The zombie arrives about 9 o’clock, blown in by a wind as cold as the bony touch of a skeleton’s fingers. His hands—except for the extra one—are jammed into his pockets. That severed limb is stuck under his arm.
He greets another pair of ghouls, a kilt-wearing Goth, Cher, and a micro-mini-skirted Raggedy Ann and orders an Evo ale from the bar. The geisha who follows him in is appropriately demure, but her companion—a six-foot-tall penguin—is inevitably conspicuous and draws applause.
You never know what’ll show up at the Red Roost’s end-of-the-season party.
The Red Roost Restaurant is an icon of summer on the Eastern Shore. You don’t find it by accident; the wait staff wears T-shirts that read “Get Lost” and sport a map to the place.
The crab house is deep in the salt marshes southwest of Salisbury, off a back road that’s off a side road that goes to the “the road ends here” village of Whitehaven. (Literally. The asphalt ends abruptly at the ferry dock on the Wicomico River.)
The former chicken barn sits close enough to the water that the parking lot has occasionally doubled as a boat ramp.
It attracts the crustacean cognoscenti the way a crab pot full of chicken necks draws jumbo blues. The Roost claims it is the original all-you-can-eat crab shack on the Shore.
Who’s to argue?
Guests spend hours sitting at brown-paper-covered booths, working their way through piles of steamed crabs, fried chicken, clam strips, fried shrimp, hush puppies, corn on the cob, and French fries. If that’s not enough, you can add a half slab of ribs and finish up with any manner of Smith Island Cake. It draws a loyal crowd from its opening in March through its final night, the Saturday closest to Halloween.
“It’s a destination,” explains owner Tom Knorr.
“You don’t just decide to go to the Roost for dinner on a whim. You’re driving 20 miles from Salisbury, 40 from Cambridge. But because there’s nothing like it, and because crabs are what summer is all about, people come here a couple of times a month.”
Which may be true of the crab feasters, but for the folks in Whitehaven and the other hamlets of Wicomico County’s West Side—Tyaskin, Nanticoke, and Bivalve—the Red Roost is their local hang-out.
Like a British pub, meeting at the Roost is their regular evening entertainment. They gather at the bar, where upended bushel baskets serve as lampshades and dollar bills signed in Magic Marker by patrons paper the ceiling and walls.
Over beers or iced tea, a crab cake sandwich or perfectly fried chicken, they catch up on gossip, rag on each other, lie about the size of the mosquitoes they’ve swatted, and grumble about the latest idiocy of whichever politicians they don’t like. When you’re 12 miles from the nearest secondary—much less main—road, such places are invaluable.
Originally, the Roost was a chicken house, but its proximity to the river proved problematic. Chickens can’t swim, and after several floods drowned the flocks, the place was abandoned.
Then the Palmer family moved in with plans to open a campground. The chicken house was renovated as an activity center and general store. It opened just in time for the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which kept RV’ers off the road.
Needing to generate some kind of income, they started steaming crabs and corn and perfecting a fried-chicken recipe that far outshines the Colonel’s. Word soon spread about the place, where finding it is half the fun and where, on Thursday nights, a string band entertains with sing-alongs.
In 1996, the Palmers sold the place to Knorr, who expanded the menu. The crab feasts now vie with Eastern Shore-inspired specialties like chicken breasts topped with lump crab, roasted corn and chicken chowder, and hickory-smoked ribs.
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The Halloween tradition started the year the Roost opened; one last night of fun before locking up for the winter. The early evening crowd drives in from Salisbury and Cambridge for a final crab feast. Kids dressed as pirates and princesses take a “haunted hayride” through marshes where drama students from Salisbury University and Bennett High School set up vignettes of gory car wrecks and creepy campsites.
As the out-of-towners leave, the locals arrive. Soon, it’s like the best kind of neighborhood cookout, with the costume contest taking the place of pitching horseshoes.
Two beefy guys portraying the Will Ferrell and Jon Heder characters in Blades of Glory arrive in skintight ice-skating suits, making a strong case for the need for Spandex police. Loudly hailed for their nerve, they decline pleas to demonstrate their pairs’ routine.
Walking candy corn, elaborate aliens, a matador and bull, and Wilma Flintstone take to the dance floor. The waiters, also in costume, finish their chores and join the party. Around midnight, people reluctantly leave.
All winter, they’ll be watching the large wooden sign on Nanticoke Road which points the way to the Roost, waiting for the day when it announces the opening date for the crab (and social) season in Whitehaven.
The Red Roost is located at 2670 Clara Road in Whitehaven. For more information, visit www.theredroost.com.