EXPLORING OCEAN CITY’S QUIET SIDE
Story By Beth Hauptle
Ocean City, Maryland, on the barrier spit called Fenwick Island, offers 10 miles of beach, three miles of boardwalk and more than 200 restaurants. Add to these, 25,000 rentable condominiums and 9,500 hotel rooms and you can see how this favorite East Coast destination can serve as many as 8 million visitors annually. This iconic beach destination offers something for everyone. Even with its family friendly boardwalk, beach Olympics, arcades, mini-golf and summer population of some 300,000 per weekend, a couple of 50-somethings managed to find a quiet romantic getaway.
Recently, my partner Andy and I visited to celebrate our one-year-of-dating anniversary in search of a more artisanal side of Ocean City. We found a beating heart of farm-to-table restaurateurs and chefs, small-batch brewers and distillers, boutique innkeepers, and all manner of local artists. Most everyone we encountered was deeply committed to providing a distinctive experience—beyond the boardwalk—for visitors and residents alike.
Our weekend getaway started with brunch at John Grader’s 14-year-old wine shop, bar and bistro, Liquid Assets. General manager Nate Gabby and server Bethany enthusiastically described the menu, the restaurant’s history and its commitment to local farmers and fishermen.
At Bethany’s recommendation we started with the lemon caper cauliflower and popular smoked fish board (These change; ours had trout, salmon and a savory smoked haddock spread.). The fish was ultra-fresh and served with crispy fried capers, Yuengling beer mustard and other well-paired toppings. .
For the main course, Andy landed one of Liquid Asset’s celebrated Wagyu burgers, and I had a large massaged kale salad topped with perfectly seared scallops. Visitors to LA should ask about the $10 pick-two lunch menu and try the famous buffalo-style Brussels sprouts with blue cheese sauce. (Apparently people line up for these.)
Final note. Liquid Assets has a great wine list. But if you see a bottle in the shop that’s not on the menu, you can enjoy it at your table for a $10corkage fee. And that’s whether it’s a $20 bottle or $250 bottle.
Just a block away, the Art League of Ocean City features local artists in both permanent and rotating exhibits. On the first Friday of each month all are welcome for a gallery opening and meet-the-artist reception, 5-7 p.m. Complimentary beer and wine are served along with light hors d’oeuvres prepared by the league’s restaurant partners. Families might be interested in the Art League’s one-week summer camp for children, which runs for four weeks beginning July 9. The league also hosts Brushes and Bubbly Paint Nights for women. In addition, the league’s gift shop features reasonably priced handcrafted treasures. Located on the Assawoman Bay, the Art League offers a beautiful setting sure to inspire established and aspiring artists alike.
We had no idea what to expect at the Seacrets Distillery, both a museum and a working distillery. Built in 2016, the 12,000-square-foot facility produces Seacrets’ own line of craft spirits includ¬ing vodka, rum, whiskey and bourbon in several flavors—like red ruby grapefruit vodka and blackstrap molasses rum. The distillery is appointed with an extensive collection of pre-prohibition antiques and furniture, curated by owner Leighton Moore. The pre-prohibition theme meant a history lesson as part of the tour provided by our delightfully comedic guide.
Distillery tours are offered on the hour and it’s best to reserve ahead online. A $10 ticket includes the tour, three samples at the Speakeasy, and a personalized doctor’s prescription for a gallon of Seacrets Spirits (one of only three ways to get a drink during the 14-year prohibition). After the planned October expansion, the Seacrets brand will distribute its goods up and down the East Coast. Meantime, you can sample the goods next door at one of Seacrets Jamaica USA’s 21 bars and outdoor spaces.
After our encounter with prohibition, we were happy to check into our hotel, The Edge, a sister hotel to the Lighthouse Club Hotel next door, and part of the Fager’s Island complex. We were escorted to Room #6, aka Monkey Island. The hotel’s 12 themed rooms include two penthouse suites (South Beach and Hang Five) and rooms named Bali, Riviera, and Bliss. On Monkey Island we were treated to a double heart-shaped Jacuzzi, gas fireplace, floor to ceiling windows, tropical island-themed furniture and balcony overlooking the bay. What more did we need?
Wine. We quaffed a little sauvignon blanc and with the sunset waning took a Lyft to our dinner destination, Rare and Rye, newly opened in the La Quinta Inns and Suites. We were greeted by manager Jason Meisner at the contemporary two-level restaurant. Chef Stuart Diepold is known for his rockfish dishes, grilled ribeye and other menu items sourced from 20 local farms and purveyors. Still full from brunch, we opted for two small plates: Brie Baked Oysters (Chincoteague Salts) with triple cream cheese, shaved prosciutto and balsamic glaze; and the black and blue flatbread topped with blackened chicken breast, crumbled blue cheese, caramelized Vidalia onions and a black cherry balsamic glaze.
Back at The Edge we found candles flickering, turned down sheets and Godiva chocolates on the pillows.
For breakfast Sunday morning we visited Travis and Jody Wright’s The Shark on the Harbor in West Ocean City. Executive Chef Travis’ mission is “to honor real food with real cooking,” and his commitment to local farms and fishermen is apparent in every item on the menu. Andy’s country flounder was caught from a fishing boat docked right outside the restaurant window. I had the cheesesteak biscuits with local Angus tenderloin filet and a grilled Caesar salad. We both enjoyed a Bloody Betty, named after Sloop Betty certified organic vodka, made in Stevensville, and George’s Bloody Mary mix, made in Berlin. I’m a Bloody Mary aficionado, and this one ranks in my top three of all time ( The others are a Milwaukee bloody with a Hefeweizen chaser, and my own, natch.). Evening patrons of The Shark on Sunset Avenue, we hear, are treated to some spectacular sunsets. The restaurant’s harborside location, natural light and fresh, local food combine for an exceptional destination.
Of course, any romantic weekend—or any weekend for that matter—in Ocean City is not complete without seeing the wild Assateague horses. After brunch we strolled the beach and spotted a number of these feisty equines. The national park is unspoiled and was not too crowded when we arrived. We were overcome by the beauty of the animals, the ocean and the dunes.
A gentle transition back to reality was in order, so on our way home, we detoured to the quaint town of Berlin. After strolling Main Street, with its many antique shops, we stopped into Fins Alehouse and Raw Bar for a few oysters. The perfect salinity of these local oysters from Hog Island, Va., and Chincoteague, Md., hit the spot. Andy and I first met at a Baltimore oyster restaurant, so the bivalves hold a special place in our hearts.
Strolling back to the car, we happened upon Gilbert’s Provisions tucked in an alley. Toby Gilbert opened the fermentation-focused business in July 2016, proffering weekly kimchee varieties, cured meats, sour dough bread, sauerkraut and “you name it…whatever is in season,” he tells us. Toby, like Travis Wright at the Shark, is connected to the local farm and fishing community and thrives on this symbiotic relationship. If you’re looking for something special for a dinner party or picnic, Toby prepares cheese and charcuterie boards. And while we didn’t sample one, we hear his Old Bay Bacon BLT is to die for.
We enjoyed a quiet drive home, reflecting on our encounters with the quiet, homey side of Ocean City. It was an anniversary we will remember—and we plan to return to discover more off- Boardwalk Ocean City.*