Sometimes, you just have to get down and dirty. And when it comes to our beloved steamed crabs, we wouldn't have it any other way. For months, we've been picking and clawing our way through local crabhouses searching for the best. The blues, in many cases, came from other waters, but it didn't really matter. As we found out, it's really the steaming and seasoning that makes the hard shells winners. We were also paying attention to ambiance, side dishes, and service. Now, it's time for you to get crackin' and check out our choices, in alphabetical order!
Baldwin's Seafood Restaurant and Lounge
525 Pulaski Highway, Joppa, 410-679-0957
At first glance, you might sense a small identity crisis in the dining-room décor. The dark-green-papered walls are decorated with fox-hunting prints and horseback riding accessories. But it doesn't take long to appreciate this Pulaski Highway classic's ardent celebration of another great Maryland tradition: steamed crabs. Our platter of fatties (usually from Maryland or Texas) arrived promptly, and we devoured the whole dozen, plowing through an equal number of paper napkins, our fingers crusty with Old Bay. The cream of crab soup was a bit disappointing, thick with roux, but light on the lump. And the side of onion rings was a closer relative to the doughnut than the tear-inducing allium. The crabs however, hand-sorted each day by owner Charles Baldwin or one of the managers, are always reliable, and our upbeat server clearly knew about the goods. Steamed shrimp, clams, and rich, plump mussels are also available, as are crab cakes and more terrestrial offerings. But during the season, our advice is, go for the steamed hard shells. They never disappoint.
2701 Boston Street, 410-558-0202
Friendly service, a large menu, and plenty of seating are the hallmarks of this Baltimore crabhouse mainstay. Everyone at Bo's seems ready to make sure you get what you want, when you want it. And there is plenty to want, from crab soup with just enough Old Bay and onion rings big enough to encircle Saturn to peppery, perfectly steamed crabs. There's an engaging passel of brews on tap to help wash down the spice, and plenty to eat even if steamed crabs aren't your thing. We could have made a meal out of the crab guacamole and steamed shrimp and never have needed to read up on all the other seafood offerings. When the weather's nice, it's hard to beat Bo's breezy outdoor seating. What better way to take in the harbor view than pounding away with your mallet?
3301 Boston Street, 410-276-8900
This is a crabhouse with panache—and a view of the harbor. It has a long, shiny bar; a modern, open kitchen; several flat screens tuned to various games; and sports-figure bobbleheads eyeing you from a ledge. It also has beautifully hand-painted murals on the walls with varied scenes from Fort McHenry to Johns Hopkins as well as a fancy-patterned carpet in the dining room. But there are also a few stuffed fish on the walls to remind you that you are indeed in a crabhouse. You can also eat at picnic tables on an outdoor, covered patio in warm weather. We loved the restaurant's version of onion rings—thick, lightly breaded slices tossed with spicy Buffalo sauce and served with blue-cheese dressing. The lush cream of crab soup with lots of meat will calm your tongue down a bit before the heavy, Old-Bay-saturated crabs arrive. We cracked and picked in utter pleasure.
Captain Harvey's Restaurant Crabhouse
11510 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills, 410-356-6688
The crabhouse at Captain Harvey's is next to, but separate from, the main restaurant. While the restaurant serves the likes of lobster tail and filet mignon, people go to the outpost for one thing: crabs, of course. During our visit, we happened to get the last dozen, and we watched patron after patron leave after learning there were no more crabs to be had that night. Diners certainly weren't there for the view (of Reisterstown Road) or the interior design (acoustic-tile ceilings, deli-style counter, and oddly placed TV). And the appetizers are hit or miss. A shrimp "trio" turned out to be fried shrimp, fried shrimp in Buffalo sauce, and fried shrimp in a sweet coating meant to be sesame ginger. On the other hand, the Maryland crab soup was loaded with crab and vegetables, and the clams casino delivered a pleasant bite of garlic, a satisfying chew of seafood, and a gratifying dose of bacon. The crabs, of course, made the visit worthwhile.
Captain James Crab House
2127 Boston Street, 410-675-1819
It's surprising how few places there are in Baltimore in which to actually eat crabs, and to feast on them outdoors on the water. Fortunately, Captain James fulfills that craving with a floating deck full of picnic tables, reliably good crabs, and even its own water taxi stop. And despite being an offshoot of (and across the street from) its main restaurant painted like a giant ship, it is somehow not touristy. Crabs usually arrive fast, seasoned with a mixture that is relatively mild and sufficiently salty. On our visit, we were told the crabs were from Maryland, sparking much excitement, but they were similar in flavor and heft to other area offerings. The menu is brief, with a few steamed shellfish options, an oddly gumbo-like Maryland crab soup, refreshing slaw, and exceptionally crisp fries that are perfect for smearing on excess crab spice. But of course, the real draw is the sensory combo of a summer night cracking crabs right on the harbor—and they don't even charge you for that!
Catches Restaurant and Crab House
9727 Pulaski Highway, Middle River, 410-574-3200
On the night we crabbed out at Catches, there were at least three birthday parties going on. It's easy to see why folks would choose to celebrate here—and not only for the dance floor and classic rock cover band that began tuning up at 9 on a Saturday night. We called ahead to reserve a dozen crabs, and Bill, the resident expert steamer, stopped at our table to tell us he'd hand-picked 14 beauties from a crop flown in from Louisiana earlier in the day. Sure enough, these larges might be jumbos at another venue. The lumps were easy to separate and milky white, washed down with a swig of Catches Ale, brewed by Fordham Brewery. We couldn't resist sampling the decadent signature appetizer: a chewy, oversized pretzel topped with creamy crab dip and melted cheese. Catches's owners are committed to crabs year-round and have built a steaming house in the parking lot. Party on.
CJ's Crabhouse and Grill
10117 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills, 410-363-6694
CJ's is more sports bar than crabhouse, its dark interior lit by the glow of sport-tuned televisions. Yet, when those bright-red crustaceans are spilled across the brown-paper-covered table, and the plastic bibs and wooden mallets are presented, even the saddest Orioles stats suddenly don't seem so bad. The menu here includes hearty hamburgers and other sandwiches, as well as "real restaurant" entrees such as shrimp scampi, stuffed flounder, and ribs. Cream of crab soup is made the traditional way, with a shot of sherry to lighten the cream (if requested) and a generous amount of seafood. But our favorite appetizer was a serving of large and sweet steamed shrimp, swathed in spice that colored our fingers orange as we pried off the shells. Service is speedy and friendly, and jars of Old Bay alongside the salt and pepper are a nice touch. Eating here is a true Maryland dining experience.
4100 North Point Boulevard, Dundalk, 410-477-1975
There's no denying Costas's crabhouse status. The tables are covered in brown paper (if you're getting crabs), mallets await your grip, and white buckets are ready for your shells. Like many local places, there's nary a drop of outdoor water in sight except for the steamer-boat paintings on the wall. We like that you can choose the crab size you want when you make reservations. The other diners looked longingly at our larges while they had to settle for smaller ones that night. We kicked our palates into gear with a zesty Maryland crab soup (that could have used more crab), a half-dozen chilled, briny Blue Point oysters, and a stack of crispy, bagel-size onion rings. The service is attentive, with the staff keeping a close eye on empty plates and glasses. The hard shells are delivered on a tray—fragrant, hot, and generously encrusted with Costas's own peppery spice blend—and piled on the table. These Texas crustaceans were loaded with meat, and there wasn't a lightweight among them.
The Crackpot Seafood Restaurant
8102 Loch Raven Boulevard, Towson, 410-828-1095.
For almost 40 years, The Crackpot has been steaming fat crabs year-round with its custom Old Bay-laced seasoning. The no-nonsense décor—wood-shingle walls, stuffed fin fish poised on said walls, crab pots turned into light fixtures, and even holiday garlands with lights—makes it just the right place to get messy and dissect your crabs (always from Louisiana, we're told). Of course, there's more than hard crabs on the menu. The Maryland crab and cream of crab soups were steamy hot, spicy, and all-around excellent, the best we've had in a while. The crab pretzel is a fun appetizer—a long, doughy twist coated with a garlicky crab dip and topped with cheese. Our waitress shared that she sometimes eats one for dinner. And that's another bonus—the waitstaff, who are pleasant, friendly, and enthusiastic. This is a Baltimore tradition to appreciate.
Gunning's Seafood Restaurant
7304 Parkway Drive, Hanover, 410-712-9404
Business travelers will feel right at home at Gunning's, not just for its setting amid office parks near the airport, but for its mustard-yellow walls and gold patterned carpet reminiscent of a hotel conference center. Servers will cheerfully pull on a pair of surgical gloves to walk visitors through the proper picking of a crab, clearly accustomed to bewildered out-of-towners. But along with the clusters of after-hours business people are couples and families, who have happily been coming to Gunning's since the day in 1970 when Edward Gunning, a police officer, dumped a bushel of crabs on his father's South Baltimore bar, thinking folks might like some food with their beer. These days, order the steamed crabs, and the staff kicks into action, delivering a crab kit in a brown paper bag: hammers, napkins, the ubiquitous sturdy blue plastic knives, before delivering the full-bodied critters. If you're not worried about a crustacean overdose, try the crab-ball starter, an array of pan-seared mini crab cakes, and if you're not shy about ordering dessert, Gunning's homemade éclairs are renowned.
Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Road, Annapolis, 410-757-1311
Even without its magical, sun-splashed, picnic-bench-covered wooden deck jutting over Mill Creek, Cantler's would set a high standard for Maryland crabhouses. The crabs are always sweet, the beers are always cold, and there's just something special about being able to arrive by boat if you choose. A beloved icon since 1974, Cantler's could probably get by on goodwill and warm weather at this point. But that's not how Cantler's does things. Appetizers leave the fried stuff offered elsewhere in the dust and include fresh, delicious fare like ahi-tuna wantons that combine seared fish, piquant seaweed salad, and crisp-fried noodles. Another appetizer tops a hearty mushroom with a lump-meat-heavy crab cake and puts the whole thing over tender wilted spinach. And then comes the steaming bowl of Maryland crab soup, loaded with seafood and vegetables. Oh, and did we mention the delicious crabs?
1100 E. Fort Avenue, 410-576-9294
Located on the corner of a Formstone-covered row of Locust Point buildings, L.P. Steamers offers the quintessential Bawlmer crab experience. During our visit, we were told the mayor was enjoying a meal in a private room, while a big table of giggling tourists struggled, with help from their server, to master the intricacies of crab cracking. The space is long and narrow, and staffers stomp up the steep stairwell carrying beers, mallets, steamed shrimp, and platters of bright-red crabs, smothered with an Old Bay-type seasoning (though less salty, we were told). The deep-fried oyster and shrimp appetizers are grease-free and good. Forget greens—garnishes here are plastic tubs of tartar sauce and sweet, pickle-flecked macaroni salad. Plastic spoons are provided to scoop up the spicy veggie-filled Maryland crab soup. But before long, brown paper is laid across the table, sleeves are rolled up, and hands are soon covered with spice as crabs are cracked and morsels of white flesh are fingered into mouths. This is the real deal, hon.
Mike's Bar & Crab House
3030 Old Riva Road, Riva, 410-956-2784
Though locals are known to sniff at Mike's as being too "touristy," most will nonetheless concede that this sprawling crabhouse just west of downtown Annapolis is something of an institution. Indeed, even in the off-season, the cavernous dining rooms tend to be crowded. When the weather is nice, the expansive outdoor seating gets an extra hit of patrons arriving via boat (and car). The crabs, which hailed from Louisiana, were large and heavy, with a high rate of still-attached claws. They were, in fact, the fullest we've encountered in a while. The house spice is a finely ground, very aromatic but somewhat tame mixture. Luckily, supplemental ramekins of extra spice, as well as vinegar for dipping, are standard. Accompaniments such as a meekly seasoned cream of crab soup and overly dense hush puppies are just passable, but the service is efficient and cheerful.
Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn
200 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, 410-687-5994
Step into the main dining room of Mr. Bill's and you instantly suffer amnesia. You'll forget Memorial Stadium is gone, that the Colts left, that Willie Don isn't the Mayor, that McCormick isn't on Pratt Street, and that National Boh isn't sponsoring the City Fair. We had to peek back outside just to make sure the passing police car didn't have a blue lollipop light. No Baltimore nostalgia fakery here, and no attempt at haute cuisine, either. It's all about the crabs. Heavy, sweet, impeccably steamed, mouth-watering crabs. Dusted with a blend that is neither overwhelmingly hot nor puckeringly salty, these heavies were among the best we've had in years. Accompanied by a cup of spicy-delicious crab soup and a pitcher of beer, our only complaint of the evening was that with so many TVs, it was impossible not to watch the Orioles lose . . . the only reminder that it wasn't 1979.
Nick's Fish House
2600 Insulator Drive, 410-347-4123
Often, especially on weekends, Nick's is more about happy-hour drinks and loud music than food, as indicated by the throng of revelers on the outside deck—and this despite its less than advantageous location in an old industrial park by the Hanover Street Bridge. But it's also a fine place to indulge in crabs, which you can get both outdoors and in. We suggest the dining room as the service is better than outside (which is a bit slow) or at the bar (a bit surly). The crabs were point-to-point among the largest we found, but several were light and many claws were MIA. However, the meat was notably sweet, and the spice a nice balance of salt and heat. The cream of crab soup was excellent, with velvet richness, subtle seasoning, and lots of meat. Unfortunately, the coleslaw had too much mayo, and the goat-cheese grits tasted vaguely of a cheese Danish. Hint: When large crabs are available, they go fast.
1727 E. Pratt Street, 410-732-6399
In early crab season, there was a bit of subterfuge going on at the well-known Baltimore institution. Supplies, even from Texas and Louisiana, were unpredictable, so there were no guarantees that the restaurant would have crabs. We were instructed to call precisely at 11:30 a.m. the day that we wanted crabs. If the stars lined up, we'd soon be picking through hard crabs that evening. We lucked out. Yes, they had crabs—larges even. We soon headed to the downtown crabhouse that likely draws the most out-of-towners. We were impressed how friendly and courteous the staff is to its guests. They're a good welcoming committee. As native Baltimoreans, though, we're slightly horrified to be offered bibs for eating crabs. But if you're not from here, you probably think it's a good idea. Our crabs were hot and full but not spicy. Obrycki's uses its own black-pepper blend on the crabs but not nearly enough for our taste. We loved our server's recommendation of a side dish of cool, creamy cucumber salad.
Ocean Pride Restaurant & Carryout
1534 York Road, Lutherville, 410-321-7744
On a spring evening at Ocean Pride, the bar was packed, many of the patrons waiting for bags of steamed crabs to take home from the busy carryout shop, where you can also order a container of potato or shrimp salad, and choose a cold six pack or a bottle of wine. In the sunken dining room at the rear of the restaurant, brown-paper-covered tables stand ready for those who prefer to eat crabs there. The waitstaff, dressed in navy polo shirts and khaki shorts, shoot back and forth with pitchers of beer and platters from the raw bar. This cheerful spot on York Road, some distance from the ocean itself, proudly offers crabs all year long. While the quality of crabs—from North Carolina, Louisiana, or Texas—may vary from night to night (we had some recently molted jimmys with flimsy shells and not enough meat), speak up if you're not pleased, and the good-natured steam managers will set things right. The crabs are dusted with Ocean Pride's own seasoning—modeled after Old Bay, with rock salt, cayenne, white pepper, paprika, and other undisclosed ingredients; we detected a lemony tang that complemented the sweet meat.
Reter's Crab House and Grille
509 Main Street, Reisterstown, 410-526-3300
Our most recent trip to Reter's occurred on an unseasonably dreary day, making it difficult to get into the crab-pickin' spirit as we made our way out to Reisterstown. But Reter's beach décor, cheery servers, and airy environs elicited an immediate mood swing. We started our meal with a few appetizers, of which the crab soup was the strongest—good crab content, mildly spiced, and chock full of veggies. The oyster stew looked promising, too, loaded with plump bivalves, but it was let down by its somewhat gloppy texture. It mattered little, though, once the crabs arrived, smothered in a proprietary spice blend that is suitably peppery and salty. Our batch was perfectly steamed, as were the juicy shrimp we ordered along with them. For northwestern residents who don't want to drive into the city for their crabs, Reter's is the place to go.
Riptide by the Bay
1718 Thames Street, 410-732-3474
Crabs are the headline act at Riptide, but the supporting cast of appetizers and small plates should not be overlooked. Choosing to take more of a foodie approach to crabhouse dining, Riptide tempts you with garlicky crab dip, mini crab cakes finished with smoked bacon cream, and the aptly named ensalada fresca—a refreshing mélange of jicama, crab, and red and green salsas. We could have used a little more crab in our crab soup, but can't quibble with its tanginess or the plethora of fresh veggies therein. We're also happy with the beer selection here; in keeping with the suds-centric atmosphere of Fells Point, it features a rotating cast of delicious brews from around the world. Service at Riptide isn't as well seasoned as the crabs just yet, but the occasional slip is forgotten in the face of genuine, youthful zeal.
Schultz's Crab House
1732 Old Eastern Avenue, Essex, 410-687-1020
The journey to Schultz's takes you past small businesses selling outboard motors, vegetables from local farms, beauty services, and nary a big-box store in sight. When you arrive, you won't be disappointed. This place, which opened as Shultz's Café in 1950, became a crabhouse when the McKinney family bought the business in 1969, and current owner Steve McKinney (along with five siblings) has been sorting and steaming crabs since he was a little boy. Inside, it couldn't be less pretentious. With dark paneled walls decorated with trophy fish and a pool table in the large bar area, it's a worthwhile destination in our quest for authenticity. At the table nearby, a couple sat in silence, whacking their knives just so, to expertly crack the claw or break the body without splatter. Our waiter explained the notion of "fat crabs," pointing to a dark spot on the underside to illustrate how these guys spent their time lazing on the sandy bottom underwater, plumping up all that succulent white meat. A pitcher of Yuengling, a starter of slightly spicy Maryland crab soup, and we were in another world.
SeaSide Restaurant Crab House and Lounge
224 Crain Highway North, Glen Burnie, 410-760-2200
We're not sure why SeaSide was so crowded and loud on a ho-hum and cool Sunday night. Though the restaurant is large, our wait was more than an hour. Yet, even with the hubbub, we were never neglected. A quickly served appetizer combo kept us occupied while we waited at the bar. It included plump steamed shrimp wrapped in bacon and dabbed with barbecue sauce, truly exemplary crab balls, and a creation described as "clams casino," which was really a half-shell topped with cheese and bacon, then baked. Once seated, service was quick. We were soon enjoying a bowl of fresh-tasting, vegetable-rich Maryland crab soup, though we could have passed on the fishy-tasting steamed mussels. And then came the crabs, which went a long way toward explaining the crowd. They were heavy with meat and crusted in a slightly less-salty-than-usual spice mix that didn't sting the fingers. Eventually, the loudest people left the bar, and we were left to pull off claws and pry out the marble-white meat in peace.
Ships Cafe Restaurant & Crabhouse
828 Frederick Road, Catonsville, 410-744-1838
This main-street restaurant offers a meandering warren of rooms—down steps, up steps, around the corner, and outside on a deck. From our experience, the steamed crabs are the selling point here. Our server alerted us that they would take from 20 to 25 minutes to be ready. We immediately felt comfortable knowing that we were getting hard shells right from the steamer. In the meantime, we ordered Maryland crab and cream of crab soups and a generous plateful of delightful, lightly breaded fried calamari with two sauces: a thick marinara and a zesty cusabi (creamy cucumber zinged with wasabi). We'd forego the lackluster, too temperate soups next time. But we quickly forgave those disappointments once the crabs arrived—hot, delicious, and thickly coated with spicy, flecked seasoning.
Sue Island Dock Bar
900 Baltimore Yacht Club Drive, Essex, 443-460-0092
Even for those who live in the area, this relative newcomer would be considered a destination spot, tucked away as it is near land's end on Sioux Creek off Middle River. But the trip is a worthwhile one, given the picturesque view, relaxed atmosphere, and excellent crabs. The size selection here was comprehensive, with as many as five gradations ranging up to jumbo, which must be leviathans given the girth of the larges we received. Though not the heaviest specimens, all were consistently full, well-coated with a thick jacket of salty spice. As a bonus, our dozen was a baker's, and wayward claws were even served alongside in a tidy pile. Nightly food and drink specials (our crabs came with a free pound of shrimp, and the $4 margaritas are huge) add further incentives for far-flung customers. The fries and potato salad are excellent, the cream of crab soup less so. Apply bug repellent beforehand. When dusk comes, so, too, do the mosquitoes.
Crab & Tell
The inside scoop on customers' quirks.
Neil Smith, owner of The Crackpot Seafood Restaurant, says he wishes he'd written down all the funny stories that have happened over the years. "One of the ones I like best is when a customer got a dozen jumbo crabs and sent back six of them because each one did not have matching claws. He said the claws should be the same exact size. If not, it was a deformed crab," Smith says. "Another good one is the lady who sent back her dozen crabs because one fin was missing (and it wasn't the back fin). We offered to replace the crab, but she said she had lost all trust in us!"
Pete Triantafilos, a Costas Inn owner, is always amused by "people that bring their own butter warmers" and those "eating crabs while wearing surgical gloves." He's also had his share of retrievals with people "losing things in crab paper—rings, cell phones, keys, etc.—and they only tell you after the paper has been put into the Dumpster," he says. After looking through the trash, the staff later finds out "that the item was found in a purse or elsewhere," he sighs.
Rick Bielski, who owns Ocean Pride Restaurant & Carryout with his brother Randy, says that the restaurant often gets visitors who ask for help picking their crabs. He said the servers cheerfully give lessons, but always say how hard it is to pick crabs and not eat them themselves! "We have heard out-of-towners say that they want the mud washed off the crabs, not knowing that it's the seasoning that makes them so tasty," he adds. There's also the aftermath of cleanup. "We have taken apart plumbing in the restrooms to look for rings that were lost while [people were] washing their hands."
Eric Hamilton, owner, with dad Earl, of Canton Dockside, says customers frequently lose jewelry and car keys. He particularly remembers the time a woman left her engagement ring in the pile of crab discards. By the time she came back 15 minutes later, the table had been cleared and the brown paper full of shells—and her ring—thrown in the trash. "I'm a good guy," says Hamilton, "I got in the Dumpsters with other staff, and we found the ring." A crabhouse Dumpster is not a place you want to be, especially on a hot summer day, Hamilton notes. "It's post-edible stuff and dead crabs we throw away that you can't eat."
Christopher D. Cox, general manager at Bo Brooks, still laughs about the time a woman swore up and down in the dining room that the crabs were from China. Why did she think that? "Because they were red and not blue!" he says. He also recalls the time a group decided to "rescue" some crustaceans: "Some customers bought a dozen crabs live and decided to throw them into the water [after a couple of beers] in their own attempt to help re-populate the bay." And then there are the bridal parties, he says, who "come in right after their group manicure and wear latex gloves in the wedding colors to pick their own steamed crabs!"
Jeff Sanders, who owns CJ's Crabhouse and Grill with two brothers, can one-up his colleagues with this one: "We have people eat steamed shrimp with the shells on," he says. "I want to tell them that it'd be easier without them on." The staff does show newbies how to peel and eat the shrimp. No surprise. "They said that was a lot better," Sanders reports.