A Good Bet
Smack in the middle of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the tidy town of Easton once beckoned travelers as a spot to stretch your legs on the way to the picturesque waterfront villages of St. Michaels and Oxford, or to pick up provisions for country houses tucked into the nearby nooks and crannies of the Chesapeake Bay. But suburban sprawl and the economic downturn of the late aughts took a heavy toll on its downtown, leaving storefronts empty and local spirits sagging. In recent years, however, the colonial city center has seen a renewed sense of pride with compelling reasons to linger, including top-notch restaurants, thriving farmers markets, and a full slate of year-round festivities. Enter a New York energy magnate who’s betting that his transformation of a block of historic buildings into high-end restaurants and shops will put Easton on the map once and for all.
Locals are proud of their hometown sustainable coffee roaster Rise Up, which started as a tricked-out trailer in nearby St. Michaels fifteen years ago and has expanded to nine cafes and national distribution. Pair your single-origin pour-over with a scrapple and egg biscuit from MAD EGGS, the cafe’s food truck. Tea drinkers, take heart: On the other end of downtown, Weather Gage steeps tea from Parisian cult favorite Mariage Frères. There’s also La Columbe coffee and stellar viennoiserie baked in-house (the pain au chocolat gets raves). A few doors down, the bright and airy Bumble Bee Juice is the stop for all manner of aronia bowls, smoothies, and cold-pressed juices.
Both shops are under the umbrella of the Bluepoint Hospitality Group, which has restored seven (and counting) eighteenth-century properties on and around Federal Street and developed them into concepts inspired by the Champagne tastes of its founder Paul Prager, the CEO and chairman of Beowulf Energy. Raised in Brooklyn, Prager first fell for the Chesapeake Bay region as a midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and later bought a farm outside of Easton for his family as a respite from New York City. Along the way, he became enamored with the architecture of the town and started snapping up properties to restore them to their former glory. The flagship of Pragerville, as some locals call it, is Bas Rouge, an elegant jewel of a restaurant whose gilded decor feels plucked out of nineteenth-century Vienna, down to the antique Lobmeyr crystal chandelier and Austrian hunt oil paintings. The menu nods to Central Europe with a fine wiener schnitzel and award- winning wine list, but is mostly driven by seasonal ingredients sourced from nearby purveyors, from Otwell Farm beef to Wild Diver oysters. Bluepoint Executive Chef Harley Peet has lived in the area for twenty years and is a strong supporter of local watermen, who keep him supplied with blue crabs in season, including the highly anticipated soft-shells soon to be served with Champagne beurre blanc at Bas Rouge. Easton is minutes from the Bay and a little over an hour’s drive to the Atlantic, making it a sweet spot for seafood. “We have scallops and even lobster in Ocean City,” says Peet. “I get a call sometimes, ‘Oh hey, we did a scallop trip and we have twenty-five pounds. Do you want to buy them?’” Meals here are leisurely affairs, but hours are limited to lunch on Thursday and Friday and dinner Friday and Saturday.
Find a more expedient option at Sunflower and Greens, where Peet’s team spins ingredients like Scottish smoked salmon from New York’s Russ & Daughters and Wagyu beef into lavish salads. Or head across the courthouse grounds to Krave to nab a table in the courtyard. The offerings here are all made from scratch, but you can’t go wrong with the BLT with smoked gouda spread or toasted walnut chicken salad sandwich.
This is a walking downtown—all dozen or so blocks of it—best roamed with an ice cream cone in hand. Choose from forty-eight flavors at Storm & Daughters Ice Cream, the second generation of beloved Annapolis institution Storm Bros. If you happen to be here on Wednesday, a waffle sundae—or “wednesdae”—is worth the splurge (though definitely not portable). And over at ice cream and pie parlor Bonheur, the goods are made in-house, like the roasted strawberry churned with local berries, maple syrup, and butter, or coffee swirled with espresso paste and Kahlua.
Happy hour depends on your poison. You’ll find a solid line- up of craft brews to wash down Chesapeake oysters at both Bannings Tavern and Washington Street Pub. If whiskey is more your speed, there’s a leather banquette with your name on it at the Stewart. With one of the largest collections of single malt in the state and a movie set worth of Scottish decor—tartans, oil painting of misty mountains—enthusiasts can enjoy their forty-year-old Balvenie next to a roaring fire in all the splendor of a distinguished Highlands sitting room. And lucky for Champagne lovers, this particular manor stocks vintage bottles like Dom Perignon 2000 and Krug d’Ambonnay 1995, as well Osetra caviar and all its accoutrements.
For a more casual vibe, Out of the Fire has been churning out nicely charred wood-fired pizzas and inventive plates from its stone-hearth oven for some twenty years. Hot menu picks include the charred broccoli and calabrese pizza with italian sausage, Edwards ham, and mustard greens. Another longtime restaurateur in town, Andrew Evans holds down the BBQ Joint. A former fine- dining chef who made his name with the erstwhile (and much-lauded) Inn at Easton, Evans pivoted to smoked meats ten years ago and has been thriving ever since. His smoked meatloaf is wildly popular, but the daily specials, like smoked rib burnt ends and brisket tacos, are also hard to beat.
Easton is dotted with galleries, antique stores, and indie boutiques like Levity of Easton, which carries women’s clothing and accessories with an emphasis on local designers such as Hobo handbags and jewelry from Jennifer King Designs. This is also goose-and duck-hunting country, and Albright’s Gun Shop is your one-stop shop for perusing shotguns—new and vintage—finding a guide, or just outfitting yourself with a Barbour jacket and Muck boots to look the part. And if your tastes run to fine crystal and hand-painted porcelain, you’ll want to spend some time in Benjamin to ooh and ahh over the Nymphenburg porcelain, Lobmeyr crystal and Robbe & Berking silver.
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is well worth the fifteen-minute drive into St. Michaels for its setting alone. Sprawled on eighteen acres fronting the Miles River, the museum is housed in former seafood packing houses and includes engaging exhibitions and a working shipyard that tell the story of how the Bay has shaped the region and its culture. Kids especially love exploring the Hooper Strait lighthouse and wanna-be boat-builders can sign up to lend a hand in the museum’s shipyard
For all its small-town attributes, Easton’s historic Avalon Theatre—nearly one hundred years old and going strong— attracts national acts. On the roster this spring: James McMurtry, and Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn.
Built by a War of 1812 veteran in honor of his commander Oliver Hazard Perry, the stately Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels has changed hands several times since it became a hotel in 1980, but the latest incarnation—with a Pete Dye-designed golf course and a fleet of vintage wooden sailboats at the ready for a sunset cruise—is likely it’s most luxurious. Arrive in style if you’re traveling from Annapolis: The inn will fetch you in its 55-foot Hinckley yacht.