Swimming Through the Trends

Dana and Jeanne Hawkins, owners of Pisgah Fish Camp.
Photos by Rachel Pressley

Industrial pendant lamps have become trendy in vacation homes and rustic-décor gastropubs — thick-rimmed, steel, hanging low over kitchen islands and bars like pocket versions of the Liberty Bell. They’re the kind of lamps you used to find in seaside fish camps — and still do, if you’re at Pisgah Fish Camp in Pisgah Forest.

Except at Pisgah Fish Camp, there’s nothing retro-revival or contrived about the industrial-lamp look — or about anything else, for that matter. This spacious, bustling family business is about as real as real gets. The Fish Camp is celebrating a remarkable 50 years in business this fall. It used to be a mini chain, with additional locations in Asheville, Black Mountain, Arden, Horseshoe, Hendersonville, Greenville (South Carolina), and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Today it’s scaled back to its one continuously operating location, sitting opposite the intersection where US-276 runs past the Davidson River and forks up to Sliding Rock and Looking Glass Falls. 

New breweries and bistros are thick all around, but this low-priced family mainstay doesn’t change. Much. Generous platters of fried flounder, Calabash shrimp, catfish, and other seafood — including trout from WNC and fresh oysters rushed in from Apalachicola, Florida — remain the touchstone here. Dana Hawkins, co-owner with his sister Jeanne Hawkins, points out that their father, founding proprietor Dan Hawkins, “was a very good judge of what people liked, and able to answer their needs.”

Photo by Rachel Pressley

“We have tried to continue this tradition,” says Hawkins. “While trends have come and gone, we have stuck to our roots … we haven’t tried to fix what wasn’t broken.” Keeping a chicken-liver entrée on the menu, for instance, proves the Fish Camp’s loyalty to traditional regional appetites.

But he adds, “This is not to say we haven’t identified products that were popular and incorporated them into our operation when they would fit.” For folks trying to stay away from fried, there’s broiled tilapia, salmon steak, and a grilled mesquite chicken-sandwich platter, among other healthy options. The family — sister Jeanne is the co-owner — acknowledges modern ecological concerns, too. Hawkins says they chose their current oyster supplier because of the company’s “stringent attention to water quality … they make sure they maintain a stable, sustainable harvest by placing quotas on their harvests relative to the current environmental conditions in the area.”

Meanwhile, the cultural conditions of Pisgah Forest require restaurateurs here to satisfy not only long-time locals but also hordes of seasonal tourists and hungry year-round bikers and hikers. It’s always fashionable to sport a proprietary recipe or two, and the Fish Camp had theirs in the vault decades ago. Signature items include the town’s favorite hushpuppies and savory, flaky onion rings (not the sweet, overly breaded kind found at so many other places) that are served with homemade ranch dip. Then there’s the special red-onion dressing. This treat, says Hawkins, “is a longtime favorite in our community … its origin dates back to World War II, when two local men served in the Navy together as cooks, where they developed the recipe. One of them opened a very successful restaurant when he returned from the war, which my dad frequented [when he moved] to Brevard in 1949. 

A half-century’s worth of hungry hikers can’t be wrong.
Photos by Rachel Pressley

“They became business partners in other businesses, and best friends. Dad was able to get the recipe from him when he closed his restaurant, and we have served it ever since.”

Hawkins says the dressing is great on greens, but it also works on the mountain-style pinto beans. Both can be found on the eatery’s hot-vegetable bar, a rather unique twist on the buffet concept. His father came up with this idea some 40 years ago, says Hawkins. “Customers were requesting a larger and larger variety of side dishes with their meals, so he began placing side dishes on the buffet and sending the center-of-the-plate item out from the kitchen. It was a great hit, which naturally progressed to including a protein on the buffet. The whole idea was to provide wholesome vegetables like you would cook at home.” Perennial items include the cabbage casserole, fried squash, and collards. Roast beef and fried chicken show up on the hot bar, too.

For dessert, there’s pie. Lots of kinds of pie, including chocolate and coconut with the old-timey meringue topping. But the delicious strawberry-rhubarb pie takes the proverbial cake. It’s arguably the most heritage flavor of all homestyle pies. Despite rhubarb’s inclusion in some foodie-fusion cuisine, when’s the last time you heard anyone under 30 rave about the tart, stalky vegetable — or even claim a passing acquaintance with it? “It’s baked in house,” confirms Hawkins. “The strawberry-rhubarb pie is a very popular item.”

Pisgah Fish Camp, 69 Hendersonville Hwy., Suite #12, Pisgah Forest. Open every day 11am-9pm. For more information, call 828-877-3129 or see Pisgah Fish Camp on Facebook.

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