Some of Maryland's most creative chefs and their upscale restaurants can be found where you'd least expect them.
Don't look for them in Baltimore or Annapolis. These eating places are located across the Bay Bridge, in quiet little towns once known for shore food like crab cakes and fried oysters.
As recently as three years ago, the popular Zagat Survey restaurant guide lumped Eastern Shore restaurants in with Annapolis ones. In the current guide, places on the other side of the Bay Bridge have a section all their own. Nineteen are listed. Most of them have high ratings for food and even higher price tags. Words like "superb" and "a jewel" abound.
"Annapolis and the Eastern Shore are different worlds," says Marty Katz, Maryland editor of the guide. "It's certainly not the way it was five years ago. That's why we split them. It struck me over dinner at Restaurant Columbia. I had heard that people were flying in in their private planes to eat at the Kennedyville Inn."
The Kennedyville Inn, which Zagat calls "a hidden gem," is owned by Kevin McKinney and is located five miles outside of Chestertown.
Restaurant Columbia is a small, elegant establishment in what used to be the sleepy town of Easton. Owner Stephen Mangasarian says that 40 percent of his credit-card charges last year came from Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia.
The two restaurants both have chef-owners who produce imaginative and sometimes quirky food, making the most of local ingredients. The same is true for most of the other high-profile places, which is one of the main reasons why Maryland's Eastern Shore -- particularly Talbot County -- has become a dining destination for the Mid-Atlantic region.
Many of these places are an hour and a half away from Baltimore and an hour from Annapolis, a long drive for dinner but one that people seem willing to make. "I go down specifically for the day to dine there," says Baltimore restaurant consultant Diane Pfeffer-Neas.
More to the point, though, the local customer base has changed over the past decade. City folk in droves are buying weekend homes on the Eastern Shore or condos in Ocean City. People with money are retiring to Talbot County, and they don't want to cook for themselves or eat at Ruby Tuesday. They know big-city food, and they expect it. And, of course, affluent boaters make St. Michaels a port of call. It's not just for steamed crabs.
"For years we never went out to dinner because there wasn't any place decent," says Linda Tilghman, who lives in Towson but has a second home in Easton. "If we did, we'd go to Michael Rork's. But in the past five years, I'd say we go out all the time. It's fun."
"Michael Rork's" is Michael Rork's Town Dock in St. Michaels, one of the early trend-setting restaurants in the area. Rork was a well-known Baltimore chef who in 1994 left a prestigious position at Hampton's in Harbor Court for a quieter lifestyle. He bought the Town Dock, a popular local hangout, and found that his first job would be to educate his employees and his customers.
"When I first got to the restaurant, it was fryolators galore," he says. "Everything was fried."
There's still fried food on the menu; but, for instance, the fried oysters come with a fresh basil aioli instead of cocktail sauce.
Rork made his changes slowly, so as not to upset his regulars. Ten years ago, he says, when he served mesclun in his salads, the comment cards came back complaining about the "foreign greens."
Ten years ago, his early-bird dinners for locals had to be fried shrimp, chicken and filet mignon. These days it's a choice of grilled vegetable ravioli with sun-dried tomato sauce or almond-crusted flounder with rhubarb-Vidalia onion compote.
Douglas Kirby, the chef of Oxford's Latitude 38, offers food in the bar area specifically designed to attract locals. With smaller portions at about half the price of the food in the dining room, Oxford residents can afford to feast regularly on dishes like salmon baked with a curried pineapple-and-banana crust.
"It's really taken off," Kirby says.
In other words, it's not just the tourists who have sophisticated tastes these days. It's not even just the retirees from Washington and Philadelphia. People who have lived in Talbot County all their lives have discovered a world of food beyond crab cakes and sweet corn -- not that there's anything wrong with those -- courtesy of the food networks, travel and even their grocery stores. (Ten years ago,you wouldn't have found mangoes in the produce section of the local Acme.) In fact, St. Michaels is about to get a branch of Graul's, the gourmet market based in Baltimore. "It's the talk of the town," says Rork.
Bob Porter, whose family has been in Talbot County for eight generations, eats at Michael Rork's Town Dock a couple of times a week. He says he used to complain about the tourists.