FRUITLAND — Nationally-recognized and locally-respected Restaurant 213 has been offering fine dining in a small-town setting for nearly a decade.
When owner and Executive Chef Jim Hughes decided to open Restaurant 213 in Fruitland more than eight years ago, his location wasn’t in the best of shape.
“The building needed some attention,” he said.
Today, the site is small but comfortable, with an inviting entryway and an herb and vegetable garden bordering one side wall. Hughes is especially proud of the garden, which provides the majority of produce used in his restaurant. The plot features everything from habanero peppers to mint and is even used to grow cold-weather crops like lettuce during the winter.
“We really strive for fresh,” said Hughes, who added that many restaurants try to buy ingredients locally, but very few make the ingredients themselves. “In the summer, we grow 85 percent of our produce.”
Restaurant 213’s tagline is, “Fine Dining with Global Influences,” a promise that Hughes more than meets. After graduating second in his class at Johnson and Wales in 1975, Hughes began expanding his training, domestically and abroad, working in several states and overseas. In 1978, he became the youngest executive chef in the country working for a large hotel or corporation. Not long after, he relocated to Europe and then the Middle East, where he worked for the Saudi Royal family.
“I’ve worked everywhere,” joked Hughes.
Upon returning to America, Hughes was inducted into the Chefs Hall of Fame in 1990 and later helped start the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) culinary program.
It was during his time working at UMES that Hughes decided to open a restaurant in the area. After opening, Hughes enlisted the help of amateur sous chef Brian Mills. Though Mills’ only professional training comes from working at Restaurant 213, Hughes is ready to match his assistant up against any other chef in the area.
“Now he can run the place,” he said of Mills.
Blending traditional French and Italian cuisine with other recipes and ideas Hughes collected during his globetrotting, Restaurant 213 quickly began accumulating attention and awards from critics.
In 2006, Coastal Living Magazine listed Restaurant 213 as No. 5 on its top 10 list of favorite places. Senior Editor Steve Millburg chose the restaurant for its “flair, and refreshing lack of pretention.” The remainder of the list included spots like waterfalls and other natural wonders, though very few other restaurants. Also, for the fourth year running, Restaurant 213 has been recognized by Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA), something fewer than 800 restaurants in existence can boast.
According to Hughes, however, the accolades can sometimes be intimidating to casual diners.
“We’ve gained a reputation as a special occasion restaurant,” he said.
Hughes explained the words ‘fine dining’ may conjure fears of high prices and elitism for some. Exotic dishes, impressive ingredients and an award-winning wine list can be a lot to take in for a person just looking for a quick bite to eat. But in Hughes’ opinion, Restaurant 213 covers the entire field, from wedding anniversary parties to a weeknight dinner with the family.
“I think we’re more of an ‘occasion’ restaurant,” he said.
While Hughes admitted the ingredients and preparation weren’t cheap, he did state that Restaurant 213’s prices are comparable to other eateries that aren’t considered gourmet, while providing more options and atmosphere than those same restaurants.
“We offer more amenities than the other restaurants,” he said. “We have one of the best wine lists in the area.”
Hughes also pointed out that Restaurant 213, which is tucked into a quiet section of Fruitland Blvd., is much more accessible than some people realize. Though it’s removed from the hustle and bustle of the shore, Restaurant 213 is surprisingly easy to reach, only about half an hour drive from most points near Ocean City.
“It’s worth the trip,” he said.
Once people do decide to visit Restaurant 213, Hughes was confident they will quickly become regulars.
“Everyone who comes here loves it,” he stated. “It’s an intimate, nice restaurant.”
Overall, Hughes is happy with the direction fine dining in the area is heading. During the last few years, he revealed, more people have been willing to expand their horizons to try something new.
“I see the trend escalating,” said Hughes.
In his opinion, the shore is catching up to more metropolitan areas in terms of fine dining options and interest, a pattern that Hughes hopes will snowball further in the years to come.