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Restaurant Review: Sam’s on the Waterfront

Jan 17, 2018 01:31PM ● By Lauren VanSickle

Photography by Tony Lewis Jr.

Famed for Scenic Dining

By Mary Lou Baker

Sam's on the Waterfront 

2020 Chesapeake Harbour Drive East, Annapolis MD 21403 • 410-263-3600

Seafood a specialty; award-winning wine list. 38 57’6 N-79 28’O W. Complimentary docking. Seasonal outdoor dining. Live music Fri–Sat 7–9 p.m. Lunch, dinner Tues–Thurs 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri–Sat until 10 p.m., Sun 10:30 a.m.–9 p.m.; closed Mondays in winter. Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Gluten-free menu items. 

All are welcome at Sam’s on the Waterfront, the centerpiece of a gorgeous gated community in the Eastport section of Annapolis. You must know where you’re going, whether by car or boat, at this decidedly off-the-beaten path destination at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Engage your GPS for driving directions, call the restaurant to make docking arrangements, and prepare for a unique experience if dining in a lighthouse is new to you. 

Sam’s has been around since 1986, when it made a big splash with a noted D.C. restaurant personality as owner and an innovative menu that included roasted rattlesnake. Those ripples lasted for several years under the skillful management of the late Mary Randall, namesake of Sam’s popular Proud Mary’s Dock Bar (open April–October) where slip holders and transient boaters congregate in droves. Jeffrey Parks, a man known for reviving struggling establishments, is the current owner. Felipe Hernandez, sous chef before the departure of the talented Chef Jim Wilder, is now in charge of the kitchen. 

Sam’s location in the center of Chesapeake Harbour is its ace in the hole. Passage into the condo community is easy—simply say you’re going to the restaurant, put the parking pass on your windshield and drive on in. There’s ample parking for cars or craft and in good weather most patrons choose to sit on the sheltered terrace by the water. This time of year, inside tables in a building designed to look like a lighthouse offer panoramic views of sleeping boats and soaring condos. Natural daytime light filters through the windows on all sides and at night twinkling lights add to a magical scene.

We made several review visits and had two distinctly different experiences. At Sunday brunch, we had the pleasure of service by a self-described neophyte who had returned to the workforce as a waiter after a long career in the medical field. He knew where the cutlery and royal blue glassware belonged, he knew the importance of making his clients feel welcome, and he even knew how to fix my glasses when a lens unexpectedly parted company with the frame. Patrick was his first name and patience was his middle name, as he apologized several times for the kitchen’s slow response to our orders.

We enjoyed a well-made Bloody Mary garnished with black and green olives while we waited, enjoying the view of what could pass for a professional boat show. A high percentage of homeowners at Chesapeake Harbor keep their boats on the surrounding waters—and most of them are beautiful symbols of luxury. The boating theme is carried out in Sam’s décor, with diners seated on what appears to be a boat deck, complete with ersatz railings placed alongside the window walls that edge the dining rooms. There’s lots of eye candy to take in through those windows, and we didn’t mind waiting for what turned out to be a near-perfect brunch. 

I had immediately zeroed in on the “Waterfront Benedict” entrée listed on the menu at $19—and was rewarded with perfectly poached eggs over spinach and broiled tomatoes on a toasted English muffin, surrounded with chunks of impeccably fresh Maine lobster, and draped with a creamy Hollandaise sauce. I suggest you try it.

My companion got off to a good Sunday start with a light and lovely cream of crab soup—homemade bisque rich with seafood and lightly sherried. Never a fan of the ubiquitous brunch buffet, he was happy to stay seated and be served “Eggs Your Way,”–which translated into a basic breakfast of twin fried eggs, thick slices of bacon, fried potatoes and sour dough toast. Nothing fancy but just his style—–especially the bacon part. Our new friend Patrick refilled cups with above-average coffee and we left with warm feelings—–promising to return for Sam’s signature char-grilled Wagyu kobe beef burgers that Patrick had praised to the sky.

Our bonus on the second visit was the famous burger, regularly $15, is half price all day and all night on Tuesdays. Let me go overboard and vote this juicy, flavorsome, kobe beef burger as deserving a best-in-show award. Cooked rare as ordered, the beef had the seductive perfume of the charcoal grille and the distinctive buttery consistency and flavor of the wagyu breed. I reluctantly split one with my companion and in return shared an entrée of “Sam’s Seafood Pasta.”  Bay mussels (the tiny breed), jumbo shrimp, and sea scallops were each cooked according to breed and tossed with linguini, tomatoes, and spinach in a light house-made sauce brightened with Old Bay ($22). We also shared a summery salad of fresh field greens, strawberries, blue cheese, and toasted almonds moistened with a tangy raspberry vinaigrette.

But wait—the best was yet to come when on a whim I ordered cherries jubilee. Out came a white-coated staffer wheeling a portable table displaying the tools of his trade—a bowl of brandy-soaked bing cherries, butter, a little bowl of sugar, a carafe of high-octane brandy, vanilla ice cream, a long spoon, and a burner. Talk about after-dinner fireworks. Everyone in the restaurant watched while the gentleman slowly stirred the butter and sugar together, then added the dark cherries and brandy before flambéing the mixture and letting the alcohol burn off. The hot mixture was ladled onto the rich ice cream and we finished off our visit with a flair.

As we left, we rubbed our hands along the honor roll of wooden wine labels that covered a wall in the foyer, directly opposite a glass-enclosed wine rack that for several years has earned the covert recognition of the Wine Spectator. Sam’s Waterfront Café does a lot of things right—buying from local suppliers (except for its praiseworthy lobster rolls from Maine waters and bakers), adhering to environmental “green” rules and hiring people like Patrick. The kitchen performance is on the slow side, with patrons becoming impatient at extended wait times. We suggest tighter hands-on management and a warmer welcome at the front of the house as ways to increase patronage of a place with tremendous potential and a prime location on the  outskirts of Annapolis. That location is worth the price of admission, the Tuesday burger is the best bargain around and Patrick is a welcome—and welcoming—addition to Sam’s staff.

Mary Lou Baker is a frequent contributor to What’s Up? Media publications and self-professed gourmand. She has authored numerous culinary articles and recently penned the book Seafood Lover’s Chesapeake Bay: Restaurants, Markets, Recipes & Traditions. 

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