With the “Hooked” empire entering five years in the Maryland/Delaware area, the ocean-to-table restaurants continue to rack up awards without succumbing to pesky things like pretension, or extremely high price points.
Owners Steve Hagen and Kevin Frey opened the flagship restaurant, Off the Hook, in Bethany in 2010, followed by Just Hooked in Fenwick Island in 2011, and Hooked, in Ocean City, in 2013.
Executive Chef Matt Cornelius develops the menus at all three locations.
“I signed on with the company three months after the original location opened,” Cornelius said. “The original chef, Steve Hagen, his vision was to create a company with many restaurants that offers higher-level food at a reasonable price.”
What Frey brings to the table, according to Cornelius, is an architect’s touch.
“He’s a contractor by trade and had never been in the restaurant business before,” he said. “Kevin basically did all of the build out himself with just a handful of people. The guy is nothing short of amazing.”
Cornelius is especially fond of Frey’s handiwork inside Just Hooked in Fenwick, where guests can see inside the kitchen through the dining area.
“The whole concept of the open kitchen is pretty awesome,” he said. “People really enjoy seeing that, where literally I’m standing probably two or three feet away from you and cooking your dinner.
There’s always been that barrier between the guests and the kitchen, and I think they understand and appreciate their food a lot more because they see the hard work that goes into it.”
A Philadelphia native, Cornelius brings the culinary tradition of French fusion restaurants like Le Bec-Fin, Striped Bass and Bliss to the table. Admittedly, he harbored a hint of trepidation during his initial transition to the Eastern Shore.
“I was a little nervous coming into it because I’ve tried before and it didn’t necessarily go over well in other ventures that I had, but I tell you what, I can’t say anything better about the Bethany following that we created. They really embraced us, and they embraced me as a chef.”
Cornelius said the reputation followed the company to Fenwick, where Just Hooked was named best restaurant three years running, and then to Ocean City, where Hooked recently received a best drink list nod.
“They do a fantastic job,” Cornelius said, adding the location brings “its own little ambiance with the beautiful upstairs bar and wide-open seating. The Tiki bar inside is great for the customer, because we can have long waits down there during the summer. If we get jammed they can order a little snack and get a cocktail. A guest that has a cocktail in their hand when they’re waiting is a little bit less frustrated than one that doesn’t.”
All three locations feature an abbreviated menu, just one page, along with a rotating cast of specials. The buttermilk-battered calamari, served with a spicy Japanese mayo, could be considered the flagship dish.
“That’s been our claim to fame for a while,” Cornelius said. “That Japanese mayonnaise that we get – you can’t replicate it. There is no recipe in existence. I’ve tried. There’s just something about it that’s just awesome.
“Something as simple as that, the calamari, is what we like to hang our hat on,” Cornelius continued. “It’s something that’s great and familiar and brings people back to try some of the other new things that we’re doing.”
Thursday is the big night in Ocean City, when Hooked offers $2 fish or shrimp tacos, along with $5 burgers.
“That’s one of our mega-nights no matter what,” Cornelius said. “People come in and we’ll do 500 tacos and 90 burgers. We enjoy being that place that people come to on those certain nights, and it gets them here and it gets them familiar with the place and then they come back and they bring their family.”
The same special is available at the Fenwick and Bethany locations on Monday nights.
Hooked and Just Hooked introduced new menus last month, including twists on classic dishes like shrimp and grits, which makes good use of massive U-8 shrimp that Cornelius compared to “mini lobster tails.”
“That great thing about our menu is that we shrunk it so we can offer rotating specials and different things, so whatever is in the market we can make use of,” Cornelius said. “We want to switch it up and offer our guests a new experience they haven’t had.”
Up next, the Hooked crew is working on a sports bar themed restaurant in Ocean View, due later this year.
“Basically we just want to make it a community place where people can come and have fun with the family,” Cornelius said. “We’re going to put in some neat sandwiches and meat appetizers. Probably not a lot is going to be healthy.”