Picking the best crab cakes in Baltimore is a lot like picking your favorite coffee place. The choices are overwhelming—and loyalties are fierce. So it seemed downright brazen to even attempt to name our top patties. But that's exactly what we did.
We toured white-tablecloth restaurants, bare-table taverns, and old-time watering holes in our search, and weren't disappointed. We think you'll find our list is filled with respected standbys and surprising discoveries.
We found that simplicity is the key to a great crab cake. Cooks may vary the amount of each ingredient, but, essentially, we're talking about crab, mayo, and cracker crumbs with maybe some parsley, mustard, and a few other ingredients thrown in, and, of course, crab seasoning. Sadly, a lot of the crabmeat comes from afar these days, but we still embrace it as our own—and, thankfully, keep our Maryland food tradition going strong.
WHAT A TREAT
These cakes know you don't mess with a classic.
"Very little filler"
The bright and airy Captain Trey's—simple, scoured, and unpretentious—has the feel of a place you'd find in a seaside town instead of on busy York Road. And the crab cake—available cooked on site or ready to pop into your own 500-degree oven (smash it down with your palm first, we were carefully instructed)—will make you feel like you're on the coast. Available in backfin, (4.5 ounces, $6.95) or the jumbo-lump version (5.5 ounces, $9.95), they're no frill and very little filler. 10625 York Rd., Cockeysville, 410-666-4646.
Crackpot Seafood Restaurant
"Fistful of jumbo lump"
This longtime crab house delivers a 6-ounce fistful of jumbo lump crab with little filler and fresh, chopped parsley in the mix. Believe us, one cake will satisfy you—and we're not even talking about the restaurant's 20-ounce whopper of a crab cake. A regular two-cake platter ($25.95) includes two sides. We're traditionalists and couldn't resist the fat fries and crunchy coleslaw. 8102 Loch Raven Blvd., Towson, 410-828-1095.
"Amazing crab cake"
Rarely does something live up to its hype the way Edgewater's amazing crab cake does. It's enormous at 7 ounces ($14). The lumps have a hugeness that is characteristic of imported crabmeat, yet they are flavorful and tender. The scant, exceedingly creamy filler somehow corrals them into a solid cake, broiled to an impossibly even brown, and with excellent flavor despite a lack of any detectable seasoning. Just, wow. 148 Mayo Rd., Edgewater, 410-956-3202.
A Faidley crab cake is much more than a crab cake. The jumbo lump version ($12.95) is 6.5 ounces of pure tradition. Best eaten standing up at one of the customers-only tables in the confines of the Faidley stall, the crab cake helps establish a benchmark. You may prefer your cake less creamy, or lighter on the saltine-cracker filler, but this cake, concocted by Nancy Faidley-Devine in 1987, with its touch of Old Bay and mayonnaise-based binder, is legend. In keeping with the democratic atmosphere of the market, Faidley also offers a 4-ounce, claw-meat cake for $4.95. 203 N. Paca St., Lexington Market, 410-727-4898.
Friendly Farm Restaurant
"Worth the drive"
Bigger than a man's fist, lumpier than an old pillow, these crab cakes are worth the drive to Baltimore County's bucolic pastures. The cakes ($19.95 for one, $29.95 for two) are advertised as 5 ounces, but they're really 6 ounces, our waitress said. We believe her. Pleasantly spiced with crab seasoning, they are moist, yet solidly packed. The bonus is that the family-style restaurant's entrees include a wealth of side dishes from cottage cheese and hand-cut fries to sugar biscuits and coleslaw. Ice cream is included, too. 17434 Foreston Rd., Upperco, 410-239-7400.
G & M
"Chunks of lump meat"
The most striking feature of G & M's famous crab cake is not its massive girth, but the size of the chunks of lump meat that comprise it. Broiled to a gorgeous golden brown, the crab cake is constructed with just the right amount of filling, which meshes into the meat. Occasionally, we've heard grumblings that G & M's cake is on the dry side, but we think its magnificence is in its purity. Crab is its dominant flavor, as well it should be. The platter comes with one ($16.95) or two ($24.50) cakes, but if there's a man, woman, or child on earth who can down two of these babies, we've yet to meet them. 804 N. Hammonds Ferry Rd., Linthicum Heights, 410-636-1777.
"Sourced from the Chesapeake"
At Gertrude's, the overall crab cake experience gets high ratings. First, there's the setting: What's not to like about the elegant dining room nestled in the Baltimore Museum of Art? And the sides: Try the sesame noodles and coleslaw made with apples and crunchy slivers of fennel. But even out of context, a cake here holds its own. In addition to Gertie's traditional crab cake—named for chef John Shields's grandmother—there is Clayton's Cambridge crab cake ($22) on the menu. Sourced from the Chesapeake (a find these days), the 6-ounce cake is lush with tear-shaped lumps, somewhat charred from the broiler, and laced with a minimal binder. Try it with the basil tartar sauce. 10 Art Museum Dr., 410-889-3399.
Gunning's Seafood Restaurant
Eating a Gunning's crab cake ($13.99) is essentially like having steamed crabs only without the hassle. The ruddy hue of the delicate, parsley-flecked bread binder evinces a healthy dose of Old Bay-style crab spice. It provides assertive, familiar flavor to a mixture of large and smaller-sized lumps, which are shaped into a ball (7 ounces) and broiled expertly to a medium-dense consistency. 7304 Parkway Dr., Hanover, 410-712-9404.
Say "crab cake" in Baltimore and someone will inevitably reply "Pappas." Now we know why. This 6-ounce mound of crab, lightly crisped on the outside and moist on the inside, with jumbo lumps stole our hearts. Forget the lackluster tartar sauce. This gem doesn't need any adornment. We grabbed one at lunchtime for $12.95, which included two sides. We opted for coleslaw and salad (mostly iceberg, but fresh and crisp). This one is a winner for hometowners and out-of-towners alike. 1725 Taylor Ave., Parkville, 410-661-4357.
"Smoked in fruitwood"
The lump meat in Nancy Longo's signature 5-ounce cake ($15 for the appetizer version when we visited; it's seasonally priced) has been smoked in fruitwood for a subtle flavor that in no way detracts from, well, its crabbiness. A binder of buttery crackers is mixed with enough shredded claw meat to hold the whole thing together. It's broiled to a crunch and served on a classy rectangular plate with a crispy corn pancake on the side. 1822 Aliceanna St., 410-675-2080.
Snyder's Willow Grove
The squat, hefty cake (6 ounces, $13.95) made with large, delicate lumps of crab is lightly seasoned and adorned with a few specks of parsley. The umber-tinged binder leads one to expect a big hit of mustard, and it delivers, but in an unexpected way—though the condiment does lend a subtle edge, the depth of the crab mustard makes Snyder's recipe truly remarkable. 841 N. Hammonds Ferry Rd., Linthicum Heights, 410-789-1149.
WHAT A PLACE
These crab patties always rise to the occasion.
"Packed with flavor"
On the advice of a reader, we stopped by Bluestone to try out the crab cake. She was right. This is a 4-ounce crab cake that would make any Marylander proud. Small but packed with flavor, it features jumbo lump with a minimally mayonnaisey binder. The platter ($15) came with a tangy cocktail sauce (you can also get tartar sauce) and a side dish. We chose coleslaw. It was fresh and crunchy, though a bit liquidy for our taste. 11 W. Aylesbury Rd., Timonium, 410-561-1100.
The Bowman Restaurant & Pub
If it's good enough for Baltimore County's finest, this popular, longstanding eatery is just fine for the rest of us, too. We don't know if the police officers seated near us had crab cakes that day, but they should have. These plump, golden-brown balls ($12, sandwich) were packed with nuggets of lump crab and stayed moist inside despite the gentle broiling. Choose a pickle-laced tartar or traditional cocktail sauce. Rippled chips come with the sandwich. Platters (one cake, $16, or two, $26) boast a baked potato. You can have the cakes shipped to your house or elsewhere, too. 9306 Harford Rd., Parkville, 410-665-8600.
Captain Larry's opts to let the crabmeat do the talking in their cake ($13.75, seasonally priced)—little if any seasoning is added to a loose, slightly eggy binder that sets to a deep brown on the exterior, but remains nearly liquid within, resulting in the classic "lumps tumbling-out" effect triggered by the first bite. We appreciate the simplicity, but maybe the flavor is a little too low-key; a touch of spice would be welcome. 601 E. Fort Ave, 410-727-4799.
"Whiffs of Old Bay"
Duda's is rightfully venerated for turning out quality food with minimal fuss. Its crab cake (6.5 ounces, $14.99) is no exception—ours was a golden-fried orb of large lumps and a judicious amount of fairly dense, bread-based binder that gave the cake consistent texture and density, with whiffs of Old Bay and a strong parsley flavor. 1600 Thames St., 410-276-9719.
Fresh Fresh Seafood
Owner Darlene Parker, who runs the tiny restaurant with her husband, Ricky, couldn't be a more gracious greeter as you enter the storefront space. The casual atmosphere—you gotta love the sea mural on the wall—makes this a great place to tuck into one of the most interestingly-shaped cakes around. The 6-ouncer ($14.99) is all lump but it's flat and spread out like a burger. Slightly dry from grilling, it's still a satisfying find, especially with Parker's mothering. 507 York Rd., Towson, 410-821-3474.
It warms our hearts when a good old-fashioned, pan-fried crab cake (3.5 ounces) emerges from a restaurant kitchen. Henninger's adds sophistication with a zippy basil sauce and a gorgeous chive and cabbage slaw. But the cake ($13) itself is staunchly traditional with modestly sized yet high-quality lumps and soft, slightly gummy filling with very little spice other than fennel seed. 1812 Bank St., 410-342-2172.
"Larger than a hockey puck"
Koco's Pub could easily be mistaken for a simple neighborhood watering hole—were it not for the consistent and unremitting praise for its crab cake. The goods are as described: larger than a hockey puck, plumper than a baby's fist, the 11-ounce patty is broiled to a slight crunch ($22.95 for eat in). The thick lumps of meat (imperial!) with minimal breading and Old Bay-tinged mayonnaise can be torn apart to become finger food. And though the meat, we're told, is imported, we were thrilled to find a shard of shell. This is the real deal. Overly sweet coleslaw and prosaic fries are an afterthought. 4301 Harford Rd., Baltimore, 410-426-3519.
"Go for the broiled"
L.P. Steamers remains a stubborn Baltimore classic in a swiftly transforming neighborhood. Inner Harbor tourists still show up to hammer shells on brown paper while the more fastidious go for the crab cake, a diminutive 4-ounce specimen—fried or broiled—served with zero flourish on a plastic plate ($11.95 each, $15.95 for a platter with fries and slaw or macaroni salad). There's a hint of bread crumbs and flecks of parsley between the small lumps. Go for the broiled version; the fried version has a crispy casing with the taste of grease that could use refreshing—similar to the fries on the side. The highlight is homemade coleslaw: simple, crunchy, and not too sweet. 1100 E. Fort Ave., 410-576-9294.
Mama's on the Half Shell
Listed under "Connelly's favorites" on the menu, this platter with one or two crab cakes is a pleaser. We opted for the single ($15.99) and are glad we did. This 6-ounce beaut is a heavy round of crab packed with lumps. A touch of Old Bay and no filler give it an edge. The restaurant also serves one of the best tartar sauces we sampled—spicy, oniony, soothing. You also get two sides. Shoestring fries were crisp and hot, but we can't say enough about the big pile of creamy coleslaw with fresh cabbage and carrot, flavored with caraway. 2901 O'Donnell St., 410-276-3160.
"Plump, delicious cake"
The plump, delicous cake at this convivial bar and sports-themed restaurant is bound with egg and bread with a hint of Old Bay. Available in two sizes, 5 ounce ($13.50) and 10 ounce ($26), both are served as a platter with a choice of two sides. You can also order them to carryout, or to be shipped far and wide. 2119 York Rd., Timonium, 410-252-2022.
The Oceanaire Seafood Room
"Elegant setting for a cake"
The non-local seafood restaurant certainly "gets" Baltimore by placing a can of Old Bay on the table. It pairs nicely with its hearty crab cake with mustard mayo. Oceanaire is pricey, but you can get an appetizer of one crab cake ($16.95) and order some sides—we chose a immense round of hash browns and tender green beans—for a complete meal. If you're feeling really native (and rich), get the two-crab-cake entree for $31.95. Still, it's an elegant setting to savor a cake. 801 Aliceanna St., 410-872-0000.
The Reef Grille (formerly Rib 'n Reef)
"Filled with jumbo lump"
There's an 8-ounce behemoth or a 5-ounce monster ($14.90, lunch platter). Either way, you get a big hunk of crab cake. This ball is filled with jumbo lump, and a smooth, creamy binder keeps it moist and firm. There were a couple of shells, but they didn't detract from a Baltimore cake to be proud of. A platter comes with rice pilaf and a vegetable of the day. We swapped out the veggie for coleslaw. This crunchy, cabbagey mélange is maybe our favorite version ever. 22 W. Padonia Rd., Timonium, 410-560-0906.
"Classic Maryland cake"
The 6-ounce, cylindrical crab cake at Regi's doesn't have the creamy interior of a classic Maryland cake, but that may be to your liking. There's more flaky crab, less mush. It's bound with panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs) that may create a firmer consistency than traditional saltines. The cake, golden brown from the broiler, is available as a sandwich ($15.95) with fries or slaw (pick the crunchy cabbage, trust us) or doubled up as an entree. 1002 Light St., 410-539-7344.
Sip & Bite
A recent remodel included a change to Sip & Bite's crab cake. Fortunately, it was for the better, with a few jumbo lumps now gracing the smaller lump meat and slightly sweet bread filling. Available grilled or deep fried, the moist cakes (6 ounces) possess a slight mayo tang, good crab flavor, and a nice accent of parsley and paprika. Even with a slight price bump (now $8.95), it's an exceptional value. 2200 Boston St., 410-675-7077.
Finally, this space in Green Spring Station has a winning restaurant. The interior is American classic friendly, while the outdoor patio is relaxed and inviting. It's no surprise that the food matches the welcoming vibe. We are especially impressed with its beautiful lump crab cake. There was no apparent filler, and it had the most pleasant undertone of Old Bay. The lunch sandwich ($16.95) comes with a choice of one side (we got the creamy coleslaw) and your pick of bread. Thank you, but we eschewed it for crackers so as to not disturb the cake's marvelous flavor. 2360 W. Joppa Rd., Lutherville, 410-583-TARK.
WHAT A SURPRISE
You'll find delish cakes in unexpected places.
An Italian restaurant with stately, Doric columns, starched white cloths, and formal, black-clad servers hardly seems like a place to go for crab cakes. Oh, to the contrary. This is definitely a place to savor our Maryland fare, especially if you're trying to impress someone. But you'd better have some money in the bank. The two-cake dish is market priced, and we shelled out $38 for the beautiful, all-lump patties with just the right amount of seasoning. Remoulade sauce is drizzled on each cake, but it's only enough to make it look pretty. Our dish came with steamed asparagus and a dreamy, creamy side dish of lobster saffron mashed potatoes. 306 S. High St., 410-727-0700.
An Poitin Stil
"Impressive mound of lump"
You wouldn't expect a stellar crab cake from a restaurant that counts off the days till St. Patrick's Day. But, it turns out, the Stil delivers an impressive mound of lump ($15.95 for a single). And that's no blarney. The crab-cake platter comes with sides—too garlicky mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus, the night we were there. Add a salad (Caesar or garden) to your dinner for $1.99, and you've got quite a nice meal. 2323 York Rd., Timonium, 410-560-7900.
Box Hill Pizzeria
"Crab cake to reckon with"
In addition to its excellent pizzas, subs, and Italian specialties, this Harford County favorite delivers a crab cake to reckon with. The 8-ounce sphere of lump crab with coleslaw, fries, and garlic bread ($13.99, other combos available) is a farmhand's bounty. There's nothing fancy here, from the serve-yourself sodas to the plastic tableware, but the cake is worth the trip. The pizza shop ships them, too. 2915 Emmorton Rd., Abingdon, 410-569-1788.
The Corner Stable
We know. The Stable equals ribs—juicy, fall-off-the-bones meat in a rich, smokey sauce. Wet naps are de rigeuer. But the restaurant also has one of the best genteel crab cakes in town. Who would have thunk it? The plump disk of lumps has nary a telltale sign of filler. It was solid crab, making it a bit drier than some. Still, this cake works. At lunch, the crab cake sandwich is $18.99 with fries. 9942 York Rd., Cockeysville, 410-666-8722.
"A swirl of horseradish"
Thank heaven Jack's Bistro doesn't try and funk up its crab cake with chocolate—like its innovative mac 'n' cheese. In this case, chef Ted Stelzenmuller leaves well enough alone, and puts out a traditional cake: 7 ounces of lump meat, a swirl of Dijon-laced horseradish on the side ($18.75). The cake falls apart gently, though a recent sample would have benefited from a minute or two more under the broiler. But never mind. It's gussied up with a scoop of purple mashed Okinawa potatoes and a smattering of watercress salad. 3123 Elliott St., 410-878-6542.
The Landing Strip
"Colossal crab cake"
At a tavern where you're more likely to see patrons chowing down on burgers and cheese steaks, the colossal crab cake ($16.95, platter)—"We don't measure them. We just make them big," a server told us—is worth a trip to this local hangout, probably better known for the plane replica on its rooftop and the model planes dangling from its ceiling. Whether you eat in or carryout, the crab cake platter comes with a big, fresh salad or two veggies; dinner rolls, chips and saltines, and cocktail sauce—lots of food for your buck. 3030 Eastern Blvd., Middle River, 410-574-3388.
"Love the cooking technique"
The crab cake at Luca's can be ordered solo between two thick slices of toast with Old Bay-dusted fries on the side ($16) or duet on a plate with mashed potatoes and the vegetable of the day ($27). There's a slight cracker-meal binder and minimal Old Bay seasoning in the 4.5-ounce orb—and we love the cooking technique: slightly sautéed and finished in a 500-degree oven for a nice crispy exterior. Alas, the blue-crab jumbo lumps, we're told, come from Venezuela. 1230 E. Fort Ave., 443-708-5694.
Meli Patisserie & Bistro
Meli's slick sense of style is evident in a pretty starter of three nicely browned mini-cakes ($14) comprised of smallish lumps and pleasant filler, subtly updated with a sweetly smoky paprika aioli and petite greens. Their smallness perhaps leave them vulnerable to the drying effects of the broiler, but they nonetheless pack a striking, crabby flavor. 1636 Thames St., 410-534-6354.
Olive Grove Restaurant & Lounge
By the time Olive Grove's crab cake arrives at your table, you may already be stuffed. Be forewarned: Don't fill up on the restaurant's delicious Italian salad and warm breadsticks, glazed with butter and garlic. The crab cake ($14.99 with one side and the aforementioned starters) is the real star. Broiled golden brown, the softball-sized cake has lots of filler, but it meshes nicely with the meat to create an almost sweet flavor. It might not be for everyone, but it's clearly loved by many: Olive Grove ships thousands a year throughout the country. 705 N. Hammonds Ferry Rd., Linthicum Heights, 410-636-1385.
Local celebs dish on our regional delicacy.
We asked some of Charm City's familiar faces to weigh in on crab cakes, including where to find the perfect patty and the secret to making them in their own kitchens.
Katie O'Malley, Maryland's First Lady
"When we are able to venture back to Baltimore, we love to get crab cakes from Bo Brooks, and since familiarizing ourselves with our new neighborhood, we have come to love crab cakes from Cantler's in Annapolis. Our favorite recipe truly comes straight from the home—Government House chef Medford Canby makes the absolute best crab cakes in the state. He has been making his recipe for 25 years and is truly Maryland's best-kept secret ingredient!"
Laura Lippman, Award-Winning Author
"I've never found a better crab cake than the all-lump at Faidley. It's my gold standard. In fact, I think it used to be served on a gold doily. The Evening Sun used to have a tradition of going to Lexington Market on Christmas Eve, and I remember [former Sun reporter] Joan Jacobson getting the crab cake—no bread, no sides—served on a gold-foil doily. At home, I make crab cakes from a recipe that my mother found in an old Evening Sun cookbook. My mother wrote it out for me by hand, and the first time I pulled it out of the recipe box, I called her and said, 'Hey, you forgot the measurements for some of the ingredients!' She said no, that was the way it was written, and you just had to guess. The bottom line is that a really good crab cake barely holds together, because there's hardly any breading. I won't eat a crab cake outside Maryland. Well, maybe the Delaware beaches."
David Pittenger, Executive Director, The National Aquarium in Baltimore
"My favorite crab cakes are at The Dock of the Bay Restaurant. [As much as I enjoy crabs], I do want to remind Marylanders, however, that the Chesapeake Bay's crab harvests continue to be at dangerously low levels. We need to get serious about improving bay habitat and water quality."
Doreen Bolger, Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art
"I am a great fan of the Clayton crab cake at Gertrude's at the BMA. This Eastern Shore recipe was developed by the J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge, MD. It starts with Maryland crab, and it is very simple—a little mayo, egg, and saltine cracker as a binder—plus slight touches of lemon and mustard for flavor. The crab cake breaks apart easily, and the taste of the crabmeat itself is so fresh and sweet. I like mine broiled a golden brown and served up with mango chutney aioli on the side."
Nancy Grasmick, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools
"I have two restaurants that are tied for first place for my favorite crab cakes. One is a small, modest restaurant in Anne Arundel County, the Edgewater Restaurant. The man who owns it cooks everything individually for every table, and the crab cakes are just fabulous with the perfect blend of lump crabmeat, hardly any filler, and just the perfect blend of seasoning. The other place is Timbuktu, also in Anne Arundel County. They have a delicious crab cake that is huge and is a signature dish for the restaurant. Because I grew up in Baltimore, I am devoted to crabs and am a typical Marylander in that I can eat over a dozen hard crabs. I am also terribly amused when I travel and see what is supposedly a Maryland crab cake on the menu."
Denise Koch, WJZ-TV Anchor
"The secret ingredient for my crab cakes is the McCormick crab-cake seasoning you buy at the supermarket. You simply use it, add crabmeat and some mayonnaise, and they are delicious. I own no McCormick stock, and I don't take bribes. It's simply my opinion. In fact, I regularly ship Hellmann's mayonnaise and McCormick crab-cake seasoning to my West Coast relatives because you can't get it in California. If I'm not making them at home, I buy them at Faidley at Lexington Market. They are the absolute best! I've also been shipping Faidley's crab cakes to family across the nation for years. I love their crab cakes. If I'm downtown, I just eat them standing up in the middle of all the Lexington Market fun and then get some hot peanuts on my way out."
Dorothy Hamill, Olympic Gold Medalist
"The key to making a good Maryland crab cake is the freshness and the quality of the crabmeat. I make my own, but I also enjoy the crab cakes at Elkridge Country Club and The Maryland Club."
Linwood Dame, chef/owner, Linwoods
"I keep it simple with lump crabmeat, homemade mayonnaise, some Panko bread crumbs, lemon, and Old Bay. I let them sit overnight and broil them. Whenever I travel and I see Maryland crab cakes on the menu, I order them just for fun. I usually end up asking, 'Where's the crabmeat?' because there is so much filler in them. Most of my crabmeat comes from Venezuela in big lumps, but Maryland crabmeat—which can be hard to get—is the sweetest of them all."
Brian Roberts, Orioles second baseman
"My favorite place to get a crab cake is at Mama's on the Half Shell in Canton."
John Shields, chef/owner, Gertrude's, and host of PBS's Coastal Cooking
"I have been cultivating a relationship with a company in business for generations called J.M. Clayton Co. on the Eastern Shore so that I can get Maryland crabmeat year-round for my restaurant. I make one of their family recipes, and one of the philosophies of the Eastern Shore crab cake is that this crabmeat is so good you don't want to do much with it to mess it up. . . . Because I work so much here, I very rarely get to go out. I like the crabs at [Parkville's] Perring Place, where they've had the same prep cook for 35 years."
Stiles Colwill, interior designer
"Eating crabs is a religion for me. When I make crab cakes at home, using Crosse & Blackwell (Seafood) Cocktail Sauce is key . . . and it's still available at local stores. When eating out, I go to Captain Harvey's or Obrycki's for crabs or crab cakes and, when out-of-town guests come in for the weekend, we order extra hard shells, take out the leftovers, and, on Sunday, we stand in the swimming pool, hammers, newspapers and beer on the side, and eat crabs standing in the pool."