Directions: Take Beltway Exit number 7A, which is Rte. 5 South, also called Branch Avenue. Follow Rte. 5 as it becomes 301 toward Waldorf, then LaPlata. Look for Popes Creek sign on the right.
Hours: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday through Sunday. Closed Mondays.
Price Range: Crabs run approximately $9 per dozen. Entrees: $5 to $8.
Atmosphere: Warm, spotless, simple.
Special Facilities: Plenty of parking. Highchairs and boosters. Ramp entry would create difficulty for wheelchairs.
Credit Cards: None.
Reservations: Not necessary.
When I was a child 25 years ago, there weren't many places you could get hard-shell crabs. Today, there are local crab houses just about everywhere in the Washington area.
But back then it was a novelty to sit down at a table covered with paper and spend a few hours ripping apart hot crabs.
My family used to pile into the car on summer Sundays and drive out to a spot on the lower Potomac in Charles County, where there's a pretty inlet called Popes Creek. I remember two restaurants down at the water's edge: one plain, one fancy.
I don't know why, but we never even considered going into the fancy place, though it always seemed to attract the crowds. For us it was always and only Captain Drink's.
Rustic was the word to describe the captain's place; (he'd been in the Merchant Marine, as I recall, to earn his title). I remember the big old steaming vats puffing away on the side porch, loaded with crabs and spices. A couple of men wearing gloves would be shoveling live blue crabs in on one side, while another unloaded the bright red ones that were ready for customers.
When hurricanes washed most of the captain's restaurant into the river, the Drink family rebuilt it -- this time out over the water on fat wooden piers. This was great fun for children because you had to walk across a wooden bridge to get inside to eat. And when you looked out the windows, all you saw was water as if you were on a boat.
We never saw a soul there we knew and always fancied ourselves the only city people who had discovered the place. Besides us, it was mostly local farm families.
We wore our crummiest old clothes, knowing we'd be full of sweat and crab before we left. Since gambling then was still legal in Charles County, the grownups always made sure to bring a fistful of nickels to play the slot machines.
I went back to Captain Drink's a few weeks ago -- this time with my husband and children -- to find out if anything still is the same. The roads are a lot different now, much improved, which makes the ride shorter: 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
At the turnoff to Popes Creek soon after you reach Waldorf, there's a faded, weather-beaten sign advertising Captain Drink's. You turn right down a road that is still pastoral and beautiful. Since I last was there, someone has discovered that it also is historic. Signs say that John Wilkes Booth hid out in the fields here after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Everything seemed the same as we approached Captain Drink's. (The other, "fancy" place still had a crowd waiting to get in.) We discovered that the Drink family still owns Captain Drink's, although the captain has passed away. The vats of crabs still are steaming on the side porch, with 80-pound bags of salt and 20-pound bags of hot pepper for seasoning lying beside the vats.
The place looks very spiffy. The knotty pine walls and banquettes are a rich red now and there are tables where the slot machines used to be. The tables are covered with brown paper and each place is set with a crab mallet and knife.
The waitresses are still neat and personable. Some of them have been there for decades. I didn't remember seeing regular menus when I was young. We had never thought of ordering anything other than crabs and the fabulous, highly seasoned crab cakes. Now there's a menu with such standard dishes as crab imperial. Alaskan king crab legs and shrimp platters.
As a concession to modern times, we ordered the local rockfish that our waitress said was caught a couple of miles down the river where the Pepco plant lies."Seems like the fish just swarm around those warm waters," she told us.
The fish was large enough to feed a family.It was heavily breaded, deep-fried till very crisp and perfectly fresh. Cost: $5.95.
But, of course, the crabs and crab cakes are still the reason to be there. You start with a dozen crabs and a couple of orders of crab cakes, and add on from there. Both are far spicier than you are apt to find in city crab houses. Also, every table has a bottle of cider vinegar and cups full of a mixture of salt and red pepper for dipping.
The crab cakes were still terrific and distinctive in their flavoring. I went back to the kichen and asked the cooks what was in the cakes. Among the ingredients, I was told, were backfin crab seasoned with tabasco, worcestershire, celery seed, chopped green pepper and onion.
Corn on the cob, cole slaw, french fries and potato salad were side orders that made an excellent complete meal. The place now is fully air-conditioned so the windows are closed. You don't get that smell of river water, at once both musty and fresh, that I remember from childhood.
There still are no desserts at Drink's, though the "fancy" place next door features cheesecake and pies, plus other city food like rose wine in carafes, Polynesian drinks and Irish coffee.
Driving home, I couldn't spot the Dairy Queen we always used to stop at to refresh our palates after those peppery crabs.
I was glad that the Drink family has held on. Hope they are still in business when I have grandchildren.