By John Farlow, Anne Haddad, Joan Jacobson, Suzanne Loudermilk, Mary Maushard, Bianca Sienra
Ask Marylanders about their favorite crab houses, and you’ll likely get as many answers as the people you talk to—from familiar places to lesser-known joints. Everyone seems to have an opinion on where to find the fattest Jimmys and the frostiest beer. We thought it was time again to belly up to the brown-papered tables around town and see what crab houses are delivering these days. (Rip Tide in Fells Point hadn’t opened in time for a review, but we have great expectations for the new kid on the crab block.) Here are 15 of our top picks.
Cantler’s Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Road, Annapolis, 410-757-1311. Former waterman Jimmy Cantler’s restaurant is the waterside equivalent of the authentic American roadside diner. You know it’s the real deal if most of the clientele arrive by boat. Open year-round, when the weather turns warm, the preferred seating is on the outdoor deck, with open and sheltered areas overlooking Mill Creek. Indoors, the bar and booths have a warm and rustic glow. It would be a shame if a setting so idyllic had anything less than fabulous crabs. Thankfully, Cantler’s crabs, from Maryland waters and the Gulf, are sweet, fresh, and meaty, and steamed for the optimal time. Extra larges are available, and their heft is worth the price. For crab lovers who can’t abide picking, the mild crab cakes have minimal binding—and minimal size. (If crab cakes will be your meal, order two.) Desserts come from SugarBakers, a Catonsville bakery that has quite a reputation of its own. We suspect that Cantler took one taste of the Key lime pie and knew that it, like his crab house, was the real deal.
Harris Crab House
433 Kent Narrows Way North, Grasonville, 410-827-9500. In these times of skyrocketing gas prices, a day trip to Harris’s for steamed crabs is a pretty decent cheap alternative to a vacation. Hop in the car, head for the Bay Bridge, and in less than an hour you’re there, surrounded by lovely water views as you pick through a pile of hard shells (mediums were heavy, hot, and fresh) and sip on a Redhook brew. The dining room is spare and no frills, with butcher’s paper on the tables and big rolls of paper towels you’ll come to appreciate in the midst of your feast. And with Harris’s view of the bay, you’re not likely to miss white-linen napery or fancy décor. Other particularly well-prepared items on the menu include a nice, broiled jumbo-lump crab cake and a luscious cream of crab soup you can carry out by the quart at the takeout window. That’s one way to keep the holiday-from-home vibe going a little bit longer.
1100 E. Fort Avenue, 410-576-9294. This long-time Locust Point (“L.P.”—get it?) crab joint may be pretty worn around the edges, but its charms are considerable: superior crabs and seafood, rock-bottom prices, and a wait staff that’s more knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, and hardworking than any we’ve encountered at other crab venues, pricey or otherwise. Our lovely waitress gave us an enthusiastic refresher course on the best way to pick, along with a frank and fair assessment of competing crab joints and an informative discourse on the differences between Maryland and Louisiana blue crabs (basically, there aren’t any). The staff here will candidly tell you what’s good that night, and which crabs are the best bargain. Our $75 crabs were huge and heavy. But you’d do yourself a disservice to stop at hard shells. Fried seafood here is expertly prepared with a light and crisp batter, and the steamed shellfish is plentiful and relatively cheap. Sit up on the rooftop deck and you’ll get a panoramic city view along with your draft beer (no liquor here, only beer and wine). Even with the surrounding gentrification, this is about as Bawlmer as you can get.
Mike’s Bar & Crab House
3030 Old Riva Road, Riva, 410-956-2784. Steamed crabs your way should be the motto of Mike’s Bar & Crab House. When the crabs get to your table, they are hot to the touch, but mild and sweet to the taste. There are no burning lips here, unless you set the fire. Accompanying the crabs is a bowl of Old Bay-type seasoning, vinegar if you prefer, and drawn butter. You also get your own roll of paper towels. South of Annapolis on the South River, accessible by both car and boat, Mike’s is an ideal place to wile away a long evening over crabs and beer. Part of the outdoor deck is covered overhead; the uncovered area abuts the boat slips, and on Friday nights, there is karaoke. Indoors or out, however, most diners have a river view, thanks to long windows and a wonderful location. In typical crab-house style, Mike’s is informal with long tables, a full bar, a children’s menu, and friendly service. Many large groups—big families with lots of generations and after-work gatherings—are among the crowd. In addition to hard crabs, the offerings are many and varied, including an excellent seafood platter, which can be broiled or fried, a popular crab imperial, pork chops, sandwiches, and even pizza. But skip the desserts; none is homemade.
Nick’s Fish House
2600 Insulator Drive, Baltimore, 410-347-4123. Imagine a Baltimore waterfront of a bygone era—dinghies, aging motor craft, weather-worn sailboats sporting nothing new but their glossy license stickers … it still exists outside the airy windows of Nick’s Fish House. This little treasure, tucked away under the Hanover Street Bridge, may be well-known for summertime happy hour, but it deserves a visit for the food, too. We were pleased to find the crabs here among the best we tasted in a while. Our server recommended the 65s (a dozen crabs for $65), which arrived positively smothered in Old Bay and steamed to divine perfection. We ate ourselves silly, feasting on plump and fresh Chesapeake oysters, steamed clams, and delicately flaky tilapia. We interrupted our crab picking only to scarf down an occasional onion ring and have a swig of beer. The laid-back fishing shack interior encourages relaxed largesse, and the servers work with unflagging friendliness and efficiency to take good care of customers. We’re looking forward to our next visit, and have certainly found the place to take out-of-towners the next time they demand seafood with a view.
CJ’s Crabhouse and Grill
10117 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills, 410-363-6694. After being on Reisterstown Road for three decades, CJ’s knows what it’s doing when it comes to crabs. Hard shells come out of the kitchen quickly: Faster service than McDonald’s, it seems. But what crabs. They’re coated with tongue-tingling, peppery seasoning and full of sweet meat. The night we were there, the larges had the most enormous claws we’ve seen. We also like the lump crab cakes here, which are fat mounds of back fin with just enough filler to bind the ingredients. We’d skip the mediocre Maryland crab soup to concentrate on the crabs. CJ’s prides itself on good service, and, indeed, the wait staff is friendly and attentive. In addition to helpful servers, staffers come along every few minutes to empty bowls of messy crab shells to keep the comfortable booths and long tables clean. For non-crab eaters, there are plenty of other dishes, like burgers, pizza, and ribs. The crisp, tender buffalo wings are particularly good. And don’t miss the crab pretzel (crab dip smothered over a jumbo soft pretzel). It never disappoints.
Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn
200 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, 410-687-5994. This is not a crab house for newbies. Diners wield their mallets and beer with deft hands, and everyone seems to know one another in the noisy, boisterous space reminiscent of someone’s rec room. And be prepared to order your steamed crabs immediately. The servers don’t mess around here. They want to get your crab decision to the kitchen as soon as possible since the crustaceans are steamed to order. While waiting, tuck into a delicious cup of cream of crab soup. It’s a lush potage laced with back fin. We also really liked the Maryland crab soup, which reels you in with its zingy, spice-punched broth, even if there seems to be a dearth of crabmeat. When the hard shells arrive, you’ll find them steaming hot—literally, steam billows from the pile. Ah, but these are the reason to come to Bill’s. The crabs are fat, heavy beauties, plump with snowy meat, and coated with a tantalizing spice crust—better than Old Bay, we think. (Was there a tinge of garlic in the secret coating?) You can quell the spiciness with desserts like hot apple pie à la mode or an ice cream sundae. We didn’t need to. We like that happy crab aftertaste.
The Crackpot Seafood Restaurant
8102 Loch Raven Boulevard, Towson/Parkville, 410-828-1095. There’s nothing glamorous about The Crackpot’s location in a busy suburban shopping center, sharing space with a grocery store, coffeehouse, and other shops. Even inside the restaurant, there’s a frayed feel to it, like the years of diners passing through have left their mark. But what the crab house lacks in style and polish, it makes up for in food and service. You can count on getting great crabs here year-round, usually from Louisiana in the off-season. They’re picked up daily at the airport and delivered kicking to the restaurant, servers will tell you. Our only quibble is the size ranges. On a recent visit, our extra larges were definite mediums, but we still swooned over the hearty, spicy flavor and captivatingly sweet meat. We also like sitting at a table by ourselves instead of at the long communal planks favored at many other crab houses. Service is attentive whether you’re ordering hard shells or the impressive range of other menu entries, from surf and turf to crazy-sounding crab cakes like the Hawaiian one with pineapple and ham. (There’s also a 20-ounce traditional Maryland cake on the menu for crustacean diehards.) Before your hard shells make an appearance on your table, start with stuffed mushroom caps—a retro appetizer with a mound of impossibly rich crab imperial on top—and what is arguably the best cream of crab soup in town. Cold, salty oysters on the half shell keep you going till the crabs arrive hot from the steamer. Sated with crabs, there’s cherry, apple, and coconut cream pies and other sweet temptations if you desire. Or, like us, just leave content on an Old Bay high.
Reter’s Crab House and Grille
509 Main Street, Reisterstown, 410-526-3300. A strip-mall exterior, family-friendly atmosphere, menu from both land and sea, and weeknight specials such as all-you-can-eat oysters or prime rib keep Reter’s popular with the land-locked locals. For them, it’s the closest thing to a beach joint in Baltimore County. We appreciate the peach walls, bleached-wood paneling, and dozens of kites and other beach paraphernalia that hang from the walls and ceiling to distract us from the view of a gas station outside. Inside, Reter’s has something for everyone. A group of girlfriends eating dinner at the bar can be oblivious to the table full of someone else’s children: like the hungry Little-Leaguers wolfing down kids’ meals served on take-home flying discs spotted on a recent visit. Standard bar food, along with a raw bar and indulgent seafood platters, mean that even the non-crab eaters will find something to like. The bland crab cake, however, should be passed over for the sweeter steamed crabs, or even something hearty, like the pulled-pork sandwich. Even the slow pickers among you will not leave hungry. According to our waitress, the restaurant gets its beautifully fat swimmers from the Gulf of Mexico. For dessert, there are some caloric whoppers, such as the funnel cake, but we suggest saving your annual funnel cake allowance for the state fair. At Reter’s, choose one of the smoothies that, just like at the beach, come in a suspiciously large variety of flavors. But after one taste of the cookies-and-cream variety, we stopped asking questions.
The SeaSide Restaurant Crab House and Lounge
224 N. Crain Highway, Glen Burnie, 410-760-2200. With crab standards so high in our area, The SeaSide continues to stand out in the competition. Its success is evident from the crowds willing to wait 25 minutes on a weeknight for a table (reservations are only accepted for seven or more) in the large, brightly lit dining rooms. A lone eater, up to his elbows in a pile of crabs, told us during a recent visit that he eats at SeaSide “every paycheck.” Now, there’s a testimony. The crabs are served hot out of the steamer and encrusted with a salty, spicy coating. You can count on them being heavy and packed with crab. The Maryland crab soup is an admirable version, thick with vegetables, crab, and Old Bay. The crab cakes also were first class with giant lumps, little filler, and broiled with a crispy crust. The voluminous menu also includes crab imperial, fried hard crab, soft shells, chicken, steak, and even lobster tails.
3301 Boston Street, 410-276-8900. What bills itself as “Baltimore’s newest crab house” is fast becoming one of our favorite crab houses. We might go elsewhere if we were hankering for a water view (although Dockside is somewhere in the general vicinity of a dock, there’s no harbor vista), but for truly pleasant surroundings, excellent service, and all-around solid seafood, Dockside is hard to beat. Oh, and the crabs—big, heavy, meaty Louisiana blues—were the best we’ve had in a while. A large part of Dockside’s appeal is its spacious, well-appointed dining room, which still retains the fine-dining trappings of the building’s former resident, Canton’s Pearls. Despite the semi-upscale feel, prices are eminently reasonable and the vibe is crab-shack friendly. The place is popping with families, after-work singles, old and young, all getting into the act. One night we observed a sweet young couple—obvious novices—getting pointers from an elderly man at the next table, who kindly gave a step-by-step on how to dismantle a hard shell. Crabs aren’t the only act—a host of seafood-topped pastas, sandwiches, salads, and non-seafood entrées fill out the considerable menu—but every variation of the noble blue we’ve tried here, including a seasonal soft-shell sandwich, was primo. If you must have outdoor dining, there’s a shaded patio alongside the building. But with crabs like these, you won’t really care where you’re sitting, as long as the table is loaded with the house specialty.
4100 North Point Boulevard, Dundalk, 410-477-1975. Costas Inn has been a crustaceous institution for more than 30 years, and that’s obvious from the moment one pulls into the parking lot—the building sports several additions of varying vintage. Costas serves up a traditional seafood menu, featuring old-school favorites like oysters Rockefeller, stuffed lobster tail, and crab imperial. There are also plenty of steak, chicken, and pasta choices, as well as pit-style barbecue offerings. But it’s the crabs that folks drive significant distances for, and for good reason. Enter the cavernous dining hall, settle down with a beer, a table full of crabs, a bucket for spent shells, and go to town. Costas’s house spice tastes pepperier than Old Bay, and seems a little tangier to us as well. In any case, we love it, and gleefully lick our fingers often. On our last visit, we couldn’t resist starting with a dozen raw Blue Point oysters to prime the pump, and also ordering some onion rings to add just the right grease factor for a mid-meal break and beer refill. Costas Inn also has takeout service if you prefer to dine at home; either way, the staff highly recommends calling ahead to reserve your crabs to ensure getting the size you want.
Gunning’s Seafood Restaurant
7304 Parkway Drive, Hanover, 410-712-9404. Here’s the scoop on the seemingly never-ending and ultimately confusing saga of the two Gunning’s: The original Hanover Street Gunning’s is closed. Gone. Done. Over. It has ceased to be. The Hanover Gunning’s, still owned by the Gunning family, is alive and well and serving hot steamed crabs and those crazy fried pepper rings that made them famous. You know, green peppers—breaded, deep-fried, and dusted with, yes, powdered sugar. Don’t knock ’em till you’ve tried ’em. The strip-mall location has been knocked by purists, but it’s perfectly nice and spacious, and you’ll find that the bevy of homespun Hon-type waitresses provide plenty of atmosphere. A platter of heavily Old-Bayed medium (but hefty) crabs passed our own personal Hon test, as did the massive hard crab, that over-the-top concoction of breaded, stuffed, and deep-fried whole hard shell. Nice touches include a beautiful salad with kicky homemade pepper-Parmesan dressing that comes to the table instead of the usual bread basket, and good, filler-less, all-lump crab cakes for the pickin’ shy. Nightly happy-hour specials keep the bar hopping, but don’t be dismayed when you pull up and see the cars spilling out of the parking lot—the dining room may be busy, but it’s big enough to accommodate walk-ins. If you’re anywhere in the vicinity south of Baltimore and the urge hits you, Gunning’s is as good a place as any to sate your crab cravings.
1727 E. Pratt Street, 410-732-6399. Obrycki’s is nearly synonymous with crabs—imperial, deviled, caked, flaked, and, of course, steamed. Whatever form you prefer your crabs, they are good eatin’ at this Baltimore institution. The hard crabs, steamed in Obrycki’s own peppery blend, are meaty—at least, the large crabs are—and make your lips tingle and the beer taste colder and better than you could imagine. For those who do not want to work so hard for their supper, Obrycki’s offers an ambitious and appealing menu with many kinds of seafood. For $11, diners can add a crab cake to any entrée—it’s a high-quality crab cake with little filler, though a slightly greasy taste. The cucumbers in sour cream are a delicious, cooling counterpoint to the hard crabs. Obrycki’s is a bustling, casual place with an earthy beige décor, tile floor, and tabletops almost the same color as the brown paper used to cover them for hard-crab eaters. In crab-house fashion, many of the dining groups are large, and there is much coupling and uncoupling of tables to accommodate the changing crowd. But the tables are well-spaced, and the dining area is divided into several rooms, keeping the noise down and the conversation up. The service is friendly and efficient. The staff is only too happy to teach newcomers how to pick a crab, and to give refresher courses, too.
Ocean Pride Restaurant & Carryout
1534 York Road, Lutherville, 410-321-7744. For almost 40 years, this Baltimore County mainstay has been enticing diners with its well-seasoned hard shells and other seafood. Yes, parking is always a challenge, even with an additional lot, and the crowds can be overwhelming, but the restaurant can be counted on to deliver Old Bay-coated crabs, hot from the pot, to your paper-covered table. Sizes vary, depending on your visit, as do the crustaceans’ origins. We sampled some fine specimens from Texas on a recent visit and tried not to look too shocked by the prices. That night, larges, which our waitress recommended, were $53 a dozen, but they were fat with meat, and we ended up with a couple bonus crabs. If we had been feeling particularly flush, we could have opted for jumbos in the $80-plus range. Since the restaurant cooks the crabs to order, we had plenty of time to dip into a steaming bowl of excellent cream of crab soup with lots of crab and a crab nacho appetizer, which is on our must-eat-again list. Colorful nacho chips with all the usual stuff —gooey cheese, onions, jalapeños, salsa, and sour cream—were addictive with lots of sweet crabmeat in the savory mix. If you need a sugar fix after picking your crab shells clean, a turtle cheesecake comes to the rescue with chocolate sauce and caramel adding appropriate decadence.