The Woodbine Inn

401 Woodbine Rd.

Woodbine

442-2399

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $9.95 to $24.95.

Credit Cards: American Express and Visa.

"Our crabs are contagious," reads a T-shirt on the entry hall wall of the Woodbine Inn, a crab house/restaurant in the tiny farming community of Woodbine.

You might expect this kind of earthy humor here on the other side of the tracks -- the Howard County side, that is, of the railroad tracks that follow the south branch of the Patapsco River. The inn is a down-home kind of place with a bar, a jukebox and beer-joint decor -- a good excuse to get away from the suburbs and visit the hilly country along the river on the northwest border of Howard and Carroll counties.

Crabs are the preferred fare when they are in season, judging from the mountains of shells heaped on paper-covered tables in the tavern dining room, which is a study in roadhouse decor with red and white checkered linoleum floor, ceiling fans and inexpensive rec-room paneling. There is a full menu and a slightly fancier dining room to the back, but this is the room for uninhibited elbow-deep enjoyment of the $10.95 all-you-can eat crab specials.

Shortly after you order, Tilghman Island "Jimmies" are dumped unceremoniously onto your table from plastic trays by no-nonsense waitresses. The crabs are good and meaty. Their shells are caked with patches of the inn's seasoning mixture, a middle-of-the-road blend high on celery salt and not too peppery. Mallets and a roll of paper towels equip you for the siege.

While the Woodbine Inn is just fine as a crab house, it falls short as a restaurant. Dinner prices are too high for the quality of the food. The whole lobster dinner, which sounds like a steal at $9.95, turned out to be substandard lobster with a fishy taste and tough texture. Broiled flounder was a butterflied filet with a crispy skin but flesh that had lost its tenderness in transit or storage.

A heavy, tasteless coating encased fried shrimp. Steamed shrimp were better. But both would have been better if the shrimp had been fresher.

I would have preferred an inexpensive fresh fish, bones and all, to the frozen, breaded triangle that appeared on my $21.95 seafood sampler plate. Crab cakes were better but had a little too much filler. Thankfully, the selection included a fried, soft-shelled crab with an explosively good flavor. It and the fried scallops, which had delicious natural golden crusts, were the salvation of the sampler.

If seafood is what you must have, you would do well to order the dinner-sized portions of soft-shelled crabs or fried scallops. Proceed with caution when it comes to steaks: My sirloin strip was gristly and past its prime.

The dinner menu would look bleak indeed if not for the Maryland fried chicken, which is cooked to order. "Half an hour wait," your waitress will warn you. But it is well worth it. No tricky coatings, no special spices, just honest flour-dusted fried chicken flavor. The menu is justified in bragging that only peanut oil is used for the frying, as this chicken proves that it does produce the crispest crackle.

Dinners include two vegetables, which you choose from a diner-like lineup including coleslaw, stewed tomatoes, green beans, limas, applesauce, french fries, baked potatoes and onion rings. When corn is in season, bypass the list and order a fresh ear from the steaming shed for $1 extra. Otherwise, the homemade onion rings are a good bet, and the baked potatoes are one of the best things this kitchen turns out.

While you're waiting for the fried chicken, soft-shelled crabs or scallops, you might want to start with a cup of seafood chowder, a thick and creamy mixture with lumps of crab, fish, potato and celery. Cream of crab soup is a rich, cream-based but unthickened soup full of fresh crab and, unfortunately, crab cartilage. Skip the Maryland crab soup, which has a few lonely crab threads among lots of processed vegetables. Steamed clams are small and dry.

In its favor, the restaurant offers brewed decaffeinated coffee as well as regular, with a roster of rich desserts such as cheesecake, carrot cake and Kentucky Derby pie. That pie is probably the best of them, with a dense moist texture created by chocolate chips, walnuts and coconut in a blonde brownie-type crust. If you've finished a crab feast, you might prefer to take out a refreshing rocket-shaped Popsicle or a chocolate-covered ice cream bar -- both are great to linger over while watching the mist settle on the river.