More is not better. If you ever doubted that, try making the rounds of Washington's seafood restaurants. Their number increases but only rarely their quality. After several months of eating in Washington's seafood restaurant, I have found many new ones, some good ones, a few pleasant surprises and one great mystery: Why is it that the more a restaurant specializes, the less likely it is to do that specialty well? This survey has convinced me that the best seafood in Washington is rarely found in seafood restaurants. Order a steamed whole fish in a Chinese restaurant, linguine with clams in an Italian restaurant or sole in white wine sauce in a French restaurant, and your chances of eating something delicious are pretty good. But there is no riskier enterprise, in aesthetic terms, than ordering plain broiled fish in a seafood restaurant--except ordering fried seafood in a seafood restaurant. The simpler the task, it would seem, the less well it is done.
Yet fish has become the most popular main dish in Washington restaurants. As it has, however, the public has begun to be more discriminating. Dried out, chewy, greasy, freezer-burned or overripe fish is less likely than ever before to be considered acceptable by the dining public. The more frequently people eat fish, the more they are likely to recognize how good it can be--and demand that it be.
As for now, though, the seafood restaurants are responding only slowly to such expectations. Too often they go for price. They offer lobsters for $9, then serve them precooked, waterlogged, tough and tasteless. They pass off frozen fish as fresh, or keep fresh fish too long. They expect paprika to cover all sins. And they expect the diner to accept uncomplainingly breaded seafood straight from the freezer to the fryer.
Seafood prices have risen so rapidly that indeed the first thing the public has noticed is the price. People criticize The Fishery or Crisfield's or Vincenzo's for being expensive. But if $4 less brings fish that borders on the inedible, where is the saving? There are modest prices in some seafood restaurants, but inferior seafood is no bargain, and seafood badly cooked is worthless.
So it is no longer true that Washington has hardly any seafood restaurants. But it has few that are reliably good. Now that we are satiated with quantity, maybe the competition will grow more intense for quality.
KEY: Prices are for the least and most expensive main dishes at lunch (L) and dinner (D). Credit cards accepted are identified by initials: AE (American Express), CB (Carte Blanche), D (Diners Club), MC (Mastercard), V (Visa). Free parking is noted; otherwise, expect to pay if you cannot find street parking. "Full bar" indicates that the restaurant is licensed to sell spirits as well as beer and wine.
2509 University Blvd., Wheaton. 933-1814. L $2.75-$5.75, D $6.50- $14.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Free parking. Full bar.
More than most large, multi- room suburban seafood restaurants, the Anchor Inn reaches for quality. The several rooms vary from bare bones to elegant, and the menu stretches from $8 fried fish platters to $14.50 fisherman's platters. Here I've found the fried seafood light, juicy and grease- free. In fact, the fried shrimp is a model other seafood restaurants should copy. Crab cakes were neither lump crab nor filler-free, but they were fresh- tasting, nicely seasoned and crisp-edged. Even fried fish was good here, moist, rather than the fish-flavored leather it so often is. Clam chowder and crab soup had personality and plenty of seafood. Anchor Inn has not gone so far as to serve respectable french fries or salads; the focus is on the fish and only the fish, and even that sometimes falls short of freshness. There is plenty of slapdash here. But whoever is cooking the fish knows what he is doing.
Aux Fruits de Mer
1329 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 965-2377. L $2.95-$7.95, D $3.95-$8.50. Open daily. No credit cards. No reservations. Full bar.
There may be no salty breeze, but Aux Fruits de Mer has all the life of a busy harbor, its small bare tables wedged on two levels, its dark wooden walls dotted with portholes, its window aquarium showing the automobile lights of Wisconsin Avenue through a watery filter. For such a hustle-bustle, late- night, quick-service place, Aux Fruits de Mer has an extensive seafood menu: eight or more daily seafood specials--from rockfish duglMere to fresh tuna with bearnaise--a couple of meat dishes and a standing menu with lobster, crab and shrimp variations, fish fillets, even bouillabaisse and cioppino. Prices are low (almost everything is under $7), and even broiled lobster stuffed with crab meat (not large, but sweet and tender) is only $8. Fish are cooked with reasonable care, their sauces unassuming but pleasant. There may be a canned mushroom here and there, but the value is impressive. The clam chowder is homey and fresh, the oysters briny and very low-priced. Smoked salmon may be damp and show evidence of clumsy handling, but it makes a sufficient late-night supper with its vegetable salad and garnish, at $4.50. You can skip the french fries and coleslaw that come with the entrees, and the desserts suffer from age and indifference. But with very drinkable white wines at under $9 and fresh fish decently cooked at under $7, dinner here is one of the city's best buys.
Bay 'n Surf
14411 Baltimore Ave., Laurel. 776-7021. L $2.95- $5.95, D $9.95-$17.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun; D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
We walk into Bay 'n Surf expecting its limitations--a highway roadhouse is not where we would expect pristine seafood or sophisticated service. But given those expectations, Bay 'n Surf presents some nice surprises: a clam chowder that doesn't pack a lot of clams but that tastes like good homemade soup; crab cakes that are crisp without skimping on the crab or overdoing the filler; ditto for the crab imperial. Fresh whole rockfish would have been fine if we had asked the kitchen to hold the paprika. Spiced shrimp are mild and still moist, a good buy as well. Prices are modest, as are the restaurant's accomplishments; both are in line. But what we most admired was the waitress' honesty, her telling us frankly which fish were frozen and that the lobsters were very small and the frozen lobster tails a better buy. She steered us well toward the lobster thermidor. Bay 'n Surf is big and busy, its rolls squishy and its french fries frozen. Baked clams and oysters crumble under their toppings. Fried foods are sodden with batter, and the kitchen can be excruciatingly slow. But it still may be the best seafood restaurant between Silver Spring and Baltimore.
7935 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 656-2400. L $2.95- $7.50, D $5.95-$15.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
The lobsters crawling in the tank at the entrance to Bish Thompson's will not be the lobsters on your plate if you order one less than 21/2 pounds, but there is good value nevertheless in ordering two one- pound steamed lobsters for one person. The two cost only about $4 more than a single lobster, and they are fresh crustaceans, lightly steamed. The broiled fish, particularly with crab meat topping, is also good, if somewhat overcooked and overpriced. But steer clear of the soups and of inventions such as oysters or clams Bish. The "house dressing" sets the tone of this ketchup cuisine; sweet and red, it tastes like a cross between cocktail sauce and pie filling. But the dining room is clean and fresh-looking, the vegetables are sometimes fresh, and plain fish is reliable if not wonderful here.
The Blue Fin
1731 Connecticut Ave. NW. 797-0755. L $3.95- $4.95, D $5.95-$11.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar.
When Gaylord's Indian restaurant turned into The Blue Fin last winter, something of the old flavor remained: the crab cakes taste of curry. It became, as well, a Mediterranean-blue seafood restaurant with a few "Mediterranean specialties," including New York strip steak. Among the fish offerings are tuna salad, fried scallops that are indistinguishable from the fried shrimp, clam chewing-gum oreganate and "fresh" fish of unsavory character. Somehow, though, from the same kitchen come sensational cheese- crusted french fries cut from unskinned potatoes.
8123 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 589-6868. L $3.25- $3.95, D $6.75-$22.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Free parking after 6 p.m. Full bar.
While I can't say much for the rock 'n' roll band, I have a lot to say about the seafood at Captain White's--and none of it good. At first glance it looks like a find: a half-dozen fresh fish choices at reasonable prices, even homemade ice cream. But the rockfish fillet tasted--well, it had no taste at all but was dry and chewy. And a broiled mariner's platter was a swamp of wet, flavorless seafood. A dab of spinach mush identified oysters Rockefeller; a few dices of pimento, clams casino. Only the crab stuffing for the shrimp would have been identifiable as crab if you had eaten it with your eyes closed, and it was largely breading. It's no Silver Spring rival to Crisfield, and the gritty homemade ice cream is no threat to Gifford's, either.
1101 Connecticut Ave. NW (in the Connecticut Connection). 785-4505. L $5.75-$12.95, D $9.95- $19.50. L daily ex Sat. D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking after 6 p.m. Full bar.
Charley's Crab is one of those big, brash restaurants with a heart of gold--if you don't scratch too deep. The trick is to pay attention to the catch of the day--the list of fresh fish to be poached or charcoal-grilled. The king salmon can be pink velvet, the rockfish sweetly moist. The sauces--served on the side-- neither add nor detract much. But Charley's is addicted to flourishes, only some of which work. Its garlicky steamed mussels are fine, but the large, creamy crab cakes could use less cream; they are not bad, but the crab is eclipsed by white sauce and seasoning. Steer clear of sauced and fried and otherwise fiddled-with seafoods. Plain, good fish in a live- wire bar or in a very pretty dining room that could pass for a sea captain's mansion, and service that has settled into warm and efficient receptiveness, make Charley's a nice place to visit.
1701 Charles St., Baltimore. 301/837-7911. L $4.25-$7.50, D $10.95- $16.95. L daily ex Sat., Sun., D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
Forget about Baltimore as a seafood mecca if the Chesapeake is any measure of the state of the art today. Rebuilt after a fire destroyed this long- respected and elegant seafood restaurant, the Chesapeake looks like an upgraded motel dining room and presents a menu of glamorous-sounding dishes that sank far below my expectations. Even the clam chowder was a vapid broth. Yet, this grand old seafood house can do well; its oysters Rockefeller were plump and, if not particularly refined, at least tasty. And the broiled rockfish, though bitterly weighted with paprika, was carefully tended. But those were just a couple of pearls among the fried dreadfuls, the gummy and acrid shrimp de junghe and the gussied-up concoctions of overcooked fish. This is the kind of seafood restaurant where the best thing to eat is the french fried onion rings (which were truly good).
The Cracked Claw
19815 Frederick Rd., Gaithersburg. 428-0588. L $1.89-$3.95, D $6.95- $13.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. Closed Mon. MC, V. No reservations. Free parking. Full bar.
It looks like a recreation room, sounds like a workshop and seems to be decorated with the contents of somebody's attic. In other words, it is the absolutely ideal environment for eating steamed crabs and drinking beer, which is what nearly everyone does here. It's not bad for other crab dishes, either; the cream of crab soup is a packed-with-crab variation of oyster stew, the crab imperial is well made, and the crab cakes are stretched with breading but tasty nevertheless. But stop there. Other fried dishes have tasted like prefabricated seafood. And broiled fish has tasted only of paprika and been undercooked to remain slippery. The choice of accompanying vegetables and fritters is wide, but they all taste as if they came from the same freezer package. Prices are low--they match the quality and the paper plates. However, it is rare to find a crab house with such an extensive entree list, and I can understand why. A visit to The Cracked Claw is undoubtedly best limited to the crabs-- especially Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Sunday, when the prices are for all you can eat--so you can concentrate on good food, good service and good fun.
8012 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 589-1306. L, D $7- $22. L, D daily. Closed Mon. No credit cards. No reservations. Beer and wine only.
There is a new menu at Crisfield, that almost-never-changing seafood restaurant that remains the standard by which all others are measured. It is nearly identical to the old one except that the prices have been raised and swordfish has been added (but don't bother with that; it is overcooked). The flounder stuffed with crab meat is now $12.50, the seafood Norfolk $12 to $16, the imperial crab $10.50. By now the tile-floored and tile-walled luncheonette has sufficient antique value that the decor is an asset rather than a deficit. The wait in line is worth it if you love good plain fish and top- grade crab dishes served on Formica tables with dispatch by super-efficient no-nonsense waitresses. Order the oysters or clams, the broiled fish of the day, especially that stuffed with crab meat. I've found the french fries to be excellent, the coleslaw fine and the baked potato a proper bare Idaho. This is not the place to order fancy fish imported from farther than the Chesapeake Bay. Skip the lobster, order shrimp only if you can't do without, and certainly not creole style. Be warned that the crab cakes can be spicy and on the heavy side. And, while I haven't yet explored the new desserts (apple walnut pie, for goodness sake), I still remind you that Gifford's ice cream is just down the street.
4611 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 244-1882. L $3.95-$7.45, D $5.25-$7.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Full bar.
One could imagine the kitchen of the Dancing Crab with two giant pots, one for steaming and one for frying. That's it--the only two tunes that kitchen can whistle. In summer that means steamed crabs (on Tuesdays and Thursdays, all you can eat for one price). But the rest of the year, the Dancing Crab's seafood is encased in armor, the armor of a heavy breading. As fried seafoods go, this is not bad; at least the clams and oysters are reasonably fresh, and the fillet of fish is not cooked to death. The fried shrimp are particularly good--for fried shrimp. But it all adds up to merely better than average, at reasonable prices. The decor is along the lines of split rails and log cabins rather than skipjacks, and while the service is good natured, there is something less than gracious in serving on paper plates. Even the soup comes in a paper bowl. That's about what the Dancing Crab's soups deserve, however. This is a you-get-what-you-pay-for restaurant, with mushy lobster for under $10, crab cakes loaded with shell and breading for $7.25, and lots of fair-to- middling fried things for $8 or less. Best of the lot were the french fries, and the coleslaw wasn't bad. But we are marking time until crab season at the Dancing Crab.
774 Walker Rd., Great Falls. 759-4650. L $3.25- $8.95, D $9.50-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Mon. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
The happiest of marriages is that of a seafood restaurant with a seafood shop. Falls Landing is run by Cannon's, whose branch store is just a few clapboard houses away in a pretty little "village" of shops. The professionalism shows in the food-buying. Oysters on the half-shell one day proved the best I've had in town: large, fat and briny. The fish is obviously fresh and of high quality, the crab meat in large, snowy lumps and the shrimp big and clean-flavored. Swordfish brochettes are large chunks of full- flavored fish crusty with grill marks and meltingly tender, interspersed with big crisp shrimp. It is one of the area's most delicious seafood dishes. The crab cakes, too, are impeccable. Otherwise, Falls Landing too often falls short of the superlatives its fresh fish imply; a flounder was a mite overcooked, a salmon steak just the wrong side of dryness. The fried seafoods I encountered were made with all the right moves; still they were dry and boring. If main dishes dip below expectation just after a broiled fish or raw oysters have led you to expect great things, it's a shallow dip. The food is good, by and large, and worth every one of the roller-coaster dips on the road from the Beltway.
The Fish Market
105 King St., Alexandria. 836-5676. L $1.55-$6.50, D $1.95-$8.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested on weekends. Full bar.
It's Alexandria's version of a three-ring circus, this two-story Old Town restaurant with two bars, several dining rooms, a balcony and perhaps a ragtime pianist to accompany your seafood stew. That's what you should be eating: a hefty bowl of spicy, thick brown vegetable stew with chunks of fish. That and a very good salad spiked with feta cheese and pimento would be a satisfying meal for under $5. Main courses are inconsistent but can be fairly good, the broiled fish reasonably fresh and lightly broiled, the fried seafoods a bit heavy but not overcooked, the Norfolk dishes copious. It is a short menu, reasonably priced, with standard accompaniments of tangy coleslaw, hush puppies and steak fries. Friendly service and plenty of beer but only carafe wines (no desserts at all) fill out The Fish Market's formula. This is a noisy gathering place, so if you're there for the food, pick an early moment between the happy hour and performance time.
5511 Connecticut Ave. NW. 363-2144. L $3.85- $12.50, D $8.95-$15.95. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
Context is crucial to The Fishery. In the broader context, it is one of the few seafood restaurants within a 25-mile radius that serves reliably fresh fish consistently cooked with care. In the narrower context, the prices--raised last fall-- are hefty for a no-tablecloth, no-reservations, few-frills dining environment that looks like a nautical pub rather than a setting for an expensive dinner. So, while the prices are high, they are still better value than seafood dinners at two-thirds the price that border on the inedible--a frequent phenomenon in Washington.
Skip the clam chowder and the overpriced crab cakes made of shredded crab meat. But the oysters taste as fresh as if the seafood market were next door --which it is. The wine list is as thoughtful and reasonable as if the owner had his own wine shop--which he does.
Rely on the broiled fresh fish fillets and on the crab meat, with either imperial or Norfolk stuffing. Fried shrimp and oysters are light-battered and successfully fried--no mean feat. That's about it: broiled fish, fried seafoods, crab-stuffed fish or shrimp, lobster and Norfolk dishes, plus a cioppino as thick and spicy as spaghetti sauce but rather good. A good tangy salad dressing and properly baked potato or some uneven cottage fries complete the meal. Very good fish, properly cooked, left alone to speak for itself--that's the best of The Fishery.
900 Water St. SW. 488- 8515. L $3.95-$18.75, D $5.95-$18.75. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar.
The Flagship makes Hogate's look good. This mass- feeding seafood restaurant has little going for it but the view. The environment is upgraded cafeteria, the staff act exhausted, and the prices are far from cheap. True, its clam chowder is a proper soup texture rather than sludge, like Hogate's. But the broiled fish is so overcooked that it crunches (whereas the french fries are about as soft as one would wish the fish). And one night the fish fillets were pieced together as if the kitchen were trying to match up ends to make a portion. Seafoods are distinguishable only by their shape, certainly not by their taste or texture: lobster, crab, shrimp--all taste pretty much the same, like faintly salted water. And this is the first crab imperial I have found that, like a bad crab cake, was heavy with bread filler. The Flagship's seafood makes you want to concentrate on the rum buns-- puffy rolls blanketed with confectioners' sugar paste--and you may feel in the pit of your stomach that that was a mistake.
Fred & Harry's
10110 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 593-7177. L $2.95-$5.95, D $6.25- $13.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
The man at the next table ordered tuna salad. By the end of my meal I figured he knew something I hadn't known. Fred & Harry's has all the amenities of a roadhouse, including unpolished but kindly service. And its fish is handled with as much expertise as you'd expect from a truck stop in Iowa: overcooked, overdosed with paprika, dry and tasteless. French fries were limp, baked potatoes soggy and the coleslaw tasted like dessert. Even the cream of crab soup is so peppered that you wonder if it would be as good as it seems if the pepper were reduced so that you could taste it. With all that said, however, it must be noted that Fred & Harry's makes perfectly fine crab imperial--perhaps with too much shell but definitely with not too much mayonnaise. It's just decent crab, a few capers and just enough binder. The crab cakes are another matter. But if you find yourself at Fred & Harry's, stick with the crab imperial (or maybe that tuna salad).
600 Water St. SW. 554- 5000. L $5.75-$9.50, D $8.50-$18.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
Here is what a view of the monuments and waterfront is worth at The Gangplank: perfunctory service, crab cakes overweighted with bread, shrimp medicinal from iodine and "fresh catch" which is nicely cooked but lacquered with paprika and bitter from careless handling somewhere along the line. Though a sweet little restaurant, candlelit, with a room as calm as the view it overlooks, The Gangplank is packed too closely for romance. And except for the clams casino, the food tastes as if the kitchen knows the view is the thing. Clam chowder is almost good but overdosed with seafood seasoning, as is the iceberg lettuce overdosed with dull dressing. Seafood is over- fried. The menu is a standard mix of shrimp creole or stuffed king crab, lobster tail, crab and a few steaks. With your entree you get foil-baked potatoes, mixed vegetables or rice and a little warmed loaf of pasty bread called "home baked." The wine list is short and reasonable, but the best buys were not in stock. This is a restaurant that attempts no more than just doing its job.
The Georgetown Seafood House
3056 M St. NW. 342-1925. L $2.50-$5.45, D $2.50- $11.50. L, D daily. Closed Mon. MC, V. No reservations. Full bar.
The Georgetown Seafood House lets us eat good seafood and afford it, too. There is a superior crab soup, nearly a vegetable stew with chunks of soft-shell crab and a vaguely Indian cast to the seasoning. That seasoning permeates much of the food; it is overused, to be sure, but an improvement on the bitter seafood seasoning more often found. Among appetizers, stick to local seafood or spiced shrimp. Among the main courses, you will be best served by the daily specials. The kitchen knows how fish should be cooked--which is to say, very little. And this is one of the few places where you are safe wandering a bit into the intricacies: fresh and sweet lobsters, delicious broiled crab cakes, or Norfolk-style. Brick walls, low ceiling with a single skylight and candlelight don't quite save the back room from a slightly gloomy air, but the front room with raw bar and a wall full of fishy amusements makes a much more chipper introduction.
1001 18th St. NW. 833- 1858. L $5.25-$10.75, D $11.25-$19.75. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking after 5:30 p.m. Full bar.
Tradition. At Harvey's it is big drinks and big menus, big portions and big prices. It is also a big restaurant, an underground labyrinth of tables, booths and bars. The wonderful parts of Harvey's are its broiled stuffed fish: whole flounder, rockfish and trout are impeccable to start and flawlessly cooked. The fancier the food gets, the less satisfying. Crab cakes are heavy and overspiced; soups can be dreadful. You can count on prime ingredients but not on prime cooking. There are nice touches, among them good warm bread, inventive vegetables and refreshing salads. Nothing comes cheap, however. At dinner broiled fish starts around $12 and climbs near $16 when stuffed, and the crab cakes are nearly $15. Lunch is a far better buy, with main dishes at sometimes half the price. Harvey's remains an old Washington tradition, tarnished but still valued.
15201 Shady Grove Rd., Rockville. 258-9670. L $5.25-$10.50, D $11.25- $19.25. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
For a far-suburban outpost, Harvey's Rockville branch is a big surprise. It is immense and immensely attractive, with leaded-glass room dividers and ceiling. And somewhere along the line its kitchen is acquiring the best. The crab meat is enormous lumps of backfin, the shrimp are giants, the vegetables are fresh. The high prices are certainly warranted by the raw ingredients--that is, before the kitchen has its way. The cooking is not bad, but something seems to go awry in the handling. The crab meat has lost its intrinsic flavor and taken on that of the refrigerator. Stuffed flounder is not overcooked, but being unobjectionable is not the same as being delicious, which it is in the downtown branch. Sogginess overtakes the fried foods. And while soup may be less sludgy than it has been downtown, it still lacks distinction; the she-crab soup could pass for the mornay sauce on the spinach crepe. I admire the breadth of Harvey's menu and the outstanding choice of vegetables and salads but wish they were prepared with more flair.
Ninth Street and Maine Ave. SW. 484-6300. L $4.25-$23.95, D $6.95- $23.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted only for parties of 10 or more. Full bar.
The tourists who flock to Hogate's learn two good things about Washington: We have a beautiful river front, and our waiters, waitresses and hosts can be exceedingly nice. They also learn that you can get some pretty dreadful food in Washington: snapper soup and clam chowder the texture of sludge, their primary difference being brown sludge or white sludge; scallops that might hold up in a marble tournament; "fresh" fish fillets that must have had a long sad history from net to table, and stir-fried seafoods with vegetables that could be more aptly called "boiled in butter." It's not all bad; crab imperial may be soupy and flecked with bits of shell, but it tastes all right. Gravlax is oversalted but firm, and a healthy portion. And the rum buns--that inexplicably sweet bread accompaniment to Washington seafood dinners-- are yeasty and fresh. When there is a $10 lobster on the menu, you could do a lot worse elsewhere. But by and large the seafood is fairly expensive, at least at dinner, and is indifferent at best. Comfortable as the rooms may be, enthusiastic as the service may be, delightful as the view may be, Hogate's remains a great big overpriced mass-feeding institution.
Imperial Crab and Seafood House
9429 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 589-2722. L $1.95- $4.25, D $4.95-$15. L daily ex Sat, Sun. D daily. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Free parking after 6 p.m. Sat, Sun only. Full bar.
What, after all, can you say about a seafood restaurant where the special of the day and the choice of fish in season are frozen? You can say that it is just an eating place, hardly a restaurant. And given the tavernesque paneled walls and vinyl tablecloths, one would hardly expect more. The staff sits and watches television but serves the nearly empty dining room efficiently enough. Crab imperial is on the heavy and creamy side, not bad. And if the fish were fresher, the fried seafood would be good, for it is neither overcooked nor greasy. The crab soup is so sweet and hot it could be Szechuan but tastes fine nevertheless. I can't say the same for the clam chowder or anything else, from the salad to the dessert. All of the above would be acceptable if imperial crab were inexpensive, but it is not. The cheapest main course is $9, and the $15 mariner's delight is as bad a bargain as you will strike among Washington's fried seafood platters.
9364 Lanham Severn Rd., Seabrook. 577-5161. L $4.95-$9.95, D $8.95- $18.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. No reservations. Free parking. Full bar.
Jerry's Seafood has taken a long detour, but now it is back in its original spot in Seabrook. In this new incarnation, some things are better and some worse. One that is better is the room itself; the redneck bar look is gone. Jerry's still doesn't look like a big deal, but merely a quiet and attractive little place--and it serves extremely good spiced shrimp-- large, juicy, and spiced just enough that you can still taste shrimp under the seasoning. Otherwise, the two most interesting appetizers are oysters Chesapeake, wrapped with cheese and bacon and deep- fried, and cream of crab soup, thick and rich, lightly seasoned with curry and well loaded with lump crab meat. If you like your seafood fried, Jerry's is your place. The batter here is puffy and crisp, the seafood under it fresh. Other than the oily drip, the fried clams and oysters are terrific. Two years ago, Jerry's crab cakes were considered the best in Washington. They are still good, still all crab, only lightly held together with creamy binder and baked in butter rather than deep fried. But the crab meat is more shredded than identifiable lumps, and the crab imperial is similar. Jerry also offers fish and scallops in butter, but they come out a bit of a mess, parts submerged in butter to continue sizzling beyond juiciness. The service is homespun, breezy and chatty; it is friendly Princes George's County at its best. And if you are on your way home from the beach or returning from New York or Baltimore, Jerry's is a welcome last moment of vacation.
Jonah's Oyster Kitchen (in the Hyatt Regency Hotel)
400 New Jersey Ave. NW. 737-1234. L $5.25-$9.50, D $11.75- $20.95. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
Beautiful as Jonah's is, even a whale would think twice before swallowing what it dishes up. One begins to be wary upon examining the menu, which shows an addiction to such combinations as salmon with pineapple and bananas, or lamb chops with melon, red peppers, bananas and chutney. But even when you order something simple, you are served an elaborate presentation of food that tastes cooked by a committee. Clams baked with shallots and gorgonzola showed possibilities but were dense and sticky. A sushi and sashimi plate looked stunning, but the fish was clumsily cut, and the sushi was searing with horseradish. Still, it was the most satisfactory dish. How can you ruin good fresh fish if you don't even cook it? Even the oysters on the half-shell are too small and flimsy to be worth the bother. Among cooked fish, the common theme is overcooking: dried- out shrimp and sole that falls apart. And then there is oversaucing and overseasoning. Hollandaise tastes like creamed starch, and spices are used as thickly as bread crumbs might . Fbe. The vegetables, however, are fresh and could be excellent with just a little more cooking--enough so that one might be able to bite into the cauliflower, for instance. In all, Jonah's seafood tastes as if it is drowning in culinary excess. Service, however, is enthusiastic and sympathetic, and the dining rooms are beauties.
8523 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring. 589-0048. L $2.35-$4.25, D $5.75- $16.25. L, D daily. Closed Mon. No credit cards. No reservations. Free parking. Full bar.
Your opinion of Kushner's will depend on whether you value kitsch as much as cuisine. The two pine-paneled rooms are a 1950s museum of leatherette booths with little mirrors, swordfish pinned to the walls and ever-busy waitresses who are bound to be discovered someday for a sit-com. The fish isn't bad--especially if you are wise enough to stick with simple broiled rockfish, maybe stuffed with crab if you don't mind a little shell. But too many dishes slosh in butter, fade under paprika or quake under a heavy breading. A meal starts with a basket of frosted rum buns and a bowl of dill pickles--a startling combination, to say the least. Crab soup and clam soup taste nearly identical: thick vegetable soup with just a smidgen of the appropriate seafood. Nothing perks up much after that, except possibly the broiled fish of the day. If you measure your meals by weight, Kushner's is a bargain, but if quality is a factor for you, Kushner's is of questionable value.
2813 M St. NW. 338-1784. L $4.95-$8.95, D $8.50- $14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar.
La Chaumiere keeps wavering between being almost a seafood restaurant and just a French restaurant with a lot of seafood. In any case, seafood is prominent on the menu and frequent on the dinner plates.
La Chaumiere is at its best on a blustery day, when the stone fireplace in the center of the room warms your mood as well as your toes. Above it is the chalkboard with the day's specials, changing throughout the day as supply changes. (One waiter told us fish is delivered twice a day.) Tuesday is bouillabaisse day, and every day there are mussels with garlic-parsley butter, clams casino, crab crepes (Norfolk or imperial), scallops, seafood casserole and steamed mussels. The preparations range from the familiar (seafoods in cream sauce, glazed with cheese) to the experimental (oysters baked with garlic butter and almonds, rockfish topped with slices of apple and artichoke bottom). Count on the seafood tasting fresh and well cared for, don't be surprised to find it a mite overcooked and expect a well-made salad and nicely prepared fresh vegetables alongside. This hint of a country inn in Georgetown, the most comfortable of that area's seafood restaurants, is reasonably priced and has a remarkably well-chosen and well- priced wine list. Glorious? No. Satisfying? Certainly.
1919 I St. NW. 659-4447. L $5.25-$13.50, D $9.75- $25.75. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar.
At La Maree the full force of the French repertoire is heaped on seafood. Sometimes that results in revelations in fish, but other times it's a timid little fish lost in its sauce. Of course, the kitchen will do a plain grilled fish and do it well. But usually the seafoods are annointed with creams, wines, peppercorns, cognac, the whole French gamut. The menu offers meats as well but concentrates on seafood. Whatever else tempts you, try the fish soup, a cousin to bouillabaise, with toasted french bread to spread with garlic mayonnaise and float in the spicy, intense red broth. Fish p.at,es are pleasant, if not utterly light or flavorsome. And minor themes --vegetables and desserts--are strong assets. As you enter, the day's pastries look tempting enough to remind you to save room. But this is not a romantic hideaway; the tables are close, and the room is bright and lively rather than dim and mysterious. Service is experienced and smooth, and prices have been kept at a level to complement the food, which means slightly high but certainly not breathtaking.
The Lobster Shed
112 King St., Alexandria. 836-8088. L $3.25-$6.95, D $7.25-$13.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar.
There are two recommended ways to start dinner at The Lobster Shed: an appetizer combination of one oyster, one clam, one baked shrimp and two clams casino; or shrimp crevette, the shrimp butterflied and cooked with a sizzle of butter and garlic crumbs. Skip the soups. As for main dishes, the flounder supreme, its bland white sauce sprinkled with almonds and grapes, was good fresh fish, just the slightest bit overcooked and not complemented by its sauces. Flounder maitre d' is the same fish, unadorned except for butter, and all the better for it. Opt for simplicity or for crab meat. The kitchen produces a good creamy crab imperial that works nicely alone in a casserole or enhances a flounder or bacon-wrapped shrimp as stuffing. And it makes up some unorthodox but nevertheless delicious crab cakes, large and coated with good fresh breading. Fried oysters were in that same fresh and crunchy breading, but they were, unfortunately, greasy. And if you like to go straight to the top, the lobsters are sweet and moist, cooked just right and presented attractively. With its room-length skylight, unpolished wood floors, green tablecloths and old brick walls, The Lobster Shed is a restaurant with uncomplicated, agreeable food and knowledgeable and personable service that edges it a notch higher.
The Market Inn
200 E St. SW. 554-2100. L $4.50-$9.95, D $5.75-$25. L daily ex Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
A choice of environments is what The Market Inn offers: a party-lover's room with music and a friendly crowd, or a dim and quiet booth lit by red globes and away from the path of the dining crowd. Nice choice. And a nice choice of seafoods fills four pages and a couple of daily sheets with lobsters from a tank, crabs, scallops, oysters, fish fillets, a half- dozen combination platters and a few fillets, a half-dozen combination platters and a few grilled meats. There are even nine soups--not bad, the soups. Clam chowder tastes of cream and clams, not the insides of cans. And snapper soup is harsh and strong at the first spoonful, better as you adjust to it. Not great cooking here, but serviceable. The fish fillets are cooked dry, but you can get a nice oyster dressing on them. Fried shrimp are better than average, but not great. It is one of those seafood restaurants that specializes in everything from Greek salad to carrot cake. Choice is its strong suit.
184 Rollins Ave., Rockville. 881-1166. L $3.25- $6.50, D $6-$19. L daily ex Sun, D daily. MC, V. Reservations accepted for parties of eight or more. Free parking. Full bar.
Hope springs eternal for a new seafood restaurant that knows and cares how to deal with fresh fish. And hope is rewarded by Misty Harbor, big and somewhat bare, with a slightly nautical air from the pictures on the wall of seagoing vessels. The setting and the service offer few frills, but the fish is very good--and that's what ultimately counts. Go for the simplest: oysters on the half-shell at a mere $3; broiled rockfish or flounder, stuffed with crab meat if you like; or imperial crab, large snowy lumps in just enough creamy dressing. Fried oysters, too, are plump, fresh and covered with a light and crisp batter. The same goes for the fried clams, though they are apt to be chewy. You can forgo the soups (clam chowder is thick enough to eat with a fork) and lobster dishes, since the meat is tough andtasteless. The french fries are stolid and the coleslaw heavy and oversweetened. The rule of Crisfield's applies here: concentrate on the oysters, clams, fresh fish of the day and crab imperial or stuffing--and emphasize the local. Those cautions, especially given the low-to-moderate prices for large portions of fresh seafood, will send you off pleased that you wandered off Rockville Pike for Misty Harbor.
1323 Fenwick Lane, Silver Spring. 589-0999. L $4.95-$9.75, D $7.95-$18. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
Finding, a block or so off Georgia Avenue, a charming single-family house that has mushroomed into a homey restaurant should be enough of an accomplishment. Discovering that it is mostly seafood and generally fresh seafood is more than one could hope. So it is a severe letdown when Ocean IX overcooks that seafood so that the broiled fish takes a knife to cut it, and destroys its sweetness with a layer of acrid paprika. So much for the broiled seafoods. The baked or poached seafoods in sauces are far better in terms of texture-- likely to be soft and silken. But beware of sauces that sound French but come out vaguely sweet and cornstarch-thickened, as if the Asian chef were trying to cook French-style but lost his nerve. Start with linguine--homemade and tender --in a very buttery white clam sauce; it is delicious. The soupe de la nouvelle cuisine is lighter, a clear coral broth, again faintly Oriental and slightly sweet, with minced seafoods. Nice. But even though intentions are the best, the staff most eager and the fish clearly fresh, Ocean IX's offerings don't add up to what one expects, especially at fairly hefty prices.
8301 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 656-6200. L $2.95- $8.95, D $5.95-$24.95. Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
Fifty thousand Bethesdans can't be wrong, and that's how many, it seems, are dining at O'Donnell's on a given night. Four rooms, each different but all nautical, have different moods: carpeted or bare, paneled or not, with white cloths or laminated hatch tops and rope. Candles flicker, grills glow. And if you have discovered the Moet & Chandon champagne on the menu at an astonishing $23, it can be a very festive evening. The trick is to order broiled fish from among the list of fresh fish of the day. Prices are moderate for good fresh fish, and the cooking is controlled so that moistness and flavor remain. Crab dishes, too, are good here, the imperial and deviled crab alone or as a stuffing being sweetly fresh. You can choose two kinds of crab cakes-- breaded and fried, or broiled all- lump crab; three kinds of seafood platters (go for the broiled one) or three kinds of Norfolk dishes in two sizes (go for the crab; the shrimp and lobster have been chewy and tasteless). The service may be absent-minded, the clam chowder the worst this side of the Bay, and the house dressing sweeter than saltwater taffy, but what O'Donnell's does well is enough to keep Bethesdans standing in line for it.
3419 Connecticut Ave. NW. 363-1838. D $6.95- $10.95, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Full bar.
The service is so friendly at this small neighborhood bar- with-seafood that you want to like the food (and it takes some wanting). The fried clams are opened, breaded and fried to order, but the breading is so heavy it slips off intact as you bite. Fish fillets are fresh, but reddened with too much paprika. And crab meat stuffing for shrimp could double as tuna salad without anyone's being the wiser. The fresh and reasonably priced oysters and the linguine with clams are safe if not thrilling--after all, this is a limb of the adjacent Roma Italian restaurant.
650 Water St. SW. 554- 2500. L $3.95-$9.25, D $6.95-$14.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations required. Free parking. Full bar.
Considering its waterfront neighbors, one would have to conclude that Pier 7 is the best seafood restaurant among the four. But that is not saying as much as it might seem at first glance. In the larger Washington context, it is only fair-to- middling. The broiled fish is less than fresh and cooked more than desirable. Scampi are plump and juicy, rather good on a bed of pasta, though unfortunately drenched in butter. Crab dishes are pretty good, though their creamy binder in imperial and in crab cakes is excessively heavy. Pier 7 cooks fried seafoods satisfactorily and serves spicy and rather pleasant soups. More impressive than the seafood dishes are the desserts, and to raise ordinary dishes above the mundane is a spacious waterfront room. But the most impressive characteristic of Pier 7 is its prices. When you consider that the fried seafood platter is only $9.50, a whole broiled flounder $6.75 or a rockfish fillet $8.50, the food takes on a new savor.
12224 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 468-2300. L $3.50-$6.50, D $6.95-$15. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Free parking. Full bar.
If only restaurants didn't have to serve food, we would have our fill of dining glories. Raindancer is a cave of beauty on Rockville Pike, its rough wood and recessed lighting, ornate laminated tables and softly cushioned chairs creating a dim and sumptuous escape. The staff is full of good cheer. And the menu draws one to lobster and oysters and crab and all those good things from the sea. The wine list, however, sounds an alarm--bolla suave (sic) being its height of elegance. Start happily with Chesapeake crab soup, a slightly sweet but fresh vegetable-with-crab concoction. Clams casino are unorthodox yet pleasant. But fried seafoods are heavy and doughy, the crab cake sodden with filler, the shrimp and fish fillets ossified. Fresh fried clams are the single satisfaction among fried seafoods, though even they are overburdened with batter and grease. And if lobster is a standard test for a seafood restaurant, Raindancer can't pass kindergarten. The lobster meat is oddly slimy and tasteless. Dull bread, duller french fries and coleslaw border on dessert sweetness. It reinforces the rule: In an elaborate setting, opt for simplicity rather than trying to find the luxury duplicated on your plate. Then again, even simplicity seems beyond this kitchen. Enjoy the setting over a bowl of soup.
Richard's Pier 20
1120 20th St. NW. 775- 8821. L, D $5.95-$10.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Free parking after 6 p.m. Full bar.
Freshness is crucial in seafood, but we like to let seafood restaurants age a bit before we evaluate them. Yet Richard's Pier 20 opened just before these reviews went to press, and it is too promising to ignore. It has begun as a flawed but often excellent kitchen, with a second-floor dining room that is small and luxurious and a staff that is all eagerness. Furthermore, the prices are astonishingly low--so far. The menu and prices are identical at lunch and dinner, though at lunch a fresh (and very good) vegetable is included. Fish fillets broiled, charbroiled, poached or saut,eed, the likes of salmon, swordfish, trout, snapper or halibut, are $7 to $9. Perfectly fresh and perfectly cooked, they come with a choice of sauces (fine hollandaise or bearnaise, thick and oddly sweet whiskey or brandy cream). If pompano is in the kitchen, round up a friend to share it, broiled whole. While the chef produces a mild, subtle and delicious bouillabaisse, he overreaches with his inventions: too much basil and a harshness to the sherried shrimp, heavy and soggy fried smelts or oyster fritters, a gummy pasta. And his crab dishes--crab cakes, crab stuffing--are pasty and made with stringy crab; both the crab and the recipe need improvement. But Richard's is in reach of the top few among local seafood restaurants.
1221 E St. NW. 737-2101. L $3.95-$7.50, D $4.95- $9.75. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking after 5:30 p.m. Full bar.
My favorite of Sea Catch's offerings is the valet parking that allows you to pick up your car after the theater. Given the dearth of good restaurants around National and Warner theaters, this alone skyrockets the Sea Catch to the top of its neighborhood heap. Two rooms--one knotty pine and the other wrapped in nautical murals--are spacious if not quite elegant. Service is serviceable. And the menu lists modest prices, though the broiled fish was dank, the fried seafood dry and chewy, the clam chowder just white mucilage. But don't go away--the crab Norfolk is as good as you would hope, the crab gumbo agreeable, the clams casino tasty and the boiled lobsters are watery but otherwise fine. Then there is the tartar sauce --tangy, crunchy, way ahead of the crowd. Not worth a trip, but Sea Catch hides some food worthy of theater-night-out on its menu.
(in the Ramada Inn), 5910 Princess Garden Pkwy., Lanham. 459-1000. L $2.75-$6.95, D $8.25- $15.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Full bar.
The Seafarer may not be as grand as its two-story motel lobby or its prices imply, but it serves some decent seafood. The night I visited the dining room was being renovated, there was no catch of the day, and the waiter recommended against the red snapper because it was frozen--an inauspicious beginning. But finding Moet et Chandon champagne at perhaps the lowest price in town helped. Then the clams casino were juicy and fragrant, the oysters Rockefeller unorthodox (with bacon) and notigh the most perky mollusks but reasonably pleasant. Fried foods are heavy and dry but at least not greasy, seafood Norfolk is plentiful and agreeably simple, and dishes stuffed, topped with or made of crab are generous with the crab and, happily, stingy with filler. Finally, there is a salad bar to fill any crevices the meal leaves. It's a good place to know about when you are hungry and on your way to the Capital Center.
6 King St., Alexandria. 549-2341. L $3.75-$6.95, D $6.95-$19.95. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Full bar.
Having been there so long that it has become part of the landscape, the Seaport Inn is better and worse than one might imagine. The better of it is that the old stone facade is an example of what makes Old Town Alexandria so appealing. And inside, the small-paned windows offer pleasant street views, the service is efficient, and the marinated swordfish en brochette is a fine example of fish cookery: simple, fresh tasting, moist and garnished with crunchy onions and green peppers. Its price--$15--is another matter. And, getting right down to the worst of the Seaport Inn, the captain's platter at $23 is the worst value I have found in Washington's seafood houses. Its lobster was broiled so long that the tail couldn't be extricated from the shell even if one wanted to eat that dry, leathery flesh. And it was inundated with tasteless and doughy fried accompaniments: fish fillet, stringy crab cake, scallops, oysters and shrimp (the only clearly edible offering among the leaden). Then there are the in-betweens: clam chowder that was well stocked with clams and bland but agreeable, an appetizer platter of clam, oyster, flour, shrimp and a mound of crab meat that was impressive in size, though tasted as if the flavor had been washed away. It's a middling little restaurant with high prices, the Seaport Inn.
Sign of the Whale
1825 M St NW. 223-4152. L $3.95-$6.95, D $4.50- $9.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted for lunch only. Full bar.
This is one of the rare restaurants with the same prices at lunch and dinner, and even for lunch they would be considered restrained. And there's a lot of food for the money. The reason that's possible may be that it is not very good seafood --but I have certainly had worse at considerably higher prices. In addition to overcooking, one of the typical errors here is that main dishes are swamped with sauce or seasoning or butter. Soups are another matter: hopeless. Two assets compensate: The french fries are cut from fresh potatoes and the onion rings, fat and fresh, are also good. In all, Sign of the Whale is not much of a restaurant; most of its space is devoted to the bar. But dinner under $10 downtown is a rare enough occurrence that it is worth knowing about, particularly when the vegetables are fresh and the main dishes are actually made from scratch. Just remember that homemade is not necessarily well made.
1606 20th St. NW. 667- 0047. L $9-$14, D $10- $19. L daily ex Sat, Sun, D daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested, required on weekends. Full bar.
It looks like a seaside trattoria, this handsomely spare restaurant with terra cotta floor and whitewashed walls. And from walls to menus it illustrates the appeal of simplicity: nothing unnecessary. The menu is all seafood--and expensive. But you are paying for quality, not flashiness. The pastas are not homemade, but they are expertly sauced with a dense crab and tomato sauce, or with tiny moist clams, parsley, garlic and oil. For main courses, order the grilled fish, which may be a whole, charcoal-blackened rockfish for two or, if you are lucky, charred fresh sardines dusted with rosemary. Or try a seafood stew, light and fresh, or swordfish with tomatoes and capers, Sicilian style. Appetizers-- vegetable or seafood salads-- tend to be bland. Desserts are berries, seasonal fruit tarts or a high and handsome ricotta cheesecake. Vincenzo is indeed expensive, and not because the preparations are complicated. But to the best of the ability of East coast fish supplies, you can expect freshness, simplicity and expert cooking at Vincenzo.
904 Bonifant St., Silver Spring. 588-5537. L $3.75- $6.25, D $5.75-$9.35. L, D daily. Closed Sun. No credit cards. No reservations. Free parking for dinner only. Beer and wine only.
While Wachapreague looks like a bar that just happens to have a few tables, its kitchen is more serious than that. Signs tell you that fresh crabs and oysters are from their own boat. In any case, the crab cakes are good, put together with a light hand from fresh crab meat. And fried seafoods are far above average. In fact, the combination seafood platter, at $9.25, is a remarkable buy, especially since the oysters and shrimp are lightly battered and not overcooked, the fried fish has the flavor and moisture most fried fish have had leached out, and the crab cake could stand alone. Broiled fish is another matter--tough and dried out. And the french fries are dull stuff, though the coleslaw is a good bit better. The menu also lists imperial crab, Norfolk dishes, scallops and a few broiled fish, as well as sandwiches, plus oysters-- raw, stewed or in sandwiches. Skip the soups, head right for a beer and a mountain of fried seafood.
119 King St., Alexandria. 836-2834. L $3.25-$9.45, D $7.25-$10.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar.
Amid the string of Old Town Alexandria's short-lived, imitation antique pubs, The Wharf has lasted long and rings true. A dining room divided into intimate areas and surrounded by old brick and stone, original columns and beams, The Wharf is cozy and engaging. The menu is short--fried seafoods, lobster, crab imperial, seafood newburg or Norfolk style and a few fresh fish either plain or stuffed, with one steak for meat eaters. And while none of it is dazzling, it is good food. Soups are creamy, with enough crab or clam chowder to be identifiable. Oysters are plump. Fried seafoods are freshly breaded and neither greasy nor overcooked. But the best of the lot are broiled fish --pearly and juicy--and a crab imperial that has a grassy touch of chopped parsley. Team them, as stuffed rockfish or stuffed trout, and The Wharf will remind you what good fortune it is to be dining so close to the Chesapeake Bay or to the Allegheny's trout farms. The Wharf is far from imposing; rather, it is modest seafood pub where the surprises are pleasant ones.