Cool Places: Berlin and Ocean City, Maryland
Voted America’s Coolest Town a few years back, Berlin, Maryland, and its neighbor, Ocean City, offer traditional Eastern Shore fare with an abundance of local hospitality.
Historic downtown Berlin, likened to “Mayberry” in the film Runaway Bride, has numerous restaurants, shops, a brewery, a hotel, and even wine tasting, all in a few blocks. In summer, you can cheer on local establishments racing bathtubs down Main Street—trust me, that is cool! Everyone knows everyone, and has since grade school. So, if you’re somewhere and nobody knows anybody else, you’re at a tourist trap.
I’m lucky because my husband Mike’s family lives here, and he went to high school here. I guess we’re almost locals with our favorite hangouts.
For a small town, it seems unusual that a number of the restaurants boast claims of inventing certain drinks and/or dishes.
One such place is the Decatur Diner, famous for “The Pipeline.” This massive 5-pound log of egg, potatoes, sausage, onions, and cheese costs a mere $10.99. It can literally feed a family of 4. But, if you finish a whole one yourself, you’ll get your name on the wall. Breakfast for us, however, is just something to tide us over until we can get what we really want—crab!
From the moment we land in Maryland, we crave crab: crab cakes, soft shell crab, and the favorite, all-you-can-eat steamed blue crabs. One of the family’s favorite spots to get the first 2 in one sitting is Harborside in Ocean City. Although it’s home of the original “Orange Crush”—a drink now offered at almost every eatery and drinkery in the area—we come for the Crab Club Sandwich: crab cake, fried soft-shell crab, bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo—need I say more?
Right on the water with a wrap-around open window, it’s hard to tell if you’re inside or outside, and the sunset skies can be quite picturesque. The staff can be playful if you take too long to order or just because you’re the only one who’s never lived here. And when we feel playful, we go outside on the dock and try to swing and latch a hook to a pole—life offers simple pleasures here. One word of caution: The wooden slats of the floor are the perfect size for a credit card to slip through. Yup, it happened to us—well, to Mike.
It is mandatory that we visit both Harborside and an all-you-can-eat crab place at least once per visit. And this should be on everyone’s Food Bucket List!
Waterman’s or Hooper’s is usually on the agenda for the latter. Both of our nephews and Mike’s brother have worked at one or both of these restaurants.
Our nephew Danny is especially adept at getting us a waterside rail seat at Hooper’s, which provides a nice view of the bay.
We spend hours picking through steamed crabs coated with Old Bay, savoring sweet corn on the cob, enjoying savory shrimp, and ignoring the chicken that is all poured out onto the long tables (nothing against chicken—we just prioritize stomach capacity for crab).
I think the biggest adjustment Mike had to make after moving to California was dealing with the absence of blue crab, so he makes sure he gets his fill whenever we’re in MD.
Summertime brings young people from all over the world to work at these bustling restaurants. Last time we played a guessing game at Waterman’s trying to figure out where our server was from—Romania!
One of our other favorite eating activities is to stroll the Ocean City boardwalk to gorge on the famous Thrasher French Fries and Fisher’s popcorn.
The fries may be the best in the world, or at least according to my husband, and let me tell you he has eaten his fair share of fries! If you must have ketchup with your fries, forget it! These are served with help yourself malt vinegar.
As for the popcorn, that’s my area of expertise. One year we did a taste taste of the best caramel corn on the boardwalk, and Fisher’s was unanimously the winner! Of course we leave feeling sick every time, but we always return.
What eating frenzy wouldn’t be complete without dessert? And we found the best cake ever in Maryland!
On our last visit for our nephew Matt’s wedding, dessert for every meal was the official Maryland State Dessert, Smith Island Cake. To our benefit—or maybe detriment—Mike’s sister Teresa greatly over-ordered the cakes for the rehearsal dinner.
So, sometimes Smith Island Cake was a dessert and sometimes it was an appetizer—for any meal: breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Seriously, I don’t usually even eat cake!
If you want to visit Smith Island, it’s a quick 10 mile ferry ride from mainland Maryland to where it sits in the Chesapeake Bay. Legend has it that the women used to send their seafaring husbands off with thinly layered cakes filled with fudge, which lasted longer than buttercream. The cakes served as a reminder of the family and community the watermen left behind. The fudge version is now called “Original Chocolate,” but we all voted the Red Velvet as our favorite.
Lastly, it has nothing to do with food, but no visit to Ocean City or Berlin is complete without a visit to Assateague Island which hopefully includes at least one wild pony sighting! It is always a highlight with lots of trails, gorgeous beaches (you can even 4-wheel drive on the beach), and wild life. Every year at Assateague Island a few people are injured by the wild ponies, so if you see them, please keep your distance!
We always leave Berlin a little teary-eyed knowing it will be a while before we see family again. And there may be a couple of tears there for the crabs too.