Carroll County Times
Carroll County Lifestyles

Foraging for Flavor: Blackwall Hitch's long journey

Blackwall Hitch is the latest addition to Annapolis' burgeoning restaurant scene. Local social media lit up with raves about the rooftop bar's stunning views of Spa Creek, the cool name, fabulous décor, happy servers, easy parking and the company's familiar business partners when The Hitch opened two weeks ago.

Not much, if anything, was mentioned about the long road the owners traveled to opening day, nor about Executive Chef Brian Thornton, who comes to Annapolis from a decades long career at some of Washington, D.C.'s most popular and beloved restaurants.

Blackwall Hitch is located at the busy corner of 6th and Severn in Eastport, on the other side of Spa Creek Bridge from downtown Annapolis. The location once housed The Eastport Clipper, a live music venue, and later The Rockfish, a restaurant and bar that thrived from its opening in 2004 until last summer.

The Rockfish was owned by a group of three major partners and other minority interests. Executive Chef Charlie Baugher, one the partners and a man much loved by the Eastport community, collapsed at the restaurant on a Friday night — a result, his friends supposed, of over-work or perhaps the flu. Diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, Charlie passed within a just few short months. "Losing Charlie was an unbelievable, terrible thing", says Derek Fink, a partner with Greg Casteen and Chef Baugher at The Rockfish and majority owner with James King and Larry Ray of Blackwall Hitch. "Aside from losing a great friend and business partner, we lost our identity. Charlie was well-known in the Eastport community, was tied to many civic organizations around town, was at the restaurant every single day and was just a well-liked guy." Business at The Rockfish suffered as the partners tried to replace Charlie's loss not only to the kitchen but to the restaurant as a whole. Fink was busy with his appointment to the state legislature as well as to his other holdings, including Pro-Fish, one of the area's largest seafood wholesalers. King was also a state delegate and simultaneously majority owner of J KING'S in Gambrills and three area Green Turtles. Unfortunately, business dwindled and the restaurant was shuttered.

Last year King and Fink completed their service as delegates and felt a renewed vigor to pour attention into location. Over the summer, the partners worked to buy out Casteen and to join with Larry Ray, owner of the Big Vanilla Health Clubs, with a plan in mind to build something a little different.

The new owners wanted something fresh, but had to consider what customers wanted, what would be profitable, and what could be branded into additional outlets (an Alexandria location will open by the end of summer 2014). The new vision included a bar, restaurant, live music, a raw bar, rooftop seating and multiple opportunities for private events. The partners envisioned a chic, urban, modern feel with a nautical twist to honor Eastport's maritime traditions. A broad menu would appeal to everyone without being cost-prohibitive for customers to frequently enjoy. "At the end of the day, we are surrounded by more expensive restaurants here in Eastport," says King. "But we are a true dining destination, with lots of appetizers, handmade pizzas, pastas, steak and seafood, served in an environment that is cool, unique and different from anywhere else in Annapolis at a price point we think is affordable."

These days, restaurants come and go with sad frequency. The public may speculate on why, but rarely understands just how difficult the restaurant industry can be to survive. I initially visited Blackwall Hitch with the idea of showing readers just how hard it is to conceptualize, build, staff, train and finally open a successful restaurant. After three visits to the Hitch, I can attest to the steely nerve, keen brain-power and raw passion the owners of such an enterprise are required to muster. "The first thing restaurant owners have to focus on is who they are: what is the brand: how do service, the menu, uniforms, décor, functionality, even the music play into that?" says Fink. "All of these aspects have to be integrated, all are challenging pieces of a larger puzzle."

The group started their enterprise with a captivating name. Blackwall Hitch is a nautical knot with origins at Blackwall Port, near London on the Thames River. Blackwall was the primary point of embarkation for colonial visitors to America's Eastern Seaboard. "Most East Coast cities like Annapolis and Boston and Charleston and even Alexandria, focus on our early revolutionary history and battles. We wanted our place to honor that historical bent and to showcase a nod to maritime culture, but to not be a historical tavern," says Ray, who was active in determining décor and ambiance, with the help of Bobbi Nock and her Severna Park interior decorating firm, Reiter Interiors.

"We envisioned an urban chic theme with a historical bent to brand our name, so the Hitch has a sort of industrial, old shipyard feel with the most comfortable, beautiful elements like quartz flooring in the foyer, cedar wrapped walls and partitions, a raised, coffered ceiling, reclaimed and restored tables and chairs, freestanding lounge chairs and dining booths tufted in leather and replica Edison lighting."

The Rockfish closed the last weekend of August 2013. Fink, Ray and King spent three months in legal deliberations followed by another couple of months working through the permit process with the city of Annapolis. "The city was really great", says Ray. "We had to spend much more than we anticipated on this project because as we began to peel away the layers of the building, we found it was not well cared for over the decades. We brought the building down to the 2-by-4s, which is even more challenging, I think, than a new build. The city provided a lot of guidance through that process to make sure we built right and built smart." In the end, everything except the main beams at Blackwall Hitch is brand new. The outside was repainted and freshly landscaped. The city worked on new sidewalks and the restaurant partnered with the Spa Creek Conservancy, state of Maryland and city of Annapolis to build the first "green" parking lot in the city. At a cost of $400,000, the lot has 65 (unheard of in downtown Annapolis) spaces and is built to prevent run-off into nearby waterways.

When I first visited Hitch, in late winter, the interior was an open, gutted space without finished floors or even walls. Much progress had been made by my next visit in March, when kitchen equipment had arrived but I couldn't walk on freshly stained floors. By opening day, the owner's vision had been realized.

As much as determining a name, choosing décor and sprucing up the bones of an aged building may contribute to opening a restaurant, it is the heart of the place: the menu and the executive chef, combined with excellent customer service, that ultimately determine a restaurant's success. "I want to offer something for every customer, but I realize I can't please everyone," says King. "People have different tastes, different experiences, different budgets." In the months leading up to the Hitch's opening, King and his team worked 6 a.m. to midnight — 7 days a week, hiring staff, training, tasting menus, choosing cocktails, finalizing the wine list. "The list of details that have to be wrapped up in a matter of days is about ten pages long. We really want to make everything at the Hitch unique, and that takes a lot of time and energy. We spent three days on salt and pepper shakers, trying to lock those little items in one by one, cross them off the list and move on to the next one."

After a national search that resulted in 55 interviews and exhaustive process that concluded with six full-course tasting menus before making a final selection, King and his team chose Chef Brian Thornton as Hitch's executive chef. Learn more about his career and what he is working on in the Blackwall Hitch kitchen at Here are two of his favorite recipes.

Valrhona Chocolate Brownies

2/3 cup unsalted Butter

1 ¼ cup sugar

1 cup unsweetened Valrhona Cocoa Powder

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

3 large eggs

½ cup flour

1 tsp baking powder

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Grease and flour a 9-by-9 baking pan.

Combine butter, sugar, cocoa and salt in a medium bowl and place in a double boiler. Stir mixture until melted and smooth. Remove from heat, set aside and allow to cool (until warm). Place mixture in a mixing bowl and add vanilla. Mix on low speed and add 1 egg at a time. Add flour and mix until completely blended. Beat for 40 strokes.

Spread in pan and bake in oven for approximately 45 minutes.

Allow to cool. Cut into 4 ounce portions. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Garlic Chive Butter

1 pound unsalted butter, room temperature

12 garlic cloves, minced

2 ounces chives (diced fine)

Salt and pepper to taste

In a mixer, whip butter and add chopped garlic, chives, and salt and pepper to taste. A delicious sauce for fish, chicken or beef.