Ridge is a small town. It doesn't even have one traffic light. The latest census put its population at 1,245, and that includes a smaller place called Wynne, which doesn't have a Zip code of its own.

But for a town of its size, Ridge has a remarkable number of eating establishments. In addition to the better-known Courtney's, Scheibles and Southridge restaurants nearby, you'll find Spinnakers tucked away on a Point Lookout Marina pier. It's a small and intimate restaurant offering casual dining with a gourmet touch.

Chef and owner John Spinicchia trekked from Westminster, 30 miles north of Baltimore, to St. Mary's College in 1982 to study biology. While in school, Spinicchia worked at the Green Door tavern and several area restaurants, some that no longer exist.

Somewhere along the line his passion changed from biology to the notion of providing a "total dining experience." In 1991, Spinicchia took over Divenuti's restaurant when its owners didn't want to open again for another season.

Originally a ship chandlery, then a hat shop and finally a restaurant for the last 50 years, the building dates to 1907 when Miller's Wharf (now Point Lookout Marina) and its 24-acre shipyard must have seemed like the end of the earth. The first restaurant had Cajun-style cooking, with long, family-style tables in a room that seated about 20. In those days, diners contended with sweaty, smelly, shirtless men conducting boat business. On the other side of the building was the dock master's office for the paddleboats and ferries going up and down the bay.

No more. Spinnakers' four small rooms now seat about 75. Tables are covered in paisley prints, chairs are comfortable leather and wooden captain's chairs. We noticed seemingly authentic decorations and asked about a mahogany ship's wheel over the bar. John Spinicchia told us he found the wheel in an attic above the restaurant, as well as portholes, compasses and brass lanterns that also are part of the decor. He's had a lot of fun with other discoveries during renovations of the building. He found an "Oklahoma Vinegar" bottle from Prohibition days in a 30-inch hole under the bar. We learned "Oklahoma Vinegar" was a bootleg whiskey.

Reservations are a must on the weekends, and we made ours for 7 p.m. on a Saturday and arrived early enough to spend a little time on the docks watching the halyards sway in the wind. The marina has slips for about 150 sailboats, powerboats and yachts of various sizes. We picked a bench on the beautifully kept grounds and savored the smells coming from Spinnakers' kitchen.

Spinicchia regularly changes his creative and varied menu. The day we were there, starters included crab soup, several salads, steamed littleneck clams, baked brie and escargots. We tried the littlenecks prepared with white wine and Old Bay seasoning--delicious--and Caesar salad.

Seafood entrees included salmon, blackened catfish and frutti di mare--fin and shellfish in a red sauce. The salmon was pan-seared with cilantro pesto and a black bean salad. The catfish came with corn and crawfish salsa.

In addition, Spinicchia prepared several "stockyard cuts" of beef, including a hand-cut rib eye and a 16-oz. Kansas City strip.

We tried the rib eye and a grilled half duckling. The duck was glazed with a homemade raspberry barbecue sauce and was accompanied by a corn pudding and garlic mashed potatoes. The rib eye came draped over the garlic mashed potatoes and smothered with portobello mushroom slices and garlic in a light au jus.

Diners are treated to the sounds of guitar player Richard Wagner on Friday evenings. One Friday night we ran into Bill Norris and his wife, of Winston-Salem, N.C., who had docked at the marina hours earlier for the first time ever. They wanted us to know "this place has a little something extra to offer, more than any other marina restaurant we've been to."

We have to agree, Spinnakers is a gem.


* Address: Miller's Wharf Road, Point Lookout Marina, Ridge. 301-872-4340.

* Hours: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday, and Wednesday through Saturday; 4:30-8:30 p.m. Sunday; closed Tuesday.

* Prices: entrees, $8 to $28; children's meals, about $5.

* Credit cards: Most major cards accepted, except American Express.

* Best-kept secrets: Newsman and regular diner Ted Koppel often orders crab cakes; half portions are available for light eaters.

Want to spread the word about another Southern Maryland restaurant? Send e-mail to yoodm@washpost.com or mail to: The Washington Post, Restaurant Reviews, 100 N. Oak Ave., La Plata, Md. 20646.

CAPTION: Chef-owner John Spinicchia's exotic Chilean Sea Bass, left, served with roasted leeks. At right, a local tomato and basil salad with fresh mozzarella.

CAPTION: Maureen and Steve Bernard of St. Mary's City visited Spinnakers recently. Local artwork is displayed on the restaurant's walls.

CAPTION: Kathy Kirk, left, of Potomac Falls, and Sheila Schaffran, of Winston-Salem, N.C., socialize in the restaurant's bar.