OCEAN CITY – There is a mystique about Peppers Tavern people just can’t put a finger on, but once they come across its atmosphere and menu it’s hard to let go.
Denny-O opened Peppers Tavern on 16th Street and the Boardwalk 15 years ago as Ocean City’s “finest five-star dive”. He has been in the bar industry his entire life, growing up in Washington D.C and working in the bars in the city and Georgetown throughout his early 20’s, such as Circus Maximus, The Rabbits Foot, and The Keg.
“I was always in the business,” Denny-O said. “I moved from D.C to Baltimore and attended Towson University. I worked at a bar for six years called Hooligans owned by Johnny Unitas and Bobby Boyd, old Colt players.”
In 1978, Denny-O opened Nautilus Fitness Center in Salisbury and worked at the original Hobbit and Marina Deck in Ocean City before he met Buck Mann in 1979, who owned McGee’s Irish Pub on the Boardwalk at the time, which is now Shenanigans Irish Pub and Grille.
Denny-O ended up living in the Shoreham Hotel above McGee’s for at least 10 years while he ran the pub for Mann and then moved on to work as a “guest manager” at the Reel Inn and the original Crab Alley on 9th Street.
“I have had a lot of jobs,” Denny-O said. “When I worked for Buck, I got into the machine business. I bought one Pac-Man game in 1982, and I ended up having 800 games everywhere, all over the state in all the bars. So I stayed active in the business with working in all these bars but I knew what I was going to do, and in 1997 I had machines in the Tavern by the Sea, where Peppers is [on the Boardwalk], and the owner said, ‘do you want to buy this joint?’, so I bought it.”
Denny-O admitted the first couple of years were tough getting Peppers off the ground but 12 years ago Pedro De La Rosa, executive chef, came on board and developed the menu into having “real deal Mexican meals east of Durango.”
With its menu and atmosphere of low-hanging ceilings, thousands of names written on the wall of those who survived eating the Hell Wings, and pictures masking the walls of memories throughout time, Peppers gained its famous title.
“About a year or so after I bought it, I said, ‘you know what this is such a dive it’s a five-star dive’, so hence the term five-star dive,” Denny-O said. “Dives has the best food around anyhow.”
As a matter of fact, Denny-O has been in contact with Guy Fieri, host of Food Networks Drive-ins Diners and Dives, who is expected to make a future visit to Peppers Tavern to be featured on the TV show.
“People love us,” Denny-O said. “It is hard to pinpoint but we are very casual. People feel connected to it. They always come in and compare it to someplace back home.”
Next came Peppers Tavern on Route 611 in West Ocean City on July 17, 2009.
“There was definitely a need for it a little dive out here,” Denny-O said. “There is a niche for corner bars and I consider this the neighborhood corner bar.”
Peppers on Route 611 is known to mix up its offerings, and customers and staff rave over Italian Pasta Night on Sundays and a big country breakfast served every morning.
“The reason why we have an Italian night and big country breakfast in a Mexican joint is because you have to fill the need of the neighborhood,” Denny-O said. “I mean you can’t eat tacos every night.”
Another dish customers can’t get enough of is Peppers’ cream of crab soup.
“I told these guys a year ago to come up with a good cream of crab soup, and it will make you famous and you know what they laughed,” Denny-O said.
Denny-O was sure to point out popular menu items, such as the Ceviche, which is a Latin dish with fresh grouper marinated in lime juice with Pico de Galo served with tortilla chips.
“Without a doubt, 100 percent, the fish tacos are the best fish tacos in Ocean City,” he said. “Nobody did fish tacos around here before Peppers Tavern.”
Also, the guacomole is made from fresh avocados, just as all menu items at Peppers is made fresh per order.
“It is the best food in town, a local secret with local staff,” employee Zach “Hollywood” Hall said. “We have fun, that is what is important. We deliver but at the same time we keep it real.”
“Our main thing is we try to keep it low key,” Denny-O added.
Every once in a while Peppers Tavern on Route 611 will schedule entertainment, such as musician Blake Haley, but most of the music happens on the Boardwalk where Lower Class Citizens and Phantom Limbs play regularly.
Denny-O said Pepper’s Tavern wouldn’t be where it is today without key staff members who have been with him for many years, including Manager Jason Frank, Assistant Manager Jason Dyer and day-time bartender and manager Jeannie Sabia on the Boardwalk at 16th Street and on Route 611 General Manager Eric Olson and Kitchen Manager Luis Murillo, plus many more.
Denny-O also mentioned childhood friend Steve “Rex” Harrison, who moved to Ocean City six years ago and has been a helping hand at Peppers Tavern ever since.