Tales of an Epic Journey to Chesapeake Bay Crab Decks & Tiki Bars
Written by Susan Elnicki Wade
While we wait for the waitress to bring us a dozen steamed crabs, we raise our glasses in a victory toast. Our celebration goes unnoticed, because it’s a sunny day and we’re sitting at a Chesapeake Bay crab deck that’s bustling with people who are busy with their own hot crabs and cold beer. An armada of boats is pulling into the marina below, and children are fishing from the dock.
Amid the happy chaos, we smile and shout, “We did it!” For seven months,my husband Bill and I traveled to more than 160 crab houses and tiki bars on the Chesapeake Bay, and this crab deck is the last stop on our epic journey.
We have been gluttonous along the way, consuming about 11 gallons of crab soup, 300 oysters, 85 crab cakes, 40 pounds of mussels, 25 rockfish, 200 steamed shrimp and Lord knows how many beer, wine and rum drinks. But it has been worth every calorie.
Tasting the local wares was required research for our book, “Crab Decks & Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay.” Officially, the book is a travel guide to the waterfront eateries that serve some of the tastiest seafood on the planet, but in our hearts it is a family album, packed with memories of the places where we had our first romantic dates, taught our boys about jellyfish and blue herons, and caught rockfish in the shadows of the Bay Bridge.
Our celebration continues when the plastic tray holding a pile of plump red crabs lands on our table. I watch with admiration as Bill eases the tender meat from the shells. His hands move as swiftly as a Phillips processing plant worker’s, because he’s a true Maryland native who’s picked crabs since he was just a pup.
He generously hands me a few meaty backfin clumps, knowing that picking crabs doesn’t come easy for me. My youth was spent in western Pennsylvania, stalking brook trout in cool Allegheny mountain streams. But ever since my first bite of Maryland rockfish, I’ve embarked on a quest to taste all the Bay’s seafood delicacies and unlock the secrets of cooking them.
We order another round and lift our glasses this time to all the crabs that sacrificed their lives for our research. Ironically, our travels have paralleled the same migratory path that crabs swim each year in the Bay. Bill nibbles on a hush puppy while we reminisce about where it all began. Our starting point was southern Maryland, where Bill’s father had a home near the Patuxent River. Cruising around the hidden necks of St. Mary’s and Charles counties uncovered a cornucopia of rural treasures.
We discovered a gem tucked away at a marina up the Port Tobacco River, where the cream of crab soup set the bar high for all the others we tasted. A trinity of restaurants on Popes Creek showed us how the rolling farmlands could accommodate a lively tiki bar, a traditional crab house and an American-cuisine restaurant in one remote location. Between meals, we would sneak in history lessons by taking our boys to places along the Potomac River such as St. Clements Island, where the first Catholics landed in the New World, and the spot where John Wilkes Booth tried to escape into Virginia after shooting President Lincoln.
Raucous laughter from the marina interrupts our trip down memory lane. A sunburned boater tells a tale about the super-sized rockfish that got away, while his buddies cackle in disbelief. After the mayhem dies down, Bill returns to our story. He reminds me how we had to adopt a new research strategy when we headed north toward Annapolis and Baltimore. Instead of scouring the countryside, where locating crab decks often felt like finding a needle in a haystack, we faced the daunting task of investigating scores of restaurants in congested urban areas. The best approach, we decided, was to begin on the outskirts and then head into town. Rivers such as the Middle, Back and Severn often felt like Main Street in suburban communities, with all roads leading to the water and crab decks acting as community centers, where neighbors convened to catch up on local news.
Tiki and crab décor often collided, creating watering holes for families during the day and singles after dark. Outside Annapolis we noticed that sailors dressed in uniform were as commonplace at crab decks as watermen in raincoats and boots. In Dundalk and Glen Burnie, smokestacks puffed fumes into sunsets over the water, and boaters wearing Ravens jerseys picked crabs alongside businessmen in suits.
I take a slow sip of my Chardonnay and remember the frigid trips to inner-city crab decks. Knowing that most of Baltimore’s waterfront eateries are open year-round, we saved those visits for the offseason.We braved freezing rain and snowstorms, but waitresses always warmed us up with steaming bowls of creamy oyster stew and spicy vegetable crab soup.
We had already spent a lot of time in Baltimore, but researching the book gave us a new objective: to see if this town really is the epicenter of crab and tiki. And we weren’t disappointed. We feasted on sautéed soft shells topped with beurre blanc at tables draped in white linens, and we sampled hard shells coated with Old Bay on tables covered with brown paper. We dined in a restaurant shaped like a ship and watched watermen haul fresh catch from rusty boats. And a tiki barge plopped in the middle of the Inner Harbor gave us an ideal view of the city skyline at night. Yes, the urban crab scene was better than we had expected.
Feeling frustrated that I can’t get the last morsel of meat from a claw and secretly wishing I had ordered a crab cake instead, I take a break from picking and ask Bill to tell me his favorite part of our journey.Without a doubt, he answers, it was the Northern Headwaters. His parents kept their boat at Kent Narrows, so he had never seen where the Susquehanna pours into the Bay, and he relished the discovery of unfamiliar territory.
On a warm spring morning, we left our home in Washington and arrived at Havre de Grace in time for a picture-perfect lunch at the water’s edge. After several stops at marinas and crab decks in Cecil County, we were lucky to pass under the graceful arch of the Chesapeake City Bridge at sunset. We marveled at the spectacular view as a parade of boats cruised along the C&D Canal. Amid the town’s Victorian homes, antique shops and galleries, we found a waterfront deck with a plastic shark bursting through the bar’s thatched roof and tiki masks carved into palm trees.
Bill takes a swig of Budweiser and wipes flecks of crab shrapnel off his shirt. While signaling for our check, he turns the question back at me. What had been my favorite? Hmm … I think for a minute and then answer that I had a soft spot for the Eastern Shore’s subtle charm. While watching our boys swim at Betterton Beach, I had imagined 19th-century steamboats delivering visitors to amusement parks in the glory days. I loved the historic homes lined up along the water in Chestertown, but the islands and marshes around Crisfield had stolen my heart.
During one of our exhaustive research stages, I had eaten oysters while staring at Baltimore’s city skyline on Thursday, and then by Saturday I was on the Eastern Shore driving along the narrow causeways of Hoopers Island, gazing at the rugged primal marshland. That’s when I understood the many faces and moods of the Chesapeake Bay. Each neck and tributary has its own personality, and I had come to cherish them all.
We take one last look at the Bay as the sun drops low in the sky, feeling pleased with our accomplishment yet a little sad about the journey’s end. Writing and publishing our book wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as researching it had been, but we look forward to sharing our adventures with other Bay fans and introducing a new crowd to the Chesapeake. Then I start thinking: Perhaps we should do a book about oysters? ml