Standing at the center of happy hour’s controlled chaos, waitresses swishing past one another and him, cooks frenetically shucking and plating oysters working the raw bar, Donnie Jackson is in his element. The Horn and Shell bar manager muddles a lemon for one of the many cocktails he’ll hand make this evening, directs a server to the right bottle of wine and continues answering my question.
“It’s the best part of my job,” he said. “Introducing people to craft beer but in a new way.”
He adds some vodka to the muddled mixture at the bottom of the glass, selects what he thinks will be an appropriate beer and tops off the glass. Donnie has been a craft beer specialist for years and, as the new bar manager of the Horn and Shell, he is the Eastern Shore herald of a new culinary trend, craft beer cocktails.
A craft beer cocktail is the natural extension of the rising emphasis on the taste experience. Rather than standing on its own, craft beer is used as an ingredient, as one might use spirits. What it truly exciting about it is the best bartenders now have a whole new flavor palate from which to concoct new drinks. It has been a long time since people were able to invent new drinks so completely from common ingredients found behind a bar. Donnie, who is something of a craft beer taste maven in his own right, is taking full advantage of it.
A tiny rant: A lot of people wonder why craft beer has exploded so suddenly and seemingly completely. There are a ton of reasons, but one that ought not be overlooked is the flavor experience. The rise of accessible fine dining, sometimes derisively called the Food Chanel-ification of culture, has brought renewed focus to flavors in a way likely unseen since the rise of the middle class. More people than ever understand that dining is an experience that is rated not on quantity but rather on quality. True, Golden Corral still is doing bang up business, but there is a sense that few people on line at the GC trough are there for the taste experience. End of tiny rant
Mixing it up
Since it only has recently opened, the Horn and Shell is still finding its crowd, which means it still is a place for everyone. I bumped into Dennis Smith and Kim Morris who were getting out to the Horn and Shell for the first time. The restaurant and bar is owned by the same folks who have Bull on the Beach, of which they are huge fans, so they had pretty specific expectations. The pair played shuffle board while we spoke, assuring me that doing so wasn’t too distracting. It wasn’t as if they were playing for blood, but they played seriously nonetheless.
Shuffleboard is making a huge comeback, which is gratifying to see. Not just because it is a fun game, but rather because of the attitude the resurgence of shuffleboard represents. People don’t show up to happy hour for a shot and a beer and then head home. Instead, they come out with the expectation of enjoying themselves. They relax, have a snack, a beer or two and hang around. The presence of a shuffleboard table is another way real restaurants and bars distinguish themselves from their gross chain counterparts. This isn’t a food factory, it is an experience opportunity. The benefit of Horn and Shell over chains is just that: It’s there to facilitate a food experience, not to turn over tables as fast as possible.
This isn’t to say that you won’t leave full, even from the generous happy hour snack offerings. It is to say that calories aren’t the point. The Horn and Shell staff doesn’t see you as a thing to be stuffed so much as a person who is out for a good time.
A good time all around at the Horn and Shell
Donnie oversees things from behind the raw bar, standing his ground as two of his coworkers shuck oysters improbably fast for the amount of fun they appear to be having. They joke and snipe playfully as they knock around the back. On a Friday night they don’t really stop moving. It wasn’t even late yet, just after 6 p.m. but the place was filling and a guy with a guitar was setting up in the corner for the evening.
As happy hour came to a close, there was something of a natural transition underway, as often is the case on a Friday night. The early dinner crowd was making its way in, while people finished up their drinks and heavy snacks and started making plans for the evening ahead. Since it stands essentially at the head of the Route 50 Bridge, the Horn and Shell is something of a staging place. You can start, spend or finish your evening there and it makes sense.