Jerry Hardesty, the longtime owner of Middleton Tavern, one of the oldest restaurants in the city and purveyor of the renowned Middleton Oyster Shooter, died Thursday of heart failure. He was 79.
Hardesty, an Anne Arundel County native, leased the historic building on Market Space with his brother in 1968 at age 26.
During his more than 50 years of holding court around the tavern, Hardesty returned the establishment’s name to its 18th-century roots, built a reputation for hosting the best musical acts in the city and made famous the sinus-clearing concoction of fresh-shucked mollusk, cocktail sauce and vodka.
And, of course, he threw a good party.
“At his core, my dad was an entrepreneur and an entertainer,” said Brandon, Hardesty’s eldest son.
“He loved this city and he loved throwing parties for people,” Hardesty said. “Anything that he could do to be a part of the community and then host and entertain and bring people together and be the one to provide the experience, he loved it.”
He never shied away from a performance either, said Hardesty’s younger son, Michael.
Like when he would demonstrate how to fillet, grill and stuff a rockfish in the middle of Middleton’s dining room. Or when he would sit for hours at the bar talking to every customer who walked in.
On Wednesday, Middleton will host a celebration of Hardesty’s life.
It will be a “rager,” as Brandon Hardesty put it in a widely shared social media post, the perfect way to send off a man who thrived on not only being the life of the party but the genesis of the good time.
“I think that’s what he would want,” he said.
Joseph Jerome Hardesty was born March 16, 1942, in Galesville to Bernard O. Hardesty and Mary Elizabeth Hardesty.
He attended Southern High School where he starred on the football field and never lost a heavyweight wrestling match, according to his obituary.
After graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where he served for seven years.
Upon leaving military service, he moved to New York to attend mortician school with plans to join the family business, Hardesty Funeral Homes, founded by his grandfather. To make money, he became a bartender in Manhattan. There he was drawn to the hospitality industry that would change the trajectory of his life.
After more than 30 years of being known as Mandris Restaurant, Hardesty changed the name back to Middleton Tavern, a moniker that allegedly dates back to the mid-18th century. He restored the inside of the historic structure that once played host to some of the country’s founding fathers and expanded it to include an oyster bar.
As he built the restaurant into one of the keystones of downtown Annapolis, he always sought out the newest trends, his family said.
When the Hardesty sons were young, their father would take them on trips all over the country.
When they would eat at restaurants, the elder Hardesty would watch how the waitstaff operated, and what they served, closely studying the menu and occasionally snagged one for safekeeping and future ideas, Brandon Hardesty said.
It could have been on one of those trips that Hardesty got the idea for the oyster shooter, a shot glass filled with a freshly shucked oyster, topped with a layer of in-house cocktail sauce and a finger of vodka.
“He always said imitation was the greatest form of flattery,” Brandon Hardesty said. “I would imagine that the oyster shooter was something he saw somewhere else at another cool restaurant, maybe in New York ... and said ‘That’s dope, I want to bring that to Annapolis.’”
While he didn’t invent the shot, Hardesty played a part in making the drink popular in Annapolis.
This was just one of many times her brother was ahead of the curve on food and drink trends, Martha Hardesty said.
Always the promoter, he was constantly offering new deals to keep customers coming back for more, such as offering Sunday brunch with bloody marys and free champagne for women.
“To me, he was a renaissance man,” she said. “His creative mind moved very fast, like an artist with a canvas, his medium was food and the latest trend in the restaurant industry.”
Hardesty also made his mark on other Annapolis establishments. He ran a disco club on Market Space, became a founding co-owner of Carrol’s Creek Cafe in Eastport and owned O’Brien’s for a time before selling it in 2018.
That unending work ethic is a piece of his father that he carries with him, said Brandon Hardesty, who fronts the nationally known ska band, Bumpin Uglies.
“He worked every day of his life, but he didn’t work because he loved what he did,” he said. “And I get that because I kind of do the same thing.”
When he wasn’t working long hours at the restaurant, he was spending time with his sons, said Michael Hardesty.
After 15 years of working for his father, the younger son chose another career path in IT. Hardesty said his father likely hoped one of his sons would take over the family business but never pressured them to do so. He, too, had made a choice not to join the family business more than five decades ago.
Despite both sons taking different paths in life, they said they planned to continue running Middleton Tavern and keeping their father’s legacy alive. And on Wednesday, when the party to honor Hardesty lasts long into the night, there will be no shortage of oyster shooters for everyone who attends.
Jerry is survived by his two sons, grandchildren, August and Irene and his fiancé, Darlene Smith; and his siblings, Bernard “BO” and Martha Hardesty.
A viewing will be held at the Hardesty Funeral Home, 12 Ridgely Ave. Annapolis on Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Funeral Services will be held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday at the Funeral Home.
Hardesty will be interred at Christ Episcopal Church Cemetery. Friends, family and associates are invited to a celebration of his life at Middleton Tavern starting 2 p.m. on Wednesday. Online condolences may be placed at www.hardestyfuneralhome.com.