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THE TASTE OF TRAVEL

Maryland Crab Houses: Where Good Eating is a Shell Game

April 07, 1991|ROB KASPER | Kasper is a columnist for the Baltimore Sun.

Hard crabs are priced by the dozen, according to their size and the market demand. When a waitress says, "Hard crabs are running 15, 28 and 40," that means a dozen cost $15 for small crabs, $28 for medium and $40 for large. I usually buy the large figuring that I would rather remove the shell of one large crab than two small.

--Obrycki's is another venerable, if slightly fancier, crab house in East Baltimore.

In the winter, when other crab houses have to rely on Southern states for crabs, Obrycki's is closed.

It reopens every April, often about the same time the Orioles begin their baseball season. The annual reopening is cause for local celebration. Lawyers, accountants, businesswomen become simply crab eaters and line up to be seated on a first-come, first-served basis.

Obrycki's is admittedly noisy, but you don't go to crab houses for intimate conversation.

Obrycki's has both red and white soups, fine steamed crabs and soft crabs. Of their crab cakes, I prefer their deviled cake, a peppier version of a Maryland classic.

--Angelina's Restaurant on Harford Road probably has the largest crab cake in town. It is about the size of softball, with enough crab meat to feed a family of four.

--The Milton Inn. When the Chesapeake Bay watermen start netting the first soft crabs of the season--which, according to them, is usually after the first full moon in May--I arrive, fork at the ready, in Sparks, a northern Baltimore suburb.

The Milton Inn is one of the area's fancier restaurants. I figure on spending about $40 a head, about twice what I figure for crab houses. The Milton Inn is an old country house that once served as a stagecoach stop and a boarding school. One of its students was John Wilkes Boothe. Since then, the place has been fixed up and the quality of its clientele has improved.

The setting is picturesque. This is horse country. When people here want to know if you ride , they aren't talking about bicycles. Chef Mark Henry sautes the soft crab and serves it in whole-grain mustard sauce. It is spectacular.

Whenever I cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge heading for the Eastern Shore, I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Behind me are urban responsibilities. Ahead of me are blue waters, sweet breezes and big crabs.

The largest crabs come from the Wye River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. No one knows why.

--The Crab Claw restaurant. Some of the big fellas find their way to the Crab Claw restaurant in St. Michaels, Md. But If I have the time, I like to drive past St. Michaels and into the tiny town of Tilghman.

In Tilghman, there are still some men who make their living catching crab, fish and oysters. Tilghman is also home to several skipjacks--the graceful wooden sailboats that in the fall and winter are used to harvest oysters off the bottom, and in the summer take tourists on overnight trips.

--The Chesapeake is an old rambling inn and restaurant that has oyster shells paving the driveway and cats lurking outside the kitchen. Both the shells and the cats I regard as proof of real seafood restaurants.

It also has a wooden swing hanging on a rope from a big tree, the sign of a small town. The Harrison family owns The Chesapeake, along with a local wholesale seafood plant and charter boat operation that takes sport fishermen out on the bay.

Soft crab and crab soup, both white and red, are available throughout the summer. But hard steamed crabs are served only on the weekends and only outdoors. If on a weeknight you want hard crabs, you could meander down the road to The Bridge restaurant. It is located next to the bridge, the only one in town.

Finally, if I were stuck in Washington and hungry for crab, I would probably trek out to Crisfield on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Md., for a soft crab. Crisfield doesn't serve steamed crabs, and the prices are higher than similar low-brow joints in Baltimore. But Washington is a town of compromises.

Or if, after a day of testifying on Capitol Hill that blue crab should replace apple pie as the national edible, I was too tired to travel to the suburbs, I might grab a cab and ride a few blocks to the Phillips Flagship restaurant down on the Washington waterfront. It is one of the restaurants that hug the Potomac River off Maine Avenue, behind L'Enfant Plaza.

The only time Phillips serves steamed crabs is during the summer, and the after-work crowd there seems more interested in eyeing their fellow customers than studying the menu. But when you've got a pile of steamed crabs in front of you, the world seems good, even in Washington.

GUIDEBOOK

Maryland's Cab Houses

Recommended:

Gunning's Crab House, 3901 S. Hanover St., Baltimore, telephone (301) 354-0085. Obrycki's Crab House, 1727 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, (301) 732-6399. Angelina's Restaurant, 7135 Harford, Road, Baltimore, (301) 444-5547. The Milton Inn, 14833 York Road, Sparks, Md., (301) 771-4366. The Crab Claw, Navy Point, St. Michaels, Md., (301) 745-2900. Chesapeake House Restaurant, Route 33, Tilghman, Md., (301) 886-2121. The Bridge Restaurant, Knapps Narrows Drawbridge, Tilghman, Md., (301) 886-2500. Crisfield, 8606 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md., (301) 589-1306. Phillips Flagship Restaurant, 900 Water St., SW, Washington, D.C., (202) 488-8515.

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