What does the sailing community in Eastport love? It loves the Boatyard Bar and Grill.
Dick Frayno opened the Boatyard Bar and Grill in the Eastport district of Annapolis in 2001. Cozy and charming, with plenty of dining and shopping options, Eastport has grown in popularity since then, and the Boatyard has established itself as a community hub for residents and tourists, and an unofficial headquarters for the city's sailing community.
I think it must be outsiders who come to Annapolis looking for Chesapeake-focused cuisine. The locals, or at least those flocking to the Boatyard, don't seem to care too much.
The Boatyard serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. No reservations are taken — diners are encouraged to call ahead to check on availability — and waits of a half-hour or longer for a dinner table are common on weekends.
The place looks just right, too: clubby enough for a regatta racer in deck shoes but homey enough for a waterman in work boots. Nautical themes dominate, from the timbered ceiling and gleaming wood floors to fishing nets, sailing flags and miniature ships. If you love the water, you'll know you're at home. You're unlikely to find an event on the sailing calendar that the Boatyard doesn't sponsor, a bay-related cause it doesn't contribute to, an Eastport event it doesn't help to promote.
In exchange, the sailing community and Eastport at large have rewarded the Boatyard with their patronage. They congregate over pint glasses full of beer or rum concoctions at the boat-shaped front bar, cram into the clubby raw bar and fill the crowded dining room morning, noon and night.
Did I mention the crowded dining room? You'll need good navigation skills just getting to your table. And while sound tends to bounce around the rafters, I never found myself having to shout over the racket. The noise and the crowds are a big part of the Boatyard's package. If that's not appealing, you're better off not coming aboard.
And if you're considering the Boatyard for a dinner that showcases the glories of Chesapeake Bay cooking, you're going to end up disappointed, too. The Boatyard is just not that kind of place.
Only with its oyster program does the Boatyard seem fully committed to pushing diners' tastes to regional products. We asked about the crab meat that goes into the Boatyard's crab cakes and got a vague answer. If it is Chesapeake Bay crab meat, the Boatyard should make that clearer. Elsewhere, tuna and salmon get as much attention as rockfish and perch.
On the very busy weekend night when we visited, the Boatyard's kitchen was doing yeoman's work just keeping up with an extended dinner rush. But we never got anything we truly loved.
Fish and chips — at least the fish part — was our favorite, although it didn't look very promising on the plate. The commercial-looking fries tasted about as expected. But the oddly shaped and dark hunks of fish turned out to be really good. Their ale-and-panko batter was crunchy and well seasoned, and the cod loin underneath was moist and sweet.
The Boatyard offers a daily house-smoked fish special. When we visited, it was bluefish, which was pleasantly peppery but very dry. This was paired — weirdly I thought — with a salad of fresh mozzarella and not very fresh tomatoes.
Among the handful of Key West-inspired menu items on the menu, an appetizer of fried conch fritters served with a mango-chile dipping sauce was a passable bar snack. An appetizer of citrus-marinated Gulf shrimp over roasted sweet corn and black beans salsa was middling fare, too. Nothing about either of them tasted fresh.
Billed as "Ernest Hemingway's Favorite Meal," a garlic-and-herb-encrusted New York strip was not satisfying. Served with string beans and mashed redskin potatoes, the steak was underseasoned and crusted only on its thin sides.
A gumbo, one of the evening's specials, didn't have the deep flavors that a good roux produces. It did have the unusual addition of fried fish pieces.
For dessert, the Boatyard brings in Smith Island cakes, bread puddings and a Key lime pie, but not one made with Key limes, as our waitress was quick to point out. I think she'd grown tired of our questions.
The truth is, we came to Eastport looking for a dining experience that the Boatyard isn't offering. But if you come looking for a genuine sense of community and a taste of Eastport's sailing culture, you might find yourself looking at life through pint-size glasses.