TILGHMAN ISLAND -- The oyster buffet is glowing at full Sterno in the dining room of Harrison's Chesapeake House. Oysters prepared nine different ways, some raw but many of them brown and fried, are perched invitingly on tables as Friday-night regulars line up for the mollusk feast.
If oysters could fly, some of the raw ones might propel themselves out the dining room door to the tributary of the Chesapeake Bay that laps on the shoreline a mere 50 yards away.
But oysters can't fly, and Levin Faulkner "Buddy" Harrison III can't sing, a fact that the mischievous 68-year-old proprietor of this family-run Tilghman Island enterprise is delighted to demonstrate to a couple of visitors from Baltimore.
Harrison sits in the restaurant's lounge, nodding greetings to the stream of folks who pass by his table on their way to the dining room. Most of the customers know "Cap'n Buddy" and the restaurant's down-home fare. They know that on Friday nights in "R" months, oysters reign and that in the summer months, the groaning board turns into a seafood buffet in which oysters share space with crabs and rockfish.
Some of the diners will venture out with him the next day on one of the Chesapeake Bay fishing expeditions that he and his son, Levin Faulkner "Little Buddy" Harrison IV, operate from the docks behind the restaurant.
But at this moment, Harrison is interested in displaying his newly discovered "talent" as a singer and songwriter. Teaming up with Ronnie Dove and his band, an ensemble that plays during the restaurant's weekend "best body" contests, Harrison recorded "Captain Buddy," a tune he had written while hibernating during the winter on the west coast of Florida.
In a style more spoken than sung -- think Jimmy Dean doing Big Bad John, not Luciano Pavarotti doing Tosca -- Buddy warbles, describing himself as a man with "a Rolex watch and snakeskin boots" who is "mighty proud of my island roots," and telling folks that when "that ole rat race gets you down, you need to get on outta town" and head for Tilghman Island.
It is corny, old-fashioned, not very smooth. And yet, it has a certain unvarnished appeal. It is, in other words, much like the restaurant itself, bedrock Tilghman.
If there are two Eastern shores, one where the fried eats are piled high and another where the entrees are poached and presented, Harrison's Chesapeake House is definitely deep in the fryer.
Historically known as a tight-knit community primarily composed of watermen and their families, Tilghman's 854 residents are catching up with the rest of fast-growing Talbot County as they adjust to an influx of city folks and their urbane ways.
Fine dining, for instance, has come to town. At the Tilghman Island Inn, the salmon comes lacquered with ginger and garlic, the Napa Valley wines come in flights and guest chefs like Giuliano Hazan come in from around the nation on weekends to cook and sign their new cookbooks. Luxury homes are springing up just down the road from Harrison's.
But Harrison's Chesapeake House remains rooted in tradition. From the oyster shells in the driveway, to beer served in a bottle (glass on request), to the stewed tomatoes with sugar, it is old school.
"The mainstays are crab cakes, fried chicken, fresh fish and prime rib," says Betty Schall, chief cook at the restaurant for the last 20 years. There have been some changes in the kitchen over the years -- canola oil has replaced vegetable oil in the fryer, for instance -- but Schall says some traditions have persevered. "We still use lard in our pie crusts and in our gravy ... and folks fight for that chicken gravy," Schall says.
One of the biggest compliments a customer can give the kitchen is that the night's meal tasted just like one eaten there many years ago.
When, for example, Mike Kenney is asked by a waitress how he wants his crab cake prepared, Kenney, a Baltimore-area resident who has been coming to Tilghman for 20 years, answers quickly, "Fried, the way crab cakes are supposed to be fixed."
A white-frame structure with low ceilings and screened porches dotted with wicker chairs, the Chesapeake House looks like the kind of place that a Chesapeake Bay steamship would pull into. That, as Harrison tells the story, is pretty much how the family business got started more than a century ago.
Back in the late 1890s, Harrison's grandfather, Levin Faulkner Harrison, a waterman in cool weather, landed a hot-weather job piloting one of the many steamships that carried livestock from the Eastern Shore to Baltimore, and dry goods from Baltimore to the Shore.
To get in the good graces of one of the men who ran the loading dock in Baltimore, the elder Harrison agreed to take the man's wife and family over to Tilghman for a respite from Baltimore's smelly waterfront.