Food & Drink

A Feast For Crab Lovers

We Pick Our 20 Favorite Crab Houses

We have the scars to prove it. For weeks, we’ve been cracking our way through dozens—and dozens—of steamed crabs, nicking our fingers on the sharp-edged shells and enduring the salty sting of Old Bay. But the battle scars were well worth it. Along the way, we got to savor our Maryland delicacy—spice-covered, hot-from-the-steamer crabs—from some of the Baltimore area’s best spots.

Tried-and-true crustacean landmarks like Costas Inn, Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn, and Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn are still living up to their reputations. But we also found some new places, too, like The Mallet in Fallston and S&J Crab Ranch in Towson. We were hoping to check out the outdoor deck at Phillips Seafood in the Inner Harbor and Mo’s Seafood in Towson, but they weren’t serving crabs at press time. We’ll report back on those later.

We also checked in with some local celebs to find out where they get their crabs. And we talked to Tony Conrad of Conrad’s Crabs & Seafood Market in Parkville. This local waterman takes pride in serving his fresh catch of crabs and fish at his store.

So get out your mallets (and maybe a Band-Aid or two), we think you’ll find some great places to try on our list.

Bo Brooks

2701 Boston St., 410-558-0202.It may be the hopping tiki bar parked at the entrance, but we can’t help feeling like a trip to Bo Brooks is a bit of a party. The staff is cheerful and helpful, and one’s cares are steamed away along with your crab order. And such crabs—we’ve never felt short-changed when digging into an order of jumbos here. We’re fans of their house blend of seasonings, too, which is heavy on the pepper, and salty enough to have us reaching for the beer pretty often. Luckily, Bo Brooks features Baltimore’s own Heavy Seas “Loose Cannon” IPA on tap, a bit of local support we applaud. If weather permits, dining on the outdoor deck offers a beautiful view of the harbor, and there’s plenty on the menu for non-crab people (i.e., “out of town guests”) and youngsters in your party alike.

Canton Dockside

3301 Boston St., 410-276-8900. The Gulf crabs we had on our visit were noteworthy for their heft. The claws were thick, and meat burst from the cracked body segments like a magician’s paper bouquet—clean, white, and sweet. The place is large and colorful, with globe lights (a reminder of its fancier days as Pearls restaurant) suspended from the ceiling of the spacious, carpeted dining area. Murals of local landmarks such as the Canton neighborhood, with its winking Natty Boh sign, and the Annapolis State House decorate the walls. The long outdoor deck is all business on a warm evening with packed tables looking beyond Boston Street sailboats to the industrial ships of Locust Point, and the cacophony of whacking mallets ringing across the harbor. There’s plenty on the menu for those who don’t want crab: a garlicky Caesar salad, hearty burgers, and onion rings the size of cuff bracelets, served with hot, tangy buffalo sauce and mild blue-cheese dressing.

Captain James Crabhouse & Restaurant

2127 Boston St., 410-327-8600.Captain James may be best known as a visual landmark—its main dining room is the building painted up like a ship at the corner of Boston and Aliceanna Streets—but they deserve some praise for their crabhouse, too. Located just across the street from the “ship,” the Captain James Crabhouse sports easy parking, a super casual atmosphere, and piles of steamed crabs. The friendly, prompt staff is happy to set you up with steamed crabs, shrimp, and mussels, as well as buckets of boardwalk fries. Their $30-per-person, “all-you-u-can-eat” special includes a serving of crab soup, an ear of corn, and all the mediums you can pick in two hours. They also have lots of outdoor seating, making Captain James Crabhouse an ideal spot to enjoy Maryland’s favorite culinary pastime with a great view of the harbor.

CJ’s Crabhouse and Grill

10117 Reisterstown Rd., Owings Mills, 410-363-6694.Dark and bustling, illuminated by the numerous flat-screen TVs and festive twinkle lights that encircle the bar area, CJ’s balances its devotion to Maryland’s teams with its passion for crabs. The dozen larges slid from the tray to our brown-paper tabletop within moments of our order, barely giving us time to savor the steamed oysters we’d been working on. The crabs were crusted with lumps of red, salty seasoning—a custom blend the owners have been ordering from nearby Fuchs since it was Baltimore Spice (originators of Old Bay). The current owners are three sons of the late founders, Charlie and Jean Sanders, whose initials form the restaurant’s name. It’s son Jeffrey who’s responsible for the collection of die-cast model trucks near the entrance, each displaying a Ravens or Orioles logo, and it’s Terry who makes sure the strawberries pass muster for CJ’s renowned strawberry pie.

Costas Inn

4100 Northpoint Blvd., 410-477-1975. Sitting among a sea of fast-food joints and car-repair shops with no water in sight, Costas Inn might not match many people’s vision of a world-class crabhouse. Until they walk inside. The perma-smell of crab spice in the large, open dining room, the drumbeat of mallets hitting shells and empty shells hitting buckets, autographed Brooks Robinson and Johnny Unitas memorabilia on the front wall—all instantly authenticate the place. Crab lovers have been stamping their sign of approval on Costas’s brown-paper-covered tables for more than 40 years. Doused with loads of spicy seasoning that burrows into your lips and doesn’t quit, Costas’s crabs are flown in daily from Texas and Louisiana. Be sure to place your order when you call for a reservation. The full menu offers many other options (the mushroom caps stuffed with mounds of crab imperial are a great start), but the reliably fat and perfectly steamed and spiced crabs are what’s made Costas an institution, whether it looks like one from the street or not.

The Crackpot Seafood Restaurant

8102 Loch Raven Blvd., Towson, 410-828-1095.Forget fancy. The dark-wood dining room is looking its age in this decades-old restaurant in a strip-shopping center. But that doesn’t stop the regulars from soaking up the ambiance. It’s a great spot to eat fat, spicy, delicious crabs. That never gets old. On this evening, there were only jumbos and one dozen of the extra larges left. We quickly snagged the 12 extra larges. In due time, they arrived at our table, now ensconced in brown paper, hot from the steamer and heavily coated with the restaurant’s custom, Old-Bay-laced seasoning. The aroma alone was mouthwatering. While we waited for the main event, we quelled our hunger with a silky cream of crab soup and a seafood sauté, generous with big shrimp and giant teardrops of jumbo lump in a wine-and-garlic sauce.

Gianni’s Italian Bistro and Crab House

3720 Washington Blvd., Arbutus, 410-242-4555.Greg Orendorff opened Gianni’s Italian Bistro in 2007, then expanded and added a crabhouse in November 2010. Though there are separate entrances and signs, the restaurants are attached, and patrons can order from either menu (and pick up warm doughnuts at the Fractured Prune inside the bistro). The crab side has a couple of weathered wooden picnic tables out front, a bar area, and televisions tuned, soundlessly, to sports. Orendorff, who owned Luigi Petti in Little Italy, created his own spice mix for the crabs, which has less salt and heat than most. He also invented the Angry Mallet soup that combines Maryland crab soup and cream-of-crab soup after spilling one into the other by accident. We also really like the crab-ball appetizers—deliciously decadent morsels, fried to a crisp exterior, with large lumps of sweet crab inside.

Gunning’s Seafood Restaurant

7304 Parkway Dr., Hanover, 410-712-9404.There’s nothing glamorous about Gunning’s, a family-owned restaurant with a crab tradition that dates to 1969, when Edward Gunning Sr. began serving food at the South Baltimore dive bar his father had opened the previous year. The restaurant, now run by Edward’s son, Edward Jr., has been in a distinctly unscenic Hanover strip mall since 1990. The carpet is a purple-and-green fish print, the tablecloths purple, the walls mustard yellow. But once brown paper is laid across the table, brown paper bags given to each diner for shells, mallets distributed, and the crabs arrive, you won’t care about the décor. These beauties from Louisiana, Texas, or Maryland, explain why every table in the spacious dining room is full on a Sunday night. They are steaming hot, crusted in lip-tingling spice, and filled with particularly succulent meat. Gunning’s, which has a second location in Glen Burnie, does its Maryland heritage proud.

Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn

458 Forest Beach Rd., Annapolis, 410-757-1311. Few experiences are more quintessentially Maryland than working through a pile of jumbo steamed crabs on the oft-photographed deck of the well-known Cantler’s, founded in 1974. The water view is not especially scenic, but it’s still a water view, and chances are you’re sharing a long table with strangers who are becoming friends, while all around you, people are laughing and talking loudly as they drink beer out of plastic cups and pull chunks of white flesh out of spice-crusted shells. Though crabs are the main attraction, Cantler’s serves salads, sandwiches, and even pizza and barbecued ribs. We especially liked the seared ahi tuna with a vinegary seaweed salad on the side, as well as the lightly dressed coleslaw. The crabs did not arrive hurt-your-fingers hot, the way we like, but they were still as fat and full as ever.  

L.P. Steamers

1100 E. Fort Ave., 410-576-9294. One of the many glowing reviews that hangs on the weathered walls of this Locust Point landmark proclaims, “L.P.’s interior isn’t big on ambiance.” We couldn’t disagree more. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more genuine spot for picking hard crabs. A handful of tables line one side of the narrow first floor. There’s also a dining room upstairs and a few tables on the rooftop deck with sweeping views of the city. We were greeted by one of L.P.’s always friendly servers, who gave us a list of crab prices and quantities remaining for the night. Crabs are priced and can be ordered individually, so we got eight larges, two jumbos, and two huges. They were all tasty, although the difference in sizes was minimal. The smell of seafood frying and crabs steaming wafted throughout. TVs hanging on the front and back wall showed the Orioles game; they were winning. On a quiet spring weekday night, we couldn’t imagine better ambiance anywhere in Baltimore.

The Mallet

2403 Belair Rd. (Rt. 1), Fallston, 410-877-2722.The restaurant space at the busy corner of Route 1 and Mountain Road has been given another breath of life after going through many failed mutations. But the new owners may have found the winning formula by offering a mix of dining scenarios, including steamed crabs. You can eat crabs at one of the high tops in the dimly lit tiki bar or head outside to the wood decks, which is just what we did. The crabs—from Texas the night we visited—were spicy and hot. Our server warned us they would take 25 minutes. We were fine with that, biding our time with an excellent cup of cream-of-crab soup (the best we’ve had in a while), delicious crab balls, and a half-pound of perfectly steamed shrimp.

Mike’s Restaurant and Crab House

3030 Riva Rd., Riva, 410-956-2784.The fact that Mike’s advertises free boat docking, in addition to the large parking lot for cars, may be all you need to know about the authenticity of this place, fastened to the side of the South River in Annapolis. The restaurant, with its knotty-pine décor, reminiscent of an old summer camp, and the long outdoor deck (with clear plastic walls when the weather is cool), is a classic. This is the kind of place you bring your out-of-town guests or simply come for the pleasure of watching the sun set upriver from the outdoor picnic tables. The trays of steaming crabs hail from a variety of areas depending on the season. There are also platters of seafood, fried shrimp and clams with tartar sauce, juicy burgers, and even an oversized Nutty Buddy paper-wrapped cone, seemingly fresh off an ice-cream truck, for dessert.

Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn

200 Eastern Blvd., Essex, 410-687-5994.Yes, people go to Mr. Bill’s for the fat, heavy, always-pleasing crabs, but they also head there for the retro vibe that jettisons them back to a time when Willie Don was mayor of Baltimore. The tile floor, vinyl booths, and faux-fish décor still work today. The late Mr. Bill is there, albeit only in a photo on the wall. His congenial son, Steve, now reigns over the dining room, keeping an eye on everything and everyone. Even when the crowds gather for a two-hour wait on summer weekends—reservations are only taken for parties of 10 or more—he makes no exceptions for the famous or the infamous. Everyone patiently waits their turn to dig into the steamed-to-order beauties seasoned with Bill’s secret blend, the spicy Maryland crab soup laden with vegetables, and the house-made crab dip with melted cheese, large enough to share—if you can bear to part with any of it.

Nick’s Fish House & Grill

2600 Insulator Dr., 410-347-4123. This sprawling crabhouse sports outdoor decks and indoor dining rooms with giant windows to take in the docked boats and scenic water view of the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River—and it’s a stone’s throw, or, at least, a quick drive, from downtown Baltimore. As a prelude to steamed crabs, we tucked into a plateful of crispy fried oysters, which were plump and juicy, and a half-pound of steamed jumbo shrimp, mixed with a wonderful mélange of potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. Since we were there in the early part of the season, the crabs weren’t being sorted by size, so we ended up with a mix of medium, large, and jumbo. It was a motley dozen from Louisiana, some light, some claws missing. But, on the whole, they were all well-spiced, and there were several heavies in the group.

Ocean Pride Restaurant & Carry-out

1534 York Rd., Lutherville, 410-321-7744.This longtime restaurant has established itself as a local destination for steamed crabs as well as other dishes. The menu is large, with freewheeling combinations of seafood, bar food, Tex-Mex, and even Italian, drawing a constant stream of regulars and newcomers alike. All that business means crabs can run out early, even on off nights, so be sure to reserve some in advance. Crabs here are seasoned with a bracing, fiery-red, finely-ground blend—good for selling lots of beer, we’d imagine. The specimens were decently hefty, though there seemed to be at least one throwaway crab per dozen on the night we visited. Service is almost exuberantly friendly, but on the busiest nights, even the best staff can get overloaded. In that case, the good vibes of the staff—and the customers—go a long way.

Reter’s CrabHouse and Grille

509 Main St., Reisterstown, 410-526-3300.There’s no need to go downy ocean for a beach-style crab feast when you can take a short trip to Reisterstown. Unless you’re sitting outside with a view of the traffic, you could mistake this colorful strip-mall restaurant, its coral walls festooned with surf and boogie boards, life-saving buoys, and brightly painted fish, for a place much closer to the sea. (The official-looking sign on the wall, outlining Ocean City beach rules contributes to the geographical confusion.) The crabs are sweet and flaky, coated in lumps of seasoning, and blackboards around the room list alternate specials in bright chalk: various oysters from the raw bar, fish gumbo, and a tropical salad with coconut shrimp. There’s a kind of Jimmy Buffet vibe, and you get the feeling that the airy room is filled with regulars. You know you’re in a place that takes its hand-picking seriously by the sink outside the restrooms, expressly for scrubbing off the Old Bay.

Riptide by the Bay

1718 Thames St., 410-732-3474. In a narrow building on Thames Street, Riptide could be one among many Fells Point bars, where the revelry routinely spills out onto the sidewalks and cobblestone streets. You’ll find that, like its neighbors, Riptide has a great selection of beer on draft and live music on weekend nights. But unlike most of its rivals, the place also offers steamed crabs by the dozen. Crabs don’t seem to be the mainstay of the menu—which serves everything from Ahi tuna, raw oysters, and seafood pasta to burgers and chicken tacos. But order a dozen, and your cheerful server will whip out a sheet of brown paper and bring on the bucket. The night we visited, we picked ours clean. As we were savoring the last chunk of meat, crunching a final ring of calamari with sweet miso glaze, the evening’s singer was starting to tune his guitar by the bar. What else could we do but order another round and settle in for a Fells Point night?

S&J Crab Ranch

2 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson, 410-821-6789.S&J may be a newcomer to the crab scene, but it’s made a splash with a menu that pairs traditional Maryland crabhouse fare with classic Southern barbecue. Located in the heart of Towson, S&J features a sleek, modern bar, a haystack-country-themed dining area, and a few picnic tables out front. The barbecue smelled delicious, but we’re interested in the crabs this time, and we weren’t disappointed. Our order of jumbos arrived positively smothered in S&J’s seasoning, and they were heavy, succulent, and satisfying. We also enjoyed the seafood quesadilla, a tortilla generously stuffed with shrimp, crab dip, and cheese. A word of caution, though—it may seem ludicrous to warn you about touching your eyes or licking too much seasoning; we know that’s old hat. But there is a peppery capsicum heat lurking in the crab seasoning that thrills the palate in moderation but can rise to masochistic levels very quickly if you aren’t paying attention. Best to have a cold pitcher of beer on hand, just in case. 

Ship’s Cafe Restaurant and Crab House

828 Frederick Rd., Catonsville, 410-744-1838.A sign that Ship’s Cafe is doing something right? The place is jammed on a nothing-special Tuesday night. This rambling, wood-floored, two-story restaurant in Catonsville’s Norman Rockwell-esque downtown opened in 2002, but it has the easy charm and confidence of a more established place. The service is personable and efficient, and the food is lovingly prepared but never fussy. Though most tables were piled high with spice-crusted crabs during our visit, the menu is extensive and includes local favorites like deep-fried, soft-shell crab, chicken Chesapeake, and barbecued ribs. Our Maryland crab soup was thick with crab, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and peas, with a nice zing of Old Bay. Another appetizer was a bit of a test—a platter of scallops, crab balls, and shrimp that could have gone awry with overcooking, but Ship’s Cafe’s version was delightful. Then, came the extra-large crabs. The meat was tender and moist, and the spice coating added just the right counterpoint. Yum.

Sue Island Grill & Crab House

900 Baltimore Yacht Club Rd., Essex, 410-574-0009. A few hours before we planned to venture out to Sue Island, the restaurant called. Their shipment of crabs hadn’t come in. They offered their apologies. We thanked them for letting us know and rescheduled for a week later. We’re glad we did. Set on the banks of Sue Creek, the restaurant exudes a laid-back ambiance reminiscent of a locals’ hangout in a sleepy beach town. We devoured a baker’s dozen of large crabs, which were heavy with surprisingly sweet and meaty claws. Five sizes were available, along with $2 individual smalls (on Wednesdays only). We ate ours with sides of sufficiently greasy French fries and onion rings, and washed it all down with an ice-cold pitcher of Yuengling. As the sun set, seemingly right in the laps of happy mallet-wielding diners at the picnic tables outback and regulars chatted at the bar, we raised our plastic cups and toasted to the fact that Sue Island was worth the drive, and the wait.

Where The Locals Go

Bob Turk, weatherman, WJZ-TV: To tell the truth, we usually bring them home and enjoy them without the maddening crowds. They are also a lot cheaper at home. Since I live in northern Baltimore County, I get them anyplace nearby—— I go to Gibby’s, Don’s Crabs, or Captain Trey’s.

Suzi Cordish, Maryland Art Place chairwoman and fundraiser and wife of developer David Cordish: Every guest we host in Baltimore­—­—whether it’s a sports­-team owner, professional athlete, mayor of a city, or head of state—­— they want Maryland crabs. We always take them to Phillips Seafood Restaurant, where they can experience hard-shell crabs or have a crab cake with a lot of great side specials. The feeling is authentic Chesapeake Bay.

John Shields, Gertrude’s: I love Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn. How can you not want to go to a crabhouse with that name? It’s a quintessential Baltimore crabhouse. What Mr. Bill’s does best are the crabs. In my experience, they have always been very heavy, with lots of meat. And the décor: This is a crabhouse design that a Hollywood film scout would definitely choose. Over the top, but so much fun.

Edie Brown, public relations, Edie Brown & Associates: We go to Costas for crabs. I hate the long drive, but it’s worth the great taste of crabs, the Greek salad, and the friendly attention of the wait staff. If it’s good enough for [actor] Josh Charles, it is certainly good enough for me.

Mickey Cucchiella, broadcaster, 98Rock: I get all my crabs from Conrad’s Crabs. Captain Tony (see our story) is on the bay everyday, and he and his wife run a tremendous local business that makes me proud to be a Baltimorean.

Brian Roberts, Orioles’ second baseman: I like the crabs at Canton Dockside. The atmosphere is great, and it is close to where we live in Canton, so we can walk to the restaurant. I also like Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn.