This brand-new old boathouse is a big hit in Cape Charles, Va. 

by Paul Clancy

Imagine our surprise—no, our delight—when we docked at Town Harbor in Cape Charles, Va., and discovered the Shanty, a new restaurant in what looked like an old boathouse overlooking the water. But wait a minute, we thought, it’s not an old building at all, but a new one that only seems to have been there forever.

From our slip at the town marina’s new floating docks we could already catch the aroma of food from the grill and hear the buzz of happy diners. We hastened up the stairs at the end of the pier and stepped into the restaurant’s cavernous interior, where ceiling fans whirred and a crowd gathered around the central bar. Again, the boathouse look: a poured concrete floor.

We perched on stools that looked to the west. Anyone who’s been to Cape Charles, a former railroad town, knows that views of the Bay just don’t get any better than this. From big picture windows the sky appeared to be drenched in pink Zinfandel. 

When I told our friendly waitress, Adria Rhodes, that the place reminded me of a boathouse, she said, “That is exactly how we wanted you to feel.” 

The Shanty, which opened for business last June, is the creation of Jon Dempster, who arrived in Cape Charles from Gloucester, Mass., on an antique Scottish trawler. He was living aboard the trawler and helping restore it when Smitty Dize, the town harbormaster, gave him the idea of starting a waterfront restaurant.  

Demptster was no stranger to the business, having worked for several restaurants in Seattle, and more recently here in Cape Charles, so he went for it; he decided to create a place that would cater to both watermen and a casual lunch and dinner crowd—offering, naturally, fresh locally caught seafood. Working with Sean Ingram, a local architect, he designed it to look like a famous barn-red fish shack in Rockport, Mass., a waterfront edifice that has been painted on canvas so often that the art world now knows it simply as Motif Number 1.

The Shanty’s menu features some seriously tempting entrees, like fish and shrimp tacos, fried and steamed local oysters and—get this—a soft-shell crab BLT. Yes, a fried peeler on a bed of bacon, lettuce and tomato. It sounded beyond decadent, but I’d already fixated on one of the day’s specials: sirloin steak with lump crabmeat. I couldn’t resist. Barb could, and chose the crabcake sandwich. 

But first, a draft of pumpkin wheat beer seemed like a splendid idea, along with an appetizer of cheddar-topped calamari, both of which went down oh so well as we watched a dance of boats on the water. Across the harbor, a tug backed up and nosed into the Bay with a barge in tow. A deadrise with a longline reel at the stern muscled into the harbor and, out toward the horizon, a white-hulled sloop made its way toward us in the building afternoon breeze.

The place was getting packed, the bar crowded with what seemed to be colorful local characters. There were a lot of young people there, hip and cool, but also a table full of sailorfolk, easy to spot with coordinated shirts and caps and silver-streaked hair. 

I dug into the crab-smothered steak. It had an agreeable bite of charcoal from the grill and came with a delicious side of sautéed onions, zucchini and squash, along with a generous pile of fries. Barb’s crabcake sandwich, with lettuce and tomato, was tasty, and a small side of jicama salad was just the thing.

It was far too much to add a dessert, but in the interest of reporting we confess to trying—and then demolishing—a shared piece of Smith Island cake, surrounded by blueberry sauce and whipped cream. When Adria brought it she helped us count the layers, nine all told. A fitting end to a memorable meal, in a boathouse-looking place where we felt right at home on the water.

The Shanty, on the waterfront alongside the new floating docks at Cape Charles Harbor, is open seven days a week, 11:30 a.m. to midnight, in season (April through October). Call for off-season hours. Free docking for patrons. Entrees $16–$24. 757-695-3853;

[12.12/1.13 issue]