New Berlin Restaurant Serving ‘Eastern Shore Respect’

New Berlin Restaurant Serving ‘Eastern Shore Respect’
Taking a break last Friday at Berlin’s newest restaurant, The Blacksmith, were head chef Toby Gilbert and co-owners Drew Evans and Justine Zegna. Photo by Travis Brown

BERLIN — Blending familiar dishes with the unexpected and always emphasizing local ingredients, The Blacksmith in Berlin is taking “elevated pub food” to a new level.

Operating from a historic former carriage house next to town hall, a short walk off Main Street, The Blacksmith is styled as a true Eastern Shore eatery. All of the flavors are inspired in some way by the area with many ingredients coming from no more than a short drive from Berlin. The restaurant’s seafood comes in mainly from Ocean City and Crisfield, vegetables from local farmers, desserts from Baked Dessert Café across the street and beer from nearby Burley Oak Brewery. It’s all about “Eastern Shore respect,” according to head chef Toby Gilbert.

While such a heavy lean on buying and highlighting local would be enough for a lot of restaurants, The Blacksmith approaches its menu with a unique philosophy. It mixes pub favorites, like burgers and chowder, with more exotic fare, such as kimchi lettuce wraps and homemade kale kraut. The constantly changing menu might feature options like raw rockfish seared in oil one day and an odds and ends board offering that same fish’s entire head later that afternoon. Fried chicken shares menu space with juniper spiced duck, scotch eggs and lamb chops.

“We wanted to have a couple dishes that were on the fine dining end of things but not alienate anyone who wanted to come in and get a couple beers,” said Drew Evans, co-owner.

But at the end of the day the food is all about loving the shore. Co-owner Justine Zegna, who also operates Planet X Café in Rehoboth, credited Gilbert’s imagination with making The Blacksmith such an uncommon experience but at the same time one that shouldn’t intimidate anyone out on a pub crawl.

“It’s really turned into something that highlights the beauty of the Eastern Shore. I’ve never seen a menu quite like it,” said Zegna. “I think he’s taken a very young and brave approach to this local and organic thing.”

In a way, the menu reflects Gilbert’s own experiences. A Worcester County native, he traveled abroad to areas like Puerto Rico and New York to work on developing his chef chops but found himself returning to Berlin and combining ideas he learned on the road with his Eastern Shore roots.  The menu has an extreme amount of attention to detail. Not only is The Blacksmith making the food from scratch but even the condiments are being crafted by hand.

“We do a lot of our own fermenting,” said Gilbert, nodding to jars of pickles, kale, lemon, garlic and other ingredients that line the shelves inside. He makes his own vinegar, mustard and even squash ketchup. That’s all set to go into overdrive this spring.

“As the ground thaws, we’ll be able to go more and more local for veggies and everything else. We’re trying to really put an emphasis on that,” said Gilbert.

Zegna and Evans plan on adding an outdoor deck to take advantage of the incoming good weather. They are also considering expanding their hours of operation for the summer. Currently, The Blacksmith opens at 3 p.m. except for Wednesday, when it’s closed, and Sunday, when it opens at 1 p.m. It’s difficult to open any earlier currently due to the massive about of prep time that some of the menu requires, with Evans saying he and his team spends 12 to 14 hours a day in the restaurant. That’s even with Gilbert doing a lot of prep work when everything is closed Wednesday.

But as business picks up, Evans confirmed plans are to expand the hours.

“We’re going to consider it. We actually are considering for the summer doing a lunch menu,” he said.

The Blacksmith officially opened up late last month and has been something of a hotspot ever since. The town has felt almost like a family in how welcoming the residents and businesses have been, according to Zegna. She agreed with the philosophy that has been repeated extensively by other merchants and restaurateurs in town: people are neighbors, not competition. The Blacksmith couldn’t work like it does without the help of area growers as well as others in the industry, Zegna asserted.

“It’s very symbiotic and supportive of each other. I think it’s sort of the human version of a bio-dynamic farm. It’s a bio-dynamic community,” she said.

That idea of support and sustainability is something that she hopes to expand on in the years ahead with The Blacksmith by trying to make the building and the work as green as possible. A historic building, both Zegna and Evans grimaced while recollecting the time and effort it took to get the structure up to snuff before opening, with Evans calling it a “nightmare.” They are proud of the spot now, however, and are happy to have restored a little piece of the town.

For more information on The Blacksmith, visit them on Facebook or call 410-973-2102