On a broiling August afternoon, the sweetest relief comes from gathering around a paper-covered table with hot crabs and cold beer. Sometimes, though, you’d rather not take the risk of joining seemingly every other Washington-area crab lover and heading out to Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn. (The crabs are awesome. The waits are not.) So we spent the past few weeks scouting other crab houses, looking for views, delicious crabs and even the elusive all-you-can-eat deal.
433 Kent Narrow Way N., Grasonville, Md. 410-827-9500.
Veteran D.C. beachgoers know that the best time to head to the Eastern Shore is right after morning rush hour, because it allows you to beat the traffic on the Bay Bridge. Plus, there’s a bonus: You can hit Kent Island in time for lunch at Harris Crab House.
This traditional crab house, opened by the Harris family in 1981, has a laid-back vibe, displays of antique oyster tins and signs on the walls, and a dock perched on the Kent Narrows. The restaurant does many things well, but the standout offering is an all-you-can-eat crab feast, offered Monday through Friday beginning at 11 a.m., depending on availability. For $40 a person, you get a tray of True Blue Maryland crabs, a cup of Maryland crab soup and two sides. (Go for local corn and hush puppies.) The all-you-can-eat deal lasts two hours, with the clock starting once you order. — F.H.
1100 E. Fort Ave., Baltimore. 410-576-9294.
Baltimore has fancy waterfront crab houses with outdoor bars, but if I’m going for a night of crabs and brews, I’m heading to South Baltimore’s Locust Point neighborhood. L.P. Steamers, which opened in 1996, is a three-level crab shack squeezed into a traditional Baltimore row house. If you’re looking for atmosphere, you won’t find it here, other than a few beer signs or old prints on the wood-paneled walls, and brown paper and galvanized buckets on the tables. What you will find, though, are fat, delicious crabs, covered in J.O. Spice. Larges were $75 per dozen or $6.25 apiece on my last visit, accompanied by crispy, crusty hush puppies. If you’re a Ravens linebacker, or you’re coming with a group, you might opt for the Natty Boht Load of Food, which borders on the obscene: a pile of steamed crabs, shrimp, clams, oysters, mussels, scallops and a lobster tail, plus a pitcher of Natty Boh, for $58.
L.P. Steamers doesn’t take reservations, so waits for tables can get long — especially on its rooftop deck, which has water views. Give your phone number to the hostess and head to the friendly neighborhood bar across Woodall Street for a beer. — F.H.
3030 Riva Rd., Riva, Md. 410-956-2784.
Stationed on a spit of land that juts into the South River, Mike’s Crab House is a 58-year-old institution that offers waterfront dining and mostly crabs from Louisiana and Texas. You read right: This Maryland crab house buys at least 80 percent of its blue crabs from the Gulf, according to owner Peter Piera. It’s a supply issue. Chesapeake watermen apparently can’t keep up with the demand of this high-volume operation. Plus, the owner says, Louisiana crabs tend to be larger.
That’s a debatable point. On a recent visit, I ordered a half dozen large crabs, which were a solid inch-and-a-half smaller than the larges I had purchased earlier that day at Ruff N Ready (See Page 20). When I complained about the size to my server, he shrugged and said he hears that comment frequently. He tried to convince me that the crabs, regardless of their size, pack plenty of meat. That was true for half my ration: The other three crabs arrived with only one claw apiece, as if the trio suffered some horrible boating accident on the way to the restaurant. If it weren’t for the view and the cool breezes off the water, these crabs would have been a bitter pill to swallow. — T.C.
316 Sunburst Hwy., Cambridge, Md. 410-228-8633.
Ocean Odyssey celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, but the Cambridge restaurant’s roots run much deeper — to 1947, when the Bradye P. Todd & Son crab processing facility opened in Crocheron, at the southern tip of Dorchester County. In 1986, the Todds expanded the family business to include this restaurant alongside a busy stretch of Route 50.
The Todds still process their own crabmeat, and that knowledge — and lack of a middleman — is reflected on the menu, which is a testament to the many ways to enjoy crab: There are bite-size crab nuggets, similar to fried crab cakes; cups of Maryland crab soup; broiled crab cakes; and whole steamed crabs. (At $60 for a dozen jumbos, you can eat very well here without breaking the bank.)
The dining room, dotted with nautical paraphernalia, is plain; on Fridays and Saturdays, it’s more fun to sit outside at a picnic table in the beer garden, looking at the colorful murals while picking crabs and sipping pints of local craft beer.— F.H.
700 Mill Creek Rd., Arnold, Md. 410-544-5448.
From Solomons Island to Chesapeake City, Maryland’s marinas and yacht clubs are popular places for waterfront crab houses. The Point, nestled in the Ferry Point Marina on the Magothy River, just north of Annapolis, must be one of the most attractive. The walls of the building can be rolled up, like garage doors, allowing breezes (and occasionally fumes from the marina) to blow in. There also are dozens of seats at picnic tables closer to the water.
The Point, a True Blue restaurant, gets most of its crabs from the Eastern Shore’s Wye or Chester Rivers, and cooks them in a house spice blend. The pavilion-like building is designed with crab-eaters in mind: There are two metal washtubs in the middle of the room for washing crab spice from your hands after eating.
No reservations are taken, which means you might want to avoid popular weekend times, such as dinner — the marina’s parking lot can fill up quickly. — F.H.
1200 Fort Myer Dr., Arlington, Va. 703-528-2722.
Given the friendly rivalry between Maryland and Virginia, I’m always a little surprised when a restaurant in the commonwealth devotes itself to the Free State’s iconic shellfish. But Quarterdeck does just that: During Chesapeake blue crab season, this Arlington spot steams crustaceans straight from Maryland. It also offers an all-you-can-eat option for $50 a person, a transaction that will march a steady supply of small blue crabs to your table until you cry uncle. It’s a fair deal, as long as you don’t mind prying open more crabs than an Eastern Shore picking house.
Like many places, Quarterdeck steams crabs to order, which means you’ll wait about 30 minutes for the first batch. I mention this because if your server says the folks at a nearby table decided they didn’t want crabs after all, don’t, under any circumstance, accept their unwanted shellfish. A friend and I did that, and we ended up with a pile of small, juiceless creatures. The next batch, fresh from the steamer, had the sweet meat we were after. The lesson? Patience is a virtue with steamed crabs. — T.C.
903 Chillum Rd., Hyattsville, Md. 301-559-2800.
No one will confuse Ruff N Ready with, say, Cantler’s Riverside Inn. For starters, there’s no body of water by which you can crack open blue crabs and knock back a bucket of ice-cold beer. In fact, there’s not even a table. There’s just a functional, red-and-white building situated on a sea of asphalt and concrete at the corner of Chillum and Riggs roads in Prince George’s County. Inside, there’s a sign affixed to a wall that reads: Beware of Attack Crab. To place an order, you must talk to an employee standing behind black metal bars.
Don’t let the surroundings (or the name) fool you: Ruff N Ready is a friendly neighborhood carryout that deals in Maryland blue crabs in season. A dozen large males will run a few bucks cheaper than those at your typical urban crab shack, a price break due, no doubt, to the complete lack of amenities. But when you get those beauties home and spread them on old newspapers (you do have old newspapers, right?), the crabs will be big and meaty, a sweet haul of the Chesapeake’s finest. — T.C.