Great explorers, conquerors of the globe, circumnavigators of the world approach their journeys in one of two ways. There are those whose goal is only to reach their destination, eyes forward at all times, hellbent to get to the end. Then there are those for whom the trip itself is the adventure, the end a letdown. Or to put it another way: Life is a beach, or life is a road trip on the way to the beach.
If you think that aside from pre-cancerous sunburn, sand in your suit, $7 french fries and the Purple Moose Saloon, the drive to Ocean City is the worst part about going to the beach, you're from the first school. Me, I'm a happy member of that second school.
Yes, the 135 miles of Route 50 that link Washington to Ocean City, Md., offer one of the world's finest continuous dining experiences, a giant pay-as-you-go buffet that makes the faceless highway a joy and heavy traffic a blessing.
It's like a rolling dinner party, only with plastic forks and little packs of mustard. Join me as I throw caution and calorie charts to the ocean breeze and pick just 10 of the many opportunities along the way on one of the longest, slowest and most delicious trips to the beach in history.
1. My first stop is for breakfast at Rip's in Bowie. Rips is on Route 301 just off Route 50, and it's a local favorite for country cooking in a dark but cozy atmosphere. What light comes from each table's small lantern reveals the tack and saddlery that adorn the walls, a clue that this is a good spot for a hearty meal. Indeed, the house specialty is Eggs Montoya: two poached eggs over slices of grilled filet mignon on an English muffin, topped with hollandaise sauce ($7.50).
But I have a long day of eating ahead of me, so I need something light. The Rip's Fruit Bowl--a bowl of fruit with a bagel ($4.50)--seems to fit the bill. That's what I settle on, only I decide to substitute hash browns (95 cents) for the bagel, since they look so good at the table next-door.
The waitress approaches and approves my switch. I get a Sprite, too. Then I ask if I couldn't have creamed chipped beef ($4.50) on wheat toast instead of the fruit. Thirty minutes later I leave more satisfied than I expected, yet anxious for my next stop.
2. I'm at the bar at Red Hot & Blue, where "The Ribs Are So Hot We Need a Windmill to Cool Them." Actually, that's not the slogan, but it could be since the restaurant is housed in a windmill on top of a hill overlooking Route 50, just before the Bay Bridge. You know the place.
The bar is where you pick up carryout and I'm waiting for a small rack of ribs, baked beans and some slaw ($9.99). Ten minutes later I'm in my car, enjoying the spicy and tender ribs and the view as I cross the Bay Bridge.
(Note to Readers: There is a small chance that eating ribs while driving an automobile constitutes a violation of Maryland traffic regulations. Given that possibility, I would urge you not to try to duplicate my dining experience on the Bay Bridge.)
(Note to Police: Should eating ribs while crossing the Bay Bridge actually violate Maryland law, please be advised that I originally wrote that I ate the ribs while my car was parked in an officially sanctioned interstate highway rest area, but that my editor mangled the copy to include the offending passage. I apologize for the editing error, and can assure you there is no need for you to read any further than this sentence, which will conclude with the following period.)
3. I'm still licking my fingers as I cross onto the Eastern Shore and hear the Call of the Blue Crab. Remembering the old Bill Cosby commercials ("There's always room for soup!"), I head for the Narrows Restaurant on Kent Island and its renowned cream of crab soup ($5.50 a cup).
I sit at the bar, which overlooks the narrows (a-hah!) separating Kent Island from the mainland. The soup is good. No, the soup is great. The broth is rich, the dash of pepper just right, the crab meat clumped in thick lumps. The best I've ever had, to be sure.
Yet I linger too long on this soup! It is time to move on to Easton, transportation hub of the upper Eastern Shore and home of the . . .
4. Hangar Cafe. This airport diner is another place-to-go-if-you're-in-the-know, and its mammoth dining room windows front the airfield. I order a Piper Burger ($4.95, with cheddar cheese and fried onions) and admire the 1942 Stearman biplane parked some 100 feet in front of me. It's owned by pilot Hunter Harris and available for sky tours of the Easton area, a great treat for adventurous diners with time on their hands.
So why not, once you're finished with your juicy and delicious burger, take a spin among the clouds, with the whir of the propeller as your company and the panoramic view below as your scenery? (When I ask why not, I mean besides the fact that the plane has no walls or ceiling to keep you in it, requires you to sit in front of the pilot where you can't keep an eye on his performance or breathing status, that aviation engineering has come a long way since they designed this thing for the Civil War and that you've got a stomach full of food from four restaurants and have six more to go.)
Like I said, the burger was juicy and delicious.
5. I think of that juicy and delicious burger as I travel south to Cambridge, on the descent of my lunch arc that began back at Red Hot & Blue. Time now for a beverage, so I pull into the Dairy Queen, an old-fashioned drive-up spot where you order through a little window and then sort of wait around, regretting your choice as you see what everyone else gets.
I settle on a medium root beer float ($1.70), which is good but would have been better if they had put some shaved ice in it.
No matter. The important thing to remember here is that a root beer float is not dessert. It is a beverage. That will be important later, but first we need to--and this could shock you, but I need to report it anyway--eat something healthy.
6. In I pull to Jack's Market, a combination vegetable stand, garden center and craft shop in Hebron. To be honest, it wasn't the market's produce, sign or even its reputation that attracted me. It was the gazing globes.
Gazing globes are those shiny orbs of reflective metal people mount on concrete pillars in their yards for decoration. Jack has a few dozen of them on display. The globes are quite enticing, even hypnotic.
Yet I break their treacherous grip on my mind long enough to buy a $3 quart of Magic-Marker-red strawberries. They look awfully tasty. And they are--juicy and sweet, without the slightest need for sugar. It's early in the season, but cantaloupes, tomatoes and other juicy local fruits and vegetables will be at Jack's during the summer. I eat a handful of the strawberries in the car, then sneak another about a mile down the road.
Then I put down that fruit, with all its vitamins and goodness, for fear I might get full. After all, it's time for some dessert.
7. Scoops! in Salisbury is about two miles off Route 50. It sits on Route 13, right across from Salisbury State University. It is worth the detour.
The hip ice cream store--with 48 flavors of ice cream, 12 flavors of Italian ice, homemade fruit smoothies and gourmet coffee--names its specialty creations after local politicians. I choose the Wayne Gilchrest ($3.33), a very large milkshake honoring the Eastern Shore's Republican congressman that tastes like a Peppermint Patty. (The shake, not Wayne.)
8. There is a long stretch before me, the 30 miles or so between Salisbury and the outer reaches of Ocean City, a region so vast and removed from its sand-strewn nucleus it's often referred to as . . . West Ocean City.
Here I plan to enjoy the trifecta of taste, the triumvirate of tastiness, the Triple Crown of . . . well, of taste.
First stop: Plaza Tapatia, known by many locals as the best Mexican restaurant around. I am here for some chicken tacos, a delightful mix of chicken, lettuce and cheese smothered in a spicy sauce, all embraced by a crisp and savory tortilla shell ($2.39 each). My waiter offers me a job writing the menu after reading that sentence, then reminds me to add: And the nachos and salsa are free, too!
9. Twenty minutes later I walk into the Ocean City Jerky Outlet, a hut of a place just down the road from Plaza Tapatia. The Jerky Outlet boasts on its sign that it features "Wild Bill's Jerky," but I'm in the mood for one of the Polish sausages, roasting on the rotating hot pipes.
As I wait for the sausage, I consider buying a few of the souvenirs and food products that line the walls: gallon jars of pickled eggs, jerky kits, hot sauces that solve digestive problems by eating a hole directly from your esophagus to the floor via your back. What really catches my eye, though, is the plastic quiver of four-foot-long beef sticks--40 or so of them for $50. The label declares them "The Original Rope-a-Roni."
My Polish sausage sandwich ($3.62)--with peppers, sauteed onions and hot mustard--now seems a little small, but I buck up and continue. The end is near.
10. And so is Hooper's Crab House. A mile or so down the road, in fact. I plop myself at a small table in the expansive three-story dining room and order the all-you-can-eat crabs and corn for $16.95. (If it weren't the last stop, I might have gone for the $20.95 all-you-can eat seafood feast: crabs, fried chicken, barbecued ribs, steamed spiced shrimp, hush puppies, clam strips and corn on the cob.) Ordering crabs in early May is risky, and as a native Eastern Shoreman I am often skeptical of Ocean City crab houses. But I must say Hooper's left me pleasantly surprised. Pleasantly surprised, that is, that most of my seafood stereotypes still hold true. The crabs I'm eating are palm-sized clawless sooks, a ".5" on the crab popularity scale. But the meat is sweet, and the crabs are pretty heavy. The corn, served still in the husks, is a treat. And my picking is made easier by my waiter, who smuggles me a steak knife to replace the plastic "crab knife" Hooper's gave me.
A dozen or so crabs later, I'm done.
Not just my meal. But my journey. I have stopped at 10 spots, enjoyed every major food group, consumed enough carbohydrates and protein to create life from a pile of clay. I have traveled about 135 miles in the course of eight hours and 25 minutes. Full and tired, I cross Assawoman Bay into Ocean City, park at the inlet and head for the boardwalk. There I stop for a huge $7 bucket of Thrasher's fries, because they really are the best in the world. Then I retreat to the dark and the smoke of the Purple Moose Saloon for a beer.
God knows I'm not going to sit on the beach in my bathing suit after that trip.
Finding All Those Stops Along the Way
1. Rip's Country Inn, 3809 North Crain Hwy., Bowie, Md. 20715. Call 301-805-5901. From Route 50, take Exit 11 onto Route 197 South, which will take you right to Rip's at the intersection of 197 and 301. Carryout available.
2. Red Hot & Blue, 200 Old Mill Bottom Rd., Annapolis, Md. 21401. Call 301-858-7258 or 410-626-7427. From Route 50 in Annapolis, take Exit 28 to Old Mill Bottom Road. Carryout available (you pick up your order at the bar).
3. The Narrows Restaurant, 3023 Kent Narrows Way South, Grasonville, Md. 21638. Call 410-827-8113. From Route 50 in Kent Island, take Exit 41 just before the Kent Narrows Bridge. Take a left at the stop sign, cross the drawbridge, take a right at the end of the drawbridge and the Narrows Restaurant will be about 100 yards on the right, by the water. Carryout available.
4. The Hangar Cafe, 12 Airport Circle, Easton, Md. 21601. Call 410-820-6631. From Route 50, take a right on Airport Road just as you approach Easton; the restaurant is in the airport terminal. Or just follow the planes--it's a hard place to miss. Carryout available.
5. Dairy Queen, 320 Sunburst Hwy., Cambridge, Md. 21613. Call 410-228-1680. Once you cross the Choptank River bridge into Cambridge, the Dairy Queen will be on the westbound lane of Route 50. (There is no dining room, so everything is a carryout. But the wait can be long, so calling ahead is a pretty good idea.)
6. Jack's Market, Route 50, Hebron, Md. 21830. Call 410-749-1889. The address may be Hebron, but you wouldn't know you've just entered a town when you see this place. Just keep an eye on the westbound lane of Route 50 and look for Jack's seven miles west of Salisbury. It's a pretty big place, so it's hard to miss. (Bonus tip for those reading this box on directions: They sometimes have free samples of juicy cantaloupe on toothpicks for customers. Worth the stop!)
7. Scoops!, 1147 S. Salisbury Blvd., Salisbury, Md. 21801. Call 410-548-9889. Take the Route 13 Business exit in Salisbury down to Salisbury State University. (A mile or so.) Scoops! is directly across from the university on Route 13. Carryout available.
8. Plaza Tapatia, 12534 Ocean Gateway, Ocean City, Md. 21842. Call 410-213-7324. As you approach Ocean City's H. Kelly Memorial Bridge (the main bridge that crosses Assawoman Bay), this place will be on the right. It is next to the Bedtime Inn. Carryout available.
9. O.C. Jerky Outlet, 12842 Ocean Gateway, Ocean City, Md. 21842. Call 410-213-1830. Not long after Plaza Tapatia, you'll see the O.C. Jerky Outlet on the right, just before Shanty Town at the foot of the old bridge into Ocean City. The outlet does not accept carryout orders by telephone, but with more than 250 kinds of jerky, everything is pretty much made ahead of time anyway.
10. Hooper's Crab House, 12913 Ocean Gateway, Ocean City, Md. 21842. Call 410-213-1771. This restaurant sits right next to the Kelly Bridge, on the westbound lane of Route 50, right on the bay. Carryout available.