In an Instagram post, Sailor Oyster Bar thanked the Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, and Naval Academy fire departments for their quick action fighting the fire. Photo: Sailor Oyster Bar

Popular Annapolis Oyster Bar Crippled by Fire

An Annapolis restaurant known Baywide for their oysters was significantly damaged in a two-alarm fire last Wednesday night.

Sailor Oyster Bar, owned and operated by Scott and Gabrielle Herbst, suffered catastrophic damage when a fire broke out in the rear of the two-story building June 8 around 8 p.m. 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.’”

Scott Herbst, owner of Sailor Oyster Bar, takes in the aftermath of the June 8 fire. Photo: Gabrielle Herbst

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. Annapolis Fire Department was assisted by both Anne Arundel Fire Department and the Naval Support Activity Fire Department. Sailor Oyster Bar had working fire detectors, which helped result in zero injuries. Annapolis Fire Department investigators determined that the cause was “accidental due to improperly discarded smoking materials.”

When Herbst was able to go inside to see the interior’s aftermath, he was both heartbroken and grateful. “Every table had plates and glasses on it,” he says. “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 had worked in the restaurant industry since a young age, starting Sailor as a full-on concept restaurant that served 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.

The risk paid off: Sailor was voted second among all Maryland and Virginia oyster bars in this month’s Chesapeake Bay Magazine Best of the Bay issue. They take the top spot for best oyster bar in our local CBM Bay Weekly newspaper’s reader survey, too.

Herbst prided himself for the loyal regulars Sailor acquired since opening in 2016.

“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 were started within 24 hours of the fire to support Sailor’s staff, many of whom have been with the restaurant since its inception.

Other local restaurants also launched fundraising efforts to support Sailor, whose building bears the U.S. Navy’s iconic phrase from the War of 1812, “Don’t give up the ship.”

To contribute to a fundraiser supporting Sailor’s staff, click here.

-Duffy Perkins