Ocean City is a picture of modern-day Prohibition.
Selling alcohol has long been banned in this seashore town founded by four Methodist ministers.
But finding a place to drink is hardly a problem if you know where to look. Liquor flows freely through legal loopholes that allow for membership-only clubs.
Now, even as the Riverboat Club — one of the most well-established of those private groups — closed its doors Friday, more modern versions, like private dining clubs, are popping up.
“It used to be unique, but now there’s several places to go in Ocean City,” said Terry Grau, the Riverboat Club’s longest active member and appointed bartender.
The members-only dining clubs are a workaround to providing high-end dinners with bring-your-own-bottle service. Members pay a nominal annual fee to be “invited” to private dining events where there is alcohol. These entities must adhere to strict guidelines to stay within the law.
The Foodies Dinner Club was started two years ago by Sharon and Chris Hoffman, who own Capt. Bob’s in the south end and wanted to offer loyal customers a fine-dining experience in Ocean City.
“We’ve owned Capt. Bob’s for 17 years. Dinner never really could catch on,” Sharon Hoffman said. “We found out as long as it’s private and it’s closed to the public, it’s legal.”
The club has 500 members, she said. In the summer, they serve dinner six days a week.
“It also made our business grow in the offseason,” she said.
When Methodist ministers founded the Christian seaside resort on Pecks Beach in the late 19th century, a founding principle was to prohibit alcohol sales and production, said Ocean City historian and author Fred Miller.
More than 130 years later, voters still agree with that notion. They rejected a proposal in 2012 that would have allowed restaurants to offer BYOB. Proponents argued it would boost business.
“I thought that if there was going to be a change, that would have been the vote,” Miller said. “That went down so strongly, I can’t picture it coming up again.”
Grau said Ocean City’s reputation as a dry town is valuable — to both tourism and real estate.
“It’s about the perception of Ocean City. It’s always been known as a family town, and I respect that,” Hoffman said.
But the city isn’t all that dry.
Liquor stores, restaurants that serve alcohol, and bars are abundant just outside town.
In the city, beer, wine and liquor are permitted at “a private gathering, party or affair ... provided it is not open and available to the general public,” according to city code.
Private parties at The Flanders hotel and the Ocean City Yacht Club are often accompanied by an open bar. Veterans can enjoy a drink at the local VFW or American Legion if they join.
The Riverboat Club got its start in the same way. Businessmen wanted somewhere to drink and smoke during lunch, Grau said.
Housed inside a century-old building at Eighth Street and Wesley Avenue, it began in the 1960s as a men’s-only club.
Today, a tax office is on the first floor.
Only a small sign denotes the building as anything other than ordinary.
Inside, a sprawling wooden bar welcomes members to enjoy a drink.
A recent fire inspection caused the club to vacate the building. Grau said the necessary repairs would be too costly. The building will be put up for sale.
Grau said the club will try a new home, but club Chairman Tom Horan wasn’t as hopeful.
“The membership base that we have is half of what it used to be,” Horan said. “The people involved are mostly seniors.”
It’s not a lack of interest in alcohol behind his belief. It’s a lack of commitment to membership, he said.
He said you see the same thing with churches that are consolidating.
“People aren’t joiners in today’s world,” Horan said.
For the club’s final dinner Friday, 36 people signed up.
They ate and drank alcohol in a long-established, if largely unseen, tradition.