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Eastport’s Restaurant Row: Inside the restaurants that have made Severn Avenue ground zero for great dining

Jan 21, 2016 09:00AM, Published by Arden Haley, Categories: Eat+Drink+Shop




By Cliff Rhys James

Our domestic tranquility down through the years has been disturbed by three internal upheavals, which placed at risk the very notion of national sovereignty. The Civil War and its profound impact was the most consequential of these. But what of the other two portentous events in the life of our nation?

The tumbled down leaves of autumn covered the ground as trouble covered the land in the fall of 1794 when 62-year-old George Washington reluctantly, but resolutely, led 13,000 troops into Western Pennsylvania. The father of our country, now well into his second term, advanced into the teeth of our young nation’s first large scale insurrection. Known as the Whiskey Rebellion it was nothing less a battle for the soul of America—a guerrilla war raging on the ragged edge of civilization. But the show of force with the majestic figure of Washington himself at the head of the procession had a calming effect on all sides allowing the contentious issue to be resolved with only minor bloodshed.

And what of the third seminal event which occurred much closer in time and space? This shattering incident, which rocked the very foundation of our republic, erupted on Super Bowl Sunday, January 25th, 1998. You read that right; that’s when Eastport patriots rose up in revolt against unjust suppression by the hegemonic power across Spa Creek. Amidst the roar of cannon and musket fire (or maybe it was touchdowns and cheers) the newly established Maritime Republic of Eastport declared its sovereign independence. And then, just for good measure, they established their own passport, currency, national anthem, and navy—even a flag emblazoned with the official motto: “We like it this way!” So yeah, if you’re thinking that Eastportaricans (you read that right) are a breed apart, I’m thinking you’re right.

That momentous occasion was, perhaps, a culmination of culture that’s somewhat varied and altogether unique to Eastport. And running the length of this 21403 Annapolis peninsula is Severn Avenue, along which you’ll find a hotbed of haute and maritime roots—where a cluster of dining establishments reflect the personality of the people who call Eastport home.
It’s 10 a.m. on a rainy Wednesday morning. And yeah, I know that sounds like the opening line of a Mississippi Delta Blues song, but that’s no matter. Charlie Lewnes swallows a gulp of hot coffee and leans in across a white table cloth in that way of his which is earnest, intense, and friendly all at once. “As far back as 1993, I was advertising my place as part of “Restaurant Row in Historic Maritime Eastport,” Charlie says as he shoves an old magazine ad across the table. “See that,” he jabs at it with his finger, “that’s what we need now because this area has a unique concentration of restaurants with an exceptional offering.” Even in his mid-70s, this “Eastportarians” wiry frame exudes a restless energy as we sit comfortably in the understated elegance of Lewnes Steak House surrounded by dark wood and plush leather. Across from me and next to Charlie sits his son Sam who is also active in the business. He is larger and outwardly calmer than his dad but because both men went to college on wrestling scholarships and still workout regularly they lean into each day with the same focused determination once used to pin opponents at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.

Bathed in soft light, the matted, framed photos of friends and family in settings from times past adorn the tastefully decorated wood paneled walls around me. Richly textured dark carpet with a dot pattern softens the floor throughout the dining room adding warmth and character. Simply put, this fine place is a classic steak and chop house.

Truth be told, Charlie and Sam could hang photos of the many celebrities who frequent their establishment but celebrities come and go like passing fashions. Not so lifelong friends, not so family— not so Eastport with its enduring sense of place. Charlie’s family has operated out of this and/or other locations along Restaurant Row in one form or another since 1921. Sam’s Corner, Spiro’s, Lewnes Steak House—regardless of name or address, the Lewnes family remain a fixture on the scene and are among the earliest restaurant pioneers of Eastport Peninsula.

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There must be something in Eastport’s brackish water because I no sooner take leave of the Lewnes boys than I encounter a tanned, fit looking gentlemen with a shock of blond hair and ever present smile. Not only that, his outwardly displayed “easy does it” attitude doesn’t quite conceal this guy’s bounding energy and enthusiasm for life. Who is this dude—Jimmy Buffet’s lead guitarist? And is he searching for that lost shaker of salt? “Hi, I’m Dick Franyo,” he says, “I own the Boatyard Bar & Grill.” Yes he does, although to me it appears he’s magically levitated an iconic Key West establishment and somehow transported it to this Eastport corner. “This place was once the Sportsman bar—otherwise known as the Eastport knife and gun club.” He laughs. “I bought and rebuilt it in 2002 because when Marmadukes closed in 1997 it left a void. I wanted to recreate a certain vibe for sailors and fishermen.” Indeed he has.

Everywhere I look amidst the high wood beamed ceilings and expansive dining room I see authentic memorabilia from regattas and fundraisers; a surfboard and photograph autographed by singer/surfer Jack Johnson; an original wood sign from the legendary Hog’s Breath Saloon in Key West; a weather beaten sixteen foot long fishing skiff shipped up from St. Barts.

Retired investment banker, active philanthropist, past president of the National Sailing Hall of Fame, environmentalist, member of six non-profit boards, inveterate Parrot Head—all around hail fellow well met; Dick Franyo is blessed with an effervescent disposition and fortunately for many, a generous spirit.

Named as one of the top sailing/boating restaurants by Sailing World, Sail Magazine, and Coastal Living, the seafood is so succulent that even First Lady Michelle Obama stopped in for the famous crab cake dinner. But accolades aside, Dick is proudest of his philanthropic efforts—many of which are linked to the environmental stewardship of the bay. The complete list of Dick Franyo driven events like Bands in the Sand for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Boatyard Beach Bash for the Annapolis Maritime Museum is too long to list here. I’m committed to my mission statement,” he says while revealing the back of his business card. It reads, “Pint Drinks * Fresh Food * A Healthier Bay * Sailing Fast * Fishing with Friends * Happy Kids.”

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Paul Broccolina is the Annapolis-based Regional Director for Chart House and one of the things that pleased him most when he started here was the fact that many locals did not realize the restaurant was part of a national chain. Sitting on a National Historic Register site and occupying a building once made famous by world-renowned motor yacht builder Trumpy & Sons, the restaurant has been an Eastport fixture for nearly 40 years. Chart House Sales Manager Amy Paulin is a local gal who grew up in the area. Her father was the contractor who converted the original Trumpy boathouse into a restaurant in the late ’70s. As an eight-year-old kid, she and her friends used to bop on over to Marmadukes for a burger on those smooth summer days. “Everyone knew everyone,” she says with a laugh, “so we’d just say, ‘put it on our tab.’”

“We see ourselves as a local establishment and a valued member of the community,” Paul tells me. “Many locals drop by for happy hour. They will also bring in out-of-town guests and it can vary from rounds of drinks and appetizers to full course dinners or those who wander in later for our signature lava cake to sit by the fire and watch the boats go by.”

Chart House has successfully built its business by carefully selecting unique locations—always with great views and usually on the water. Paul and Amy both are justifiably proud of the major renovation work just completed on their restaurant. “It’s a dramatic re-interpretation of the space,” Paul says. “We really expanded the number of dining room tables with unobstructed water views.” Like others on Eastport’s Restaurant Row, the Chart House is proud of its environmental stewardship. “Amy is the driver on all things green,” Paul readily acknowledges. “All of our recycling efforts exceed code,” she says. “And we were one of the first restaurants certified by Maryland Green Travel.”

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Jeff Jacobs, owner of Carrol’s Creek Café sips his soft drink, crunches on some ice, and pins me with a sideways glance: “I first suspected my life was about to change when shortly after starting my junior year at Towson State I received a phone call from my father asking ‘When is the last date you can drop your classes and not lose money?’” Uh oh! Jeff’s father, a successful real estate attorney from the Baltimore area, was the original silent partner in Carrol’s Creek Café, which opened in 1983. The restaurant was the first tenant in a newly-built, multi-level waterfront complex once home to a boatyard. But everything turned out fine in the end. Jeff, who had worked in the restaurant part-time in high school had developed a knack for “picking up fumbles” and dove full-time into the family business once he graduated. “We, in fact, have a lot of long term staff here,” he tells me, “for example, we have one waitress who’s been with us for over 25 years, not to mention several managers with 10 to 15 years under their belt.”

In 2003 and 2004 Carrol’s Creek underwent major renovations to improve and expand the kitchen but also to open up spectacular water views for more of their dining room tables. “We went from four to fourteen tables with unobstructed views,” Jeff says. “And,” he quickly adds, “With 7,200 square feet of total space, we can seat 180 in the main dining room with another 120 on the deck.”

“Sticking to what you do best. That and knowing when to say when,” is how he responds when I ask him to reveal one of his secrets of success. “For example, on a good Summer Saturday we will do 425– 450 lunches and another 550 dinners so my kitchen, my people, everything is running maxed out. Anything that takes our focus off of that core mission can lead to disappointing results. We know when to say when.”

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Blackwall Hitch: A nautical term dating from the 1800’s for a knot used to secure ships to dock in the Eastport area.

In the restaurant business longevity is a sure sign of success and yet Eastport’s Restaurant Row is not solely confined to venerable dining establishments. To the delight of all hungry seekers in search of good times and great food a more recent addition now stands like a handsome sentinel welcoming all who cross Spa Creek draw bridge. It was not always thus. James King and his management team acquired the Rockfish Bar and Grill in the winter of 2013 only to shutter it. Then, after a complete renovation that added a roof top deck and totally re-interpreted interior spaces, they opened the Blackwall Hitch—all 8,500 square feet of her.

If you want fine dining for lunch and dinner seven days a week, or Sunday Brunch over smooth Jazz—Blackwall Hitch offers it. If you’re seeking less formal, easier on the wallet fare like flatbread pizza and craft beer, or a hot chicken pot pie on a cold winter day—Blackwall Hitch offers it. You want acoustic music in the middle of the week or live bands when you’re leaning hard on Friday and Saturday— Blackwall Hitch offers it.

When I ask him what really sets Blackwall Hitch apart from the others, James fires back with, “Once a month we offer a series of exclusive wine dinners created by our Executive Chef. It’s been so successful that tickets, which are limited to thirty per event, usually sell out weeks in advance and so we’re in the process of adding more dates.” Then, with little encouragement from me he elaborates in a voice rising with enthusiasm: “We’re fortunate to have a very talented and likable Executive Chef who prepares these wonderful five course meals featuring everything from Duck to Lobster Tail and all manner of Chesapeake Bay seafood. He comes out while cooking and talks about each course; where the ingredients come from, and how he’s preparing the dish. Similarly, someone from the winery introduces the wines served with each course.” To which I can only add—you want a fun and sociable, not to mention educational, dining experience—Blackwall Hitch offers it.

Blackwall Hitch: A fine addition to Eastport’s Restaurant Row dating from May of 2014, that has secured a successful niche in the community.

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Excerpted from Mary Lou Baker’s dining review of Ruth’s Chris

More than 100 restaurants nationwide share the Ruth’s Chris logo, but the Annapolis version of this high end chain is one-of-a-kind—the good kind. Credit Annapolis resident Steve de Castro for the care and feeding of guests at this local landmark, one of 10 restaurants he operates in Maryland, North Carolina, and New Jersey.

De Castro came with his parents from Cuba to the United State in the 1960s at the age of 14. Working in several restaurants in New Orleans, and opening his own eatery at the age of 24, he became a protégé of the legendary Big Easy restaurateur Ruth Fertel, owner of the original Ruth’s Chris. Opened in 1996 on a corner at the end of Eastport’s Restaurant Row, this luxury dining destination has been the go-to place for celebrations as well as corporate business meetings—each category requiring the willingness to spend big bucks for the establishment’s prime meats, a wine list offering 403 varietals, and a trustworthy reputation for excellence in the crowded steak house category.

Longtime general manager and oenophile Tom Isabella is in charge of the restaurant’s expansive wine list, with 25 available by glass (a generous pour in hand-friendly goblets) and more than 400 well-chosen varietals by the bottle from winemakers in the United States, Europe, and Australia. Ruth’s Chris’ menu changes with the seasons. Special appetizers on our latest visit included a 3-4 pound lobster (market priced at $29.95 per), its signature lobster bisque (ladled at table over chunks of lobster meat), and just-delivered blue point oysters from Long Island.

Perhaps in an effort to overcome its reputation as an exclusive place for members of the “one percent,” the Annapolis restaurant has introduced “Ruth’s Chris Classics”—an appealing option that includes three courses (starter, entrée with sides, and dessert) for either $49.95 or $59.95. Meats from Ruth’s Chris’ kitchen announce their arrival tableside with a heady aroma of butter (a tablespoon applied as the plate leaves the kitchen)—an aroma that either gets your endorphins going or makes a purist shudder.

We are fortunate to have Mr. de Castro as a local resident, known for his special attachment to his “hometown” location and his involvement in the community. If you have nothing special to celebrate, invent an occasion to splurge with dinner or enjoy more wallet-friendly light fare during happy hour in the lounge.

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Excerpted from Gail Greco’s dining review of O’Leary’s  

On a recent visit back to historic Eastport, I hungered for what the waters serve up on a plate, as well as the plank. So I motored over the Spa Creek Bridge by Annapolis Harbor to Third Street, passing up other eateries to get to O’Learys almost at the end of the little street that meets the harbor. The first seafood place on what is now considered Eastport’s restaurant row, O’Leary’s is as I remembered it: nestled around cajoling leafy maples and the familiar clapboard exterior now dressed in a fresh coat of sea-aqua paint.

Inside were the cozy and rich sienna wood-stained posts and beams, which were added in 1983 when Tom O’Leary bought the 100-year-old crab shack and turned it into a 75-seat fine-dining restaurant—keeping the old boat-hauling winch building the restaurant now uses as a storage shed.

O’Leary’s sources ingredients as local as possible, such as the oysters, as well as the grouper, crabs, and rockfish pulled from the bay or, when in short supply, the Carolinas. The restaurant also mixes in authentic flavors from markets afar. Entrees are mostly seafood, except for a Filet Mignon Marsala, Pork Tenderloin Gorgonzola, and Maple Leaf Breast of Duck. The Grouper with Gulf Shrimp sounded enticing, accompanied by a tomato cilantro salsa and chipotle aioli. So did a rockfish Provencale-style.

My friend settled on a soft-shelled crab plated along with a crabcake broiled with a special house sauce. Beyond the bay, seafood offerings come from far-reaching waters, including a fresh-water barramundi from Australia, yellowfin tuna from the Pacific, and mahi mahi from Florida. I went for the whole Maine lobster special, sassily dressed in a skirt of fluffed risotto and a hem of scalloped tail flippers, a most couture peplum shape any mermaid would want to don on a date with a squid.

Taking the evening slowly, we found room for dessert, choosing the key lime mousse over the chocolate, and it arrived as a pouf of creamy tropical tang coddled in a nutty almond tuile. It warmed the heart again for a good ole standby restaurant I am sure will still be here the next time I get over the bridge to meet up with a longtime friend, and talk until the lights go out over the creek and the shipyard sleeps.

So next time you cross the Spa Creek draw bridge on your way to Restaurant Row in Historic Maritime Eastport—which includes a number of additional restaurants not mentioned herein—enjoy the unrivaled variety of dishes, menus, ambiance, views, and price points because this is a special place—“And they like it that way.”


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