Issue: January 2007
GALLEYS ASHORE: Oysters Any Way

Winter means oysters  at Harrison’s Chesapeake House on Tilghman  Island—fresh oysters,  straight from the Bay.

By Janie Meneely

Harrison's has long been a family favorite of ours. Whether we pull up by boat or by car, we always feel welcome, and the down-home
atmosphere of the vintage "boarding house" compound makes it easy to relax. When my friend Paul, my brother Henry, his wife Pat and I showed up for Saturday dinner in November, a couple on the front porch smiled as we stepped through the door. "You're gonna eat oysters, I bet," the lady said. That's exactly what Pat and I had in mind.

The Harrison family began taking summer boarders four generations ago, and that meant feeding a houseful of hearty appetites whetted by a day of fishing or just playing on the water. The kitchen staff got really good at providing wholesome stick-to-the-ribs food, which they still serve family style in the big open dining rooms overlooking the Choptank River. Seafood fresh from the Bay and crispy fried chicken remain the house specialties (not to mention the stewed tomatoes and homemade desserts), but you can also expect succulent cuts of meat, fresh salads and homemade soups. Given the season, even with today's comparatively tiny local harvest, we knew we would find plenty of oysters.

The real time to go to Harrison's for oysters is Friday night when they set up a lavish oyster buffet: Oysters Rockefeller, poached oysters, oysters frittered, fried and sauteed, oyster stew, oysters on the half-shell--all you can eat for $29 (plus fried chicken and bay scallops). But Pat and I wanted oysters now, and we just couldn't wait another week in the hopes that our schedules (and the weather) would cooperate. So there we were, seated in the large unpretentious dining room, when our charming server asked us if we cared for a drink. Wine it would be for myself, my brother and Pat. But Paul is a Scotch drinker, and when he asked if the house carried Glenlivet, the server frowned. "I'm pretty sure we have it," she said, "but I don't think we sell it by the glass." We all had a good laugh at that, and the poor waitress confessed that she thought he was asking about wine. She brought him a tidy little Scotch, neat, and joked about bringing him the bottle if he wanted it. He passed. "I won't have to drive," he said, "but I will have to walk." The rest of us, meanwhile, were happily spreading crackers with our cheddar cheese-and-apple butter appetizer--interesting mix of flavors, we thought.

Our server brought us serving bowls of coleslaw, mashed potatoes, stewed tomatoes and green beans. "Help yourself," she said. Then came our entrees. Paul had ordered "Little Buddy's Choice," a Delmonico steak topped with a stack of onion rings filled with crab imperial. The imperial was light and creamy, filled with chunks of crab. The steak was so tender, he could almost cut it with his fork. Henry's broiled rockfish likewise came with a heaping helping of crab imperial--a delightful blend, he said. Pat had ordered fried oysters. I had the fried oysters and a crabcake, mildly seasoned and made with what I call "whole crab" meat--plenty of backfin, but lots of the other stuff too (I think it has a heartier flavor that way). The oysters were magnificent--but bore no pearls. We finished our meal with apple pie a la mode, though the freshly made devil's food cake topped with caramel icing was tempting. Alas, they were out of rice pudding, my brother's favorite.

When all was said and done, we were well satisfied (even without the rice pudding). And we had known we would be. Harrison's is one of those places you can just plain count on. With so many other waterfront venues gussying themselves up and adding gourmet fare to their menus, it's downright refreshing to find one place that has stayed the course, offering good food and friendly service at reasonable prices.

Harrison's Chesapeake House is located just south of Dogwood Harbor on the Choptank River side of Tilghman Island. Overnight dockage is available ($50, plus $10 for electric); dockage for dining is available, first-come-first-served. Rooms run $115–$130 (look for winter specials on room rates). The restaurant is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast $5–$9.50; lunch $8–$13; dinner $14–$30. The crab deck (steamed crabs) is open April–September. Major credit cards accepted. 410-886-2121; www.chesapeakehouse.com.