Brasserie Brightwell

David Woodall arranges mussels and clams at the raw bar at Brasserie Brightwell in downtown Easton. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / January 5, 2011)

Now is the time. Early fall is when the pleasures peak in Talbot and Dorchester counties. That's when these Eastern Shore towns stop being detours along the way to the shore and turn into full-fledged destinations.

There are practical advantages to visiting St. Michaels, Easton and Cambridge after Labor Day. Hotel rates plunge, beach traffic is a nonissue and the kids are, as they say, back in school. There are even a few reasons to put off an Eastern Shore trip as late into fall as you can. Migrating wildfowl begin to arrive here in late October. and by mid-November, they're usually making a spectacle out of themselves.

Located just a few miles from downtown Cambridge, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is one of Maryland's great natural resources. Home to one-third of state's wetlands, the "Everglades of the North" in fall is a prime gathering spot for ducks, geese and tundra swans from northwestern Canada.

You'll lose nothing by waiting until fall for an Eastern Shore getaway. Boating is still a pleasure, and unlike beach towns, there's very little in the way of seasonal shutdown.

Resort hotels like the Inn at Perry Cabin, the Oxford Inn and, more recently, the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, have made Dorchester and Talbot counties into destinations for serious dining. What's relatively new to the Eastern Shore dining scene are the moderately priced contemporary restaurants in Easton, Cambridge and St. Michaels that are as popular with the home crowd as they are with visitors.

There are also those hard-to-find locals-only joints where watermen still gather. Even those are sprucing up. You'll find one of the best craft beer selections east of the Bay Bridge right on Route 50 in Cambridge. You've probably driven by it a hundred times.

Here are several days' worth of Choptank-centric eating and drinking.

Mason's

Mason's serves lunch and dinner, but it has firmly established itself as the lunch spot in town. Ask anyone you see in Easton how to find Mason's and they'll tell you: "Just look for the yellow building." Actually, Mason's is two buildings.

Not long after opening the original Mason's in a Victorian mansion on Harrison Street, Mary Mason added homemade chocolates to her gift store's inventory. Then came a full-scale lunch operation, which became an Easton favorite. And by 2000, Mason and her son, Matthew, renovated the original building and annexed the one next door. Now, Mason's is a full-scale chocolatier, caterer and restaurant.

Mason's reminded me of Baltimore's bygone Washington Place Grill, where people had time to linger over salad tuna nicoise, quiche and iced tea. And Mason's has something extra: a dining porch that wraps around two sides of the building and an adjacent dining courtyard. When the weather turns rough, Easton residents head inside for one of Mason's six handsomely appointed dining rooms. The only downside to that — their dogs can't come along.

Mason's lunch menu includes 20 hot and cold sandwiches, salads, homemade soups and daily specials. Fresh and generously portioned shrimp salad is served on a buttery croissant. (Remember croissants?) The terrific quiche is not the dainty bite of yesteryear but a sumptuous deep-dish meal, served with a salad of mixed greens, marinated mushrooms and balsamic vinaigrette. For really big appetites, there might be a steak frites, served with either green beans or fries with maitre d'hotel butter.

22 S. Harrison St., Easton, 410-822-3204, masonsgourmet.com

Brasserie Brightwell

Brasserie Brightwell is from Brian Fox and Brendan Keegan, the original team behind 208 Talbot and its offshoot, 208 Burger in nearby St. Michaels.

When it opened in late 2010 in the Easton Market Square, Brasserie Brightwell carried a more fully loaded French bistro menu than the one it has now. Though you'll still find things like beef-brisket onion soup, escargots and open-faced sandwiches called tartines, you'll see all-American things like Delmonico steak, Duroc pork chops and Maine lobster rolls.

Fashioned out of a converted garage, Brightwell has the good looks of a classic French brasserie, including the essential zinc bar. You could sit there with an inexpensive glass of the good house red, a craft beer or, if you're feeling reckless, an expertly poured absinthe.

At the table, it's worth getting anything from the wood-fire grill, which turns out delicious steak, whole fish, oysters and a must-have: grilled clams served with fennel-Parmesan cream.

206 N. Washington St., Easton, 410-819-3838, brasseriebrightwell.com