The tuna crudo, the creative use of octopus and the Portuguese sardines tinned in brine return to West Street in Annapolis on Tuesday.

The $12 baloney sandwich will be there, too.

And 19 months after a fire gutted Sailor Oyster Bar, it’s a safe bet that lots of old friends and well-wishers will return to the little bar that burned when it reopens on Tuesday.

“They’re kind of a fixture on the street,” said Matt Hudson, owner of the Hudson & Fouquet Salon, located across from the bar. “You could sit at the bar and the person next to you is some artist scraping by or a yacht broker.”

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Scott and Gabrielle Herbst opened Sailor Oyster Bar, also known by the piquant SOB nickname, in 2016. He was a veteran of the Annapolis restaurant scene and she had worked in salons.

The story goes that they looked at the early 20th-century townhouse on the edge of the city’s arts and entertainment corridor and saw space for a concept no one had claimed in a town crowded with restaurants striving for identity.

Oysters, sure, but there also would be tinned fish and crudo — Mediterranean-style raw or lightly cooked. There would be a tiny prep kitchen on the second floor, but all of the cooking would take place behind the bar, with tools like a can opener and a blow torch.

The market wouldn’t be tourists in town for boats or history, but the people who live nearby. A neighborhood joint in a small town that knows good seafood.

And it worked. The gaggle of nightly patrons could be found expanding outward from the dark, cozy bar at the center of SOB — packed in among walls decorated with black-and-white photos of sailors and seafarers — or sitting upstairs in an impossibly tiny, dimly lit dining room.

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On warm nights — and even some chilly ones — the crowd flowed out through swinging double doors onto the brick sidewalk. Waiters dressed in Breton-striped sailor’s jerseys worked the narrow space between tiny tables while lines of people waited for a spot at the bar or upstairs.

“It was really a testament to what was needed in this town,” general manager Eleanore Aherne said.

And then, fire.

“I heard a loud bang and I thought someone got in a little accident outside,” executive chef Lorenza Aznar said recalling the night of the fire.

Fire investigators determined that somebody smoking outside wasn’t careful on the night of June 8, 2022, and accidentally caused the blaze. Sprinklers kept it from being much, much worse.

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Historic buildings burn fast. Annapolis has learned that again and again over the last 30 years, with fires on Main Street, Compromise Street and Duke of Gloucester. In each case, the lack of sprinklers made it worse.

The Herbsts and their partners — Mayor Gavin Buckley and restaurateur Jody Danek — did much of the work rehabbing the building at 197-198 West St. when they bought it. Because the century-old building was shifting from office space to a restaurant, sprinklers were required.

They brought in electricians and plumbers, and the fire safety contractor left the sprinklers exposed below the ceiling. It added to the industrial look the partners were going for in the funky little seafood spot.

Probably cold comfort for Herbst. There’s a picture of him on the Sailor Oyster Bar Facebook page, sitting on a salvaged chair amid the charred and water-soaked ruins of his business.

“Water sucks, fire is worse,” he told me at the time.

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The owners and staff said something else, too. In the weeks after the fire they gathered themselves up and adopted the battle cry of a dying Navy commander during the War of 1812: “Don’t give up the ship.”

It’s a slogan on their website, along with a caveat that it might take a bit to get through all the turmoil.

“Just going to lay down here for a second.”

If they were just being plucky, because who knows if a small business gutted by fire can ever reopen, Annapolis took them at their word. At least seven relief funds were set up for the staff and the business, raising a total of $110,000 to see them through to reopening.

“Ninety-nine percent went to the staff,” Herbst said. “And 1% to me.”

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Most of the money came in small donations, some not much bigger than a tip on a good night’s bar tab. Some kicked in $1,000 or more.

It came from restaurant owners like Bob Jones of The Point Crab House & Grill across the Severn River in Arnold, and Sean Adams of Naval Bagels across Annapolis.

They’ve both known the Scott Herbst for years, part of a family in Annapolis, a brother- and sisterhood of people who serve food. It’s who you can call when you run out of 16-ounce cups or need to borrow a box of Coke syrup.

The generous response was what you hope happens if the disaster you pray never comes lands on your back doorstep one nice Wednesday night in June.

“Do unto them, basically,” Adams said.

Money also came from people like Hudson, who learned of the fire when one of his employees sent him a photo taken through the windows of his salon.

“It’s one of those rare opportunities to do something,” he said.

Sailor Oyster Bar co-owner Scott Herbst talks with an Annapolis firefighter on the night of June 8, 2022 that destroyed his restaurant.
Sailor Oyster Bar co-owner Scott Herbst talks with an Annapolis firefighter on the night of June 8, 2022, when fire destroyed his restaurant. (Courtesy of Gavin Buckley)

Some of the staff moved on as insurance claims were paid out, and then the plans to rebuild worked their way ever so slowly through the leisurely Annapolis permitting process. A second turned into a year, and then 18 months and now 20.

Some returned. Bartender Frank Schwartz is back, although the little apartment he rented on the second floor got lost in the renovations. Dan Zegan is back in the second-floor prep kitchen again, making pickles, sauces and condiments with Noel Marroquin.

“He wanted us all to come back,” Aznar said.

Walking into Oyster Sailor Bar on a bright Tuesday morning, it looked the same, yet different. Maybe the odd combination of familiarity and strangeness is because I’d never actually been there in daylight.

The wooden bar top carves a bright yellow, L-shaped streak through the first floor. White walls are packed again with photos of sailors, some of them fathers and friends. Exposed brick adds a new vibe.

There’s more room behind the bar now for pouring beer or making cocktails, and definitely for working magic on fresh and preserved seafood with a can opener and a blow torch.

Gini Herbst was up from North Carolina to help her son and daughter-in-law get ready for reopening, and a friends and family party Wednesday night.

“It’s his whole life,” she said. “Him, Gabrielle, it’s their whole life.”

The menu feels the same, even if changes are driven by what’s fresh now. The $12 baloney sandwich is definitely there, something you might eat on a boat. But it is more than its simple description conveys.

“Oh, my god. The mortadella!” Aherne said.

It’s impossible to know if a neighborhood place like Sailor Oyster Bar can ever recapture what burned that night in June 2022. Herbst and the others are trying.

They know what it took to reach this point.

“It takes a village,” he said. “It takes a village and lots and lots of permits.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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