There’s a book called “Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews” by Marilyn Hagerty. The book is a collection of restaurant reviews by the author, who writes a column called The Eatbeat for the Grand Forks Herald of Grand Forks, North Dakota. I picked up the book, published in 2013, after coming across Hagerty’s famous Olive Garden review somewhere on the internet. I was intrigued. Since the 1980s, Hagerty has been reviewing — or, not so much reviewing as visiting and writing mostly-nice things about — all the restaurants of Grand Forks, from local diners to the new Taco Bell (“a cool pastel oasis on a hot day,” she mused).
I myself have never been to Grand Forks, but after reading the 128 Eatbeat reviews, I feel that their dining scene parallels Ocean City’s in a lot of ways. Ordered chronologically, Hagerty’s columns start in the ’80s and revolve mostly around diners and mom n’ pop shops with names like Gramma Butterwicks and Norma’s House of Goodies. As you get further into the book and move into the 21st century, the columns are more and more peppered with reviews of chain restaurants like the Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday’s and Fuji Steakhouse. Ocean City’s restaurant history is similar; but, like Grand Forks, there are still plenty of local gems to be discovered.
Hagerty is reliable for providing an honest but kind-hearted look at all the eateries that Grand Forks has to offer. She doesn’t critique them so much as write what one might expect upon walking through a restaurant’s doors. And there are so many restaurants in Ocean City, from the soda fountain diners and upscale hotel buffets to the Taco Bells and Olive Gardens, we are in no short supply of eateries to muse on.
“Out to Lunch” is my new weekly but, realistically, sometimes probably bi-weekly column, where I will place reviews and general thoughts on the restaurants, coffee shops and breweries lining Coastal Highway and beyond. I will also be accepting guest contributions (as I do for almost all things related to OC), so if you’re itching to say something about whatever local joint you brunched at last, send it to me at email@example.com. I’ll be happy to throw it in the column so long as it’s fair, polite and kindly worded (sorry Jay Rayners of the world, you’ll have to look elsewhere to publish your critiques).
I don’t like to cook and I love to go out to eat, which I do far more often than I should, especially after moving to this East Coast dining hub of a town. This is a character flaw that I’m excited to finally put to use.
Squarz Pizza Pub: Squarz is a newer restaurant in north Ocean City, which is why I’m not totally embarrassed by the fact that I only just learned of its existence a few months ago. I like to eat around and am not known for committing to one particular restaurant, even if it is for pizza, but Squarz has got me hooked. I might just become a regular.
Pushed back from the highway in the Montego Bay Shopping Center (“the one with Tequila Mockingbird,” I always tell people), Squarz is not super easy to find. You have to already know that it’s there, but they’ve still seen a steady customer base because word-of-mouth is definitely a thing when it comes to a solid pizza. They’re open Thursday – Sunday in the off-season.
“Hands down… Best pizza in Ocean City,” their website boasts, and while many restaurants might claim this title, this one is telling the truth. Ledo’s might be just down the street, but they no longer monopolize Ocean City’s square pizza scene — and Squarz’s pies feature a homemade sauce, a special secret cheese blend and a light, fluffy crust that is second to none. Thursday night is now pizza night in my household, because that’s when Squarz pizzas are half-off until summer hits.
The kitchen is only separated by a half-wall, and you can usually find owner Darren Palitti back there making the pizzas and the pasta-of-the-day himself. The bartenders are great and genuinely want to know what it is you like to drink so they can make their selection — of craft beer, in my case — even better. The atmosphere is nice and could only be made better with a little more art on the walls, but we’re told that’s coming soon.
Bethany Beach Ocean Suites/99 Sea Level: If you’re up for the trek to Bethany Beach — which you should be, since Bethany is beautiful and fun and not too far from OC — 99 Sea Level in Bethany Beach Ocean Suites is worth a stop for lunch.
I spent most of the day Saturday in BBOS, the site of Shore Craft Beer‘s first Delaware beer festival. For the day, their ballroom was packed with Delaware breweries handing out tastes of their best brews, as well as music provided by Nashville musicians including Ocean City native Jimmy Charles, who had been in town for the Josh Turner concert.
It’s a nice atmosphere, even without all the beer and country songs, though those things definitely help. The hotel lobby features photos of Bethany Beach days of old, and a beautiful blown glass chandelier by Berlin artist Jeffrey Auxer. Head to the back and you’ll find yourself in 99 Sea Level, a high-end restaurant specializing in seafood and fresh, farm-to-table fare.
The chef is Danio Somoza, who’s been working at the restaurant since its opening three years ago and who has claimed the title of Culinary Coast’s Top Chef for two consecutive years. He says he most wants guests to come in and try something new.
What might be the best part of the restaurant is its outdoor seating, which puts you practically right on the Bethany Boardwalk. At the beer festival on Saturday, we were lucky enough that it was sunny and not freezing cold outside. It was another instance of not projecting just how many people would show up to the event, which is always a good problem to have, but the ballroom and lobby weren’t quite big enough to hold the hundreds of people who showed up for four hours of beer tasting. Everyone was able to filter in and outside and drink their beers out on the porch, peer out at the ocean and soak up the sun on the beautiful day.