Tom Courtney gets a few sideways looks when he talks to his seagulls, but after decades of fishing together, it would be rude to ignore them. Six early mornings a week, Tom slides his boat into sourthern Maryland's waters in search of rockfish, crab, or some other fresh catch to serve at his restaurant, Courntney's. Before he leaves the dock, Tom tosses his gulls a bite to eat; he'd rather share than hear the loud squawks that, to him, say, "Feed me already, you stingy man!"
Located on the banks of Calvert Bay in Ridge, Maryland, Courtney's bears witness to 100 years of maritime history. The unadorned white cinderblock facade plays poker face to the lively interior. Inside, NASCAR-style Bud Light flags hang from the ceiling near a 2003 autographed photo of Willie Nelson. Six large fish posters curtain the back wall, and two bay window are decorated with fat Christmas snowmen and holiday greetings (not just in December, but all year long). A four-foot stuffed Atlantic dolphin hangs near the bathrooms, the doors of which quip "Buoys" and "Gulls." Tom's personal treasures, such as photos of the day he married wife Julie, are displayed in a glass curio cabinet near a stereo that thumps classic rock tunes. The brown paneled walls warped by floodwaters tell the story of recent hurricanes. Yet Courtney's is comfortable, eclectic, and whimsical, with nature-loving overtones; never before have a building and its owner been so similar.
Talking with Tom is like sitting in a dingy adrift on choppy water--it is quite necessary to hold on. He pops up frequently to grab creamer from the refrigerator, restock the salad bar, or chat with patrons; all the while, his quick-paced Chesapeake Bay dialect swiftly moves us from topic to topic. With each bend in the conversation, Tom and I travel from southern Maryland roads to Vietnam, where he served almost two years in the Army; to nearby St. Mary's College, where he earned a B.S. in biology; and onto the waters of the Potomac River, Chesapeake Bay, and Calvert Bay, where Tom has lived and fished for all but a few of his 60 years.
His life's milestones are intertwined with those of the bay; hurricanes and fish shortages anchor his personal memories. "The last year my father fished the bay was in 1960--the year the croakers were filled with iodine," Tom remembers.
Tom's love of fishing led him to the restaurant business, albeit via a slow barge. In 1979, he bought the historic restaurant and outbuildings to gain commercial fishing access to Calvert Bay. Eight years later, he sold crab to a customer name Julie, who soon convinced Tom to open an eatery with her as cook. How did she persuade the reluctant restaurateur?
"It was love at first sight," Tom recalls of their meeting. Enough said.
Julie, who arrived int he U.S. from the Philippines when she was 10, is a natural cook and instinctively practices the culinary notion that fresh seafood is best enjoyed sans fussy preparations.
The air at Courtney's during breakfast hours holds the aroma of sizzling ham, and I can hear Julie's metal spatula clang against her large stainless steel range.
"Pull up a chair and sit on the floor!" Tom says, chuckling, his shocking blond hair spilling in curly folds from underneath his red and white Courtney's baseball cap.
Just as at dinner, the casual, down-home attitude is so genuine and appealing that the typical patron-owner relationship becomes indistinct. Even with the check in hand, I feel like I should help clean up. Rick Montrose, a retired U.S. Navy fly-guy, feels the same way: He regularly helps Tom and Julie serve breakfast, gratis. Instead of receiving a paycheck, the family friend of many years barters his morning table tango for fresh fish and camaraderie.