As a boy, Todd Thrasher spent his summer weekends in Southern Maryland, visiting his grandparents, riding motorcycles and presumably doing things he would never tell his father, Larry, let alone a reporter. Now 46 and the veteran behind the bars at Restaurant Eve and PX, Thrasher still occasionally day-trips to this narrow strip of land between the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake, but he tends to return to the same place over and over: Stoney’s Seafood House on Broomes Island.
Broomes Island, on the southern end of Calvert County, isn’t really an island. It’s a peninsula with the Patuxent flowing on one side and Island Creek on the other. The Patuxent was once a rich (and seemingly bottomless) resource for oysters in the 19th and 20th centuries. But after disease, overharvesting and pollution devastated the population, the shucking and canning industries eventually died, along with most of the wild Patuxent oysters. Younger generations will know this slice of Calvert County history only through photos and the memories of those old enough to remember.
As Todd Thrasher sits at a table inside Stoney’s, his back to the overcast skies and cold water where he used to ski as a kid, Larry pulls out a smartphone and pulls up an old photo on Google. It shows a small mountain range of shucked oyster shells. Those craggy peaks, Larry figures, were formed right about where the special events tent at Stoney’s now squats, near this beautifully landscaped space with Adirondack chairs, a fountain and a river walkway.
Back in the day, you wouldn’t have strolled within a 100 feet of those shell piles, the elder Thrasher says. “In the summer when it would get really hot and the wind’s blowing, the aroma was something that you were not looking forward to.”
Larry solicits confirmation of his anecdote from Richard Elliott, a local who goes by “Bunk.” (Elliott will help you spell his name: “B-u-n-k.”) Bunk, a distant relative of the Thrashers, equates the smell to a famous urban myth: seagulls that explode mid-air when fed Alka-Seltzer. “They were pretty rotten,” he says about those shell piles.
Everyone has a Stoney’s Seafood House. Yours may not be a seafood restaurant on a river in Southern Maryland, where the locals had to reinvent themselves after their old way of life went poof. But you certainly have something similar: a place where you reconnect with your roots, where you see yourself reflected back in the culture, the people and the food. It can be comforting. It can be painful. It can be both simultaneously.
The first time I visited Stoney’s on Broomes Island — there are other locations in Maryland, but this is the original — I didn’t understand why anyone would drive more than an hour from Washington to feast on a leathery soft-shell crab sandwich or suck down a sweet, ketchup-like crab soup. Or chew on lifeless Blue Point oysters when good local shellfish are available just across Broomes Island at the Patuxent Seafood Company.
So I called Todd Thrasher, who had first told me about Stoney’s, and suggested we grab lunch there with his father. I mean, Todd has practically become a tour guide for the place. He’s taken Restaurant Eve chef Cathal Armstrong there, and he’s introduced his bartending team to the restaurant. He figures he has made 15 to 20 summertime trips to Stoney’s since the seafood house opened in 1989.
“You’ve never brought me here,” says Larry, 67, an IT security contractor who lives in Annapolis. “This is the first time, but I’m the father. I’m always out of it.”
Both father and son spent their first months on Earth in Broomes Island before the family relocated to other addresses in the region. When Todd was an infant, the Thrashers in fact lived in a house across the street from where Stoney’s sits. The home, demolished long ago, is infamous in Thrasher family lore: Icicles formed inside the place during winter. “It was a little chilly,” deadpans Dad.
Everyone inside Stoney’s seems to share a connection to the old ways of Calvert County. The waitress’s father-in-law is a retired waterman. Bunk’s great grandmother, Sadie Elliott, used to run a seafood house with her husband, Captain Gourley: Sadie’s Place occupied the same real estate as Stoney’s. “The whole island is pretty much, like most places, interconnected through family,” Bunk says.
Todd Thrasher has a pattern he follows when eating at Stoney’s: He’ll drink a lager over ice (he hates the taste of full-strength beer) or a rum and Diet Coke. (“That’s terrible,” the barman says about his soda choice. “Please don’t print that.”) Then he’ll select a steamer platter, like the Stoney’s Steamer, which is a gorgeous pile of sweet, if sometimes rubbery, shellfish: mussels, clams, lobster tails, crawfish, snow crab legs and oysters.
“The oysters are local Maryland,” the waitress says. “They’re not Blue Points right now.”
The discussion inevitably turns to eating non-local seafood at a restaurant so connected to its community and the water. It doesn’t bother Thrasher that the snow crab legs or the crawfish or the lobster came from waters far away. Frankly, I think the best thing at Stoney’s is local: The big, buttery crab cakes are prepared with Maryland’s own, and they’re worth every cent of their market price ($19.75 for a large crab-cake sandwich on our visit).
“Everything doesn’t have to be local and seasonal. It’s okay,” the Eve mixologist says. “If you’re paying $175 for a tasting menu, maybe it should be at that point.”
No, the appeal of Stoney’s, at least to Todd Thrasher, is based on a different kind of local. It’s the place where he remembers the boy who had time to play, swim and ride motorcycles. On this cloudy day, he can’t linger and pound down another bitter-and-boozy Grapefruit Crush, a Stoney’s signature cocktail. He has a closing shift at Eve. Then he has to do inventory. Then he has to head to New York the next morning. His real life is a long way from home.
3939 Oyster House Rd.,
Broomes Island, Md.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: Steamer items, dinners, sandwiches and baskets,