The Great Crab Quest Of '04: Chesapeake's Most Scenic Crab House...
- Joe H.
Today we put the top down and crawled once again over the Bay Bridge in search of the definitive MD crab house experience. Last Sunday we found ourselves in both Crisfield (The Cove and Captain's Galley) and Secretary (Suicide Bridge, please scroll down); today we sought out another primary source that Chesapeake Living magazine has voted Maryland's best crab house almost every year since the mid '90's: Waterman's Crab House in Rock Hall, Md.
On their website they note that you can see the Bay Bridge from one of their twin outdoor crab decks. What they neglect to tell you is that while it is only 10 or so nautical miles it is actually 49 driving miles from the eastern end of the Bay Bridge!
Still, we went. Nothing was going to stop us in the face of such astute hyperbole.
The drive led us through historic and scenic Centreville, through more historic and even more scenic Chestertown and, eventually, into the most scenic of all, Rock Hall and its main street replete with a drug store and soda fountain literally preserved from the 1920's. The small town is home to a half dozen major marinas and a restored three block long Main Street long on crafts shops and coffee shops, yet curiously, short on motels.
There is money in Rock Hall. The many boats docked in the marinas averaged 45 to 50 feet in length. Some seemed to stretch to 75 or more. A local yacht club offered not only mooring for sail boats but also repair and a number of bed and breakfasts provided overnight housing. Away from Main Street much of Rock Hall was new with weekenders from Cockeysville, Potomac and Valley Forge fueling its economy. In the parking lot outside Waterman's there were as many cars from Pennsylvania and Delaware as from Maryland, D. C. or Virginia. Most of these were less than two or three years old and many were German.
Waterman's has been around for a long time, recently having expanded (again) to an indoor, rather plain restaurant seating perhaps a 100 or so and two enormous outdoor wooden decks with a sit down 20 seat bar and bandstand across from it, flanked on either side by the decks which are directly over the water. All seats are at picnic tables and both decks are covered with tents. The seats at the edge of these decks are at least 20 yards or more from the shoreline with a small railing separating the side of the picnic table from the Chesapeake Bay below.
This afternoon, eighty degrees and sunny with only a few puffy clouds in the sky, both decks were mobbed with several hundred middle aged, full bellied, Rolex wristed crab eaters often accompanied with partners with big hair and a lot of gold. The six member band crooned Wilson Pickett, James Brown and a bit of Lloyd Price while mallets and pitchers were hammered and quaffed repeatedly. Almost every brown paper topped picnic table had a plastic garbage can at the side of it. It seemed everyone was eating crabs.
In the distance was the five mile across Chesapeake Bay with the Bridge clearly outlined in the center.
This is as close to Heaven as I have ever felt in the state of Maryland.
For those who feel that Cantler's, Stoney's in Broome Island, Pope's Creek, Happy Harbor in Deale, even the Crab Claw in St. Michael's or Crab Alley in West Ocean City are Maryland's Greatest Good, I would suggest that there is another level of this quest, that the Perfect Good has been attained in Rock Hall at Waterman's.
This is the stuff of which brochures always promise but never-for any tourist or adventurer-ever lives up to the fantasy. Yet here it does. For those who travelled over water to get to Waterman's it must be the realization of the Good Life. It must be what arriving in Chesapeake Mecca is all about.
And, remarkably, the food is good, too.
Exemplery cream of crab soup served with a small souffle cup of sherry on the side. Intense flavor, creamy without an excess of flour, just wonderful. With the addition of a few more lumps of crab this would have been among the best. As it was I still liked it a lot. The setting itself seemed to add more crab than I actually found!
Red crab soup was similarly excellent. Unlike most other seafood restaurants where this soup is watery Waterman's has a fairly thick broth, redolent of tomato, probably with a bit of crab stock. This is one of the best vegetable crab soups I've had. Not on par with, say, Harrison's on Tilghman Island but close. Like the cream of crab it suffered from a lack of lumps but still, the flavor had depth-there was character, if you will.
Crab Imperial was excellent also. Numerous lumps, pleasant mayonnaise as a binder. Almost worth the $19.95 a la carte price. I should note here that the portion was about half the size of the portion that we were served at The Cove in Crisfield last Sunday. Similar consistency with the many lumps and clumps of crab yet about half the portion at the same price. (Still, I suppose this is the difference between Crisfield, one of the poorest towns in the state of Maryland and Rock Hall, home to several of its wealthiest marinas.)
What was not worth it were the $23.95 for two "Award winning crabcakes." (Yes, Waterman's is another place that claims the title of world's best crab cakes!) Their flavor was very good but the binder was in equal parts to the crab meat. There were no lumps, nothing in common with say, the Narrows, Angelina's, G and M, Jerry's, Faidley's or the Cove in Crisfield. Curiously, Suicide Bridge charged $19.95 for their two crab cakes both of which were learly superior to these.
They were accompanied with superb housemade tartar sauce and very good housemade cocktail sauce.
The cole slaw is among the best I have ever had anywhere. Creamy, chopped thickly and coarsely, someone makes this slaw who has put some thought and taste into it. This is great coole slaw.
Frozen french fries are described as "seasoned" meaning that some McCormick's spice of one kind or another is sprinkled on them when they are plated.
Nice touch, but not big on flavor.
We liked Waterman's-a LOT! I would take this over Cantler's or Stoney's in a heartbeat! The setting is just truly fantastic. While not great crab cakes and a bit more expensive than other places on the Eastern Shore, this is a real find. I would suggest that Chesapeake Living magazine may be right: this may be my favorite crab house in Maryland. I would go elsewhere for crab cakes (Narrows) and perhaps for dinner (Suicide Bridge, Jerry's in Lanham). But for hard shells and to sit out on an incredibly scenic deck with a bit of Smokey Robinson in the background while hammering over the water, this IS what the Good Life is all about!
Correction: The Suicide Bridge Restaurant charged $24.95 for their two crab cakes, one dollar more than Waterman's. It was both The Cove and Captain's Galley in Crisfield that charged $19.99 for their two crab cakes.
I should also note here that my wife prefers the crab cakes at Crisfield's The Cove over all others, including the Narrows which is my choice.
We returned to Waterman's last Saturday night, driving the 117 miles from Reston. (One hour and ten minutes from the Bay Bridge.) If anything their 400 seat crab deck was more atmospheric than I remembered it with the seats evenly divided between picnic tables under tents and out in the open. With the sun setting on the far side of the Bay this is an incredible setting easily outdistancing Cantler's, Stoney's, Hooper's and, I believe, every other crab house for its setting. Factor in Oldies from Big Cam and the Drifters-a decent band that sounded even better in this setting-and this was a very real return to Heaven on the Bay.
The crab imperial remains outstanding with exemplery tomato crab soup and very good cream of crab soup served with a cup of sherry. Excellent fresh rockfish stuffed with crab imperial served with Eastern Shore corn on the cob and a baked sweet potato. Anemic frozen onion rings and remarkably bad broiled crab cakes disappointed. A half dozen nightly specials included an interesting crab pasta and "large" Maryland hardshells steamed with Old Bay for $32.00. Overall, factoring in the ambience, I believe this continues as the best crab house I have been to and, I think, I've now been to about every decent one over the years.
Still, the Narrows also continues as the best crab cake anywhere as well as their cream of crab soup.
re: Joe H
Joe, the next time you make the trip across the bay, would you be willing to make a slight detour to one the Annapolis Seafood Market locations, take home a jumbo lump crabcake and then give us your opinion? So far, it is the best I've found on this side of the Chesapeake, and I would like to see how it stacks up against The Narrows in your opinion.
re: Joe H
Joe, agree on Waterman's. The inverse looks-wise is Mr. Bill's, mentioned elsewhere on board, worth a diversion if on I-95 north out of Baltimore and maybe even a trip from Reston. By the way, MD crabhouses use customized spice blends in bulk, often from JO, probably never Old Bay which is a retail consumer thing, AFAIK.
Word of caution drove 6hr from Pittsburgh to eat crabs at Waterman's yesterday. Wanted Jumbos call that moring said they had 200 first come first serve. Sat down at 315pm ordered Doz Jumbo's was told they were out. NOT OUT JUMBO'S OUT OF CRABS!! The manager did manage to find 6 for us probalbly were a regift but was happy to have. So be sure to call ahead!!