Food & Drink

Crab Feast!

Fifteen best crabhouses. (We found lots of blues to make us happy!)

Ask Marylanders about their favorite crab houses, and you’ll likely
get as many answers as the people you talk to—from familiar places to
lesser-known joints. Everyone seems to have an opinion on where to find
the fattest Jimmys and the frostiest beer. We thought it was time again
to belly up to the brown-papered tables around town and see what crab
houses are delivering these days. (Rip Tide in Fells Point hadn’t opened
in time for a review, but we have great expectations for the new kid on
the crab block.) Here are 15 of our top picks.

Cantler’s Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Road,
Annapolis, 410-757-1311. Former waterman Jimmy Cantler’s restaurant is
the waterside equivalent of the authentic American roadside diner. You
know it’s the real deal if most of the clientele arrive by boat. Open
year-round, when the weather turns warm, the preferred seating is on the
outdoor deck, with open and sheltered areas overlooking Mill Creek.
Indoors, the bar and booths have a warm and rustic glow. It would be a
shame if a setting so idyllic had anything less than fabulous crabs.
Thankfully, Cantler’s crabs, from Maryland waters and the Gulf, are
sweet, fresh, and meaty, and steamed for the optimal time. Extra larges
are available, and their heft is worth the price. For crab lovers who
can’t abide picking, the mild crab cakes have minimal binding—and
minimal size. (If crab cakes will be your meal, order two.) Desserts
come from SugarBakers, a Catonsville bakery that has quite a reputation
of its own. We suspect that Cantler took one taste of the Key lime pie
and knew that it, like his crab house, was the real deal.

Harris Crab House
433 Kent Narrows Way North,
Grasonville, 410-827-9500. In these times of skyrocketing gas prices, a
day trip to Harris’s for steamed crabs is a pretty decent cheap
alternative to a vacation. Hop in the car, head for the Bay Bridge, and
in less than an hour you’re there, surrounded by lovely water views as
you pick through a pile of hard shells (mediums were heavy, hot, and
fresh) and sip on a Redhook brew. The dining room is spare and no
frills, with butcher’s paper on the tables and big rolls of paper towels
you’ll come to appreciate in the midst of your feast. And with Harris’s
view of the bay, you’re not likely to miss white-linen napery or fancy
décor. Other particularly well-prepared items on the menu include a
nice, broiled jumbo-lump crab cake and a luscious cream of crab soup you
can carry out by the quart at the takeout window. That’s one way to
keep the holiday-from-home vibe going a little bit longer.

L.P. Steamers
1100 E. Fort Avenue, 410-576-9294.
This long-time Locust Point (“L.P.”—get it?) crab joint may be pretty
worn around the edges, but its charms are considerable: superior crabs
and seafood, rock-bottom prices, and a wait staff that’s more
knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, and hardworking than any we’ve
encountered at other crab venues, pricey or otherwise. Our lovely
waitress gave us an enthusiastic refresher course on the best way to
pick, along with a frank and fair assessment of competing crab joints
and an informative discourse on the differences between Maryland and
Louisiana blue crabs (basically, there aren’t any). The staff here will
candidly tell you what’s good that night, and which crabs are the best
bargain. Our $75 crabs were huge and heavy. But you’d do yourself a
disservice to stop at hard shells. Fried seafood here is expertly
prepared with a light and crisp batter, and the steamed shellfish is
plentiful and relatively cheap. Sit up on the rooftop deck and you’ll
get a panoramic city view along with your draft beer (no liquor here,
only beer and wine). Even with the surrounding gentrification, this is
about as Bawlmer as you can get.

Mike’s Bar & Crab House
3030 Old Riva Road,
Riva, 410-956-2784. Steamed crabs your way should be the motto of Mike’s
Bar & Crab House. When the crabs get to your table, they are hot to
the touch, but mild and sweet to the taste. There are no burning lips
here, unless you set the fire. Accompanying the crabs is a bowl of Old
Bay-type seasoning, vinegar if you prefer, and drawn butter. You also
get your own roll of paper towels. South of Annapolis on the South
River, accessible by both car and boat, Mike’s is an ideal place to wile
away a long evening over crabs and beer. Part of the outdoor deck is
covered overhead; the uncovered area abuts the boat slips, and on Friday
nights, there is karaoke. Indoors or out, however, most diners have a
river view, thanks to long windows and a wonderful location. In typical
crab-house style, Mike’s is informal with long tables, a full bar, a
children’s menu, and friendly service. Many large groups—big families
with lots of generations and after-work gatherings—are among the crowd.
In addition to hard crabs, the offerings are many and varied, including
an excellent seafood platter, which can be broiled or fried, a popular
crab imperial, pork chops, sandwiches, and even pizza. But skip the
desserts; none is homemade.

Nick’s Fish House
2600 Insulator Drive,
Baltimore, 410-347-4123. Imagine a Baltimore waterfront of a bygone
era—dinghies, aging motor craft, weather-worn sailboats sporting nothing
new but their glossy license stickers … it still exists outside the
airy windows of Nick’s Fish House. This little treasure, tucked away
under the Hanover Street Bridge, may be well-known for summertime happy
hour, but it deserves a visit for the food, too. We were pleased to find
the crabs here among the best we tasted in a while. Our server
recommended the 65s (a dozen crabs for $65), which arrived positively
smothered in Old Bay and steamed to divine perfection. We ate ourselves
silly, feasting on plump and fresh Chesapeake oysters, steamed clams,
and delicately flaky tilapia. We interrupted our crab picking only to
scarf down an occasional onion ring and have a swig of beer. The
laid-back fishing shack interior encourages relaxed largesse, and the
servers work with unflagging friendliness and efficiency to take good
care of customers. We’re looking forward to our next visit, and have
certainly found the place to take out-of-towners the next time they
demand seafood with a view.

CJ’s Crabhouse and Grill
10117 Reisterstown Road,
Owings Mills, 410-363-6694. After being on Reisterstown Road for three
decades, CJ’s knows what it’s doing when it comes to crabs. Hard shells
come out of the kitchen quickly: Faster service than McDonald’s, it
seems. But what crabs. They’re coated with tongue-tingling, peppery
seasoning and full of sweet meat. The night we were there, the larges
had the most enormous claws we’ve seen. We also like the lump crab cakes
here, which are fat mounds of back fin with just enough filler to bind
the ingredients. We’d skip the mediocre Maryland crab soup to
concentrate on the crabs. CJ’s prides itself on good service, and,
indeed, the wait staff is friendly and attentive. In addition to helpful
servers, staffers come along every few minutes to empty bowls of messy
crab shells to keep the comfortable booths and long tables clean. For
non-crab eaters, there are plenty of other dishes, like burgers, pizza,
and ribs. The crisp, tender buffalo wings are particularly good. And
don’t miss the crab pretzel (crab dip smothered over a jumbo soft
pretzel). It never disappoints.

Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn
200 Eastern Boulevard,
Essex, 410-687-5994. This is not a crab house for newbies. Diners wield
their mallets and beer with deft hands, and everyone seems to know one
another in the noisy, boisterous space reminiscent of someone’s rec
room. And be prepared to order your steamed crabs immediately. The
servers don’t mess around here. They want to get your crab decision to
the kitchen as soon as possible since the crustaceans are steamed to
order. While waiting, tuck into a delicious cup of cream of crab soup.
It’s a lush potage laced with back fin. We also really liked the
Maryland crab soup, which reels you in with its zingy, spice-punched
broth, even if there seems to be a dearth of crabmeat. When the hard
shells arrive, you’ll find them steaming hot—literally, steam billows
from the pile. Ah, but these are the reason to come to Bill’s. The crabs
are fat, heavy beauties, plump with snowy meat, and coated with a
tantalizing spice crust—better than Old Bay, we think. (Was there a
tinge of garlic in the secret coating?) You can quell the spiciness with
desserts like hot apple pie à la mode or an ice cream sundae. We didn’t
need to. We like that happy crab aftertaste.

The Crackpot Seafood Restaurant
8102 Loch Raven
Boulevard, Towson/Parkville, 410-828-1095. There’s nothing glamorous
about The Crackpot’s location in a busy suburban shopping center,
sharing space with a grocery store, coffeehouse, and other shops. Even
inside the restaurant, there’s a frayed feel to it, like the years of
diners passing through have left their mark. But what the crab house
lacks in style and polish, it makes up for in food and service. You can
count on getting great crabs here year-round, usually from Louisiana in
the off-season. They’re picked up daily at the airport and delivered
kicking to the restaurant, servers will tell you. Our only quibble is
the size ranges. On a recent visit, our extra larges were definite
mediums, but we still swooned over the hearty, spicy flavor and
captivatingly sweet meat. We also like sitting at a table by ourselves
instead of at the long communal planks favored at many other crab
houses. Service is attentive whether you’re ordering hard shells or the
impressive range of other menu entries, from surf and turf to
crazy-sounding crab cakes like the Hawaiian one with pineapple and ham.
(There’s also a 20-ounce traditional Maryland cake on the menu for
crustacean diehards.) Before your hard shells make an appearance on your
table, start with stuffed mushroom caps—a retro appetizer with a mound
of impossibly rich crab imperial on top—and what is arguably the best
cream of crab soup in town. Cold, salty oysters on the half shell keep
you going till the crabs arrive hot from the steamer. Sated with crabs,
there’s cherry, apple, and coconut cream pies and other sweet
temptations if you desire. Or, like us, just leave content on an Old Bay

Reter’s Crab House and Grille
509 Main Street,
Reisterstown, 410-526-3300. A strip-mall exterior, family-friendly
atmosphere, menu from both land and sea, and weeknight specials such as
all-you-can-eat oysters or prime rib keep Reter’s popular with the
land-locked locals. For them, it’s the closest thing to a beach joint in
Baltimore County. We appreciate the peach walls, bleached-wood
paneling, and dozens of kites and other beach paraphernalia that hang
from the walls and ceiling to distract us from the view of a gas station
outside. Inside, Reter’s has something for everyone. A group of
girlfriends eating dinner at the bar can be oblivious to the table full
of someone else’s children: like the hungry Little-Leaguers wolfing down
kids’ meals served on take-home flying discs spotted on a recent visit.
Standard bar food, along with a raw bar and indulgent seafood platters,
mean that even the non-crab eaters will find something to like. The
bland crab cake, however, should be passed over for the sweeter steamed
crabs, or even something hearty, like the pulled-pork sandwich. Even the
slow pickers among you will not leave hungry. According to our
waitress, the restaurant gets its beautifully fat swimmers from the Gulf
of Mexico. For dessert, there are some caloric whoppers, such as the
funnel cake, but we suggest saving your annual funnel cake allowance for
the state fair. At Reter’s, choose one of the smoothies that, just like
at the beach, come in a suspiciously large variety of flavors. But
after one taste of the cookies-and-cream variety, we stopped asking

The SeaSide Restaurant Crab House and Lounge
N. Crain Highway, Glen Burnie, 410-760-2200. With crab standards so high
in our area, The SeaSide continues to stand out in the competition. Its
success is evident from the crowds willing to wait 25 minutes on a
weeknight for a table (reservations are only accepted for seven or more)
in the large, brightly lit dining rooms. A lone eater, up to his elbows
in a pile of crabs, told us during a recent visit that he eats at
SeaSide “every paycheck.” Now, there’s a testimony. The crabs are served
hot out of the steamer and encrusted with a salty, spicy coating. You
can count on them being heavy and packed with crab. The Maryland crab
soup is an admirable version, thick with vegetables, crab, and Old Bay.
The crab cakes also were first class with giant lumps, little filler,
and broiled with a crispy crust. The voluminous menu also includes crab
imperial, fried hard crab, soft shells, chicken, steak, and even lobster

Canton Dockside
3301 Boston Street, 410-276-8900.
What bills itself as “Baltimore’s newest crab house” is fast becoming
one of our favorite crab houses. We might go elsewhere if we were
hankering for a water view (although Dockside is somewhere in the
general vicinity of a dock, there’s no harbor vista), but for truly
pleasant surroundings, excellent service, and all-around solid seafood,
Dockside is hard to beat. Oh, and the crabs—big, heavy, meaty Louisiana
blues—were the best we’ve had in a while. A large part of Dockside’s
appeal is its spacious, well-appointed dining room, which still retains
the fine-dining trappings of the building’s former resident, Canton’s
Pearls. Despite the semi-upscale feel, prices are eminently reasonable
and the vibe is crab-shack friendly. The place is popping with families,
after-work singles, old and young, all getting into the act. One night
we observed a sweet young couple—obvious novices—getting pointers from
an elderly man at the next table, who kindly gave a step-by-step on how
to dismantle a hard shell. Crabs aren’t the only act—a host of
seafood-topped pastas, sandwiches, salads, and non-seafood entrées fill
out the considerable menu—but every variation of the noble blue we’ve
tried here, including a seasonal soft-shell sandwich, was primo. If you
must have outdoor dining, there’s a shaded patio alongside the building.
But with crabs like these, you won’t really care where you’re sitting,
as long as the table is loaded with the house specialty.

Costas Inn
4100 North Point Boulevard, Dundalk,
410-477-1975. Costas Inn has been a crustaceous institution for more
than 30 years, and that’s obvious from the moment one pulls into the
parking lot—the building sports several additions of varying vintage.
Costas serves up a traditional seafood menu, featuring old-school
favorites like oysters Rockefeller, stuffed lobster tail, and crab
imperial. There are also plenty of steak, chicken, and pasta choices, as
well as pit-style barbecue offerings. But it’s the crabs that folks
drive significant distances for, and for good reason. Enter the
cavernous dining hall, settle down with a beer, a table full of crabs, a
bucket for spent shells, and go to town. Costas’s house spice tastes
pepperier than Old Bay, and seems a little tangier to us as well. In any
case, we love it, and gleefully lick our fingers often. On our last
visit, we couldn’t resist starting with a dozen raw Blue Point oysters
to prime the pump, and also ordering some onion rings to add just the
right grease factor for a mid-meal break and beer refill. Costas Inn
also has takeout service if you prefer to dine at home; either way, the
staff highly recommends calling ahead to reserve your crabs to ensure
getting the size you want.

Gunning’s Seafood Restaurant
7304 Parkway Drive,
Hanover, 410-712-9404. Here’s the scoop on the seemingly never-ending
and ultimately confusing saga of the two Gunning’s: The original Hanover
Street Gunning’s is closed. Gone. Done. Over. It has ceased to be. The
Hanover Gunning’s, still owned by the Gunning family, is alive and well
and serving hot steamed crabs and those crazy fried pepper rings that
made them famous. You know, green peppers—breaded, deep-fried, and
dusted with, yes, powdered sugar. Don’t knock ’em till you’ve tried ’em.
The strip-mall location has been knocked by purists, but it’s perfectly
nice and spacious, and you’ll find that the bevy of homespun Hon-type
waitresses provide plenty of atmosphere. A platter of heavily Old-Bayed
medium (but hefty) crabs passed our own personal Hon test, as did the
massive hard crab, that over-the-top concoction of breaded, stuffed, and
deep-fried whole hard shell. Nice touches include a beautiful salad
with kicky homemade pepper-Parmesan dressing that comes to the table
instead of the usual bread basket, and good, filler-less, all-lump crab
cakes for the pickin’ shy. Nightly happy-hour specials keep the bar
hopping, but don’t be dismayed when you pull up and see the cars
spilling out of the parking lot—the dining room may be busy, but it’s
big enough to accommodate walk-ins. If you’re anywhere in the vicinity
south of Baltimore and the urge hits you, Gunning’s is as good a place
as any to sate your crab cravings.

1727 E. Pratt Street, 410-732-6399.
Obrycki’s is nearly synonymous with crabs—imperial, deviled, caked,
flaked, and, of course, steamed. Whatever form you prefer your crabs,
they are good eatin’ at this Baltimore institution. The hard crabs,
steamed in Obrycki’s own peppery blend, are meaty—at least, the large
crabs are—and make your lips tingle and the beer taste colder and better
than you could imagine. For those who do not want to work so hard for
their supper, Obrycki’s offers an ambitious and appealing menu with many
kinds of seafood. For $11, diners can add a crab cake to any
entrée—it’s a high-quality crab cake with little filler, though a
slightly greasy taste. The cucumbers in sour cream are a delicious,
cooling counterpoint to the hard crabs. Obrycki’s is a bustling, casual
place with an earthy beige décor, tile floor, and tabletops almost the
same color as the brown paper used to cover them for hard-crab eaters.
In crab-house fashion, many of the dining groups are large, and there is
much coupling and uncoupling of tables to accommodate the changing
crowd. But the tables are well-spaced, and the dining area is divided
into several rooms, keeping the noise down and the conversation up. The
service is friendly and efficient. The staff is only too happy to teach
newcomers how to pick a crab, and to give refresher courses, too.

Ocean Pride Restaurant & Carryout
1534 York
Road, Lutherville, 410-321-7744. For almost 40 years, this Baltimore
County mainstay has been enticing diners with its well-seasoned hard
shells and other seafood. Yes, parking is always a challenge, even with
an additional lot, and the crowds can be overwhelming, but the
restaurant can be counted on to deliver Old Bay-coated crabs, hot from
the pot, to your paper-covered table. Sizes vary, depending on your
visit, as do the crustaceans’ origins. We sampled some fine specimens
from Texas on a recent visit and tried not to look too shocked by the
prices. That night, larges, which our waitress recommended, were $53 a
dozen, but they were fat with meat, and we ended up with a couple bonus
crabs. If we had been feeling particularly flush, we could have opted
for jumbos in the $80-plus range. Since the restaurant cooks the crabs
to order, we had plenty of time to dip into a steaming bowl of excellent
cream of crab soup with lots of crab and a crab nacho appetizer, which
is on our must-eat-again list. Colorful nacho chips with all the usual
stuff —gooey cheese, onions, jalapeños, salsa, and sour cream—were
addictive with lots of sweet crabmeat in the savory mix. If you need a
sugar fix after picking your crab shells clean, a turtle cheesecake
comes to the rescue with chocolate sauce and caramel adding appropriate