On the River, from the Bay, Dorchester dining embraces coastal cuisine

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Dorchester County has saltwater and seafood in its soul. Those long country roads reach far into the countryside, wrapping over and around the rivers. Restaurants far from the main highway continue to thrive because they embrace the river’s bounty.

“We’ve been doing the farm-to-table idea since the beginning, before it was cool,” said Craig Cropper, longtime owner of Suicide Bridge Restaurant in the Hurlock region.

Far off the beaten path, a kitchen’s products must be worth a customer’s time. “If I have the same thing they have in downtown Cambridge, they’re not going to drive 30 minutes to my restaurant. So, you have to make it worth their while,” said Mike Perry, owner of Old Salty’s Restaurant in Fishing Creek, Md.

Both restaurants have had extensive growth and renovations over time. Suicide Bridge’s 1983 predecessor was a small bar with a few tables beside Cabin Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River.

The menu is full of tasty Maryland classics, like crab cakes, fresh fish stuffed with crab imperial, their famous crab balls and the “Jumbo Lump Crab Stack,” which stacks shrimp and crab meat on a fried green tomato.

“We buy local fish from watermen: crabs, oysters, clams, a little bit of everything,” said Cropper. “Locally caught rockfish, flounder, perch — even down to the beach, we deal with the fish companies there. Scallops are harvested anywhere from Ocean City to Massachusetts. Off-shore fish, like tuna and mahi, we deal with that coming out of Ocean City.”

Even better, local crabbers can sail right up to the Suicide Bridge waterfront.

“In the next few weeks, we’ll be buying crabs off the docks, right from crabbers who work a mile from the restaurant. We can check the crabs, make sure they’re sized properly, culled properly,” said Cropper, whose brother oversees the seafood side of the family business.

“And then there’s local produce [like Bartenfelder Farms in Preston, Md.]. We get anything from cabbage for our coleslaw to zucchini squash and tomatoes,” Cropper said.

“You can never have as fresh a product as you can source in your local area, especially when we have the opportunity to buy it directly though the operator,” like those boat captains.

Farther south, Old Salty’s was a former school until the restaurant opened in the 1980s. Flanked by the Honga River and Chesapeake Bay, it’s set on a narrow isthmus between Upper Hooper Island and Middle Hooper Island.

Mike Perry and his wife were longtime customers before purchasing Old Salty’s in August 2021.

“Since we took over, we have been [buying] just completely fresh, right out the back window — the water you see is where our fish comes from,” he said. “All our rockfish, perch, crabs, all the crab meat … we’re just keeping everything there local.” That includes beef from handpicked cows in Centreville.

“Everything crab in our restaurant is amazing.” For the crab cakes, “There is zero filler. We just use a special sauce and hand-pack it together, cook it in the oven with a little Old Bay.”

They hand-shuck local oysters aplenty, elegantly served on the half shell, or baked with jumbo lump, three cheeses, Old Bay and butter.

“The good thing is to be able to sit and look right at the water where the seafood is coming from fresh every day,” said Perry, who can see some of the river nets from the restaurant window.

Soft crabs arrive “fresh, wet and wrapped in the newspaper,” Perry said. “The taste is just bar-none.”

What is so special about using regional seafood?

“It’s what’s Maryland’s known for,” said Perry. “People come all over the country and out of the country to eat a Maryland crab cake. It’s made Maryland famous for years.”

Of course, consistency is key, so both restaurants faithfully serve the classic dishes they’ve built a legacy on. But they still have fun with food trends. For instance, the Perrys hope to find a legal, local snakehead vendor. The non-native species has proliferated in Maryland waters, and “They are here to stay,” Perry said. “It’s just a white flakey meat, they’re just really good! They’re kind of in between a rockfish and a perch,” and mild like a flounder. It holds up well for fried fish bites or fish tacos.

Why not get even closer to the water? People can sail their boats and dock at either restaurant’s dock. Both restaurants also have outdoor tiki bars, where the fresh air atmosphere can vary from relaxed to lively. Catering and events have also been added to the menu.

Suicide Bridge Restaurant was named for its next-door neighbor, a locally nicknamed bridge with an unfortunate history. People keep coming to the restaurant despite that!

“We have bus companies that come for the crab feast in the restaurant or the riverboat cruise. They come as far as New York on a day trip, or make us one of their stops on the way to Ocean City,” Cropper said.

Yes, a riverboat cruise. The Choptank Riverboat Company sails two reproductions of 80-foot Mississippi paddle wheelers all summer. They host crab feasts, dinners, regular tours, private events and the occasional murder mystery.

“That’s one of the most popular ways to do it. You get a three-hour cruise on the river, eating crabs, passing boats that caught them,” Cropper said. “The Choptank’s a beautiful river, with a lot of farmland and beautiful homesteads on the water.”

Old Salty’s Restaurant is located at 2560 Hoopers Island Road, Fishing Creek, Md. Learn more at oldsaltys.com or call (410) 397-3752.

Suicide Bridge Restaurant and Choptank Riverboat Company are located at 6304 Suicide Bridge Road, Hurlock, Md. Learn more online at suicide-bridge-restaurant.com or call (410) 943-4689.

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