Old Salty’s restaurant, about to celebrate it’s 40th anniversary, has been a beloved Hoopers Island community anchor since opening in the early 1980s. But, long before being refurbished into a famed down home haven for crabcake lovers near and far, the structure originally served as a schoolhouse for the tightly knit community at Fishing Creek, on the first of the three Hoopers Islands.
While more than ever a local favorite, 75 percent of customers coming through Old Salty’s doors are now actually newcomers, attracted to the area by growing media coverage for nearby attractions such as Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Park.
According to current owners Mike and Melinda Kerr Perry, one recent Old Salty’s first timer arrived via a word of mouth recommendation during a visit to New York City. Another hauling from the Netherlands spotted an Old Salty’s ad while in Washington, D.C., and decided to make the trip.
It was under founding owners, JoAnn and Wayne Ashton, that the eatery first became an Island mainstay. (The sea captain on the sign is a picture of JoAnn’s dad, local waterman Ben Parks.)
It continued to thrive under second owner Jay Newcomb, former District One Dorchester County Councilman and President.
That’s when the Perrys, then among the growing number of Island ‘weekenders’, became loyal customers. “From the day we walked in this place, we were basically in love with it,” Mike recalled.
The couple would privately joke with Newcomb, that if he ever sold the place, it had better be to them. Two years ago, when Newcomb was ready to wind down his many varied responsibilities, he felt assured the Perrys would be the kind of devoted caretakers the restaurant deserved, and the deal was done, including the popular Old Salty’s recipes.
Though originally from rural Anne Arundel County and not Island natives, the couple are totally committed to keeping faith and doing their best by the place that’s become their adopted ‘home away from home.’
Melinda, 50, grew up in Hanover, what she calls “a little, tiny, tiny town just outside the airport loop,” without “MTV, or cable, or anything,” she laughs. But her parents lived in a house right next door to her grandparents on the same property. Her first job was as a restaurant dishwasher, then working her way through the kitchen. That was before becoming a jeweler for 28 years, holding down top management positions with Jared the Galleria.
Mike, 52, was raised five miles away in Severn, chopping tobacco and vegetables, on land his family has lived and worked on for 160 years. He, too, had early restaurant training, “cutting my teeth” cooking in an Elks Club kitchen during his teens. He’s gone on to own several businesses.
“That’s what we feel like we found here, living in a complete neighborhood of family, it’s what drew us here,” Mike added.
With extended family living on Hoopers Island in the 1970s, Mike was a frequent visitor. In 1986, he and his brothers bought their own property there. As he and Melinda became a couple, they began coming over, falling more and more in love with the area, eventually buying a house, becoming Old Salty’s patrons, and now, owners, who want to give back to the community.
“This entire area has kept this place in business for 40 years, and that’s a heck of a feat,” Mike noted.
To that end, they decided to do something special to mark the milestone and return some of the longstanding love.
After a year of planning, the Old Salty’s 40th Anniversary Bluegrass Festival gets underway Saturday, May 20 at 1 p.m. The free community event with no cover charge will be open to all. Artisans, vendors, and kids activities are on the menu, along with live music featuring Billy Harrison & The Haywire, Cooking with Fire, and Across the Track.
A 30 x 30 foot tent will be set up in the waterfront field behind the restaurant, and people are welcome to bring chairs and blankets.
Food and drink options for purchase will include a limited Old Salty’s menu, including, of course, crab cake, from a mobile food trailer; Fat Truck Brewing of Centreville will also be on hand.
The festival represents an ongoing initiative of the Perrys to build on the restaurant’s solid reputation as a dining destination, while adding to it’s repertoire of events for locals and visitors alike.
On May 5-6, Old Salty’s also hosted it’s first annual fishing tournament, The Salty Hooker Throwdown.
The venue’s large indoor hall, the former school auditorium, has recently offered some decidedly nontraditional special event fundraisers, carefully billed as adults only programs, such as January’s Bingo with the Boyz and April’s Drag Bingo Brunch. Both drew big crowds and raised sizable sums in support of Patriot Point, the Veteran Refuge on Taylor’s Island.
“Having something as important as Patriot Point in our backyard, and being able to support it, is truly amazing,” Mike added, noting that both he and Melinda have military members in their families.
Another point of pride for the Perrys is providing fresh, seasonal local seafood and produce. “A customer came in last week and asked for oysters on the half shell; I had to tell him, sorry, that’s over,” Mike mentioned with a smile.
They’re grateful for ongoing support from the Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce, which is holding a ribbon cutting ceremony Friday, May 19 at noon to kick off the 40th Anniversary, including all three Old Salty’s owners to thank the community together.
For more information, visit Old Salty’s Facebook Page.
Debra Messick is a retired Dorchester County Public Library associate and lifelong freelance writer. A transplanted native Philadelphian, she has enjoyed residing in Cambridge MD since 1995.