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When you pick up the specials list at the Lone Cedar Café in Nags Head, it’s hard to miss Vicki Basnight’s name.
On a spring night during the short soft-shell crab season, her name is on it four times, not just as co-owner of the restaurant she opened 27 years ago with her parents, Marc and Sandy, but also as the crabber for the fried soft-shell crab bites appetizer, the fried soft-shell platter with French fries and coleslaw, the soft-shell crab and shrimp pasta, and the stuffed softshells filled with mounds of flaky white crabmeat.
Truthfully, she gets a little embarrassed about it. But there are other names on the menu, too: Luke Midgett, who traded another fisherman for the rockfish, Boo Daniels and Joe Elms, who caught the tuna used in two different dishes. It’s important to Basnight that you know who caught the seafood on your plate, even if it’s her: “People need to know there’s a person attached to that seafood.”
North Carolina’s beaches are lined with tourist traps where all the seafood is fried, oyster season never ends, and the crab legs are flown in from Alaska. Basnight does it differently. Instead of blue marlin and swordfish trophies on the walls, Lone Cedar’s ceilings are covered with fishing poles, nets, crab pots, and fish traps to make the point that it’s all about the people who do the fishing.
Karen Amspacher, director of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island and an expert on the Outer Banks’ seafood culture, says Lone Cedar Café is the only restaurant she knows that is “totally, 100 percent, dedicated to local seafood.”
“Others may claim it,” she says. “But she does it.”
For the locals who line up with the tourists at Lone Cedar Café from March to December, there’s a lot of heritage and expectation wrapped up in the name Basnight.
Basnight, 54, spends her nights in the kitchen, jumping in on the cooking line and assisting the restaurant’s chef, Susan Peele.
But her life is really outside, on the water in Old Red, a 21-foot Privateer built in Belhaven, N.C., in 1985. Old Red is a working boat and looks it: Water and seaweed slosh around the bottom, and the windscreen in front of the wheel has been held together with tape since a limb fell on it during a storm.
Soft-shell season is a short but busy stretch of spring determined by the moon, global warming, and things that only crabs understand. It can last anywhere from a week to a month.
Even when it’s not crab season, Basnight is out there every day, fishing or shrimping. She uses the shrimp to fill her freezer and give to local friends going through hard times. A board member for the seafood education group NC Catch, she’s one of the few female fishermen along the Outer Banks.
She started crabbing with a friend when she was 20, and soon she was showing up for her part-time job at R.V.’s Restaurant with her arms torn up from building her own crab pots.
Like a lot of kids who grow up on the water, she could drive a boat long before she could drive a car. Her parents gave her a little skiff when she was 11, and she’d roam the waters around her parents’ house off Mother Vineyard Road.
“The best place to grow up that you can ever have growing up,” she declares, a trace of the local Hoi Toide accent still dogging her speech, turning “fire” into “far” and “wire” into “war.”
Like many Outer Banks natives, Basnight’s family is spread out all over the area, although she and her daughter, 11-year-old Brayden, have always lived in Manteo. Her mother, Sandy Tillet Basnight, who died in 2007, was from Duck. Basnight’s great-grandmother, Carolyn Scarborough, is believed to have been the first person in Duck to harvest and sell soft-shell crabs, back in the early 1900s when people built floating crab sheds and walked them out into Currituck Sound.
Basnight’s late father, Marc, is a Manteo native who represented the area in the state Senate from 1984 to 2011 and was the longest-serving president pro tempore in state history.
Along the Outer Banks, people talk about her father in tones usually reserved for great stock car drivers or legendary basketball players. When he died in 2020 after a long struggle with the degenerative nerve disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), obituary writers across the state still lauded him as “the most powerful man in North Carolina.” The senator was legendary for working both sides of the aisle and for his ability to get bills passed that brought benefits to the coast.
His legacy includes several projects to improve higher education, roads, and the environment—such as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, established in 1996 with an annual budget target of $100 million.
After Basnight left office in 2011, the fund merged with the National Heritage Fund to become the N.C. Land and Water Fund. In 2022, the fund provided $70.3 million to 117 projects, from hog lagoon cleanup to an oyster restoration plan.
When Basnight died in 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered state flags at half-mast and lauded his influence on universities, transportation, and the environment.
“His humble, common touch made everyone he met feel special, whether pouring them a glass of tea in his restaurant or sharing a pack of Nabs at a country store.”
It was a chilly spring along the North Carolina coast. That’s not great for catching blue crabs just before they shed their shells and become the tender specialty that locals call “soft crabs” or “peelers.” The water has stayed a little cold, and the winds whip up white caps in the big brackish bays called sounds. It’s tough for Basnight to get to her crab pots, marked by white buoys coded with green and purple stripes, in Roanoke Sound off Manteo.
Out in the morning on her boat, Basnight drags up the black wire pots with a long, hooked pole while Denise Pearce, a friend since they were toddlers, sprawls in the stern, keeping count of the day’s catch and stepping in occasionally to help wrestle the pots. Both wear orange waders and heavy gloves and have sweatshirts handy to ward off the wind.
A crab pot is a wire rectangle of chambers where the crabs climb in to take refuge when they’re about to lose the hard shells that protect them from predators–which gives them a chance to mate during the few hours while their shells are soft and leathery.
When Basnight pulls up a pot, roughly the size and shape of a cat carrier, it looks like a bird cage of activity for a minute—water pours off while small silver fish flap wildly, crabs spin like acrobats grabbing the wires with their claws, and a few eels twist and flip to get free.
Basnight, who’s built like a sturdy fire hydrant with round cheeks permanently red from rosacea, sun, and wind, shakes and bangs the wire cage to knock the crabs loose, letting them fall through an open slot along the bottom and into a black bin.
Turning the 18-pound pots to get the crabs to fall free, she says, is like playing “crab Tetris.” Pearce, a retired EMT who’s been riding along with Basnight since they were in high school, jokes that a peeler pot is “a bouncy house for crabs.”
Every few pots, Basnight slows the motor and perches on the side of the boat to go through the bin. She holds up each crab, stretching the hairy front fin to look for a tiny white line that appears when the crab is getting ready to outgrow its shell. If you know how to read it, it can tell you whether the crab will shed in hours, days, or weeks.
It takes a practiced eye to spot it. Basnight thinks she learned from a neighbor known as “Mr. Jughead Etheridge” when she was five or six years old. She used to fish off his dock and poke around in the mud looking for “peelers.”
In the boat, the crabs get sorted into three laundry baskets. The crabs that aren’t ready go back in the water, to be caught another day.
During soft-shell season, Lone Cedar will go through 840 crabs, which works out to roughly one-and-one-half crabs per customer.
With 250 pots in the water, Basnight can usually catch enough to meet that. But this year’s poor catch forced her to buy 2,000 crabs from an outfit in nearby Columbia, North Carolina. On the menu, two crab dishes are listed as “caught by Vicki Basnight” and two are “provided by Vicki Basnight” to mark the difference.
Typically, she pulls 100 pots in a morning, but today’s rough water and 21 mph winds keep her from reaching those in the deepest water. She and Pearce call it quits after 20, yielding only 11 dozen crabs, and steer back into the marsh land beside her family’s house on Shallowbag Bay.
Tucked out of sight of the house where her sister now lives is a small dock where she ties up Old Red and a big open-air arrangement of shedding tables. Here, the crabs wait in the water until they shed, backing out of their old shell like an SUV out of a garage. They only stay soft for a few hours, so they have to be checked every three hours, around the clock.
Around the tables, the sandy ground crunches as you step on the discarded shells. Local lore has it that if you grind up the old shells and put them around tomato plants, you’ll have the best tomatoes ever.
Basnight tried it once and while she did get great tomatoes, she also got a lot of flies. She never tried it again.
Basnight went to UNC Wilmington planning to study underwater archaeology, but after a few biology classes she realized she liked being on the water more than she liked studying its science.
She switched to communications and became a member of UNCW’s water skiing team.
After college, her mother gave her a choice: Work in an insurance office or work in a restaurant.
“I couldn’t sit behind a desk all day,” Basnight says. After graduating in 1990, she started crabbing with a friend on the side and worked for several restaurants–including Owens in Nags Head, which is owned by her aunt and uncle–but craved a place that had windows in the kitchen so she could see the water while she worked.
In 1996, the Basnight family bought an old restaurant building facing the sound that had windows all around, even in the kitchen. They named it Lone Cedar after the tall cedar pole topped with a massive osprey nest, where mating pairs still raise their young in full view of camera-wielding diners. The younger Basnight went to work, spending her nights in the kitchen and her days out on boats.
When he wasn’t in Raleigh, her dad would hang around, too. People used to say that if you wanted to get something done in North Carolina politics, you should skip calling a senator’s office and just go by Lone Cedar to talk to the man they dubbed “The Squire of Manteo.”
Late on May 1, 2007, tragedy struck. Vicki Basnight and the kitchen crew had just left for the night. It was only six minutes from the restaurant to her house in Manteo, but by the time she got home, her mother was calling: The restaurant was on fire. Vicki insisted that it wasn’t possible, but she said she would drive back to check. When she got to the top of the Washington Baum Bridge into Nags Head, she could see the Lone Cedar burning ahead of her.
The State Bureau of Investigation ruled the fire an arson, but Basnight never believed it was intentionally set, suspecting new switches on the gas heating system were the culprit. No one was ever arrested in connection with the fire.
“All our family heritage was in there,” says Basnight. All the photos, newspaper clippings, and hunting and fishing gear. Pearce remembers going over the next day and pawing through the wreckage, looking for a shotgun that belonged to Basnight’s grandfather.
They rebuilt quickly on the same spot, and made improvements like an organic garden that stretches around and underneath the building and draws water from a cistern that collects runoff. The walls protecting the gardens from wind are wooden frames filled with empty wine bottles and oyster shells from the kitchen.
It was another legacy project for her father: a building as environmentally sound as possible.
For Vicki Basnight, her work on the board of N.C. Catch is a contribution to that family legacy. The organization works to promote North Carolina seafood and educate consumers about the economic and environmental upsides of eating local seafood.
“Commercial fishing has gotten a bad rap,” she says. There have to be regulations to protect the seafood industry, she says, but she worries that North Carolina is regulating local fishing families out of business.
“This is all they know,” she says. “This is what their dad did, their granddaddy did.”
That’s why she’s so insistent about keeping those local names on her menu, including her own: “To highlight, ‘hey, there’s a person’s life here.’”
She points out things like the Atlantic flounder season, which has long limited commercial harvest to only a few weeks a year in the spring, depending on how much was caught the previous year. When they rebuilt, her father insisted on putting in a blast chiller that allows them to quickly freeze things—but protecting the long-term health of the fishery leaves her with just a small window to fill the walk-in with enough flounder for 10 months.
Basnight thinks that of all her father’s accomplishments, he’d still be the most serious about water quality. Without clean water, she says, it’s impossible for fish and oysters to attain their top market value.
Her father lived long enough to see the completion of the biggest bridge along the coast in 2019. A $254 million project, the elegant, sweeping bridge of concrete girders replaced the old Bonner Bridge on N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet. It rises above the marshes like the spine of a prehistoric creature and allows navigation under it to shift as the waters of the inlet change.
He didn’t want it named for himself, but couldn’t stop it, Basnight says.
He did manage to change one thing: At his urging, they left a chunk of the old bridge in place so people could walk out and cast a line. Like his daughter, he could rationalize putting his name out in public if it served as a reminder that someone harvested the fish they see on their plates.
“He said, ‘You need a place where a man can catch a fish or teach his kid to fish.’”
He didn’t need to worry about Vicki Basnight, though. She had already learned his lessons well.
Correction: The last name of Lone Cedar’s chef has been corrected, as has the name of the restaurant where Basnight previously worked and the spelling of Shallowbag Bay.
Kathleen Purvis is a longtime journalist, food writer, and author in Charlotte, North Carolina.