Schaefer’s Canal House in Chesapeake City: A Dining Review
Bridging the Gap: Schaefer’s Canal House reopens in Chesapeake City. Does it live up to the hype?
At a Glance
Schaefer’s Canal House
208 Bank St., Chesapeake City, Md.
(410) 885-7200, schaeferscanalhouse.com
Panko oysters, crab cakes,
It was one of the last perfect evenings of the summer, and the disappearing sun shot the sky full of hazy orange and cool pink swatches high above the C&D Canal. A three-piece calypso band plinked away at steel drums and clacked on claves. A two-story Silverton yacht bobbed in the water.
It was the sort of night made for kicking back at the beautifully restored Schaefer’s Canal House. For taking shelter beneath the bright yellow umbrellas. For staring off into the water.
Only, 40 minutes later, you’re still staring. The snacks still hadn’t arrived. Empty drinks piled up on the edge of the table, and the vibrantly colored sky had turned black. The band had been replaced by an iPod.
Just a few weeks into its revival, Schaefer’s Canal House—a Chesapeake City classic—was slammed. The waterfront restaurant and banquet hall was reborn last summer after a seven-year slumber, and has been aggressively refitted with 750 feet of decking, a marina, a fuel dock and a marine office. The overhaul nearly doubled the restaurant’s capacity to almost 300 seats.
On a busy Friday night, a vision of the new Schaefer’s seemed actualized. All 1,200 newly installed deck boards felt the chaos of crowds dancing and carousing, as customers squeezed around a 32-seat outdoor bar and spilled onto the dance floor.
The party raged—unless you were a party of two waiting to eat dinner. The young staff, as well as the kitchen, seemed overwhelmed and frazzled during the restaurant’s initial, hectic weeks. Waiters and runners zipped around frenetically, delivering food to the wrong tables, presenting appetizers before drinks had arrived, and leaving dirty dishes to pile up.
The cooks, led by veteran chef Bruce Wetterau (whose previous posts include the esteemed Kitty Knight House, and the Granary Restaurant) gave the impression that they, too, were under quite a bit of duress.
How else can one explain the Schaefer’s unforgivable Steam Pot? Gritty, sour middleneck clams, and puny, unappetizing mussels skulked among the bottom of a dry roasting pan along with one shriveled lobster tail. Any semblance of seasoning came from two halfhearted shakes of an Old Bay canister and a dish of clarified butter. At $29, the house-special steamer pot shouldn’t be highlighted by corn on the cob.
Elsewhere, sloppy plating and hastily chosen ingredients torpedoed Schaefer’s best-laid plans. Sliced ahi tuna was smeared messily with wasabi aioli and served with a gloppy pile of wakame seaweed salad.
It’s a shame that food felt like such a harried afterthought, because there were good ideas amid the rubble. Homemade spinach gnocchi, hearty and flavorful in its warm bath of sun-dried tomato cream sauce, choked with starch and chewiness. Other inoffensive fare like crab dip and Waldorf salad were simply underseasoned.
While I sat and shrugged about chicken salad, I wondered: Did anyone else at Schaefer’s mind? It didn’t seem so. On this night, the new-look Schaefer’s is party central—high-volume, resort-style dining, with drinks in hand. Waiting 55 minutes for a table? Grab a mojito, watch the game, and dance to a calypso version of “Funkytown.”
Much like its neighbors at the cross-canal Chesapeake Inn, Schaefer’s is bound to spend summer nights as central HQ for much docking, drinking and dancing. The renovated deck and outside bars created by new owner John Giordano and family create a great vibe, and the view out there—particularly at sunset when the suspension cables of the neighboring bridge chop the fading sunrays—is unmatched.
Just then: Wham! A woman’s hand on the railing snapped me back to reality, as a conga line—at least 20 people deep—paraded by, right on cue.
But what about when it’s cold out?
A few weeks later, with fall weather tightening its chilly grip, the inside portion of Schaefer’s felt much calmer. When Wetterau and his staff weren’t running ragged, they were able to author some terrific homespun flavors. Servers, afforded time to breathe, exuded ample charm.
And the food—delivered hot and on time—was often delicious. Panko-breaded oysters, plump and crispy, held strong onto their texture and briny pop, even under a sprinkling of wasabi aioli and toasted sesame cream. The dueling sauces manage cleverly to accentuate the oysters’ inherent sweetness and pungency.
Chesapeake eateries usually know their way around a blue crab, and Schaefer’s sturdy and meaty crab cakes (broiled lump, little filler) matched the panache of creamy crab dip, which was punctuated by more shredded jumbo lump and sharp cheeses.
Without the crush of summertime revelers, Schaefer’s kitchen proved it could transform ingredients into creative dishes that transcended the fish-house norm. A colorful plate of avocado and ripe mango made fitting dance partners for crabmeat and boiled shrimp, while a drizzle of honey-cilantro glaze reinforced the salad’s clean notes.
Crabmeat again emerged, this time as a plump sweetener in a cascading pool of beurre blanc sauce, which dripped onto wild mushroom risotto from its summit atop a stunningly constructed veal napoleon. Stacked high, crispy cutlets of breaded veal and sautéed spinach towered, and eventually found flavor partners in the woodsy rice, poppy beurre blanc, and piquant roasted tomato.
A choppy opening month aside, I’m willing to count it as a victory for the people of Chesapeake City and its many visitors that they can party at ol’ Schaefer’s Canal House all summer, just as they used to—and enjoy quiet, waterfront refinement during the cold months.
And I’m willing to bet they can’t wait until Memorial Day.