When most Washingtonians want a traditional waterfront crab shack experience, they point their cars due east, toward Annapolis, Kent Island and the Eastern Shore. The problem with those routes, especially at this time of year, is that you find yourself fighting sluggish beach traffic before getting close to the long lines of hungry customers outside Jimmy Cantler’s or Mike’s. For the best experiences, head south, away from the crowds, and spend your time picking sweet crabmeat instead of stewing in your car.
After touring a number of Southern Maryland crab houses, these four stood out for their atmosphere and the quality of the crabs. All are less than 50 miles from the District, making for a relatively easy day trip. And the last holiday weekend before the end of summer is the perfect time; after all, the crabs are fatter and heavier than they’ve been all year. (Crab prices vary based on supply and demand; prices listed reflect the cost at the time of our visit.)
41310 Riverview Rd., Mechanicsville. Open Friday through Sunday.
Getting to the Drift Inn, the oldest crab house in St. Mary’s County, requires driving down narrow roads lined with fields of tobacco and corn, until you dead-end at the Patuxent River — and the Drift Inn parking lot. The weathered one-story building looks every bit like it’s been open since 1946, with a corrugated metal roof and hand-painted signs, while the interior’s knotty-pine paneling is covered with faded old beer signs, family photos, fishing poles and crab-related knickknacks.
The homey setting goes beyond the decor. The staff is chatty with regulars, efficient but friendly: We listened in as one waitress offered advice to a table of visitors who weren’t as intimately familiar with picking crabs as most of the guests. (If you want a more laid-back experience, try visiting right after work on Friday, or early Sunday afternoon; the tables fill quickly on Saturdays.)
The Drift Inn’s crabs come primarily from the Patuxent and Potomac rivers, says Jerry Bowlers, whose wife, Emma, is the daughter of the original owners. The focus on local seafood means the restaurant’s open from only May to October, when crabs are running. Specials included a dozen #1 crabs for $47 and a soft-shell sandwich on special for $10.99. You can’t go wrong with the golden-brown hush puppies.
About the only knock on the Drift Inn is the lack of outdoor seating, although some tables have a view of the marshy inlet where Horse Landing Creek empties into the Patuxent. There are a few picnic tables next to the parking lot, overlooking the pier and the water, and Bowlers says that some customers ask for their food to go so they can sit outside and enjoy the breeze.
4851 Riverside Dr., Galesville. Open daily.
Some crab houses sit next to the water. Thursday’s is literally on top of it, perched on a pier that extends 100 feet into the West River. The famous steamboat Emma Giles once docked here, picking up seafood and tobacco to be taken to Baltimore. Now the long wooden pier is surrounded by pleasure boats. (On weekends, the restaurant offers dock hands that cleat-hitch customers’ sailboats into place free.)
Thursday’s has two dining options: at wooden picnic tables outdoors on the patio, which wraps around three sides of the restaurant, and at more formal tables inside the air-conditioned dining room. If there’s a wait, you can head straight for the dock bar, where beers and rum punches flow. Even if you take a table inside to escape the heat, there really is no bad seat, with boats and water visible from every huge window.
This seemingly simple restaurant has one of the most labyrinthine menus on the Bay: pasta marinara and grilled rib-eye and chicken fajitas? Picky eaters might find themselves catered to, but every table around us had steamed crabs or crab cakes. The crabs — from Wye River, directly across the Chesapeake Bay — were large and meaty, at $60 per dozen, served with a cup of butter and a squeeze bottle of vinegar. (If sweet corn is available, get a few ears as a side.) If you’re lucky, it’s only a few steps to your boat.
11495 Popes Creek Rd., Newburg. Open Wednesday through Sunday.
Captain Billy’s has one of the most idyllic settings of any Maryland crab house, along a quiet stretch of the Potomac River. (If you browse the photos on the restaurant’s Facebook page to plan your visit, you’ll develop a severe case of FOMS: Fear of Missing Sunset.) From the wide, covered wooden deck, there are views of seabirds perched atop pillars, the Harry W. Nice Bridge in the distance, and the wooded Virginia shoreline. (The Potomac narrows near Pope’s Creek, which is where John Wilkes Booth rowed across the river into Virginia.)
George William Robertson began crabbing these waters in 1939, when he was just 9 years old. By 19, he’d opened his first restaurant nearby, where the combination of fresh crabs, cold beer and then-legal slot machines became a local landmark, especially for tourists driving from Washington down to Richmond. In 1986, he took over a larger crab house, which could serve hundreds of seafood fans, and renamed it Captain Billy’s.
The dining room — butterscotch-colored wooden booths, neon beer signs and framed prints — doesn’t feel as though it’s changed much since, which is why it’s better to eat outside, if you can. The Maryland vegetable crab soup and hush puppies make for a nice opening act, but here, it’s all about the blue crabs.
On a recent visit, as I sat feet from the water on a handmade wooden bench, a server explained that this is the best time of year to eat crabs: “Right now, they come from right out there,” she said, gesturing toward the water, as opposed to earlier in the season, when low catches are supplemented with crabs from much farther away. And with frequent weekday specials — $25 to $35 per dozen for smaller but meaty crabs — it’s a great excuse to leave the office early and beat the crowds.
16215 Cobb Island Rd., Newburg. Open daily.
Drive due south from Washington (or as close to south as possible) and you’ll eventually find yourself on Cobb Island, a spit of land where the Wicomico River flows into the Potomac. And just before the bridge connecting Cobb Island to the mainland, you’ll find Captain John’s Crab House, facing Neale Sound.
Captain John’s was opened in 1963 by John Shymansky — whose relatives own Shymansky’s restaurant just up the road — and it’s a classic old-school Maryland crab house, from the wood paneling to the fishing nets and model lighthouses that decorate the dining room. (One obvious recent addition: flat-screen TVs showing Keno nonstop.) Outside, a row of tables, including some patio gliders, faces the docks of a marina, providing more fresh breeze than scenic view.
Captain John’s is best known for its all-you-can-eat deals: During the week, unlimited medium-size crabs, trips to the salad bar and select sides cost $29.99, with the price rising to $34.99 on the weekends. Those feeling extra-gluttonous can add all-you-can-eat shrimp for an extra $5. Honestly, a dozen large crabs ($45), covered with salty seasoning, and sides of hush puppies and kernel-studded corn fritters is probably enough for two people.