The Taste: Barbara’s on the Bay
Mar 23, 2017 12:01PM
● By Cate Reynolds
Barbara’s on the Bay
12 Ericsson Ave, Betterton, MD 21610
410-348-3079 // barbarasonthebay.com
From Wall Street to the Bay, Barb Makes Her MarkBy Mary Lou Baker // Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.
The Little Engine That Could, the popular children’s book with its mantra, “I think I can, I think I can,” is the inspiration for Barbara Esmonde, chef-owner of Barbara’s-on-the-Bay in Betterton, Maryland. I drove through flat farmlands and little villages to meet with Esmonde at her charming waterfront restaurant on a hillside overlooking the Chesapeake. We chatted over brunch: a Bloody Mary garnished with a pretzel stick as an edible stirrer, Scotch eggs, and eggs Benedict dressed with silken Hollandaise sauce she makes herself. Vivacious and verbal, this is a woman in love with food, her restaurant, and her customers.
When did your restaurant open?
October 19th, 2014. I was looking for a restaurant on the Eastern Shore—and knew this was ‘the one’ the minute I walked in the door. It was painted in pinks and greens—not me, so the first thing I did was paint the walls white with accents of apricot.
Tell me about your life before you opened Barb’s on the Bay.
As a child growing up on the Main Line in Philadelphia, I loved helping my mother in the kitchen but food was just a hobby until I left my job on Wall Street and decided to follow my passion. I started my cooking career in an Irish bar on the Upper West Side of New York City.
I was given an opportunity to become a line cook at an upscale luncheonette next door and my professional kitchen life began. On my time off, I volunteered at the James Beard Foundation. There I met Bobby Flay (before he became a TV star) and he offered me a job at his one-year-old MESA Grill. I took it and never looked back.
What are the challenges you experience being a chef-owner?
The challenges are difficult, but easily managed as I love what I am doing for a living. I get to put out the food I know my guests like, but also can experiment freely with my own creations without being hampered by the restraints of someone else’s vision. Being in the kitchen most of the time keeps me from spending more time with my guests, but many stop in to say hello when I’m cooking, so it all works out.
Tell me about your menu. What are some of your favorites, as well as those of your clients?
My menu reflects my 25-plus years of cooking. Some dishes are from my Mom, some reflect what I learned working for Greeks and Italians, some Southwestern from my time at MESA Grill, and there’s some “diner food” from my days of cooking at the luncheonette.
You have a beautiful waterfront location overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. Is there any history to your restaurant?
Betterton Beach and the town of Betterton were a destination back in the day of steamboats from across the Bay. There were boardwalks, hotels, and dance halls here, though you would not know that as it is today. It is now a bucolic “shore town” – but the ghosts of good times past are certainly here at Barb’s on the Bay.
Does your menu change with the seasons?
I try to change the menu three-to-four times a year. Like most chefs, I like to use what is the most available and cost-effective. I use local hydroponically grown lettuces and herbs, a local butcher from Sudlersville for our meats and I have a ‘bread broker’ in Philadelphia who brings us pretzels for my special crab pretzel and Jewish rye for our sandwiches. I use Maryland crab when available and as much local seafood as I can get.
I admire you for staying open all year. Are your off-season customers mainly local people?
I have many loyal guests, some who visit weekly, monthly, and seasonally. Betterton residents are truly loyal, and I have many others from Chestertown, Delaware, and across the river in Northeast. In the summer, Camp Tochwagh and Camp Echo Hill are in full swing, bringing many Pennsylvania residents to the area. Many are from the area where I grew up outside of Philly, so after a conversation or two, we usually find someone we know in common. That is the best part!
Is your family involved in your restaurant?
I am the youngest of seven children, but none of my siblings are nearby. My parents are here in spirit, their pictures hanging on the wall together with portraits of my great, great grandparents. Photos of my siblings and nieces and nephews are all part of my restaurant’s homey décor—so they are never far from me.
Tell me about your staff? I enjoyed meeting some of them during our visit—all dressed in navy blue T-shirts with your restaurant logo on the back.
My staff members are all local, except a few Washington College students. Dave, my lead cook, is a native of the Eastern Shore and has been with me since I opened. People love his Maryland Crab Soup—on our menu since Day One. Mark has been behind the bar just as long and does a great job. Some have come and gone and then come back again – I am a firm believer in ‘second chances.’
Do you have any advice for people considering a career in the restaurant business?
My advice is to listen with your mouth closed and ears and eyes open. It is a fast-paced business, but don’t get discouraged. You must love food first, and the rest will come. If it is not in a full-service restaurant like mine, it can be in catering, as a corporate or personal chef, or in a food truck. And—get good shoes! Your knees will thank you in the days and years ahead of you.
Barb’s Scotch Eggs Recipe
Esmonde first had these eggs in a New York City bar 30 years ago. This recipe is a variation, based on one she found recently in The Guardian newspaper. She created the sauce that makes them one of the most popular items on the menu at Barbara’s on the Bay.
- 4 large eggs
- ½ lb. ground sausage
- ¼ cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
- 3 eggs, beaten
- ½ cup Panko bread crumbs
- 4 cups canola oil
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Pre-heat oil to 365 degrees.
Hard boil eggs until firm. Peel and put on cloth or paper towel to dry. When cool, put approximately 2 ounces of sausage around surface of each egg. Dredge each egg in flour, then in the beaten eggs, then the Panko crumbs. Set aside and let dry for about half an hour. Gently lower eggs into hot oil and cook for a few minutes until golden brown. Remove from oil, slice each egg in half, and finish in oven until sausage cooked through. Drain on paper towels.
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 4 roasted garlic cloves, mashed to a paste
- 1 ½ tablespoons smooth Dijon mustard
- Honey, to taste
In a small saucepan, reduce heavy cream over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat back of spoon and reduced by half. Remove from heat and let cool. Whisk in garlic, mustard, and honey—to balance garlic and mustard. Serve warm. Presentation: Quarter eggs and serve on plate with sauce on the side.