The Maryland House, a stodgy red brick colonial between the lanes of Interstate 95 near Aberdeen, had been a respite for travelers since 1963.
But it closed more than a year ago, forcing desperate road warriors from as far away as Florida and Quebec to go a little farther for a cup of coffee, road grub and the all-important restroom. It’s back now, after a $30 million makeover that turned it from dowdy to sleek with an outdoor mural of the state’s flag and two pitched roofs that form a gigantic “M” for Maryland.
Inside, there’s a complete transformation, starting with those restroom.
John Petrison, manager of Phillips Seafood Express, says taking a personal pit stop there nowadays could set a highway comfort record. “People always say that we’re going to call the Guinness Book of World Records because apparently, these are like the largest bathrooms anyone has ever seen in any travel plaza or any building,” said Petrison, an unofficial tour guide at the re-done rest stop. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if you see them here one day.”
A quick check of the women’s room suggested he might be on to something. It’s large and clean…and has 50 stalls.
Then there’s the food: burritos, subs, pizza, donuts, burgers, soft pretzels…and it wouldn’t be a 'Maryland' House without crab meat.
That was the main attraction for Ron Purcell, a visitor from Rockwell, Texas, who stopped in recently for a break from the road and a taste of Maryland’s main culinary delight. “We’re not know for our crab cakes down in Texas, we’re more known for Tex-Mex. So I was looking in Maryland for a good crab cake,” he said.
Petrison said the crab cakes are so popular, the Phillips Express counter sells between 300 and 500 each Sunday, one of the busiest days of the week there.
While the old Maryland House resembled a food court in a shopping mall, the new one has the feel of one of a trendy coffee shop. High-tech upgrades like free internet access and computer portals are offered in a comfy seating area. Light streams into the 42,000-sq. ft. room through dramatic skylights. The space is decorated in warm colors of gold, red and orange and has lots of tables and chairs for dining.
Jake Porter, a manager for Areas USA, the Miami-based owner of the Maryland House, said his company is also pumping $26 million into a redevelopment of the Chesapeake House near the Delaware state line. That stop is expected to reopen late this summer.
He said they aim to build rest stops that try to be all things to all people, as travelers seek some of the comforts of home when they pull off the highway. “They are looking for Wi-Fi and TV and I guess a variation of different food,” Porter said. “Each family wants its own thing. You might have a kid that wants chicken nuggets but yet, a Dad that might want Currito Burrito.”
Another recent visitor to the Maryland House, Rosita Stevens of Brooklyn, New York, said she was northbound from Florida before she stopped for a break. “We have been on a bus for 24 hours straight, so you have talked to one of the most beaten down, challenged persons you can run into today,” she said.
Stretching her legs, taking a bathroom break – and then ordering a crab cake to go at Phillips was making her smile once again before continuing her journey home.
“We can do the happy dance that the Maryland House is here,” she said.