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Sizzlin Feature

Eating Ocean City

A Highly Opinionated Culinary Tour of Maryland's Beloved Trailer Park by the Sea

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 5/22/2002

There's one reason you go to Ocean City: the Boardwalk. And the semi- (or completely) tasteless shops, buzzing, blinking arcades, carnival rides, taffy stands, and teeming, sunburnt, obese throngs thereupon. Up north in tasteful, staid Rehoboth, the boardwalk is all of five blocks long, and even the tacky T-shirt shops--all three of 'em--seem somehow sad and repressed. But there's something visceral and greedy and maybe a little lowdown that draws you to O.C., and that's OK. This is the Epicenter of Summer.

Ocean City is all about self-gratification of the not-too-genteel variety--at least, the original Old Town part of Ocean City is. Sure, there's that whole Gold Coast section in the upper hunnert-and-whatevereth blocks, where vacationers of inflated but badly awry pretensions try mightily to act as if they're above all that--above the fried chicken and the Tilt-A-Whirl and the guy who does the Jesus sand sculptures in front of the Plim Plaza. But they're really not. Eventually, they all come slinking down, fighting the traffic and utter lack of parking.

Not you, though. You're already there, ensconced in a tasty circa-'60s Old Town motel like the Thunderbird or Eden Roc, or maybe an even more vintage clapboard-shingled guest house on one of the low-numbered side streets. You've parked your car for the week, unless of course you rode the pooch to the Greyhound station at 2nd and Philadelphia. Every conceivable form of food, fun, and bodily indulgence is within walking (or staggering) distance. Especially food: There are many, many eats to be had on or very near the Boardwalk. Here are some of the best.

A proper breakfast is crucial to laying down a suitable foundation for a day or week of serious debauchery. Later in the day, sun-dizzied and weak-willed, you'll have no problem convincing yourself that a frozen daiquiri is the same thing as lunch--just look at all those pieces of fruit speared on that plastic sword!--but trust me, it's not. Try to get at least one solid meal per day, OK?

If you must breakfast on the boards, the best place is the Dough Roller Restaurant (3rd and Boardwalk, [410] 289-2599). Prices, like everything else along this stretch, are a tad inflated, but breakfast here is very good and, importantly, served until 1 p.m. (Avoid the post-breakfast fare; it's overpriced and there's better elsewhere.) The Big Roller--three pancakes, two eggs, and choice of meat (get the sausage, it's one giant, obscene link that will lead to humorous hungover breakfast-table antics)--will set you up for anything O.C. can throw at you. The creamed chipped beef is actually--I never dreamed I'd be typing these words in the same sentence as "creamed chipped beef"--really good. So is the French toast, and the many pancake varieties are superb.

Layton's (16th and Philadelphia, [410] 289-6635) is open 24/7 in season and serves breakfast 'round the clock. Cheaper because it's a couple of blocks from the Boardwalk, Layton's has been serving up unremarkable but solid family fare since 1959. Waitresses are really on top of the coffee refills, and there are homemade doughnuts. Try the scrapple omelet.

Post-breakfast, the Boardwalk is a never-ending buffet of fantastic fried fare and every other possible so-bad-it's-good form of comestible. You'll be comfortably familiar with the food at Boog's Barbecue (between Wicomico and Worcester streets at the pier, [410] 289-7771), but also with the stratospheric prices--c'mon, Boog, we're not at the ballpark here. Head instead to Bull on the Beach (2nd and Boardwalk, [410] 289-2855), O.C.'s original--and still best--place for pit beef, pit turkey, and barbecued meats. If you prefer your steak in tube form, Polock Johnny's ([410] 289-3622) is in the same block.

You'll need fries to go with that bulging sandwich. Resist the temptation to just get some wherever you happen to be. You. Must. Go. To. Thrasher's (between Wicomico and Worcester streets at the pier, [410] 289-4150). There's a reason the line is so damn long: It's because the fries are so damn good. Don't be intimidated--the fry guys move the crowds through quickly. Just know what you want when you get up to the counter, lest you get The Look--there is no visage more contemptuous than the one a weary, grease-covered fryer jockey who's been slinging potatoes all day in 90-degree heat shoots at people who couldn't be bothered during their 10 minutes in line to figure out if they want medium or large. There's another Thrasher's further up the Boardwalk, at 8th Street; the line there is shorter, but somehow the fries just don't taste the same as at the original location.

The point where South Division Street meets the Boardwalk is the locus of the Ocean City Experience. You'll have important business in this neighborhood: playing Skee-Ball on the marvelous old wooden machines at Marty's Playland, riding the Zipper at Trimper's Amusements, investing in that pickled shark-in-a-jar at Souvenir City (perhaps the world's finest souvenir store, even if they kicked me and my friends out for playing with the wind chimes), and buying this year's big johnson T-shirt.

All that activity can work up a powerful thirst, especially if you partake in a rousing game of Whac-a-Mole where "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" plays over, and over, and over, while the wretched attendant hopelessly intones, "Whaaaaack a moooooole . . ." (Had Dante lived today, this would be the sixth circle of hell: having to work the Whac-a-Mole.) Either way, you're going to need a beer, and one of the greatest watering holes in town is right down the boards: Inlet Lodge (southernmost Boardwalk, [410] 289-7552). Established in 1945 and changed darn little since, this is the closest you're going to get to a South Baltimore corner bar in O.C. There's a great collection of old beeriana, and nothing retro about it--it was put up on the walls 40 years ago when the proprietors got it for free from the distributor. It's dark in here, restfully so after the glare of sun off sand. Other than Trimper's Old Haunted House, this may be the only dark place on the Boardwalk.

As befits Ocean City's blue-ribbon zone of beach amusements, there are darn good eats here as well. Boardwalk landmark Dayton's Chicken and Soft-Shell Crabs (South Division and Boardwalk, [410] 289-3501) has been taken over by the Dough Roller, but the chicken is still kickin': light, crispy skin; tender flesh; perfect amount of grease. Conveniently--nay perfectly--located directly across from Dayton's is Dumser's Dairyland ([410] 289-0934, also other locations); by the time you order and receive your custom-mixed milk shake, your chicken and corn on the cob will have cooled off enough to enjoy. Dumser's straws are twice the circumference of normal straws, all the better for sucking up the astonishingly thick shakes.

Atlantic Stand (Wicomico Street and Boardwalk, [410] 289-7203) has it all: hamburgers, hot dogs, corn dogs, ice cream, etc. Unlike many Boardwalk eateries, it's open very, very (post-last-call) late. Tony's Pizza (North Division and Boardwalk, [410] 289-8115) has some of the tastiest pies on the beach: thin crispy crust, spicy sauce, and a rooftop "pizza garden" in which to enjoy it (and the people-watching).

For dessert, there's a Candy Kitchen pretty much every block, sometimes even two per block, for fudge, chocolate, and fun candy like Mexican Hats, Swedish Fish, and Red Hot Dollars. The creamiest fudge, however, is at Dolle's Candyland (Wicomico and Boardwalk, [410] 289-6000). Dolle's caramel popcorn is just respectable, however. The very best is at the two homes of Fisher's Popcorn (Boardwalk at Talbot Street and 7th, [410] 289-1399), where they do the corn and nothing but the corn.

There now, that's enough to get you started. I think I heard the giant great white shark sticking out of the Ripley's Believe It or Not building calling your name. Better get going.

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