Teresa Van Staalduinen apologizes for what she calls a hot mess, then insists she’s running her mouth. With a sheepish grin, she beseeches me to come back and have dinner when Spoon River Artworks and Market is open. “I’m really passionate,” she says. To that, there is no doubt. When speaking of her passions for art, interior design, homegrown food or her hometown, her thoughts roll like the creeks meandering into Beaufort County’s Pungo River, sweeping its 2-mile-wide tide past Belhaven.
“I love our town, every nuance of it,” she says while standing in the farm-to-fork restaurant that she and her husband, Mark, opened in 2012. “I don’t think I’m a restaurant person at all; I’m an artist.” Indeed, her background is in art and design; her paintings adorn the restaurant where the chef serves eggs Benedict with crabcakes, steak Oscar and fish tacos, all sourced from the region. “I love the creativeness of artful dining.”
Van Staalduinen’s hot mess refers to the building that she’s renovating into a wedding and event venue. Across the street, she’s revamping another structure into an art gallery and market to showcase North Carolina food and drinks. Both are expected to open in May.
Spoon River — its name inspired by the song she heard on the radio while she was cleaning the floor of her future restaurant — attracts foodies from a wide region. It’s also a favorite among the legions of boaters traveling the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway who dock at any of the town’s three marinas.
Mixing old and new
Belhaven, located about 30 miles east of Washington on U.S. 264, is a town of about 1,600 people, a third fewer than in the 1980s as its major industries of commercial fishing and lumber largely left town.
It is perched on the pine-rimmed banks of the Pungo River, just north of where it empties into Pamlico Sound. The elevation is practically sea level, so many newer homes are built on stilts and brick pilings. Follow Water Street east from downtown, the pewter expanse of the Pungo always in view, and one passes white picket fences, bed-and-breakfast inns, front porches garnished with white columns and balustrades, and yards shaded by loblolly pines.
A prominent site is River Forest Manor and Marina, a Southern Colonial mansion built in 1904 that hosts weddings and other events.
In recent years, shops and eateries have opened in downtown, tapping into Belhaven’s popularity among boaters and the salty, small-town milieu that enchants many visitors. “People come from all over, and I think they feel very nostalgic in it because it’s just what you’ve always thought a small town should be like,” says Christal Gelderman, who works at Attic Life, which sells vintage gifts and collectibles. Shop speakers pipe out classic country music across the corner of Pamlico and Main streets. An outside wall displays a colorful menagerie of images: Blackbeard the pirate, a fishing boat, a sailboat, a setting sun, pointy blue waves, and Little Eva, the Belhaven-born pop singer best known for her 1962 hit The Loco-Motion.
Also in downtown is The Tavern at Jack’s Neck, its moniker inspired by the town’s original name. It opened in November 2013 and last year, the owners, Doug and Jimmie Southerland, added a steakhouse. The Southerlands, seduced by the water, moved here from Raleigh. “And we just fell in love with the people,” Jimmie says. “It’s not a resort area, and we didn’t want that. We didn’t want a bunch of people coming and going all of the time.”
Just around the corner, on Main Street, is Gingerbread Bakery & O’Neals Snack Bar, dishing out vegetable beef soup, hamburgers, hot dogs, doughnuts and cookies. From there it’s a short stroll to Cloud 9 Creamery. “Delicious ice cream and handmade chocolates,” proclaims the banner out front.
In November, Mad Batter opened on Pamlico Street, and its 40-year-old owner, Cathy Van Gyzen, says, “They haven’t given me a break.” She specializes in cheesecake, while her mom makes the cookies and cinnamon rolls. Between Thanksgiving and
Christmas, “it was nonstop.”
Next door, her cousin Carrie Harris, 36, opened Dynamic Expressions and Designs last year, making graphic T-shirts and personalized gifts. “It’s an up-and-coming town for sure,” she says.
Fishing, lumber heritage
Belhaven, incorporated in 1899, began as a fishing community with commercial fish houses in operation into the 1980s. The town also once had half a dozen lumber companies and a branch of Norfolk Southern Railroad. These days, Belhaven is known more for its recreational fishing and boating. From the spring through fall, it’s a prime stopover for boaters plying the Intracoastal Waterway, especially since it marks the halfway point between Albemarle Sound and Beaufort.
While the industrial fish houses are gone, local seafood is still very much on the table. Belhaven native Vic Cox opened Fish Hooks Cafe about 17 years ago after learning the seafood business at Lone Cedar Cafe, the Manteo restaurant owned for many years by the late Marc Basnight, a longtime N.C. Senate leader. Increased foreign competition, higher labor costs and stricter regulations hampened the industry. “We’ve got different seafood docks that put their shrimp up at the end of shrimping season to give us enough through the winter until they start catching them again,” Cox says.
Rebounding from a loss
Belhaven made news in 2014 when Pungo Hospital closed after 65 years. Vidant Health bought the facility in 2011 but deemed it too expensive to operate. Former Mayor Adam O’Neal walked 273 miles to Washington, D.C. to protest the closure, citing the critical role of hospitals in rural towns. Vidant opened a multispecialty clinic. but residents head 30 miles to Washington for hospital care.
Despite the closing, Mayor Ricky Credle says the town is attracting newcomers who want to lay roots in a scenic, easygoing community. “People are building houses here. We have a new marina put in. Whether they come by boat, car, plane or train, we want them here,” he says.
Chamber of commerce executive Diana Lambeth knows half a dozen couples and families that have migrated from the Raleigh area, enticed by a solitude that she finds enthralling. “I can sit out on my deck at night, and I can hear the quiet,” she says. “You can hear the frogs and the birds and the waves coming in against the bulkhead. It’s just a different life.”
Colleen and Mark Williams moved to Belhaven three years ago from Fuquay-Varina, a Wake County suburb, after tiring of Triangle traffic. In November, the couple opened RiverBend Cultural Arts Center, an artisan shop with artwork for sale, a yoga studio, and a stage for theatrical and music performances. They plan to host beer tents and food trucks during warm weather. “We’ve gotten a lot of support and encouragement from the town,” she says. “We’re happy, and it’s keeping us busy.”
For now, pardon the hot mess in the two buildings by Spoon River. Infusing new life into an old space can be a messy process with scrubbing, sweeping, nailing and painting. It takes imagination and a sense of place — traits Teresa Van Staalduinen and her neighbors have in abundance. Belhaven is a destination, not just a tourist town, a place where duck hunters and men in Docksiders can share a dining room. “If your product is good and it’s true to itself, then you can’t go wrong,” Van Staalduinen says. ■