Plan to dine early, or you’ll wait just to get onto the parking lot at waterfront Cantler’s, an Annapolis institution. The interior resembles a camp mess hall, with long family-style tables that you’ll likely end up sharing. Owner Jimmy Cantler, a fourth-generation waterman, insists on serving only Maryland blue crabs, delivered daily by boat, and locals love his unique seafood seasoning.
Bypass Captain James’ kitschy steam-liner-shaped restaurant in favor of their casual crab house across the street. Dine at a picnic table on the floating harbor-front deck, where you can bang claws as loudly as you want. Go for the all-you-can-eat special: medium-sized steamed crabs, Maryland crab soup, corn-on-the-cob, some sides, and a bottomless pitcher of soda. Pick quick; the time limit is two hours.
The fat, spicy crabs come out steaming and slow at this bright, beachy crab shack, curiously situated on a busy highway. To pass the time, folks sit under tiki lights on the sprawling backyard deck, munching crab balls and sipping local beer while watching their kids enjoy the lively wooded playground.
This gentrified Johnny-come-lately, on an historic cobblestone street in Baltimore’s famous Fells Point, makes up for its lack of lineage by serving only Maryland blue crabs, peppered with homemade seasoning. Riptide’s creative menu previews specialties like crabcake sliders and crab burgers, made with Angus beef, provolone, applewood bacon, and lump crabmeat. Of course there are handcrafted libations for the fussier 20-something faction who come to rock out to live music on weekends.
Gilligan’s is downright Jimmy Buffett-ish. Many arrive by boat at this idyllic cove off the Potomac River and follow the live music and Old Bay aroma up the sand beach in search of a table. Along with Maryland blue crabs there are local oysters, shrimp, and island fare, served every which way.
Rickety ol’ Costas, on a busy retail-highway bordered by auto body shops, is the Grand Dame of Baltimore’s original crab houses. Here, your time-warped waitress will call you hon, no matter your age. Reservations are essential, as lines spill outside the door. Although their consistently plump crabs are flown in daily from the Gulf Coast, locals can’t get enough. Have their traditional hot fudge sundae for dessert — the perfect remedy for your burning Old Bay lips.
Pity the naïve motorists speeding along I-95 just south of Delaware, unaware that the crab symbols on the restaurant signs near the innocuous "North East" exit are code for scrumptious Woody’s. The crabs are always impressive and the staff is so dedicated to quality that they tell diners when the crabs aren’t up to par, and direct them to other fresh-off-the-boat catch.
Despite the ominous history of its namesake bridge, this chirpy crab house on Maryland’s bucolic Eastern Shore cooks up good karma. There are panoramic views of native waterfowl soaring around Cabin Creek from the elegant dining room, and an outdoor sundeck with picnic tables. Best is the "$36.95 all you can eat" crabs, fresh from the nearby Choptank River. Be sure to ask your waitress to recite "The Ballad of Suicide Bridge."
Shultz’s is the real deal: a natty Baltimore working-class tavern with circa-1950 wood paneling, and stuffed fish mounted on the walls. Patience is a virtue here, but it’s worth waiting nearly 45 minutes for those piping-hot, plump Maryland crabs, slathered in Schultz’s own branded seasoning, to be dumped on your table.
This waterfront gem, with live music on an outside deck, overlooks rustic Rock Creek in Anne Arundel County. Boaters dock to dine. Mike's keeps it simple; only two sizes of Maryland blues, peppered in secret seasoning, are offered here — Number Ones (larges) Number Twos (mediums).
If a crab joint can be romantic, Waterman’s has it covered. Facing due west across the Chesapeake Bay from an historic Eastern Shore town, every table offers spectacular sunset views. Still, it remains first and foremost a rollicking crab house, with an outdoor bandstand and dockside bar. There’s an all-you-can-eat "mediums" special, but the jumbos, despite their colossal prices, are hard to ignore. Afterward, take a rickshaw tour (really!) around the town.
On the roof deck of a narrow rowhouse with harbor views in trendy South Baltimore, crustacean devotees dig jumbo lumps of succulent meat from well-spiced crab bellies. Regulars order the Steamed Sampler for Two, which includes blue crabs, shrimp, mussels, oysters, clams, and a pitcher of brew.