completing homework and having a snack.

Bob got misty-eyed when he said he'd miss seeing the staff most of all after retirement. What he won't miss is the stress of running a business, which can cause him to lay awake nights even in the off season. Though there have been slow times, especially after hurricanes, when he and Ruth didn't receive a paycheck, Bob is proud that he's always made payroll.

"I'm going to miss the staff and the food," said server and hostess Tina Vandermyde. "But most of all, Bob in the kitchen. You never know what you're going to get." Cooks have the hottest, hardest, and most important job in any restaurant. They can be mercurial, and Bob is no exception. Yet he is also the first to greet you with a smile and hug when you arrive, and the most patient and forgiving when service is over.

Frankie O'Neal was vital to the restaurant, said Ruth. He managed and cooked when the Cafe opened, and "dedicated his life" so that Bob and Ruth could have time off together when Bob's father died.

Cheli Ibarra ran the prep kitchen when Ruth had to be hospitalized one summer, and kept the standards impossibly high.

"Steph [Woods Ihle] stayed for 20 years, prepping. Elva O'Neal contributed a lot," said Ruth. "I hate to name people because I leave some off." But since we're naming people, she remembers Kathy, Kenny, Rena, Wiley and Amy as being some of the "many fun people" who worked at the Cafe. Also, "all of the Ohio kids."

25 Years of Delicious

One of those Ohio kids later called Ruth for her sweet potato biscuit recipe when he found himself preparing a meal for Martha Stewart.

The restaurant is closing, but the food will endure. Ruth published The Cafe Atlantic Cookbook in 2006, and an updated version is now available on Kindle, or on your computer via a free Kindle app.

As they begin act three of their lives together, Bob is looking forward to fishing and volunteering. Ruth said she'll take next summer off, but may return to part time work somewhere on the island. She promises to continue donating her baked goods to island fundraisers. Her chocolate pecan fudge layer cake raised $500 at the Firemen's Ball auction in 2013.

"I hope you enjoy retirement," said longtime customer Judy Bowles, who "loves, loves, loves the food" at the Cafe. "If you ever get bored, please consider opening a bakery."