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By Marty Legrand

Many moons ago, I was in Crisfield to report on a fishing tournament named for the beloved Eastern Shore photojournalist and raconteur Norris “Scorchy” Tawes. A three-day affair, it filled Somers Cove with boats vying for big prize money. The tournament-eve captains’ party was held in a wind-whipped drizzle. With plastic bunting flapping around him, the organizer advised anglers of their breakfast options for the next morning. Among them was Gordon’s Confectionary. “They open at 4 a.m.,” he said, “but if you beat on the door at 3:45 they’ll probably let you in.”

If you’re up before the sun in search of the day’s most important meal, you could do worse than ask a charter captain, or a waterman, or one of those poor souls whose workday begins at some ungodly premature hour, just where they eat.

The type of place you’re looking for won’t describe its food as “house-made” when “home-cooked” will do. They won’t try to slip Brussels sprouts in your omelet.  They’ll serve you coffee in a substantial white mug or maybe one with a local insurance agent’s ad on it. And, best of all, you probably pay only slightly less for your entire meal than you’d shell out for one grande Blonde Cocoa Cloud Macchiato.

Sadly, Scorchy is no longer with us. Neither is his namesake tournament (although I’ll forever treasure the Scorchy Tawes Pro-Am Fishing Tournament ball cap he autographed for me). Gordon’s Confectionary remains, however, still unlocking its doors at 4 a.m.— possibly earlier, if they recognize you and the coffee’s ready.

Most Chesapeake breakfast restaurants begin serving at a civilized 7, 8, or 9 in the morning. We wanted to find joints whose griddles are already sizzling by then. Consulting locals in and around favorite waterways and ports, we asked about predawn gathering spots.

We uncovered centuries-old general stores, neon-lit diners and convenience store/eateries masquerading as gas stations. Their ambience elicited favorable online reviews like “nothing to look at,” “hole in the wall,” “basic,” “folksy” and my favorite— “the décor is peeling paint, rust and Little Debbies,” the front counter’s top-selling snack. More to the point, customers praised the food for its quantity and approximation to grandma-made quality. We’re talking flaky buttermilk biscuits drenched in creamy sausage gravy, eggs Benedict made Chesapeake-style with local crabmeat, and brawny three-egg-and-hash-browns platters with at least two meats that will leave you, in the words of one restaurant manager I spoke to, “tick full.”

We awarded extra points for restaurants with sassy waitresses, cooks bearing nicknames (like “Cheeseburger”) and owners who thoughtfully alert customers via Facebook that today’s opening will be delayed due to a tide-flooded parking lot. At such places, customers come for the food, but return for the personalities—regulars like ribald watermen, practiced taletellers, and chitchatting seniors.

In tiny Saxis Island, Virginia, Martha Jane Linton rises between 3:30 and 4 a.m. in order to open Martha’s Kitchen by 5 o’clock for watermen who fish nearby Pocomoke Sound. In the winter months, she sleeps in and opens at 6. The crab-potters order coffee and snacks—eat breakfast sandwiches if there’s time—and buy work gloves from her. The second shift rolls in about 7 o’clock, taking over the biggest table for coffee, Martha’s famous scrapple sandwiches, and some no-holds-barred banter.

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“They’ll talk for at least two hours,” she says. “They say exactly what’s on their mind.” They’re great guys, if occasionally off-color or overly blunt. “Sometimes if I see strangers coming in, I’ll tell them to cool it.” On Saturdays, her regulars include “Bozo,” an inveterate flea market shopper and joke-teller. (I’m told you should ask him the one about Samantha, his dog.)

In the shadow of the Maryland State House, Chick and Ruth’s Delly opens daily at 6:30 a.m. to an influx of government workers, early-rising retirees and eager-beaver tourists. By 8:30 (9:30 on weekends), everyone’s on their feet reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, one of the more unusual traditions in all of delicatessendom.

Politicians and power brokers sit at the “Governor’s Office,” a booth whose opposing benches are reserved for Democrats and Republicans, respectively. But the real give-and-take goes on among Skip, Joe, Thelma and the rest of the Morning Crew, retirees who occupy a table near the political seat of power. “They’ll solve every problem
you could possibly think of,” one employee told me.

The deli used to be open 24 hours. The practice ceased about 20 years ago, I understand, for reasons now hazy but probably involving tipsy patrons whose wee-hours inebriation was acquired elsewhere.

We’ve gathered here a dozen early-opening eateries where the java and gossip are hot and the grill sergeants accommodating. Prefer your omelet smothered in creamed chipped beef? Just ask. If you happen into Sting-Ray’s near Cape Charles, you may even sweet-talk the cook into a side of fried toadfish with your scrambled eggs. (Yes, the Bay’s excessively homely oyster toadfish is edible. It’s a Northampton County thing.)

“We get all kinds of strange requests,” says Sting-Ray’s longtime manager Mary Scott. “If we can do it, we will.”

Chick and Ruth’s Delly

Annapolis, Md

Huge portions and a clientele that includes political bigwigs make this beloved Main Street delicatessen the place for a power breakfast in the state capital. The menu features 150-plus items—egg platters, omelets, Belgian waffles, French toast, breakfast sandwiches lox, bagels and their famous Eggs Benedict—many named for local lawmakers. Besides the Pledge of Allegiance, the “Delly” is famous for its Man versus Food Challenge, a heavyweight bout pitting the diner against seven pounds of burger and milkshake in a one-hour contest. There’s no breakfast challenge per se (“we don’t have a six-pound omelet”), but you can wage this food fight at any hour.

Opens: 6:30 a.m.

Don’t miss: Eggs Benedict with hollandaise-drenched jumbo lump crabmeat or tender, homemade corned beef hash

Prices: $5.60 – $9.50

Cuppa joe: $2.50

Morning crowd: government types, retirees, boaters, tourists, midshipmen

Décor: power broker portraiture

Pasta Plus

Rock Hall, Md

If you’re imagining creamed chipped beef on linguine, rest assured that this popular heart-of-town hangout serves the breakfast staple on traditional substrates: toast, English muffins, biscuits or home fries. A fixture in this hard-working community since 1986, Pasta Plus offers morning fuel for a day on the water, including three-egg omelets, pancakes and Big Breakfasts that feature two eggs, two pancakes, a meat and the usual trimmings. As many as a dozen retiree knights of the round table in the back still hold forth daily. “They’re guys who have always worked this time of day so they can’t stop,” explains management.

Opens: 6 a.m. Monday – Friday,
6:30 Saturday & 7 Sunday

Don’t miss: the house favorite KK sandwich—a fried egg on an English muffin with melted cheese and bacon, ham, scrapple or sausage

Prices: $3.25 – $10.95

Cuppa joe: $1.50 with a meal, $2.50 if you’re just coffee-klatsching

Morning crowd: watermen, ex-watermen, retired truckers

Décor: local and Bay iconography

Gordon’s Confectionary

Crisfield, Md

Another Main Street establishment, this spartan eatery is the early-morning nexus of Crisfield’s commercial fishing community. Coffee and talk flow freely among old-timers at the back tables while still-working watermen occupy the counter to order breakfast sandwiches before heading to their deadrises. The morning menu is limited: sandwiches with a choice of proteins (bacon, ham, sausage, scrapple, fried bologna), eggs and sides, maybe an omelet or a novelty item like Holly and Jenna’s Double Bacon Glazed Donut Burger. (Gordon’s doesn’t do waffles or pancakes.) Owner Kevin Evans, whose family has run the place for 95 years, takes pride in its continuity. As one visitor said: “Just go. Revel in the local purposeness [sic] of the place.”

Opens: 4 a.m.

Don’t miss: sandwiches with fresh-ground, locally made sausage or crispy scrapple

Prices: $3 – $6 (cash only)

Cuppa joe: $1.20 – $1.80

Morning crowd: watermen, locals, retired watermen

Décor: timeless short-order grill

Sip & Bite

Baltimore, Md

Open 24 hours, this classic diner near the Canton waterfront has been a shiny aluminum-and-neon beacon for the very hungry and the slightly hung-over since 1948. Besides platter-sized plates of whipped cream-dolloped pancakes, Benedicts flanked by a mountain of home fries and teetering breakfast sandwiches, Sip & Bite incorporates Chesapeake crabmeat in some of its most popular dishes. The 1948 Crab Cake Omelet features a four-ounce grilled crabcake, chopped and blended into scrambled eggs with cheese. You can view its preparation through the open kitchen. And don’t miss the Guy Fieri-autographed poster commemorating Sip & Dine’s star turn on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

Open: 24 hours (closed tuesdays)

Don’t miss: The Eastern Shore, a stuff-your-face sammie featuring a jumbo lump crabcake, scrambled eggs and bacon on brioche

Prices: $10 – $15

Cuppa joe: $2

Morning crowd: business people, restaurant workers, Fells Point barflys

Décor: deco-inspired diner

Woolford General Store

Woolford, Md

Sit at one of the well-worn booths in this community hub and you’ve got lots of company; Pocket Frogs, Pad Crashers, Toad Buzz and other necessities of Dorchester County’s snakehead-fishing capital surround you. When anglers urged storeowner Ed Bramble to stock topwater lures for the toothy-mouthed invaders, he obliged. Now, snakehead fishermen stop by to pick up buzzbaits with their breakfast sandwiches. Nearly 150 years old, this is a place where you help yourself to coffee, stop next door for mail (one wing houses Woolford’s post office) and catch up on gossip. “They love the small-town feel,” Bramble says of his customers. “It reminds them of how it used to be.”

Opens: 6 a.m. Monday – Saturday, 7 a.m Sunday

Don’t miss: cheesesteaks when they’re ready

Prices: $2.50 – $9.25

Cuppa joe: $1.25 – $1.50

Morning crowd: watermen, locals, anglers and hunters

Décor: general store meets Cabela’s

Hoopers Island General

Church Creek, Md

To be a general store in Chesapeake territory is to be a one-stop purveyor of life’s necessities: gas and groceries, hardware and work wear, good food, and great company. Locals get all of these at this Upper Hoopers Island store in Dorchester County. Order a sausage or scrapple sandwich at the counter and sit in the small café. The store stocks an abundance of rubber boots and gloves, pocketknives and other watermen’s gear. You’ll find no power booths here, just communal tables where “Everyone knows where they’re supposed to sit.”

Opens: 4 a.m.

Don’t miss: the hungry waterman’s special, a Western omelet loaded with bacon, sausage and ham

Prices: $3.99 – $8.99

Cuppa joe: $1.29 – $1.75

Morning crowd: watermen, locals, retired watermen

Décor: deer heads and Dorchester souvenirs

Achilles Shopping Center

Hayes, Va

Achilles Shopping Center is a general store, gas station and takeout restaurant in a Royal Farms-sized package. Its street address is Hayes, although the Achilles Post Office sits next door. Some call it Marvin’s after its previous owner. And if you’re a very longtime resident of the rural Gloucester County area known as Guinea, you originally knew it as Otis Hogge’s. It’s open 24 hours for watermen (Guineamen) in need of coffee, a quick breakfast, a pair of oilskins or a fill-up for their truck. Anglers buy bloodworms and squid here, boaters barbecue sandwiches. A few chairs constitute the seating, but at 3 a.m., before the boats head out, like as not they’re filled with Guineamen and Guineawomen.

Open: 24 hours

Don’t miss: home-baked cinnamon rolls

Prices: $2.59 – $6

Cuppa joe: $1.30 – $1.50

Morning crowd: watermen, recreational anglers

Décor: “We’re just a gas station, darling.”

Little River Market & Deli

Reedville, Va

Achilles Shopping Center is a general store, gas station and takeout restaurant in a Royal Farms-sized package. Its street address is Hayes, although the Achilles Post Office sits next door. Some call it Marvin’s after its previous owner. And if you’re a very longtime resident of the rural Gloucester County area known as Guinea, you originally knew it as Otis Hogge’s. It’s open 24 hours for watermen (Guineamen) in need of coffee, a quick breakfast, a pair of oilskins or a fill-up for their truck. Anglers buy bloodworms and squid here, boaters barbecue sandwiches. A few chairs constitute the seating, but at 3 a.m., before the boats head out, like as not they’re filled with Guineamen and Guineawomen.

Open: 24 hours

Don’t miss: home-baked cinnamon rolls

Prices: $2.59 – $6

Cuppa joe: $1.30 – $1.50

Morning crowd: watermen, recreational anglers

Décor: “We’re just a gas station, darling.”

Martha’s Kitchen

Saxis, Va

Martha’s is essentially a one-woman operation, which is hard to imagine after reading the extensive breakfast menu Martha Jane Linton writes on the chalkboard each morning: a half dozen different sandwiches, three or four omelets (including one with shrimp and crabmeat), a couple egg platter options, biscuits with creamed chipped beef or sausage gravy, tater tots and home fries, oatmeal, waffles, French toast and her butterscotch-chocolate chip or blueberry-cinnamon pancakes. Plus there’s the bacon, sausage, scrapple, ham and bologna she fries up to accompany them. If she’s not too busy, she’ll serve breakfast all day or deliver takeout to watermen at her dock. And she sells merchandise, too, including woodcarvings by her husband, Kefford.

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Opens: 5 a.m. (6 a.m. in winter)

Don’t miss: Martha’s crisped-to-perfection scrapple (her secret is deep-frying)

Prices: $2.50 – $9.50

Cuppa joe: $1 (plus unlimited refills of which watermen take full advantage)

Morning crowd: watermen, summer tourists

Décor: Eastern Shore nautical

Mary’s Kitchen

Virginia Beach, Va

In the heyday of Virginia Beach’s nightclub scene 50 years ago, when the Top Hat, the Peppermint Beach Club and Rogue’s were hosting the Rhondels and Chubby Checker, Mary’s served the bleary-eyed at daybreak. Those clubs are gone, but Mary’s continues to sling diner fare and Southern comfort food in its 170-seat restaurant. The Hungry Man, a favorite of locals, features three eggs with Edwards smoked sausage links or country ham, plus one side and a biscuit. The menu skews Southern (Virginia ham, chicken and waffles, chicken fried steak, fried green tomatoes, grits), but offers less artery-menacing options, too, like avocado toast and scrambled egg whites. Mary’s closes Thanksgiving and Christmas, and defies hurricanes. “As long as we have electricity, we’re open.”

Opens: 6 a.m.

Don’t miss: Mary’s signature buttermilk biscuits

Prices: $4.79 to $15.99

Cuppa joe: $1.99

Morning crowd: office workers, first responders, military personnel

Décor: surfboards and beach nostalgia

Sting-Ray’s

Cape Charles, Va

Outwardly an Exxon station, Sting-Ray’s dispenses far more than Regular, Extra and Supreme. The local landmark, owned by Joanne and John Hwang, has served fresh seafood and high-octane breakfasts to locals and U.S. 13 travelers for nearly 70 years. Scrapple, egg and cheese sandwiches, and biscuits with sausage gravy are the most popular items at the order-at-the-counter restaurant. Hearty eaters, like watermen who stop by after setting their nets, dive into three-egg platters with hash browns, grits, and up to two meats. But Sting-Ray’s signature dish is a sweet potato biscuit topped with shaved country ham, a sweet-salty delicacy that earned a shout-out in the foodie highway bible Roadfood.

Opens: 6:30 a.m.

Don’t miss: sweet potato biscuits with country ham

Prices: $1.50 – $7.50

Cuppa joe: 99 cents (“with a gazillion refills”)

Morning crowd: locals, travelers, and watermen; campers and golfers in summer

Décor: fish taxidermy, including an enormous ray

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