Ask any Rehoboth regular or OC devotee: Where and what they eat is a key part of what makes a beach trip memorable. While discovering new restaurants is an exciting part of some vacations, for many families, the most important beach eats are ones that are enjoyed year after year.
"We like comfort things and the kind of things you can do as a tradition with your family," said Bruce Leiner, owner of Candy Kitchen, the local chain of shops where generations of beachgoers have gone to indulge their cravings for something sweet. "Things you can do with your kids that you did with your parents or grandparents."
The Maryland and Delaware beaches are stocked with foods that have burrowed into the hearts and minds of generations of vacationers. Here's a look at five longtime local favorites:
Thrasher's French Fries
The recipe for Thrasher's narrow fries, best enjoyed piping hot, right out of the paper cup, while standing on the Boardwalk, is a closely guarded secret. Though since its founding by J.T. Thrasher in 1929, Thrasher's French Fries has changed ownership twice, its original recipe and cooking process have not been tweaked, according to general manager Les Morris.
Thrasher's lovers might debate whether to sprinkle the fries with vinegar or Old Bay, or just stick with salt, but they agree that the sizzle of potatoes frying in oil and a whiff of the fries are a quick way to connect with memories of past vacations.
"A special moment over a tub of Thrasher's isn't just a pile of fries," said Tony Weeg, a Salisbury resident and photographer who has incorporated Thrasher's in an engagement photo shoot (and is a big fan of the fries — without vinegar — himself). "It's a memory of the beach, or a windy evening and summer love. It's something you remember in your heart, mind or stomach and once you enjoy your first taste, there's no going back."
Dumser's Dairyland Ice Cream
A Boardwalk staple since its opening in 1939, Dumser's Dairyland now has seven locations around town.
"I consider Dumser's part of the Holy Trinity of Boardwalk foods. There's Thrasher's, Fisher's and Dumser's," said Jim Adcock. Adcock, a local artist with a studio in Snow Hill, has created paintings of two Dumser's locations, including the Boardwalk spot where the company started.
The restaurant's founder and namesake, Gladys Dumser, sold the company to the current owner, Donald Timmons, in 1981. Today, the ice cream is made fresh at the Boardwalk location, as it has been for years, and it is sold as soon as possible after being made.
Adcock, a particular fan of Dumser's chocolate milkshakes, muses that "it must be the ice cream" itself that keeps people coming back year after year.
"No one ever complains about anything they get from Dumser's," he said. "They have found a way to make delicious ice cream."
Candy Kitchen Fudge (and everything else)
Candy Kitchen might be most famous for its fudge, or maybe for its taffy, or maybe for the make-your-own sundae bars that allow kids and adults to go a little crazy with toppings. Or maybe it's just the feelings triggered by walking into the sugary wonderland inside one of the company's 19 seaside locations, which stretch from Delaware to Virginia Beach.
All the fudge and taffy and most of the chocolates displayed neatly behind Candy Kitchen's glass cases are made in Ocean City, said Leiner, the current owner and nephew of Sam Taustin, who founded Candy Kitchen in 1937.
This year, as the company celebrates its 80th birthday, Leiner remains committed to helping people capture the traditional Candy Kitchen experience. "Even though we have a lot of stores, we make everything fresh," he said. "Whether you're 3 or 93, everyone remembers the time they're taken for their first treat. It's something people can look forward to all year."
Everett Fisher and business partner Edmund Pusey opened a popcorn shop called Pixton's Popcorn on Talbot Street and the Boardwalk in 1937, with copper kettles for corn-popping and a great recipe for caramel popcorn.
After a few years, Pusey left the business and Fisher gave it his own name. Eighty years later, Fisher's grandchildren are carrying on Everett's tradition, still using copper kettles and the same recipe that generations of beachgoers crave and buy by the big, black-and-white plastic tub.
Over the years, the family has introduced flavors, including a popular Old Bay-dusted version, and this summer, Fisher's connoisseurs will find even more new types to try, including caramel apple and a rotating flavor of the month. But purists can take comfort: Cindy Fisher, one of Fisher's current owners, promises that the old standards will remain the same.
"Caramel is still our biggest seller," she said. "Most of the time, when people walk up to the counter, it's just been put in the case, so it's still warm and gooey and hasn't had a chance to cool off. People like that!"
When Dominick Pulieri opened the first Grotto Pizza shop in Rehoboth Beach in 1960, local customers didn't immediately line up outside the door. In fact, to some of them, pizza was an entirely new concept, said Vinnie DiNatale, Grotto's director of marketing.
Today, with about two dozen locations in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, Grotto is no longer a mystery to beachgoing families. In the nearly six decades since the first pizza was sold, going out for Grotto has become an important part of a beach vacation.
"When you're a kid, you come down with your parents and grandparents and Grotto is on the list," said DiNatale. "You check into the rental, go to the beach, go to Grotto Pizza at night."
Grotto's special place in people's hearts is cemented by its unique construction. With cheese sprinkled directly on the crust, then topped with a swirl of sweet tomato sauce, the pizza is unique, both visually and in terms of taste.
"The sauce is on the top, so it looks different and tastes different if you get a 'sauce' bite or a 'cheese' bite," said DiNatale. "If you get a sauce bite, the sauce is a little sweeter or tangier. Or plain cheese – the cheese is flakier and buttery. So the pizza itself is unique in its flavor profile."
People connect the taste of Grotto with the smell of the ocean and the feel of sand, he said. "It's something you can only do when you're at the beach."
Eating up and down the coast
The Maryland and Delaware beaches aren't the only spots on the Midatlantic coast that claim iconic foods. Here's what to eat when you're vacationing farther north or south:
Jersey Shore natives insist that every Jersey beach has its own "must-eat" items. But up and down the shore, you're sure to find one constant favorite: Kohr Brothers Frozen Custard. True devotees can hunt this down in Maryland and Delaware, too.
Ordering from the raw bar is the way to go at Chick's Oyster Bar, a waterside spot on Wolfsnare Creek. Follow that up with a bowl of creamy, spicy she-crab soup, a southeastern Virginia specialty.
Don't let an OBX vacation pass by without a trip to Duck Donuts. Order a dozen (or more) in a variety of flavors, wait while they're handmade and iced and topped with sweet drizzles and other goodies, then dive in. They're best when they're warm.
When Peaches Corner opened on the corner of Ocean Boulevard and 9th Avenue, in 1937, its hot dogs were 15 cents apiece. Today, a classic foot long with mustard chili and onion runs $3.99 — but it's still a Myrtle Beach tradition.