Around the Bay, images of the iconic red crustacean appear everywherefrom flags, hats and T-shirts to bumper stickers, menus and refrigerator magnets. Outsiders might wonder about a regional mascot with spindly little legs and oversized claws, but locals see this beloved aquatic creature as a symbol of summertime and a tasty reason for gathering family and friends.
The ingredients for an authentic Chesapeake crab feast are quite simple: a bushel of live crabs still kicking and snapping their claws, a picnic table covered with brown paper, wooden mallets for cracking stubborn shells and bright yellow canisters of Old Bay seasoning. A waterfront view and a dash of sunshine set the mood for perfect picking. Patience is required while waiting 25 minutes for crabs to steam, so creamy coleslaw, hushpuppies, silver queen corn and a bucket of cold beer stand at the ready to stave off hunger. When piles of hot red crabs finally land on the table, the bay's favorite epicurean rumpus begins.
Prying the shell open and liberating meat from the muck takes a little work. But when a nugget of tender jumbo lump reaches your tongue, you taste the essence of the bay and welcome the arrival of Chesapeake summer. If your stomach is now rumbling for sweet Maryland crabs, set your sites for these 12 destinations where you can eat your fill and savor the season's bounty.
With a building that looks like a merchant ship docked on Boston Street and a wooden crab deck that floats above the waves, this family-owned restaurant has dished out fresh local seafood since the 1970s. Go for a dozen or all-you-can- eat steamed crabs accompanied by popular dishes such as crab soup, crab cakes and steamer pots bubbling with mussels, shrimp, clams or snow crab legs.
Just off the Patapsco River awaits a crab picker's paradise that gets everything just right. The long waterfront deck holds rows of picnic tables shaded by umbrellas as red as the steamed crabs and shrimp beneath them. Music flows from the outdoor bar, where cool cocktails and brews magically appear in your hand. The spacious indoor dining area pays tribute to Bay watermen with nautical artwork and vintage photographs.
It takes five generations of watermen to create a place as crab-friendly as Cantler's. Daily catch from the bay rolls in every morning on fishing boats, giving each seafood dish a freshness that's second to none. Families and neighbors pick crabs on the outdoor deck while children play on the pier. In shedding tanks near the water, crabs molt their outer shells and are brought to the kitchen to become fried soft-shell delicacies.
It's no surprise that a town like Deale that's packed with so many boats would be home to a fantastic waterside restaurant. Recent renovations to the double-deck dock bar make sunsets over Rockhold Creek an unforgettable experience. New chefs and an upgraded menu conjure up innovative dishes such as crab bruschetta and crab-crusted broiled oysters. Traditional steamers of crabs, clams and mussels remain big crowd pleasers.
If you prefer to pick crabs in a tropical setting, this is the place for you. Gilligan's 1.5-acre beach along the Potomac River, with dozens of swaying palm trees and tiki bars overflowing with orange crushes, creates an idyllic summer getaway. The menu is laced with crab dishes and gives a nod to the 1970s shipwreck sitcom with items such as Mary Anne's Salads, The Professor's Sandwiches and Thurston's fried seafood baskets.
When a menu touts locally caught steamed crabs, along with award-winning stuffed rockfish and jumbo lump crab cakes, you've hit the seafood lovers' lottery. Plus, it's hard to resist the spectacular sunsets, live bands on weekends and 30 deep-water slips at this Upper Bay paradise. Caribbean steel drums on Sunday afternoon will make you consider calling in sick to work on Monday morning.
A trinity of heavenly crabitude awaits on Kent Island: Fisherman's Inn Restaurant with the Nauti Mermaid Bar, the bustling waterfront Crab Deck and a seafood market to carry out all kinds of delectable seafood. Watch watermen unload bushels of crabs that are cooked to old-school bay standards and then served at your table. Steamed variety pots invite you to sample a medley of crabs, shrimp, clams and mussels.
The building was a clam- and oystershucking house in the 1950s, morphed into a seafood restaurant in 1965 and has been a haven for traditional Chesapeake seafood ever since. Waitresses deliver heavy trays piled high with steamed crabs to the waterfront deck, while guests inside the two-story dining rooms enjoy vintage maritime décor and a bird's eye view of St. Michael's beautiful harbor.
Dining out on a long wooden pier with a panoramic view is hard to beat. Tim's II has that fun waterfront set-up yet takes things up a notch with 12-foot tall red and yellow plastic palm trees, a beach area, live bands and cocktail tables sunk waist-high in the waves. Classic bay seafood dominates the menu with hot crabs, steamed shrimp and fish tacos leading the pack. Sunsets here are legendary.
The amiable market staff offers to wrap up seafood meals as carry-out, but the location along Robinson Creek is so lovely you'll want to dock your boat and stay for a while. Red and blue tarps are stretched across the wooden deck to protect diners from the sun's rays while they devour scrumptious home-style seafood. Steamer buckets of crabs, shrimp, clams and mussels are ideal for lazy summer days. The oysters are phenomenal.
It's new but authentic, traditional yet innovative. With only a few years under its dining service belt, The Shanty artfully combines opposing culinary concepts by tapping into the easy-going spirit of Virginia's Eastern Shore. Food here is simple and fresh - pulled straight out of the bay just before it hits your plate. After a hearty meal, parents can soak up magnificent views while kids keep themselves busy with cornhole and other games.
Located between a beach area and fishing pier overlooking the James River, this place is all about water, sun and local seafood. Since 1993, it has specialized in steamed hard-shell crabs and sautéed soft shells that are nurtured in shedding tanks on site. An impressive raw bar is stocked with regionally harvested oysters. The casual, family-friendly atmosphere makes it a terrific place to bring the entire crew for the day.