Food & Drink

Order From These Chesapeake Crab Houses To Help Keep The Industry Afloat

It’s not officially summer until you’ve had a crab feast.

Crabbing is an incredibly volatile industry. Whether it’s climate change affecting the crabbers out on the water or immigration policy affecting the picking houses back on land, the strained supply chain has made getting affordable access to these hard shells increasingly difficult over the years. And that was even before 2020.

“The food distribution industry is such an unstable beast of and then, boom, a pandemic hits,” says Danny Jacinto, a field sales manager for J.J. McDonnell, which distributes seafood to Maryland, DC, and Northern Virginia. “It affected the industry on all levels. You had boats on lockdown because their crew was sick, truck companies being unable to ship, flights grounded because you don’t make money on cargo. We’ve had to sell more staple species, like salmon, because it’s an impenetrable industry. But crab is not like that.” 

Jacinto explains that all these factors have led to higher market prices and a greater difficulty in getting products to the right places. He says the retail market (aka crab meat at your local grocery store) has been the saving grace. But, even there, it’s important to be mindful about what you’re buying.

“It’s really important to utilize the entire species of an animal,” he says. “You put such a strain on the supply chain when you just buy chicken thighs or legs; it’s easier for a processor to catch up on whole chicken. That’s the same thing when you talk about crab meat. If you’re going to the store, buy all different grades of crab meat you might not normally buy. Buy in bulk, make your food, and freeze the rest for soup or something else down the line.”

Aside from supporting the Chesapeake seafood industry through retail, local crab houses need the love, too. Mostl are family-run spots that have been adapting to ever-changing safety protocols when it comes to COVID-19 while still maintaining quality products and keeping their staff and customers safe.

“Go to the places you like and trust -- it really starts there,” Jacinto says. “Before you eat crabs, think about what it is. It’s a boat that goes out first thing in the morning, pulling up crab pots all day in the heat and in storms, and then goes back to a picking house that is super stressed out, that has to go to a restaurant with everyone wearing masks. When you sit down, just really enjoy and appreciate the experience.”

With that in mind, it’s more important than ever to support your local crab houses to keep the industry afloat. Here are some of the best spots -- open for carryout and outdoor seating -- to enjoy locally sourced crabs in Maryland, Washington DC, and Northern Virginia.

Nick’s Fish House

South Baltimore
When you picture a crab feast, a few things come to mind: a water view, some paper on picnic tables, pitchers of beer, and a big pile of steaming crustaceans. All can be found on the outside crab deck of Nick’s Fish House, which overlooks the Patapsco River and Hanover Street Bridge. Nick’s has gotten a makeover in recent years thanks to new ownership and has never looked better. Though there’s often a wait on the deck, swift service, friendly bartenders, and potent Orange Crushes make any downtime a bit easier. And, once you sit down and catch a breeze off the water and the smell of Old Bay in the air, you know there’s no place you’d rather be.
How to order: Outside seating on the deck or newly built “Crab Yard” are first come, first serve or order takeout through ChowNow.

Ivy City Smokehouse

Ivy City
This spot is trying to accomplish a lot of things in its trendy Ivy City neighborhood: be a restaurant, seafood market, and barbecue smokehouse all once. Somehow, it all works. The spacious restaurant has a full bar with flat screen TVs, an elevated outdoor deck, and even a lobster tank up front to hammer home the fresh seafood vibe. Order a dozen medium blue crabs or a ton of other seafood options include fried fish sandwiches, po’boys, and a crab cake platter.
How to order: Make reservations for outdoor setting or Resy or order takeout through Grubhub.

Jimmy’s Famous Seafood

Dundalk
Known as a hangout for Baltimore sports fans and players alike, Jimmy’s has become a Baltimore seafood institution. The massive space boasts an equally broad menu -- everything from sushi to flatbreads -- but the real points of pride are its locally sourced crabs. Order hardshells from medium up to jumbo or get the seafood tower, which piles high oysters, top neck and littleneck clams, jumbo shrimp, lobster, snow crab, and blue crab halves. Wash it down with a housemade margarita or a local beer.
How to order: Jimmy’s is open for outdoor seating and live music, and to-crabs can be ordered through ToastTab.

Captain Pell’s

Fairfax
The story goes that the late William Pell took a job as a deckhand on a crab boat when he was a kid, eventually working his way up to captain, and then opening a crab house with his brother in 1977. Though the location may have changed and expanded, Pell’s has stayed consistent with its commitment to sourcing local blue crabs, which come by the dozen from medium to jumbo (or you could opt for the all-you-can-eat feast). Or try a seafood platter or basket and -- trust us on this one -- don’t leave without an order of hush puppies.
How to order: Call 703-560-0060 to reservouce patio seating or order takeout through Grubhub.

L.P. Steamers

South Baltimore
The tops of Baltimore row houses are peppered with roof decks, which make amazing spots for watching fireworks or, in the case of L.P. Steamers, cracking blue crabs. Located in the historic neighborhood of Locust Point (hence the L.P.), this seafood restaurant does crabs right -- serving them sweet and meaty and dusted with plenty of Old Bay. There are tons of other delicious seafood options, like scallops, lobster, and oysters, but we recommend sticking with the staple -- a side of hush puppies won’t hurt either -- and enjoying them on the wooden deck with a skyline view.
How to order: L.P. Steamers is open for sidewalk and rooftop seating, and carryout can be ordered through DoorDash.

Cantler’s Riverside Inn

Annapolis
An icon in Maryland’s state capital since the 1970s, Cantler’s is the real authentic deal. Close enough to downtown to make a day of it but sheltered enough on Mill Creek to feel relaxing, this crab house is a must-visit if you’re doing a tour of Annapolis. Order market-priced crabs peppered with a healthy dose of J.O. Spice and even ask the patient servers how to pick them if you’re new to the past time. Try other menu items like fried clam strips and a seriously addictive crab dip. One bonus is it’s fun to watch people be able to pull right up on their boats and dine.
How to order: Seating on the deck is first come, first serve or call 410-757-1311 for carryout.

Captain White’s

The Wharf
Long before the Wharf became a trendy neighborhood anchored by a concert venue, there was Captain Pete “Bronzie” Douglas White. After being raised on the Virginia shores, he decided to settle in DC in a spot that’s now been selling seafood for nearly 250 years. Now run by his grandchildren, Captain White’s is certainly more open-air market than crab house, but is a trusted and treasured seafood institution in the District. Get your hands on crab legs, crawfish, stone crab claws, lobsters, oysters, or shrimp and sit right on the waterfront to enjoy.
How to order: Walk right up to the counter and take your pick from fresh seafood options.

Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn

Essex
Located a stone’s throw from the Back River tributary, Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn provides a no-frills, authentic crab eating experience. Complete with brown craft paper on the tables and pitchers of beer flowing from the bar, this spot proves you don’t have to be fancy to have high-quality food. From the plethora of seafood appetizers (we love the combination of Maryland crab and cream of crab soups) to the staple hard shells dusted with house-made seasoning, Mr. Bill’s is the real deal. And that means no pliers, bibs, or cups of butter.
How to order: Make reservations for outdoor seating or order crabs to-go by calling 410-687-5994.

Bethesda Crab House

Bethesda
Located right off the Red Line in a nondescript parking lot, the family-owned Bethesda crab house has been carefully sourcing its seafood purveyors since opening nearly 60 years ago. Expect hardshell crabs, from medium to extra large, generously seasoned with J.O. Spice with classic sides like corn on the cob, slaw, and hush puppies. Other menu standouts include jumbo spiced shrimp, fried oysters, and homemade Key lime pie.
How to order: Call 301-652-3382 to reserve a covered picnic table outside or place a carryout order.

Crabs Down Under

Northeast Baltimore
This small but mighty crab shack has gained a grassroots following in the six years it's been in business, hosting annual crab feasts, social media giveaways, and providing some of the heaviest carryout crabs in town. The menu is limited to crabs, shrimp, and corn but the value and affordability is unparalleled. Right now, this business is only open for carryout but expect some big things from this place but won’t be “under” the radar for too much longer.
How to order: Get carryout by calling 410-866-5352 or through DoorDash.

The Point

Arnold
This might be the place to take your friends who are a little skeptical about picking crabs. With a beautiful ambiance overlooking the Magothy River and a menu filled with fine dining caliber favorites, The Point would please everyone in the group. Always ask your server about fresh seafood specials, but we’re also partial to the refreshing ahi tuna salad and satisfying fish tacos. Check the crab board for market prices, but be assured that almost all of them are coming straight from the Wye, Chester, and Magothy rivers.
How to order: Outdoor seating is first come, first serve and is usually a bit harder to nab during happy hour (3-6pm) or live music sets (Wednesday and Thursday from 5-8pm).

Harris Crab House

Grasonville
You could traipse all over the Eastern Shore and find amazing hole-in-the-wall seafood joints, but just over the Bay Bridge is one of the best crab pickin’ views in the state. Overlooking the Kent Narrows Waterway, Harris Crab House has gone through five generations of family ownership and prides itself on employing watermen and using seafood from right around the corner. The menu has about every seafood app you can think of -- from a baked oyster sampler to popcorn shrimp to garlic mussels. But the stars of the show are the medium hardshell crabs, which you can request to be as lightly or heavily seasoned as you’d like.
How to order: Deck seating is first come, first serve, or you can order carryout through ToastTab.

Quarterdeck

Arlington
A neighborhood favorite, the Quarterdeck has been feeding its loyal Fort Meyer Heights customers hard shell crabs and cold beer since the ’70s. This spot has some amazing seafood pub grub, including peel-and-eat shrimp, fried oysters, surf and ruf sliders, and a to-die-for crab roll that you just have to order to believe. But the main draw, of course, are the medium through jumbo-sized crabs that are steamed fresh to order year round. To ensure this spot stays open, one fan even started a GoFundMe page to support the employees. Now that’s love.
How to order: Call 703-528-2722 to make a reservation on the patio.

Schultz’s

Essex
When this super casual Essex crab house won a James Beard American Classic Award in 2017, it certainly turned some heads. Not that it doesn’t deserve such accolades, but we figured Beard awards are usually reserved for the hoity toity places, not this wood-paneled spot with decorative marlin, arcade games, and pool tables. But one taste of its minimal-filler crab cakes or one waft of seasoning from hardshells dumped on the table and you’ll see why Schultz’s should win all the awards.
How to order: Outdoor seating is first come, first serve, or call 410-687-1020 for carryout.

Casey’s Crab

Laurel
It was as if this little shack was plucked from a beach town and placed right off of B-W Parkway for all of us commuters and road trippers to enjoy. Don’t go with a huge group as this is really a carryout counter place with a few tables scattered inside and out. If you’ve talked to anyone (or seen the place’s marquee signage) you know you can’t leave without trying the crab meat cheesesteak, which is exactly what it sounds like and huge and amazing. The crabs are priced competitively to market, expertly sourced, and always heavy and full of flavor.
How to order: Tables are first come, first serve, or call 301-490-6882 for carryout.

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Jess Mayhugh is a Cities Editor for Thrillist and is oh-so thankful that crab feasts are an outdoor, COVID-friendly activity. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.