Coastal Cuisine: Dining in Ocean City

By Jody Kelly Wright, The Shark on the Harbor,

When my husband and I had the opportunity to travel, we always looked to the local community we were visiting for meal suggestions. We wanted to experience dining the way they do—the foods they eat, the atmosphere they appreciate, and mostly, we loved to learn about the cultural influences that have inspired the development of cuisine in their area.

Someone once joked, “When a person travels to China and wants to eat Chinese food, isn’t it just, food?”

That makes me smile every time. The food we label as “theirs” is simply the food they eat. The food they’ve been culturally disposed to preparing, to enjoying, and in such a variety of ways—to refining.

Cuisine in the Mid-Atlantic

Our mid-Atlantic coastal cuisine is no different. The food we serve here has evolved over time from influences by the families who first developed this area. Our cuisine has been refined from the growing diversity of our population as well. Eastern shore cuisine has married southern flavor and borne offspring adorned with metropolitan flair and style—all in what started out as a tiny fishing village.

Ocean City Commercial Fishing History

Our town, a tourist-driven beach community, developed on the heels of a long-running and substantial commercial fishing business. Now, our West Ocean City fishing harbor is home to a dominant fishing industry that dates back as far as 1898 when the watermen operated the beachfront. The now famous storm of 1933 created the inlet and gave way to the deep-water fishing harbor we see today. This opened the door for an even more established commercial fishing industry. So, there’s certainly no surprise that fresh seafood makes a prominent home on the menus in our community.

Tide-to-Table Dining in Ocean City

Regionally speaking, our mid-Atlantic coast and Chesapeake Bay area are home to an abundant variety of crabs and shellfish. We all know that Maryland blue crabs provide some of the tastiest crabmeat and soft shell crabs around—thanks to the “mustard” these critters accumulate in the colder off season. These crabs, found abundantly along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Argentina, are harvested in crab pots and taken to restaurants to be served up in many tasty forms. This crustacean will often turn up in the form of crab cakes or crab imperial, but is also enjoyed in Maryland crab soup, crab dip, crab Oscar or even crab omelets.  Another Maryland tradition is the Crab Feast, featuring piles of blue crabs, covered with well-guarded secret spice blends and steamed to perfection.  Your job—crack them open and enjoy the sweet, delicate meat, dipped in melted butter or malt vinegar.  Soft shell crabs are also favorites in season, typically prepared fried or pan-sautéed. Whether you prefer your crabs belly up, mallet in hand, or something a little more delicate, the Maryland blue crab definitely takes center stage in the restaurants of Ocean City!

Most of our guests are not aware that our mid-Atlantic coastline is also home to plenty of saltwater lobsters, red crabs, clams and oysters. It’s true—no need to travel to New England for a good lobster dinner. We’ve got lobster boats that dock right in our harbor. Additionally, Maryland has become quite known for aquaculture. The state offers tasty oysters that are not only good for eating, but they also work miracles to help filter our coastal bays and watersheds throughout the state. Our state is proud to be the home to the Oyster Recovery Program as well as one of its partners, the Horn Point Oyster Hatchery, which cultivates young oysters for aquaculture and restoration projects. The hatchery works with its partners to distribute oysters for commercial aquaculture and to build up oyster reefs in the bay.

Some consider oysters even more American than apple pie. English colonists found these bivalve beauties abundant in the Chesapeake Bay, and Native Americans taught early settlers how to catch and prepare oysters—methods still used today. Protected by thick shells, the oyster meat inside is rich, succulent, earthy and sweet. Throughout Ocean City, you will find a large selection of raw bars specializing in preparing and serving raw oysters, clams, peel-and-eat shrimp and other delicious seafood. These raw bars not only offer fresh oysters and a variety of other seafood prepared right before your very own eyes, but are also home to a relaxing, yet fun atmosphere, cold drinks and some even scenic views of the bustling boardwalk or Ocean City harbor.

Ocean City, specifically, has developed a culinary scene birthed from the melting pot of individuals who have become residents here over time. While a few families own claims as true-blue locals—born and raised on the island— many have found their way through different paths and now call this area home.

Farm-to-Table Dining in Ocean City

As our community has developed, we’ve attracted a residential base of creative, passionate and hardworking individuals who have helped to further develop our local economy. One that has greatly contributed to the evolution of our culinary scene is the local agriculture market. Over the years, an impressive list of local farms has been built, grown and maintained. They proudly sell their crops to local and regional restaurants as well as at local farmers markets all season long. Through the use of greenhouses and high tunnels, some of our farmers have been working to establish extended seasons and even year-round growing, which further adds to the evolution of local sourcing in dining around our area. Chesterfield Heirlooms (Pittsville, Md.), Quindocqua Farms (Marion Station, Md.), Baywater Greens (Salisbury, Md.) The Good Farm (Berlin, Md.) and Terrapin Farms (Berlin, Md.) are just a few of the many produce growers along the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Our local agriculture starts with produce, but it certainly doesn’t stop there. Area restaurateurs are finding more local and regional sources for naturally farmed ingredients, such as proteins. Roseda Farms in Monkton, Md. farms all-natural beef, and Hurlock, Md. has been home to a bison farm for many years. We are in great supply of all-natural, free-range eggs as more chicken farmers who follow sustainable practices set up shop along our coast. Willow Brook Farm (Quantico, Md.) is one such farm that has taken the lead in egg farming.

All throughout Ocean City, you will find both seasonal and permanent farmers’ markets offering a variety of fresh produce, meats, cheese, breads, jams and much more. These farmers’ markets can be found in the heart of Ocean City, North Ocean City and Berlin.

Sweet Treats in Ocean City

Since the early 1930s, Ocean City has been serving treats the old-fashioned way by using high quality, fresh and local ingredients to create a delicious sweet or snack that will certainly make your mouth water. Some of the most iconic of these treats is Ocean City’s homemade candies such as creamy fudge, hand-dipped chocolates and taffy. A famous type of taffy sold in the area is salt water taffy, which was originally founded after a flood along the East Coast soaked a stock of taffy with salty Atlantic Ocean water. Today you will find all kinds of salt water taffy flavors imaginable. You can also indulge in caramels, gummies, seasonal treats, flavored popcorn and much more, all made in an original way and served fresh for those living in and visiting Ocean City.

Although they are delicious, you will find much more than homemade sweets in Ocean City. Choose from a variety of delicious cheese spreads by the pound and packed by hand, from sharp cheddar to jalapeno cheddar spread to Swiss with almonds. Ocean City’s homemade cheeses come in a variety of ways and, of course, are made homemade with natural ingredients and no preservatives.

Supporting Local

As our small community continues to develop our own version of hunting and gathering, with respect to dining, we’ve seen restaurants embrace local sources. Smaller restaurants can use local sources easier since the demand is lower. However, even the larger restaurants in our town have stepped into the arena to focus on representing local sources whenever possible.

The culture of our community is to support each other, to build together and to maintain the camaraderie of the close-knit fishing community in which we sprouted. Our coastal town has successfully initiated its own path of culinary development in the wake of a booming tourism industry. We invite you to enjoy the diversity, embrace the honesty and feel our pride as you dine your way through our Eastern Shore beach town.