The Great In-Between
Finding Sustenance Between Home and the Ocean
· You commute to work and don't enjoy it.
· You've had at least one meal in your life that you enjoyed more than a Value Meal, even though it didn't come with a toy.
Given all this, why start your summer vacation with a long commute at breakneck speed, stopping only for the occasional gut-bomb and Coke chaser? White-line fever? Asphalt narcosis?
In 150-odd miles between Metropolis and the Atlantic there are dozens--if not hundreds--of places serving decent meals at reasonable prices, often right next to the ubiquitous fast-food franchises. Below are a few or our favorites. (Prices listed are per individual full meal.) Some are located right by the highway; others will take you a few minutes out of your way, but the time you invest will be amply repaid. Because if all you've ever seen of the Eastern Shore is the strip on either side of routes 50 or 13, you haven't seen the Eastern Shore.
Anne Arundel County
You're finally underway. You're hungrier than you thought you were. You have options on this side of the bridge.
7918 Ritchie Highway South (in front of Marley Station Mall), Glen Burnie; (410) 761-1231; under $5; no credit cards; open 10 a.m.-11 p.m. (midnight Friday and Saturday).
If you must have junk food, you might as well have a floor show. For close to 50 years the tiny stand has been packed to the doors. The draw is less the foot-longs, subs, and shakes than a staff that never writes anything down and never, ever misses an item on an order.
Moulin de Paris French Bakery and Café
578 Benfield Blvd. (Benfield Village Shopping Center), Severna Park; (410) 647-7699; $5-$20; all major credit cards; open Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
French patissierre Chan Tsin imported steam ovens from Paris, so the crust on your baguettes and bâtards will be perfect. Order a slab of rustic pâté or apple-chicken salad to go, or sample French-Colonial-era Vietnamese cuisine. Éclairs and bûcheron (chocolate-covered chocolate-mousse pastries) provide calories for the long haul.
Vera's Bakery and Café
548 Old Baltimore/Annapolis Blvd., Severna Park; (410) 647-3337; $5-$20; all major credit cards; hours vary.
The Brazilian grandmother you never had spends her waking hours in the kitchen. When she's not baking raisin breads, poppy rolls, focaccia, scones, and petit fours for area restaurants, she's icing wedding cakes or serving continental cuisine with a Bahian flavor in her tiny tearoom. Phone ahead and she'll pack you a basket full of grandmotherly goodies. Stop in and grab treats to go, or stay for high tea (Wednesdays) or candlelight dinner with live guitar--but only if you have the time to savor her serious kitchen handiwork.
Back when the Kent Narrows drawbridge jammed traffic for hours at a time, smart travelers headed to local restaurants to wait out the mess. The high bridge has all but eliminated the bottleneck, but both sides of the narrows still boast a fine selection of eateries, most specializing in seafood. Not as visible from the highway as they once were, Kent Island's many restaurants remain accessible thanks to easy-on, easy-off exits.
Angler's Restaurant and Marina:
Exit 43, south side of the Kent Narrows Bridge; (410) 827-6717; $8-$12; Visa/MasterCard; open 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. (11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday).
Sixty-five years ago, Angler's was a waterman's bar in a quonset hut. Today the word "shanty" springs to mind. Watermen still come here for a short one when the weather's rough, though they're more likely to sit at the bar while Mom settles in on the pastel pink clapboard porch. Inside it's well-worn and comfortable, "redecorated" only a year or two ago, apparently by a ship's carpenter. (It's a fair wager that the covers on the table are oilcloth.) The diner-style menu is long on seafood, though burgers, chicken, and chops appear as specials. Six bucks buys a crab omelet, and clams are 60 cents each. This is what the Eastern Shore was like before the tourists.
Exit 42, 3023 Kent Narrows Way South, Grasonville; (410) 827-8113; $6-$28; all major credit cards; open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
A talented kitchen delivers imaginative and satisfying New American cuisine at moderate prices. "Light suppers" include pecan-crusted catfish and fried green tomatoes, medallion of beef on a potato pancake with French-fried onions, and gulf-shrimp salad garnished with grapes, pineapple, and fresh blackberries. Appetizers for those on the go: smoked salmon wonton in a wasabi sauce; a cherrystone clam "bake" steamed in wine with aromatic vegetables; and grilled portabella mushroom over spinach with gorgonzola. Traditionalists hold the Narrows' crab cakes and crab soup in high regard. All this and a porch with a water view.
Easton can be on the expensive side, but we found two of our best dining bargains here.
Easton Airport, 12 Airport Circle; (410) 822-6631; under $10; Visa/MasterCard; open daily 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
Voted "four buns" in the "$100 Hamburger" survey, in which visiting pilots rate their favorite hamburgers, this tiny airport's cheerful café and friendly staff generate a fair bit of fly-in traffic. The Hangar Special includes two eggs, two pancakes, sausage or bacon, toast, serious home fries, and coffee for $2.85. A wider-than-the-bun half-pound burger goes for $3.95. Though the orange-Naugahyde booths are almost always full, fast turnover and picnic tables by the runway keep wait times below 10 minutes. With planes taking off and landing just a few feet away, the time just, well, flies.
H&G Family Restaurant
8163 Ocean Gateway; (410) 822-1085; under $5; no credit cards; open weekdays 6 a.m.-8 p.m., weekends 6 a.m.-9 p.m.
There's always a line for H&G's specials. A large and bustling waitstaff hustles out $1.50 burgers, $2.95 crab cakes, and inexpensive platters, keeping waits to a minimum. For the restaurant's 50th anniversary, the fourth generation of proprietors redecorated in a '50s-malt-shop motif, and the milkshakes show the benefit of that half-century of practice. Drivers needing serious sustenance should think about pie--light-as-a-feather, rich-as-sin, freshly baked chocolate meringue, or sharp-edged raspberry with fresh berries. Or cherry. Or lemon meringue. Or . . .
St. Michael's is out of the way--a good 20 minutes off Route 50. It's also crowded and touristy. We debated whether to include it at all. But the place is just so darned pretty, it's worth a side trip, if only to stretch your legs and peer in at upscale shops in restored Victorian houses. Think of it as a pleasure trip, or at least a recon mission. In the last few years, chefs from Baltimore and Washington have given up their city digs to open high-end bistros and temples to serious cuisine, so there's fine dining aplenty that varies from season to season. Keeping in mind the main objective--reach the beach--we opted for simpler fare, lower price tags, and quicker turnaround.
(If you decide to stop in St. Michael's, we recommend arriving or departing via the Bellevue-Oxford ferry. The service, in operation since Colonial times, shuttles cars, bikes, and pedestrians across the Tred Avon River at 20-minute intervals. The river is gorgeous, the ride fun, and the cost low [$4 for cars, $1.50 for bikes and pedestrians]. From Oxford, it's a short hop back to Route 50.)
207 N. Talbot St.; (410) 745-3158; under $10; no credit cards; open daily 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
This tiny bakery/eatery is crammed into every available square inch of what has been at different times a barber shop, a flower shop, and a country store. A youngish staff cranks out fresh breads, rolls, and sandwiches; hand-dips ice cream; and swears by the chili fries and "the best burger in town." Counter, booths, and tables meander through what were once several rooms. The atmosphere is sunny and the prices low. Look for the sailboat on the roof.
The Carpenter Street Saloon
Talbot and Carpenter streets; (410) 745-5111; $4-$20; Visa/MasterCard; open daily 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
James Michener reputedly liked this place because of its no-frills, nontouristy atmosphere. Built in the 1870s, the building has served as a bank (the vault is now a cooler), newspaper office, post office, and phone company. One entrance leads to a stucco-and-exposed-brick tavern, the other to a high-ceilinged coffee shop trimmed with ducks, retrievers, and other Chesapeake Bay essentials. Breakfast and lunch items run from $4 to $5. Dinner selections, priced between $8 and $16, lean toward seafood, though roast duck is available for $9.95. "Smokey's Magical Steak and Such" is the house's signature item--it's a seafood casserole of sorts topped with strips of steak.
A classic Eastern Shore community, this quiet village of restored Victorians sits by the scenic Tred Avon river only six miles from Route 50. Local dining options make it well worth the seven- or eight-minute detour down Almshouse Road.
Pope's Tavern at the Oxford Inn
Oxford Road and South Morris Street; (410) 226-5005; under $10; Visa/MasterCard; open daily 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m (10 p.m. weekends).
New owners have degentrified the pub and dining rooms in this erstwhile country store, restoring the ornate pressed-tin ceiling, and resurrecting wooden booths from its days as a waterman's saloon. A breakfast room shared with the Oxford Inn next door offers intimate dining for lunch and dinner. Whipping cream and a pinch of curry make for a stellar cream-of-crab soup. Black Angus steaks, tavern sandwiches, and burgers offer cost-effective alternatives to seafood. Make sure to ask about the imaginary skipjack .
Pier Street Restaurant and Marina
End of Pier Street; (410) 226-5171; under $10; Visa/MasterCard; open daily 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Pier Street Restaurant has its own watermen, its own picking house, its own shedding tanks, and its own peninsula, providing astoundingly fresh crabs and a wraparound view of the Tred Avon River. Once an oyster-packing plant, the sprawling restaurant seats about 100 people inside and another 100 out on the deck, and keeps wait times--and prices--low. While you wait, watch the staff unload, sort, and steam your jimmies pierside. Clams, shrimp, and oysters are spoken here as well, as are fin-fish. There's local fried chicken and, yes, even burgers for those with kids and those with no sense.
If all you've ever seen of Cambridge is the highway, make it a point to take that first right off the bridge onto Maryland Avenue. Though the town has fallen on hard times and is showing a bit of wear, Cambridge features block upon block of gracious Victorian homes and decidedly untouristy dining options.
McGuigan's Pub and Restaurant
Muse and Gay streets; (410) 228-7110; under $10; all major credit cards; open weekdays 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. and weekends 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., closed Sundays.
Named after owner Gerry Boyle's sweet and sleepy golden retriever, this nicely restored Victorian houses a comfortable dining room and a small, understated pub with a dartboard, single-malt scotches, and local microbrews on tap. Scottish meat pies are the house favorites, along with fish and chips wrapped in the retired British Army major's ex-pat edition of the London Weekly Telegraph. Seven-dollar lunches are the norm, with $2 lunch specials as a draw. Dinners feature moderately priced lamb and seafood, with Indian curry thrown in for variety.
Hyser's Old-Time Soda Fountain
824 Locust St.; (410) 228-3465; under $5; no credit cards; open Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
In this case, "Old-Time" refers to the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. For those of you who've never heard the term "luncheonette," that's where your parents and grandparents hung out, copped burgers and fries, and bought and smoked their first packs of Camels. Owner Maurice Tyler, a former trucker and part-time Elvis impersonator, holds court over 10 vintage stools, a couple of booths, and a fine selection of syrups with which he brews up real cherry Cokes, vanilla Cokes, and, better still, the rare and addictive chocolate Coke while Barb the cook flips burgers and steak subs. The breakfast and lunch clientele is decidedly local and the atmosphere low-key. If Maurice likes you, he'll add your snapshot to the thousands he's taken of his guests since he opened.
Traveling through Salisbury stinks. Worse, the glut of franchise restaurants clogging routes 13 and 50 is gradually driving local eateries and local flavor from the scene. A few still manage to compete.
735 S. Salisbury Blvd.; (410) 742-8182; under $10; Visa/MasterCard; open weekdays 6 a.m.-9 p.m., weekends 6 a.m.-10 p.m.
Once a chain, English's has returned to its roots, selling fine Eastern Shore fried chicken and bargain-priced meals at a few local outlets. This one operates out of a vintage 1942 aluminum-and-stainless-steel diner car. Bargain-basement specials hover around $2 for breakfast, $5 for lunch, and $7 for a dinner that includes beverage and dessert. The locals really do come here for chicken, sometimes three or four times a week, 'cause it's cheaper than cooking.
Computer Village CyberCafé and Pub
moute 13 (just before the Fruitland line); (410) 219-3282; under $10; Visa/MasterCard; open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
And you thought Salisbury was the boonies. Check your E-mail and cruise the Web via this Internet service provider's fast machines and direct T-1 connection for a mere $2 every 15 minutes while your hosts pump your mortal shell full of caffeine and carbs. Burritos, bagels, chicken sandwiches, pizzas, and salty snacks are on the menu (what, no ramen?), with flavored coffees, tea, cocoa, juices, and skeleteens to wash them down. The ambience is pure computer store, but you won't really care--you're only there physically.
1306 S. Salisbury Blvd.; (410) 341-0807; $5-$20; Visa/MasterCard/American Express; open weekdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m., weekends 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
The aunt really does wear a black dress in the kitchen. They really do speak Italian over lunch on the porch, and you really are likely to see them making fresh pasta at this very low-key Italian eatery and bar. The salad bowl and bread sticks are bottomless, even with the less-than-$6 lunchtime special (which just might include lasagna or a half dozen large and tender scampi). The atmosphere is casual and comfortable and the cannoli are stuffed on-site. What's not to like?
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201