Along the quaint streets of downtown Easton, dogwoods bloom and a sweet, fragrant air of renewal lingers in the breeze. Nowhere is this sensation more palpable than among the lunch crowd gathered at Mason’s Restaurant.
Locals, weekenders, and first-time tourists tipped off about the hamlet’s midday hotspot fill a first-floor dining room, the walls of which are washed in warm crimson and adorned with art deco prints.
In between bites of robust sandwiches that bear names with no regional allegiance—French Connection, Virginian, Texas Ranger—healthy helpings of laughter are served up.
The friendly staff addresses customers by name, and enthusiastic conversations aren’t confined to a particular table as neighbors lean over, bouncing from topics that run the gamut from art to fishing to “How’s your mother?”
Mason’s is quintessential Easton—casually elegant, thoroughly charming. Occupying two 19th-century Victorian houses along South Harrison Street, the yellow-and-blue-shuttered eatery boasts six cozy dining rooms over two floors, including a banquette area, lounge, and garden courtyard.
When you step inside, you feel like you’re not going out to eat—you’re going over to a friend’s house for dinner. And that’s precisely the effect Mary Mason wants.
When she opened her business more than 45 years ago, Mary gave her staff very simple instructions.
“When [customers] walk in here, I want you to look at them not as a customer, but as a guest in our home,” recalls the 75-year-old Baltimore native with Italian roots.
“I think that has been our success, because even though we’ve grown, we never lost that down-home, little-town, small-business atmosphere.”
In 1966, Mary opened a high-end gift shop selling decorative home accessories, as well as homemade chocolates—a tradition that continues today.
At the time, the property sat next to a house built by her husband’s grandfather in the late 1800s, which the Masons would come to inherit (in 2000, a major renovation project connected the two historic structures).
It wasn’t long before a town resident asked Mary if she could prepare sandwiches for a tea party. Eager for business, she said yes.
“I’ll tell you a little secret,” Mary says. “I did not know a tea sandwich from a submarine. I just had no clue.”
Despite a crash course in the art of dainty snacks, Mary’s first foray into catering was a huge success. Word of mouth spread, and the business grew rapidly. Soon, a café specializing in soups and sandwiches was added to the shop.
“I did just lunch, and that sort of got us going,” says Mary. “All of the food was made on the premises and it was all fresh, and I took a lot of pride in our presentation.”
Food, she says, was her salvation. When the economy tanked in the 1970s, folks weren’t buying fine china.
“All of the other gift shops, specialty shops, they were hurting, and if they couldn’t survive, they were closing,” she explains.
“We did whatever was in demand. I was not afraid to change, to take a chance. I didn’t say, ‘Oh, this is what we are, this is how we started, and this is how we are going to continue.’”
Today, Mary’s son, Matthew, is at the helm of an operation that has evolved into a full-scale gourmet dining experience offering extensive seasonal lunch, bar, and dinner menus, as well as an elaborate wine selection. The catering service has also grown exponentially, accommodating events from wedding receptions to corporate retreats.
Whether it’s the Virginia rockfish fillet served with roasted baby carrots, sugar snaps, garlic, mint, brown rice, and carrot orange jus; the Australian rack of lamb accompanied by mini goat-cheese ravioli, fava beans, roasted garlic, and lamb jus; or the signature salads and homemade soups, fresh and local continue to be guiding principles in Mason’s philosophy.