Arts & Culture

Give Us a Dozen!

There's a Crab House On This List For Every Hardshell Fan.

Let’s make one thing clear right now: Finding the best crab house around here is like finding the most beautiful baby. There are too many, and too much of the decision depends on personal affection and lucky timing. • Having said that, we tracked down a dozen (plus one, a nod to the old crab-house tradition) places that reliably deliver the goods. To do so, we polled longtime locals for their favorites, added some places our food critics knew, and tried them all during the months of April and May. (This meant our crabs were not from the Chesapeake, but sadly, that’s the case even in July.) We rated them not just for crabs, but for side dishes, service, and that indefinable thing that makes a restaurant seem like a good place to spend hours with a mallet in your hand. • We also divided them into three categories, to further help you, whether you prefer a place with lots of history and citywide repuation (“local legends”), one with a loyal following in its neighborhood (“local  treasures”), or just want to pick crabs by the water. • Still, we realize that any list like this is going to draw howls of protest from those whose favorite spot didn’t make the list. All we can say is: All babies are beautiful. 

Gunning’s Crab House, 3901 S. Hanover Street, 410-354-0085. First, a word about the two Gunnings: Time was, the Gunning family owned and operated this crab house in South Baltimore, and made it a famous crab mecca—in part because of signature dishes like fried green-pepper rings dusted in powdered sugar, in part because of the blue-collar charm, and in third part because of its always-fresh crustaceans. Then, the Gunnings sold their restaurant to new people, who kept the old name. Still later, the Gunning family opened up a new place in, rather than on, Hanover (see below). So this is “the old Gunning’s run by the new people,” as many people still call it to this day. Very little has changed here, despite the years and change in ownership: It still has the same wood-paneled, old-school atmosphere, the same large crabs steamed in beer, the same pepper rings and gigantic éclairs. (The staff susses out true Baltimoreans by how they pronounce that last word: It’s “EE-clair.”) The concrete patio still stands ready for a summer’s worth of urban outdoor crab feeds. The crabs we had were good for so early in the season, though they would have been a little weak in July; the cream of crab soup was excellent. And that éclair was sweet, gooey, and too enormous for three people to finish.

Gunning’s Seafood Restaurant, 7304 Parkway Drive, Hanover, 410-712-9404. So how are things at “the new Gunning’s run by the old people”? Well, these were some of the priciest crabs we found—running from $59 to $75 a dozen on our visit—and the Gunnings left the charm and quirkiness (and patio!) behind for a strip-mall storefront. But they hung onto the great cooking and excellent crabs. Ours felt like they had lead weights inside, they were so heavy, easily living up to their $67-a-dozen price tag. And the cream of crab soup completely wowed us, providing a solid lump the size of a golf ball that dwarfed what would have otherwise been considered hefty lumps in every other spoonful. If anything, they do the green-pepper rings better here than at the old place. The crab cake was large, tasty, and virtually free of filler. It’s clear they’re taking the crabmeat for their soups and other dishes straight from their biggest crabs—which, sadly, can’t be too much of a hardship for them, since we were the only ones in the dining room ordering crabs on our last visit. Come on, people, get cracking! And save room for dessert—they serve éclairs here, too.

Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn, 200 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, 410-687-5994. Want your steamed hardshells served with a seriously large side of authentic Bawlmer, hon? Mr. Bill’s is definitely your place. This humble tavern sports a couple of twinkly-light fake palm trees for decoration and a plain box of a dining room where the walls are lined with photos of local celebrities who are passionate fans, like Boog Powell. What’s the attraction? Some of the biggest, meatiest steamed crabs around in a genuinely welcoming atmosphere. Regulars line up around the block in season, so come early for the big ones (they don’t take reservations). At around $38 a dozen for what Powell dubs “aircraft carriers” (that’s large), they’re a bargain to boot. Order a pitcher and a few sides—fried clams, a decent crab fluff, some fries—and you’ve got yourself the crabbiest local experience money can buy.   

Obrycki’s, 1727 E. Pratt Street, 410-732-6399. Obrycki’s servers know what’s important. “Extra-larges are heavy tonight, and we’re almost out,” says our waitress as soon as we sit down. “You want me to reserve you some?” Yes, yes we do. And then we would like a pitcher of Yuengling and a moment to look over a menu filled with all the old local favorites. The Maryland crab soup is excellent, made with hand-cut vegetables and plenty of crab. It comes in a metal crock with a handle—one of those touches that makes Obrycki’s seem just a little nicer than the average crab shack. It’s that careful treading of the line between down-home and upscale that has made this place a favorite of tourists for years, while it’s that distinctive mixture of spices—an unorthodox but addictive black-pepper-based concoction that renders the crabs disconcertingly gray—that has earned it local fans. The cavernous dining rooms have a quirky, faux beer-hall charm, with their plaster walls and brick arches—but the servers dress in black and white, complete with bowties. Still, all the finessed authenticity in the world can’t bring people in the way a good crustacean can, and Obrycki’s has those as well. Gray or not, the crabs were good on our last visit—even the ones a neighboring table gave us when they were too full to finish them. Eating at a place frequented by tourists living in refrigerator-free hotel rooms has certain advantages.

CJ’s Restaurant, 10117 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills, 410-363-6694. CJ’s is a big place, but in the suburban overload of Reisterstown Road, you can drive right by and never know you missed it. The low-lying, grey-blue building looks like it was built in the 1960s; the inside, however, is much more interesting, with narrow wood paneling and a diagonal layout that helps to allay the boxiness of the place. In a part of town not known for its shellfish, crabs are excellent here, and you can rely on your server to give an honest answer as to what’s running heavy (our larges, at $38, were a deal). If crabs aren’t your thing, CJ’s menu is long indeed, including the usual fried oysters (greasy), various seafood things made into either pizza or “imperial,” Black Angus steaks, good clam chowder and outstanding, creamy, celery-seed-laden cole slaw. Put back all those calories you burned picking crabs with the in-house prepared desserts. It’s an ever-changing array, but after a recent visit, we were still happily remembering our chocolate silk pie the next morning. CJ’s can get noisy on occasion, but that’s part of the attraction—it’s the sort of place where laughing loudly and half-shouting across a table is totally acceptable.

Costas Inn, 4100 North Point Boulevard, Dundalk, 410-477-1975. Costas provides a spartan dining room, with a large flat-screen television on one wall and simple chairs and tables. They know people don’t come for the atmosphere or gimmicky décor: They come for the genial waitstaff and massive, reasonably priced crabs. Ours were quite heavy for 48s, especially for April. Like kids with Cracker Jack prizes, we kept showing off the treasures of meaty flesh we’d extracted. Costas uses a tasty, spicy concoction of their own invention on the crabs—similar enough to Old Bay to not disturb anyone’s sensibilities, but different enough to be a nice change of pace. (They even sell it at local markets, if you want the Costas experience at home.) To be honest, we’re not overly fond of a lot of the other food here—the crab dip seems bland, and our crab soup arrived lukewarm. But anything involving oysters, be they raw or fried, is a guaranteed hit, and the desserts are great, comforting piles of sweetness. Costas knows what people come there for, and those things, they do just right.

The Crackpot Seafood Restaurant, 8102 Loch Raven Boulevard, Towson/Parkville, 410-828-1095. Don’t be fooled by the Crackpot’s bland exterior, part of a shiny strip mall’s façade: Inside, this is as old-school a crab house as you’re likely to find. The walls are lined with bare-wood shingles, the tables with butcher paper in preparation for the glorious mess to come. The air is filled with laughter and occasional shouts or moans from the adjoining bar, depending on whether the O’s are up or down. The Crackpot boasts a full menu that includes honest-to-goodness entrées like prime rib and tuna steaks, but crabs are the big draw. Order a pint of something amber—the restaurant has a decent selection of beers—and get ready for a big feed. For starters, try some beer-battered onion rings, or check out the à la carte crab cakes, which come in some half-dozen variations. We’re not sure about the Mexican crab cake concept (made with salsa and cheddar cheese), but we’re new fans of the “Cruise Missile,” which combines lumps of crabmeat with a hot sauce usually found on chicken wings. Servers are efficient and knowledgeable, and admirably cheerful considering the rush of customers that consumes the place on any given night (reservations, in our experience, are highly recommended).

Gibby’s Seafood Restaurant and Lounge, 22 W. Padonia Road, Timonium, 410-560-0703. Gibby’s strikes us as less of a crab house than a seafood restaurant that also serves crabs. Their servers aren’t always on top of what’s running heavy, but you can try to talk your way into the little storage shack behind the kitchen before you come in and heft the crabs yourself before you decide. Our mediums the other night were light, but very tasty, and steamed to order, which can lead to a lengthy wait that adds significantly to your drinks bill. Speaking of which, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on tap on our visit was a much better match with sweet, spicy crabs than the quickly-becoming-ubiquitous Yuengling lager. Seafood bisque is plenty rich and full of chunks of this and that, but clam chowder can be gloppy. Oysters Rockefeller are topped with cheese, which can also add to the glop factor—but hey, since when has a crab feed been about counting calories? On a summer evening with a slight breeze, the open-air terrace is sufficiently removed from the traffic of Padonia Road to be downright pleasant. Also, there are grassy knolls for the kids to run around on while the adults continue sucking on crustaceans.  

L.P. Steamers, 1100 E. Fort Avenue, 410-576-9294. L.P.’s gets our vote for bargain outing. This Locust Point (that’s what the L.P. stands for) favorite is a no-frills, laid-back friendly place for steamed seafood, $3 burgers, and $1.25 draft pints. Obviously, crabs are never going to count as budget dining—not any more, at least—but even here, L.P.’s helps you out with the widest range of prices we found in all our eating: nine different prices, on our visit, going from $24 a dozen all the way up to $70. Ours were good for an early-season haul, and liberally coated in Old Bay. The cream of crab soup had good flavor, though it was so thick it could have easily doubled as dip (if it hadn’t been for the couple of plastic spoons that came with it, we might have thought we’d mis-ordered). In nice weather, the rooftop deck gives a nice view of the neighborhood and the Harbor. But what really makes us like L.P.’s—besides the wallet-friendly prices—is the easygoing hospitality of its staff and Bud, the owner. That’s why this out-of-the-way spot gets so many tourists—hotel concierges have learned to direct visitors here for some authentic Charm City charm. Don’t believe us? Check out their map of the world, sprinkled with tacks marking the hometowns of various international visitors over the years. 

Ocean Pride, 1534 York Road, Lutherville, 410-321-7744. There’s something a little odd about cracking