Mention the name Phillips in Maryland and locals know exactly which family you’re referring to—the ones from the Eastern Shore, the folks who built up an international seafood business from a tiny crabhouse venture in Ocean City. Their holdings are now scattered around the world, but they have never forgotten their roots.
More than 30 years ago, they took a chance on locating a Phillips Seafood restaurant at Harborplace, Baltimore’s shiny new hope for a waterfront renaissance. Business boomed as the food/shopping complex became a draw for tourists and residents. But over the years, the center went through a metamorphosis, as many malls do, with occupants changing, moving, and closing.
Phillips Seafood, seemingly frozen in time at the Light Street pavilion, made a bold decision last year. It didn’t renew its lease and snatched a prominent spot at the nearby Power Plant to reinvigorate the decades-old restaurant.
The plan has worked in many ways. The design is spiffy—with a tile-floored piano bar, a soothing gray color scheme, handsome dark woods, and nostalgic photos of founders Brice and Shirley Phillips and scenic bay landscapes. Accents like Tiffany-glass panels, fancy chandeliers, and an amusement-park carousel horse recall the family’s beach restaurants.
The menu, too, was spruced up. There’s more reliance on regional seafood and local farm products. And the fourth generation, restaurant manager Joanna Phillips, is ready to continue the family legacy in Baltimore.
In fact, on a busy Friday evening, she was circulating around the restaurant, inquiring about the guests’ dining experience. Her hands-on presence speaks loudly to Phillips’s commitment to the area.
Despite the gussied-up interior, there is a cafeteria feel in the dining room with overly bright lighting and a noisy, open kitchen. But it’s still a comfortable spot for hungry out-of-towners, office workers, and families looking for a good meal.
The service is perfunctory and not as polished as we expected. Our waiter tried to talk us out of ordering a bottle of wine we wanted, saying it wasn’t a good value. We’re sure he meant well, but it was off-putting. On another visit, a waitress hovered relentlessly, even though we told her we needed more time to make our decisions.
But the food makes up for these minor transgressions. The menu is a tribute to traditional, down-home seafood preparations that stretch from the Chesapeake to Maine and American favorites like roasted chicken breast and grilled rib-eye. We had no trouble polishing off starters like the plump crab-stuffed mushrooms with arugula greens, clams casino with applewood bacon, and oysters Rockefeller with fresh spinach and a hint of Pernod, though some of the food could have been hotter.
Phillips touts its “Famous Crab Cakes,” and they were worth the splurge ($34 for two six-ounce patties; $29 for a single). While the perfectly formed patties have a manufactured look, they are chunky with jumbo lump. A zesty chipotle rémoulade stands in for the usual tartar sauce.
Our other entrees were wonderful renditions of Phillips standbys: crab-stuffed flounder with a thick fillet and a generous amount of crab imperial and fried stuffed shrimp. The lightly breaded butterflied shrimp encased a pleasant, tiny crab cake.
Do get a side of roasted Brussels sprouts. The vegetable was delicious and beautiful with bright-green tender leaves and crisp bacon.
Desserts—some made in house—are brought to the table on a tray, the old-fashioned way. We’re not sure who came up with the idea of combining cheesecake and carrot cake, but we’d like to give them a hug. A wedge of cake, slathered with cream-cheese icing, envelops a slice of creamy cheesecake. A signature dessert is a Berger cookie pie with a scoop of Taharka Brothers double-chocolate-chip ice cream. It’s warm, gooey, chocolatey, and so Baltimore.
On a return visit for lunch, we tucked into a bowl of steamed Mojito clams with an ethereal broth brimming with garlic, chiles, lime, and cilantro—a perfect dipping sauce. But we had no bread. It is only available upon request, which we quickly did. The brown-and-serve-type rolls may not have been ideal, but that didn’t stop us from using them to mop up all the liquid we could.
We really like the menu’s “Simple Fish” section, from which you can select a six- or eight-ounce portion of fish and pair it with one of three sauces. We went with a flaky mahi mahi from Ecuador (fish origins are given) and married it to a spicy Thai green curry sauce.
Our other selection—shrimp salad—was a disappointment. A miserly dab of mayonnaisey shrimp salad sat atop an ordinary, though plentiful, nest of mixed greens with a few avocado slices, tomatoes, and cucumbers thrown in.
While there were some minor flubs, we found a lot to like about the reinvented Phillips Seafood. The staff is friendly (if not yet polished), the décor is charming, and the food, for the most part, shows the care of the kitchen.
The restaurant’s outdoor crab deck, scheduled to open in late April or May, will also be a great addition to the Inner Harbor. We’re looking forward to at least another 30 years of Phillips Seafood in Baltimore.