Oct 06, 2014 12:47PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Photography by Tom Bagley
Mike & Eric’s at the Tilghman Island Inn
21384 Coopertown Road, Tilghman Island
“You didn’t want to hang around here in the early days,” say the locals who still remember the landmark Tilghman Island Inn as an oyster packing house.
Well, it makes sense. What is that saying? “Guests who stay at your house more than three days begin smelling fishy.” So, it’s fun and ironic to think about this country inn and seaside restaurant today as being totally the opposite, drawing those looking for local charm to a landmark place for a certain peaceful night’s rest and fine wharfside food, where everything smells—but in an invitingly pleasant manner.
At The Tilghman Island Inn, not only do you get to stay, but you want to stay—well, at least for lunch or dinner and who knows. There is plenty to explore here of this historic fisherman’s village with its ribbons of channeling waterways allowing for picturesque coves, as well as broad views, making Tilghman one of best Chesapeake experiences on the shore, and the restaurant at the top of your must-do list.
All of the inn’s rooms face the Bay Hundred waters in eyesight (no binoculars needed) of resident bald eagles, osprey, and blue herons flying around and nesting on Back Creek in their own inn—a lush bird sanctuary of open green thick marsh, windswept grasses, fresh air, and blue skies. The inn was the brainchild of David McCallum and his partner, the late John R. Redmon, who, together in 1989, refurbished the building and turned it into a fine-dining restaurant and country inn that became known nationwide. Today there are new owners, a new name for the restaurant, and all continues in the same peaceful, tasty manner.
Anywhere you dine on the water on the Eastern Shore, it is not easy to find a broad view of water while you sip cocktails and watch the sun go down. At Tilghman Island Inn’s restaurant now called, Mike & Eric’s, there’s plenty of water—intimate and far-reaching. A tiki-style dockside bar is run by Patricia Wignall who will serve you everything from a chilled chardonnay to her own mixologist concoctions, like a fresh fruit rose sangria or a blueberry lemonade with vodka. The bar is outside, facing the water so you are surrounded by nature, boats, and the masts of ships in the distance. In winter, the inside bar and dining rooms still invite the outdoors in.
I have been to dinner on a few occasions here when the restaurant didn’t really have a name—now it does, Mike & Eric’s, and I was here to see what has changed. I was happy to see that the new owner, Alex Doty, has some brightening ideas like opening the outdoor patio to evening dining. That’s a first. So, while I sipped one of Patricia’s watermelon mojitos, it was a thrill to have the setting sun—a round red ball against a misty sky, lighting our table along with the passing few pleasure cruisers and sailboats, their portside lights casting reflections on the water. Our lively server was Susan Harrison who has been around the inn for 22 years and is actually the dining room manager, who says, “I like to get out there once in awhile and make sure it’s going well.” She knows her stuff and yet never tires of thrilling diners with the specialties of the house and old standbys that have been a mainstay at the inn. It’s as though these were all new to her, too.
We started with a house favorite: the Crab Corn Fritter. Sweet little nuggets of golden corn hide between soft local crabmeat and flour dustings, rolled up and toasted wholly in warm buttery oil and served with a delicate dip.
Another diner at our table ordered the local oysters—someone should at your table too, for the sake of tradition. Chef Amado Hernandez fries them lightly and makes up a seafood sauce on the tartar side with tangy capers. They never had it this good in the original packing house! The calamari is a must as they make sure they don’t over-batter, so that the squid cooks up tender and light.
Waiting for our appetizers to arrive, I picked up my camera to capture the inn’s ages-old dock sign as a boat glided by. On the way, a bowl of something thick and red caught my eye and I stopped at the table of strangers to ask what they were about to dip into. It was the Chef’s gazpacho, and I knew I had to taste it for myself. I sort of lost interest in the potential photo opp and scurried back to the table where I had Susan add to the evening’s openers with four tasting spoons. I knew everyone else would have my same reaction and they did, but we all fought over the crispy seasoned croutons that had soaked up the tangy/sweet dark-red tomato broth.
While I was sipping watermelon in my glass, my dining partner was tasting watermelon too, but in a salad mixed with Feta cheese on top of arugula in a citrus vinaigrette. I forked over for a taste. Mmmm. Just like it always has tasted, even fresher. The salad is a longtime favorite here. Mike & Eric’s menu will change with the seasons as it always has at Tilghman Island Inn. That means heavier fare in winter and crabs, oysters, and rockfish all year.
My rockfish was sautéed and served with red pepper risotto in a lemon thyme vinaigrette. One in our party is an avid hunter and he had to go for the restaurant’s signature duck l’orange with mashed sweet potatoes and grilled asparagus. The rib eye steak was the apple of my partner’s eye, served with a burgundy wine demi-glaze and a yummy au gratin potato mix.
The restaurant is open every day of the week and for lunch, too. At lunch, fish ‘n chips and shoestring fries are just what the salty air begs. Mussels in white wine are just the mid-day respite a dockside eatery must have, and Mike & Eric’s serves the tasty mollusks with spicy andouille sausage and tomatoes, and a chiffonade of fresh basil. Chef Hernandez cooks some dishes with his native Latin flair. He has been with the restaurant some seven years and everyone enjoys his tilapia burrito with escabeche salad, salsa fresco, and guacamole.
Desserts are available all day as well. We shared a peach shortcake, delightfully stacked with local peaches from Blade’s Orchards and poufs of whipped cream. I buy Blades’ orchard fruits at the weekly St. Michael’s farmers’ market and you can taste the care their peaches, berries, and apples receive; Blade’s is a family affair.
Homemade ice cream is a treat at the inn. You get to try a few flavors, served in a bowl for a refreshing finale to any meal, or opt for a chocolate cake or key lime pie, to mention a few.
Aside from the sweets, the delightful hospitality the inn provides, is complemented from the historically steeped Tilghman Island community. In its prime, Tilghman Island spawned a robust boat-building industry and food packing houses employing up to 700 year-round workers. Located at the end of the Bay Hundred peninsula, Tilghman Island is less than three miles long, a mile wide, with the first English settlers arriving in 1656 and from then on growing to four villages, four post offices, three schools, multiple churches, several stores, a bowling alley, a movie theatre, and eight gas stations. Dozens of skipjacks made Tilghman their home and supporting industries like blacksmithing, farming, and oystering grew up around it. The decline in the water industry brought changes and Tilghman today is a tourist’s delight for biking, hiking, boating, and exploring all things Chesapeake from lore to local.
Whether you go for an extended stay, or just stop by for lunch or dinner, for the moments you are at The Tilghman Island Inn and Mike & Eric’s restaurant, you will feel that touristy spirit and may find yourself, suddenly wishing you had booked a room for the night.