The best part about the time change, for those who will accept that there is some possible good in it, is being able to come in from the cold and dark into a tavern’s warm glow. There are happy, warm people inside. Mostly, they are well fed and amiable and, if you show up at the right time, ready with stories. Happy Hour at the Crabcake Factory is no exception, in fact, it is the epitome of the shelter-from-the-storm aspect of a solid happy hour.
Bartender Brian Ziegler was just finishing setting down dinner for two of the people at the bar and acknowledged me as he did it. The simple things denote a class bartender in Ocean City. The ability to suffer fools lightly is high on the list, but more important even is the ability to make certain that people don’t feel ignored, even when you can’t get to them right away. Some people will wave a polite finger or give a shrug and an eyebrow raise, and these are all acceptable ways of communicating “I’ll be right with you” without saying it. Saying it is OK (I suppose) but “I’ll be right with you” is a sentence rarely spoken without something of an edge.
Brian looked at me as if he recognized me, and gave me a “Hey, what’s up?” kind of nod and look. His attitude (aura?) indicated he was happy I was there and would treat me well as long as I remained. He caught up a pair of guys who clearly had ordered before I arrived and asked me what he could get me.
There is no lack of craft beer choice at the Crabcake Factory, I chose a Lot #3, because I was working. That’s a good working beer.
Brian gave me the rundown about the Crabcake Factory and his part in it. Like many people he’s ready for the long, hard winter when things get really quiet and he can catch up with his life. He doesn’t dread the reduced income and hours the way many of us might. First of all (probably) because he’s good enough at what he does to make a living. Second, it gives him a chance to catch up with his bartending friends who work up and down the beach.
There’s a siblinghood between the men and women who tend bar year round. Hell, those who work in the foodservice industry generally all hang around with one another. I’ve already written about the pack of folks from the Sandbar who dine together on their off nights. For these people, many of whom run in similar circles, the winter time provides an opportunity to catch up and take a breather before diving in again when the spring comes.
Phil Barton was on his own and enjoying a drink. For married men like him (or maybe just for married men like me and I’m projecting) there’s a certain sweetness to getting the call telling you you’re on your own for dinner. When I get that call, I know I’m going to hit a happy hour on the way home, and I’m pretty sure that’s why they were invented. There’s little more appealing than a quick pop followed by some food. When you stop at a place like the Crabcake Factory, you get the benefit of better-than-average bar food, because they made their name as a restaurant rather than as a bar. Plus, there are happy hour specials which means both are less expensive and easy to justify.
Phil told me he isn’t a huge happy hour guy but isn’t afraid to stop off occasionally anyway. The Ocean City Crabcake Factory is on his way home, even though the one on Route 54 technically is closer to his house it is nice to be in town on a quiet Tuesday. Like Brian, Phil doesn’t get out much in the summer. He has a landscaping business and doesn’t like coming into a bar dirty from the day. In the summer when he’s done working often he heads straight home. In the winter, though, as with all of us, it is a radically different story.
“It’s just a way of life for us”
Mary and William Riehl were one of two couples at the bar. They are regulars when they’re in town from Ellicott City, and they’re in as often as they can manage. They’re the type of people who have been coming to the place long enough not only to know its history, but to be comfortable sharing it. In fact, we’ll be doing a feature on William. They were in for Taco Tuesdays, which is a thing in the Inlet area as well, as much as for the company. Then it’s nice, they come to Ocean City for the weekend or for a week or so, as their schedules and mood fits. They do come all year, though, because they enjoy the company in the summer as much as they do in the winter. And not just their own company.
“We’re sad that Mr. B’s not here to talk to us,” Mary told me.
“Mr. B” is Ron Brooks, they tell me, father of Johnny Brooks, Crabcake Factory owner. He would speak with the Riehls and with anyone else who was interested and hanging out of an evening. It’s just another of the Ocean City things I’m becoming aware I missed out on.
The couple sitting diagonally from the Riehls are the Koenigs, John and Cindy, of Pittsburgh. They come less often than the Riehls but more often than they used to, taking advantage of long weekends as they both still work full time. John is self-employed and Cindy works for the Port Authority. They don’t mind the weather in Pittsburgh, John said, which isn’t much colder than here, plus they like having these brief retirement practices wherein they’ll come down for stretches and then head back.
“It’s just a way of life for us,” John told me. “ This is our second home.”
When they’re here off-season, they take advantage of all the happy hours available to them, taking each in turn on different trips or days, depending upon what they’re in the mood for, since they will often combine happy hour with dinner. If that’s not a solid plan, I don’t know what is.