By Michael Wexler
At 2 am on a foggy November morning in 1918, the British steamship Port Hunter collided with the tugboat Covington on a voyage from Boston to New York. The captain and crew scrambled to save the wounded ship, but it broke in half and sank only two miles off the Martha’s Vineyard coast. Rumors abounded that the boat was loaded with jewelry, gold, and fine liqueurs, but recovery attempts have been spotty at best.
In 2019, there’s an easier way to find the Port Hunter’s treasure, and that’s by visiting the eponymous restaurant located not far from the original wreck in Edgartown. Even on a Sunday night, the downtown hotspot was abuzz in typically nautical fashion; large metal lights glowing above the bar (repurposed channel markers that hang upside down), exposed red brick that harkens to the original’s weathered hull, chair cushions wrapped in sail bag material, and tables built from old dock boards.
“While building the Port Hunter, Ted and I visited a great exhibit about the shipwrecks of Martha’s Vineyard,” explains Patrick Courtney, who owns the restaurant with his brother, and apparently the inspiration worked.
While the storied brandies trapped in the original vessel are not for sale, the cocktails ($14) are to die for: a Cucumber Cleanse (Crop cucumber vodka, lemon, mint), the Town Meeting (Oxley gin, blueberries, lemon, soda), and the Water Street (Tres Agaves tequila, basil, and strawberries), just to name a few. Appetizers were no less seaworthy: a playful Lobster Rangoon (served in a Chinese restaurant container, $16), a reimagined grilled Caesar ($16), and the signature Burrata (think buffalo mozzarella with pesto and homemade focaccia, $22). All of the Port Hunter’s breads and desserts are baked in-house, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Entrées included the West Tiz Chicken ($32) with locally sourced GOOD Farm fowl, pearl onions, and Cheddar cheese grits. The “Maineiac” Halibut ($35) was crazy good and paired with an unexpected Thai curry, cashews, and jasmine rice. Oh, and the oysters. I abstained for personal reasons (yogurt and oysters are my kryptonite) but my tablemates assured me that the three Menemsha ($3 per oyster) and equal share of Honeysuckle were respectively “briny” and “crisp and sweet.”
Beyond the palate, there’s a certain “no FOMO” (fear of missing out) in the air here as the semi-open kitchen churns out foodie-level fare without the attitude. Maybe that’s the reason why the place was jammed on a rainy Sunday night? Yet if the Port Hunter has the big things comfortably under sail, it’s the small touches that push it over the top: a flat-screen TV by the bar that effortlessly switches from the Boston Bruins hockey game to a Van Gogh painting for night dining. Two or three deckhands shuck and shake to subtle beats at the oyster bar, and there’s an unassuming grace to managers and servers alike. Not to mention local art for sale on the walls, and live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
OK, now it’s time for dessert ($10). Under the command of Al Said, a second-year veteran of the fleet, a whimsical breeze blows ashore: Key Lime Pie that tastes like Key West, a retro “Chaco Waco,” originally pioneered by Good Humor but filled with homemade ingredients, and the pimped out “OG Ice Cream Sandwich,” gluten-free and suitable for children of all ages.
On an Island with many ports of call, the old brick edifice at 55 Main St. has managed to carve out a hip hangout all its own. And unlike the doomed freighter bound for France with clothing and supplies for U.S. troops in World War I, this ship isn’t running aground any time soon.
P.S. If you’re feeling adventurous, check out the Courtney brothers’ latest effort just across the street. The name? You guessed it — the Covington.
The Port Hunter, 55 Main St., Edgartown. Open nightly, seven days a week at 5:30. Visit theporthunter.com, or call 508-627-7747.