Vera's Shines Again
New Owners Restoring Md. Restaurant's Sea Legs

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2006

The future arrived at no more than 10 mph, in a white Chrysler with a gold winged hood ornament.

On a day in January, Vera Freeman drove the quarter-mile to Steve Stanley's house, passing her legendary restaurant, Vera's White Sands, and the community that has bloomed around it near Lusby.

After a half-century as proprietress, Freeman was ready to sell Vera's White Sands. She had chosen Stanley and his wife, Lisa Del Ricco, as her successors. Should they accept, they would take the wheel of her life's work, a dream project that started in 1953 on 800 acres of Calvert County wilderness.

Vera's White Sands -- yacht club, Polynesian mirage, Xanadu for the semi-famous and wholly eccentric -- has been the anomalous treasure of the county since. Tucked two miles down a dead-end road on a Patuxent River tributary, the restaurant has lost some of its luster in the past decade as Freeman entered her nineties and Solomons Island burgeoned into a serious beach destination six miles south.

It could have been the end for Vera's -- several million dollars for the land and a bulldozer for the legend.

But Stanley, who grew up in Prince George's County, accepted Freeman's offer. He and Del Ricco bought the property and have been gutting and renovating since, using mostly friends and volunteers.

Their mission: to restore Vera's to its former glory by June 24, when a poker run fleet from the Chesapeake Bay Power Boat Association will dock at the restaurant for drinks and an overnight stay -- just like the yachtsmen of yesteryear.

In the Early Days

Robert Mitchum strode off his yacht, into Vera's and uttered, "Gimme a drink, right away."

The alcohol hadn't been unloaded yet. The hostess improvised.

"Come down to the house, and we can make you a drink faster," Freeman told him. Mitch and his wife retired to her Moroccan-style villa next door -- and returned several times throughout the early '60s.

Freeman told this story, invigorated by the memory, over lunch in a Solomons Island eatery. Anywhere else and people would've gawked at her appearance: a captain's hat atop bright white hair, a golden wrap hugging her leopard-print dress, her veined skin a molten version of the pink marble floor in her villa. Her voice is a creak, and she is slowed by time -- she won't reveal her exact age -- but Freeman is still a vision of old-world glamour.

She grew up on the Crow Indian Reservation in Wyola, Mont., and jetted to Hollywood to be a star. While working coaxial cables for a phone company, she went on a blind date with optometrist Effrus "Doc" Freeman, who told her he did Bogart's and Bacall's eyes.

They married and traveled the world in their yacht, transporting exotic wares from Bali and Bombay back to those 800 acres, which Doc parceled into a subdivision called White Sands, with the restaurant and marina as its locus.

Vera intended to return to Hollywood and achieve stardom, but the restaurant took off. It became a destination for the growing White Sands community to slip on a lei and drink a mai tai, and for yachtsmen from Annapolis and Baltimore to dock and be merry amid waitresses in grass skirts. Vera herself became the vivacious empress of White Sands. Her new vocation was hostess of a never-ending tiki party.

"I had such a plan for this place," she said. "You live it, you breathe it and you do it. There's nothing else."

Doc died in 1980, but Vera kept the dream alive. Even as she grew older and the yachts stopped coming, the legacy remained: White Sands matured into a community of 710 homes partly because of her hospitality and resolve. She has the notoriety to prove it, as well as the commendations of governors (from J. Millard Tawes in '64 to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in '04).

Richard Fischer, who owns the Lighthouse Inn in Solomons, worked for the Freemans as a dock master in the early '70s and was part of the crew on their yacht trips to New York and the Bahamas.

"When [Vera] walks into a room, anywhere in the world, people look," Fischer said. "She commands that kind of attention."

Near the end of lunch, a woman stopped by the table and put her hand on Freeman's shoulder.

"Hi, Vera. I know you don't remember me," the woman said slowly. "I'm Judy. God bless you."

"I have so many friends here," Freeman said, watching her go. "I don't know them. But they know me. And that's a warm feeling."

Work in Progress

With the vigor of a proud mother, Del Ricco hung the liquor license beside the bar.

"Now we're in business," she said a month before the planned opening. "I'm ready. My adrenaline is definitely flowing."

On that May afternoon, the termite guy sprayed into the cinder blocks behind the bar, whose leopard-skin facade was muddled by plastic wrapping. In the air were whiffs of exhumed dust. New glass doors glazed with palm tree silhouettes opened up to the new deck, where Del Ricco and Stanley rested between projects.

Twelve years ago, Stanley moved to White Sands from Prince George's. He had just weathered a divorce and wanted a new start on the water.

"But when I got down here, I thought I made a big mistake," Stanley said. "I was bored to death. I knew no one, and I had nowhere to go."

So he went to the only place around: Vera's. The empress herself began having a martini with him every weekend. The two became friends as business waned and the place aged.

Since Freeman made her offer in January, Stanley and Del Ricco have been trying to do a job in six months that would take contractors years. It's tough -- the couple have two children still at home, a paving business in Annapolis Junction and a restaurant to raise from the dead.

"It wears on you, the 'Why are you even doing it?' " Stanley said. "But a good night's sleep always changes things."

Stanley has been cashing in favors from friends in various trades, and the teamwork is paying off. Rotted wood and the thatched reed ceiling have been replaced. Banana trees have been planted outside, as in the old days.

The new Vera's will be updated, more populist, a destination for families and fishermen instead of dapper yachtsmen. The food will be fresh and served in generous portions, but there will be no $50 lobster tail. There will be air conditioning, a stereo system and flat-screen TVs. The slips out front will be downsized to accommodate smaller, faster boats.

And once the rebirth of Vera's is complete, Del Ricco will inherit the dynasty as the restaurant's general manager and Stanley will stick to running his paving company.

"Vera's dream is to see this place fixed up," Stanley said. "This is everything she ever wanted in her life. She chose me out of people who wanted to pay more."

He swept his hand across the view. From the elevated deck, there is an illusion that the restaurant is a ship, cleaving down sparkling St. Leonard's Creek.

"Somewhere in this place must be a fountain of youth," Stanley said. "Maybe it's in the martinis. But it works for Vera."

The Empress Approves

The white Chrysler pulled into the dusty parking lot. The exterior of the restaurant shimmered with fresh paint. The grounds were sodded and manicured. Vera's White Sands had been given more than a facelift: It had a new lease on life.

Stanley and Del Ricco guided Freeman inside for a preview. The artifacts from her travels were set up, museum-style, in a new private dining room. The detritus of construction still littered the grounds, but Freeman was smitten.

"I love it. I love it," she said, hopping up and down. She started crying when she saw the doors with the frosted palm trees. "I love it! People are going to trip!"

From the deck, they took in the view of the creek that first seduced the Freemans.

"Everything you did -- it's unbelievable," Freeman told Del Ricco and Stanley, who put his arm around her.

What's left is mostly cosmetic stuff, refining the vision, working seven days a week to hit that June 24 opening, when the admiring public will return.

"I love it," Freeman told Del Ricco on her way out.

"Oh, I'm glad," Del Ricco said.

Freeman will be back for the opening to place her handprints in cement at the bow of the restaurant -- an enduring star making one more impression on her world.

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