An inconspicuous sign in front of the VFW in Oak Bluffs advertises oxtail and curried goat, but it belies the gastronomical oasis within. That is partly due to town regulations barring chef Deon Thomas from hanging more obvious signage, because the building is first and foremost a VFW hall. But the restaurant, which has its own entrance and caters to members and the general public alike, is truly a gem, hidden in plain sight.

Cranberry-orange glazed venison, anyone? Jeanna Shepard

On a frigid Sunday night in January, Billie Holiday croons over the speakers as Deon flits between his small, efficient kitchen and the dining room. He greets guests in his smooth island baritone. Burnt orange paint — the chef’s favorite color — brightens the walls of the large, open dining room. The ambiance is easy, relaxed. Deon’s wife Emily brings paper menus and utensils. Either she or Deon serves the food, leisurely in two courses. Conch fritters with tomatillo aioli followed by spicy jerk chicken, buttermilk fried pork chops, home-style mac and cheese, steamed broccoli, plantains, rice and beans, mashed potatoes and the famed curried goat. The menu changes regularly but some staples— fried chicken, mac and cheese, and conch in some form—can be counted on. Sides like waffles and collard greens help when feeding tiny diners or to build a family style feast, and Deon will gladly accommodate vegetarian tastes.

Diners can buy beer, wine and liquor on the bar side and enjoy it in the dining room. Emily and Deon create such a relaxed hospitality that it is only a minor hiccup in the meal rather than an unpleasant scene if your two-year-old “accidentally” spills her water three times and prefers to lay under the piano with her baby dolls rather than sit in a high chair at the table. On a slow night, Deon might even join her at the piano. It’s a refreshing spin on dining out and the food is top notch.

From his native Jamaica, Deon first came to the U.S. to earn a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. While in school, he spent summers cooking in Montauk, N.Y. But after school, he landed in Anguilla, where he went on to own and operate four restaurants. He came to Martha’s Vineyard in 2000 at the urging of savvy island businesswoman and founder of Tea Lane Associates, Eleanor Pearlson.

"These are my best years on Martha's Vineyard," Chef Deon says. Jeanna Shepard

Ms. Pearlson and some friends were vacationing on Anguilla and lunched at Deon’s Overlook restaurant every day of their trip. “Eleanor was mesmerized,” Deon recalled. “She couldn’t believe I was running that place. I was just a kid.” Eleanor insisted to Deon and Emily that the Island needed his cuisine and she was going to make it happen. “She steered me through all the roadblocks,” Deon said.

His first restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, The Cornerway, opened in 2001. He later opened Deon’s in West Tisbury and later on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs.

At the VFW, only a few of Deon’s personal photos hang on the walls—one of Deon and some of his staff with their arms around a smiling Bill and Hillary Clinton, and one of Deon grinning widely next to Eleanor Pearlson. “She had a brilliant mind,” he said, “She was my pal.”

He continued to operate two of his Anguillan restaurants until hurricanes ravaged them in 2009 and 2010. “The damage was horrendous. I haven’t been able to go back to Anguilla since closing,” he said, “It broke my heart. But it would’ve been financial suicide to try to reopen.”

After closing up shop at his Circuit Avenue location in 2011, he needed a break from restaurants. He had some friends who had some friends in New York and he wound up securing a job cooking for Jay-Z in the City. “It was a good experience,” he said with a cautious laugh, “for a younger person.”

Chef Deon is working on a conch cookbook, due out in spring of 2018. Jeanna Shepard

He came back to the Vineyard during the summer of 2012 with plans to cater. He landed at the VFW on his search for a commercial kitchen. After a season of strictly catering, he thought he could cook for the members of the VFW who gathered in the bar. And then, considering the largely unused function room, he started to think about a restaurant again.

These days he arrives at the restaurant a little before noon to cook for a small lunch crowd until 3 p.m. Then he picks his son and daughter up from school and goes to their various sporting events before heading back to the restaurant at 5 p.m. for the dinner rush. On busy nights his sister and wife might help out in the dining room. Sometimes he handles both the front and back of the house on his own. When he’s not at the restaurant, he’s working on his first cookbook, about conch, due out later this winter.

“These are the best years of my life on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. “I’d never gotten to know the local community until I started cooking here. I get to meet the people who make the island work.”

Erin Ryerson is a freelance writer and co-owner with her husband of Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs.



Here’s just a small sample of what Deon cooks at the VFW:


• conch fritters with tomatillo aioli

• spicy jerk chicken

• buttermilk fried pork chops

• home-style mac and cheese

• curried goat

• bbq ribs

• rice and beans, plantains

• mashed potatoes

• steamed broccoli, bok choy

• collard greens

• waffles