Cruising to Tilghman Island? Take your pick of places to eat.
No one goes hungry on Tilghman Island, that’s for sure. On Knapps Narrows itself, there are three restaurants, each with its own personality. And on the Choptank River side of the island (next to Dogwood Harbor, where the local skipjack fleet is berthed) you’ll find my son Stewart’s favorite eatery: Buddy Harrison’s Chesapeake House, a carry-over from the days when folks from the Western Shore flocked to the Bay for a summer vacation, staying in the comfortable boarding houses that lined the shore. It was in the kitchens of these boarding houses where Bay cooking really got up a head of steam, and the family-run (third generation) Harrison’s Chesapeake House carries on the tradition in style. They can keep a teenage boy coming back for more, and that says a lot.
Docking is limited at Harrison’s-it’s a popular spot and it has its own fleet of headboats to boot (if you can catch it, they can cook it)-but they’ll happily find you space to tie up if they can. It doesn’t hurt to call ahead. At the foot of the dock you can relax in the restaurant’s shaded outdoor bar, where you can order up a few brews, a soft-crab sandwich (they shed their own crabs) or whatever else catches your eye on the light fare menu. Inside the rambling inn is a spacious dining room. Here meals are served family style, with help-yourself fixings. You’ll want to order the crabcakes or fried chicken (oysters in the winter), or any of the selection of fresh fish. Friday night features a popular all-you-can-eat seafood and prime rib buffet. And, this is the place to go for breakfast as well, Stewart reminds me.
For truly fine dining, head for the Tilghman Island Inn, the western-most on the narrows. When Clint and I pulled up to their dock one Sunday afternoon not long ago, Tom Sevco, the friendly bartender-dockmaster (or was it the other way around?) grabbed our lines with the announcement that the kitchen would only be open another 20 minutes, before the chef shut things down to prepare for dinner. We settled into the shade of an outside umbrella and quickly ordered a crabcake for me and grilled chicken with spinach salad for Clint. The crabcake was the best I’ve had all summer; the recipe is that of co-owner Jack Redmon’s mother, and I’ll wager the crab had been swimming the day before. It reminded me of the crabcakes I’d had as a little girl, when no one thought to add filler or anything more exotic than a little dried mustard. The salad was also perfect: light chunks of grilled chicken, bathed in a subtle seasoning and swathed in fresh, lightly steamed spinach. We’ve always found excellent food here and have long appreciated the inn’s touch with local seafood and game. There’s nothing standard on the menu. While you can find, say, rockfish and oysters in season, they’ll be accompanied by unusual sauces and surprising spice combinations. From the Maryland wine list to the occasional goose and venison, here is imaginative Bay cooking at its best. Sometimes you’ll even catch live music. What we caught was the colorful parade of boats moving through the narrows. We eventually joined the throng and moved on, our tummies humming with pleasure.
At the foot of the Knapps Narrows Bridge, boaters can pull into either the Bridge Restaurant (on the island side) or the Bay Hundred Restaurant (on the mainland). Both establishments are under new management. The Bridge offers outdoor seating and a few places for boats to tie up along the cement bulkhead. There wasn’t room for our trawler when we went through, but we returned later by car. A quick glance through the dinner menu showed a rundown of seafood, rack of lamb, stuffed flounder-the usual suspects. But we were there for lunch and ordered up some cream of crab soup and a couple of hearty sandwiches. The soup was above average in texture and flavor. The sandwiches-one of them the day’s special, deep-fried flounder-came with our choice of garlic fries, cole slaw or regular fries. Garlic fries it was, and they came dripping in garlic all right-no need for ketchup. They weren’t offering steamed crabs when we were there in July, but I’m told they have them now. If that’s what you have a hankering for, call first to be sure they’ve got some. Although there’s plenty of windowed seating inside, we commandeered a patio table to watch the boats go by. Here the antics of the guys at the outdoor bar got our attention. They had something to say to every waterman who motored past, all in good fun. Clearly they were local, had already spent their time on the water and were settled in for the afternoon. If this is where the neighbors gather, you can be sure of two things: The prices are right, and the food’s gonna be good. It’s also likely to be the happening place come sundown, but we didn’t hang around to find out. We licked our garlicky fingers and headed down the road long before the last of the workboats had paraded past.
A stone’s throw across the waterway (right behind the gas dock), the reincarnated Bay Hundred (some will remember its brief stint as a Mexican cafe) still maintains a friendly mix of old and new. Watermen gather at the bar; diners fill the open dining room and, in summer, spill onto the patio. There’s plenty of parking here. Knapps Narrows Marina has installed a long floating dock that stretches along one side of the channel; overnight slips are in the marina’s ample and protected basin. Inside the restaurant seafood is king, although there are a few steak dishes to choose from. My daughter Lindsay and I spent a delightful evening noshing on shrimp basil over pasta. It was well prepared and presented, and we crowned the occasion with a helping of Key lime pie.
Clearly, you won’t go hungry on TilghmanIsland. You’ll discover a variety of culinary choices, some familiar, some not so. Moreover, there’s plenty to catch your eye as pleasure yachts and workboats bustle through the drawbridge or toss a line to a waiting hand on shore. And, odds are, teenagers or not, you’ll be coming back for seconds.