By Duffy Perkins
An Annapolis restaurant known for their oysters was significantly damaged in a two-alarm fire last Wednesday night.
Sailor Oyster Bar, owned and operated since 2016 by Scott and Gabrielle Herbst, suffered catastrophic damage when a fire broke out around 8 p.m. June 8 in the rear of the two-story building. Heavy flames engulfed the row building, burning inward and down into the establishment.
Scott Herbst was at his home nearby in President’s Hill when the fire broke out. “I got a phone call from Bryce, one of our staff, who very calmly said, ‘Scott, I need you to come to the restaurant right now. The back of the building is on fire.’”
Herbst found sneakers and ran the block to the restaurant before he had time to consider what he had just heard, but when he arrived, it was all too real. “I was trying to be cool, but the fire was well on its way. It happened incredibly fast.”
Inside the building, calm heads prevailed. Chef Lorenza Aznar was upstairs in Sailor’s top prep room when she smelled something strange. At the same time, a server downstairs was ringing in an order when the whole computer system went down. Guests seated at tables noticed smoke out the back windows, and smelled burning. Aznar went downstairs to get help and met with a dining guest who was already working to bring everyone outside.
Annapolis Fire department spokesperson Lieutenant Tony Williams Jr. says 56 firefighters worked for almost an hour to put out the blaze. “The second alarm ended up pulling five extra engines, a truck, a medic unit, and a requested rehab unit,” he said.
Both the Anne Arundel Fire Department and the Naval Support Activity Fire Department assisted the Annapolis firefighting crew. Sailor Oyster Bar had working fire detectors, which helped result in zero injuries. The Annapolis Fire Department Fire Explosive Services Unit conducted the investigation and determined the cause to be accidental due to improperly discarded smoking materials.
The next day, when Herbst was able to witness the interior’s aftermath, he was both heartbroken and grateful. “Every table had plates and glasses on it,” he says. “It was the middle of service. There were things on the walls that my wife and I spent our lives collecting, things that were sentimental and irreplaceable. But it’s still just stuff. It could have been so much worse.”
While it was “just stuff,” it was the stuff that had been an entirely original restaurant, unique to Annapolis.
Herbst was a longtime restaurant industry professional and a main figure at Tsunami when he took a look at a row building on West Street that needed some creative vision. Sailor was a full-on concept restaurant, serving high-end seafood without many of the traditional utensils of a seafood restaurant. Being a row building, a grill with a hood was out of the question. Herbst came armed with a blow torch, a sous vide stick, and a toaster.
His creative mission caught the attention of the region. Sailor Oyster Bar has been named a Best of the Bay winner in 2021, 2020, and 2017 for Best Oyster Bar.
Excellent food and drink is enough to get your name on a “Best Of” list, but it’s the servers who get you the regulars. And considering how busy Sailor could be during happy hour, the regulars were there to stay.
“From day one, I told everyone that it’s not a restaurant; it’s our house,” says Herbst. “When people come in, we treat them like they’re guests in our house. We’re here to help people escape all of life’s BS and enjoy themselves, even if it’s just for a minute.”
Sailor is also committed to helping oyster recovery efforts, consistently coming in among Oyster Recovery Partnership’s Top Ten Shell Recycling contributors.
Repairs to get the business back up and running are currently estimated to take at least 12-15 months by conservative standards. Because of this, fundraising efforts began within 24 hours of the fire to support Sailor’s staff, many of whom have been with the restaurant since its inception.
One of these fundraisers is managed by Samantha Ford, owner and artist at Love Struck Tattoo Parlor on Maryland Avenue. Ford and her husband are Sailor regulars, sipping Jay’s Old Fashioneds (a spicy mezcal tequila spin on the traditional cocktail) and eating shrimp nigiri at the bar. Ford is originally from Mystic, Conn., and fell in love with the Sailor culture “because it’s like an oyster bar you’d find there, with that old school New England charm.”
Ford immediately wanted to help, so she put together a flash sheet with tattoo designs based on Sailor’s culture. A lighthouse, an anchor, a piece of shrimp nigiri, an oyster shell, and several other items fill a page. On Saturday, June 18, Ford will be tattooing anyone who wants to help Sailor recover and put a stamp of their appreciation on their body. “It was the first thing I turned to – what can I offer these people?” she says. “I can tattoo people, and then donate the money.”
One of Ford’s items is of a ghost. “Oh, that’s Steve,” she says. It turns out Sailor has its own resident ghost named Steve (is this really surprising?). He shows up after hours and is a friendly family member. “I’ve done about 200 ghost tattoos, and they’re all named Steve.”
When asked about how Steve’s holding up through all of this, Herbst says, “He’s lonely at night, but he’s handling it well, considering.”
Even the ghosts don’t give up this ship.
HOW TO HELP:
There are multiple fundraisers ongoing now, to contribute directly: gofundme.com/f/beg8v-sailor-oyster-bar-fire-relief-fund
For Love Struck Tattoo’s Flash Event, find her on Instagram @lovestruckannapolis.
Garry’s Grill & Catering: Thursday, June 16, Garry’s will be donating 20 percent of all sales to Sailor.
Heroes Pub: On Monday June 20 from 5-9pm Heroes Pub will host a fundraiser to benefit the staff of Sailor Oyster Bar.
BlkAnkr: Buy a SOB Stronger Together t-shirt online ($15) or at Heroes Pub.