+ By Melanie McCarty + Photos by Allison Zaucha
Where can you drink a rum cocktail called the Skull Puncher, dine on raw oysters and tinned fish, and joke around with a bevy of tattooed, stripe-wearing waiters? At Sailor Oyster Bar, West Street’s newest addition and the first full-fledged raw bar in the Annapolis Arts District.
“We wanted to specialize in some boutique oysters, some West Coast oysters, some things that you might not get other places,” says owner Scott Herbst. The restaurant carries three to four types of oysters at a time, from Chesapeake Bay varieties to an assortment from places as far away as California. The selection lets diners compare the tasty bivalves, whose flavors vary based on the attributes of the water where they originated. Sailor Oyster Bar serves them with three house-made sauces, including hot sauce served in a medicine dropper “so you can get just the right amount,” says Herbst.
In addition to its offerings on the half shell, Sailor Oyster Bar presents a creative menu inspired by life at sea, from ceviche toast and a “bloney sandwich” made with high quality Italian sausage to tinned fish, which is served in the tin and packed in amazingly flavorful sauces and oils. Diners who order the tinned fish receive a tiny work of art—a cartoon drawing of a sea creature (part of the packaging from tinned fish manufacturer José Gourmet). It’s details like these that delight patrons, who have been flocking to Sailor Oyster Bar since its August opening.
Herbst has ample experience capturing the attention of diners. He spent the better part of the past two decades in the restaurant business, working everywhere from sports bars to fine dining establishments. He has an easy way with people, something he developed growing up. His father’s job took the family from Miami to Orlando to Tallahassee, and then to Minneapolis. The moves taught Herbst to adapt and make friends quickly. After landing his first restaurant job at age 17, his people skills were noticed by management, and soon he was tending bar, notwithstanding his age. He enjoyed the work and kept at it. “While I was figuring out what I wanted to do when I grew up, I was already doing it,” he says.
In 1996, Herbst traveled from Minneapolis to Severna Park to spend the summer with his parents. Plans changed when he met Gabrielle, a makeup artist who had recently moved to the area from Washington, DC. “I was smitten,” he says. Married now for 18 years, they are the force behind some of West Street’s stylish and exciting outposts. In addition to Sailor Oyster Bar, the couple co-own Sparrow, the jewelry boutique next door. They are also part owners of the popular sushi restaurant Tsunami, where Scott has been the general manager since 2006. “We fell in love with Annapolis,” he says. “At the same time, we wanted to bring some new things to the town.”
Housed in a former row house, Sailor Oyster Bar brings a concept to Annapolis that is as intimate as it is innovative. The restaurant seats 30, and food is prepared behind the bar as guests look on. “I wanted to see if we could sustain a restaurant without the grills, the hoods, and the fryers. I wanted to do something more healthy in a small space,” says Herbst. The restaurant doesn’t have a kitchen, and the only heating elements used are a toaster and a mini-blowtorch (used to sear tuna). Herbst likens the experience of eating at Sailor Oyster Bar to spending time in somebody’s boat. This is reflected in the restaurant’s nautical theme, from the exposed pipes and the white sailor cap perched upon the beer taps to the mismatched stripes that the waiters wear in lieu of a uniform. “When our guests wear stripes, we always say, ‘Careful, somebody might ask you for something!’” Herbst laughs.
Yet at Sailor Oyster Bar, the naval theme runs deeper than décor. Both Herbst’s and his wife’s fathers spent time in the Navy. A photograph of Gabrielle’s father, a Navy frogman who specialized in underwater demolition, greets customers at the restaurant’s entrance. A drawing of his scuba helmet serves as the restaurant’s unofficial logo. The restaurant also pays homage to Annapolis’ maritime history. “I figured this would be a cool way to celebrate the sailor and the sea and all the great food that we get from the water around us,” says Herbst.
Although Sailor Oyster Bar pays sincere tribute, it also embraces the bawdier aspects of life at sea. The bathroom is collaged with images of pinup girls, and the restaurant’s initials—S.O.B.—are proudly displayed on its business cards.
Looking ahead, the restaurant will debut a winter menu and add daily specials. Herbst will divide his time between Sailor Oyster Bar and Tsunami, where he will remain general manager. Annapolis is lucky to have a new, stylish place to grab a seat and sample unique seafood dishes. Just look out if you happen to be wearing stripes! █