The Magazine

Freaky Tiki

Matt Labash's Maryland exotica.

Oct 17, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 05 • By MATT LABASH
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THERE AREN'T MANY GOOD PLACES to get lost anymore, but I know of one near where I live. It's deep in southern Maryland's Calvert County, past the steamed-crab stands and empty tobacco barns, which are fast losing ground to tanning salons, "Embroid Me" shops, and other strip-mall abscesses. Just north of Solomon's Island, where the Patuxent River feeds the Chesapeake Bay, you'll see the sign for Vera's White Sands restaurant.

It's large and pink, with palm trees, and features the white-haired proprietor, Vera Freeman, in an exotic gown and Isis-like headgear, holding a martini glass. She looks right out of old Hollywood. And in fact, she is, sort of. The former aspiring dancer, who lived next to Hopalong Cassidy and fraternized with Bing Crosby, came here from there in the '50s, along with her late husband Doc, a real estate tycoon and "optometrist to the stars."

On St. Leonard's Creek, they set up a marina/restaurant that doubles as a Polynesian paradise, albeit one that's now down at the heels. Her incongruous Taj-Mahal knockoff of a house sits across the restaurant's weed-strewn parking lot. Her Silver Cloud Rolls Royce is under a tarp, and she no longer swims in the oval indoor pool set in the marble floor of her living room.

The restaurant is a quarter full on a good night. Still, there's something about it. I have my young kids convinced it's "the magic place," though admittedly they're easy marks. The little suckers also believe that Santa hibernates in an igloo, and that I can remove my thumb with remedial-magician sleight-of-hand. But this time, I'm not so sure I'm lying.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the creek, Vera's is an overgrown Tiki hut, gleaming in the conch-shell pink that lacquers Vera's lips. Outdoors, banana trees compete for space with Easter Island statues, Tiki totems, and the shell of a 487-pound man-eating clam, billed as the largest ever recovered, from the Philippines to Borneo.

Walking through the Tiki-headed doors is like falling into another dimension, a living Gauguin painting. It feels like a place where Tahitian nymphs should take your order in coconut-shell bikinis, where Captain Bligh and Don the Beachcomber could become drinking buddies over Mai Tai's, where sacrificial virgins are cooked in volcanoes, preferably with a pineapple and mango-chutney glaze.

My kids squeeze into a booth that is a thatched cabana. They jam leis into their water glasses and stick drink umbrellas in their ears, while my wife and I watch blue herons pick baitfish out of the marsh. The sun sets perfectly through the panoramic windows, as if it were on the payroll. The food is entirely beside the point. The stuffed shrimp tastes like a scoop of dough. And the crabcakes look like they've had chemotherapy, suffering by comparison with those at Stoney's in nearby Broomes Island, which are the best in Maryland and, by extension, the world.

But the cocktails are tall and strong. I order the "Mystery Drink," a coconut-and-something-or-other concoction. Under questioning, my waitress refuses to give up the goods. "That would ruin the mystery," she says. And mystery is what the restaurant turns on. It's a place that reveals itself slowly, with every corner, from the leopard-skin bar, to the Peacock room, stacked with artifacts and curios from Vera's world travels: an 8-foot Kenyan giraffe, a South Pacific fertility goddess with ruby nipples, a mermaid canoe made out of seashells that hangs from the ceiling, Bamboo Room tables fashioned from the hatches of old sailing vessels and inlaid with pieces of eight.

Vera's is so awe-inspiring it prompted house piano player Sharon Marman to "leave my job as a budget analyst to pursue my dream of music and selling Mary Kay." Sharon plays some Beyoncé if a prom party comes in, but mostly she sticks to the old tunes, since "that's what Miss Vera wants." Vera's general manager and all-purpose valet, Dr. Selvin Kumar, who hails from India, has even cast his sentiments into Song-of-Songs-like acrostic poetry: "Virtuous Everlasting Royal Aquarius." (Kumar also self-published a biography of Tom Parran, a favorite regular and limo-company owner.)

When I interview Vera, who wears an ornate gown and gold-coin headpiece, she won't disclose her age. But time's ravages leave her unable to finish many of the stories she's often told. She's also driven to distraction by an armored knight standing in the corner, which she brought back from Barcelona. Vera is convinced he's moving. "Did you see that?" she says repeatedly, as she eats caviar off Ritz crackers, while sipping her patented martini (just olives and gin).

She's not scared, but impishly delighted. So I check it out to humor her. Unless there's a midget squatting in the armor's greave, the knight, in all likelihood, is staying put. But as Vera adjourns to take a nap, I tell her I'll keep an eye on him anyway. It'd be a sin to ruin the mystery.

-Matt Labash