(Aug. 2, 2019) Billy and Maddy Carder were only in their mid-20s when they opened BJ’s on the Water, and now, they are celebrating the 40th anniversary of their restaurant, today, Friday, Aug. 2.
The two are thrilled that the restaurant continues to serve patrons at its 75th Street location, while retaining most of the recipes and style that drew people in 40 years ago.
Billy Carder first came up with the name after a collaboration between himself and a friend named John, forming “BJ’s.” “On the Water” would come after some inspiration in Florida.
“When we opened up, I’d spent some time in Florida,” Carder said. “Everybody knows Fort Lauderdale has hundreds and hundreds of restaurants. I always noticed that there was a place called Harrison’s on the Water in Fort Lauderdale that was a very successful restaurant.
“When you look at the names, you don’t know where they are,” he continued. “Then you see Harrison’s and you know, ‘Hey, it’s on the water somewhere.’ So, I copied that from Harrison’s on the Water in Fort Lauderdale, and created BJ’s on the Water.”
The restaurant began as a small saloon with 39 seats plus the bar area. Over the years, the restaurant expanded to include an outdoor deck, a bayfront dining room and the indoor deck area, going from roughly 50 seats to over 300 when the deck is open during the summer season.
Despite the cosmetic changes and expansions, the restaurant has not changed very much in regards to food and service.
Several of the managers have been working at the restaurant for many years.
Some of the most popular dishes at BJ’s on the Water includes the Razorback sandwich, which consists of hot ham, tomato and mushrooms topped with melted Swiss, on wheatberry toast with tartar sauce and lettuce, and the seafood skins.
“The seafood skins originated here and they’re often imitated, but they’re never duplicated,” Maddy said.
“The Razorback has been on the menu since 1979 and is still on the menu, and it still sells,” Billy said. “Change sometimes makes people upset … they’ll ask why something isn’t on the menu because they liked it and we put it back.”
BJ’s on the Water also serves oysters, stuffed lobster tails, clams casino, two dozen different sandwiches, seafood medleys, teriyaki shrimp and chicken, ravioli and a wide variety of soups and salads.
The restaurant offers all its menu items, whether the customer wants “lunch for dinner or dinner for lunch,” as Billy Carder would say.
When the restaurant first opened in 1979, people warned the Carders that they were too far north and no one would be interested in going to a bayside restaurant. The Carders were more than happy to prove them wrong.
“People had said we were too far north and people wouldn’t come up this far,” Billy Carder said. “In 1979, there wasn’t much north of us except the Carousel [hotel] and Montego Bay [community]. But other than that, there wasn’t much up here.”
Diners, he added, were a little leery about the bayside location and not being right on Coastal Highway.
“Fager’s Island [on 60th Street] proved that bayfront works and people do want to be on the bay,” he continued. “People do want to see the water and, in addition to that, the sunsets. There’s no sunsets on Coastal Highway and no sunsets on the beach, but the sunsets are on the bayside.”
In its 40 years of service, the restaurant has received several accolades, such as the 2014 Hal Glick Distinguished Service Award, the “Better with Less” award by Comptroller Peter Franchot in 2011, Restauranteur of the Year in 2011, Worcester County’s Most Beautiful People award in 2010 and the 2008 Spirit of Ocean City award.
The Carders also have a long-standing tradition of feeding the ducks, which wait patiently on the bay like clockwork every day at 1 p.m.
The restaurant even has its own house band called Teenage Rust and the Fabulous Rustettes, comprised of seven members including the Carders, which started in 1981. The band has been a local favorite for decades.
The Carders are also involved with charities and philanthropy, which earned them several of their aforementioned titles.
In 2000, Billy Carder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Twelve years later, doctors told him he had lymphoma of the central nervous system.
The couple created the first BJ’s on the Water annual Relay for Life cancer benefit when Carder was first diagnosed. The couple has raised thousands of dollars for cancer research since they first started the event 18 years ago.
Another tradition is the canoe races, which have taken place since the restaurant opened 40 years ago.
“In the 40 years we’ve had it, I think the only difference between the two people that are involved in the race now and the ones who involved in the race in the first one is their hairstyles,” Carder said. “No one has still ever learned how to paddle a canoe.”
Competitors paddle around the island behind the restaurant, come back around and tag their teammates, who then hop into the canoe and complete the same half-mile route.
In addition to the scenic views of the bay and activities held over the years, BJ’s on the Water has had numerous loyal customers over its four-decade history.
“We always love to hear that we’re friendly, and we hear that a lot, and we love to hear that we’re consistent,” Maddy said. “We have a lot of employees who we’ve had for years and years and years. And that’s the familiarity … of walking into a place and knowing you’re going to be recognized, which constantly happens here.”
Many customers have been patronizing the restaurant since it first opened, the Carders said, and there have been several proposals, engagement parties and weddings held at BJ’s on the Water over the years. There have also been many celebrations of life as well.
“We’ve had a lot of wakes here with people that were longtime customers and their families said the best place to have the service is here,” Carder said.
“That is a tribute to BJ’s,” Maddy said. “Because if you think about a sendoff for their loved ones, and I can’t tell you how often that happens, they’ll call and they say that they want a sendoff to be here because they want it to be a celebration of life and they know how big a part of BJ’s their lives were, and to know that this is where they want to make sure they’re remembered.”
Despite the Aug. 2 anniversary date, the Carders will be planning a celebration party for later in the year, after the busy summer season.
Above all, the Carders want to thank their loyal customers and the town for helping them be so successful.
“We just want to thank Ocean City for supporting us over all these years and all of our customers,” Maddy said. “We couldn’t do it without them. We wouldn’t have been successful without them.”
The restaurant is open year-round, with the exception of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
For more information, call 410-524-7575 or visit bjsonthewater.com.