From Baltimore to Hoopers Island, Maryland, these seafood dives serve the best crab.
"There is a saying in Baltimore," wrote H.L. Mencken, "that crabs may be prepared in fifty ways and that all of them are good." Mencken, known as The Sage of Baltimore, might just as well be called The Guy Who Knows What's True About Crabs. And not just in the public food markets, crab houses, and upscale eateries of that city at the top of Chesapeake Bay. But also for the length of a crustacean-driven trek across the water and down Maryland's famed Eastern Shore.
Because what you'll discover—while getting your bearings in Baltimore, loitering among the historic joints and river crab houses of Annapolis, and then lazily meandering from small town to small town down the shore—is that you can indeed try crab in ways that feel as expansive as that big bay glinting at you from your open car window. In fact, you could string a whole trip together sticking solely to eating steamed crab at weathered picnic tables: smacking shells with mallets, licking Old Bay off your fingers, and washing it all down with a very cold bottle of Natty Boh. That'd be a journey of discovery as good as any. But slow down and discover that you can nearly always do crab differently—from crab cakes, dips, and chowders to arepas and tostadas. And, as The Sage put it, you'll find every single one is good.
The only way to enjoy a crab-centric road trip is to lose your picking fears right away: Head straight for a friendly spot like Phillips Crab Deck on the Inner Harbor, where you won't feel shy about asking for crack-and-eat tips. Phillips even has a crab expert on staff. If your mallet and picking skills are already honed, check out any of Baltimore's insider favorites: Bo Brooks, CJ's Crabhouse & Grill, Jimmy's Famous Seafood, or L.P. Steamers. Then it's time to take advantage of the city's kicking culinary scene. For lunch, hit White Envelope Arepa Bar for El Cangrejo Immortal (The Immortal Crab), a sweet chile arepa holding a crispy crab cake, hearts of palm, green mango, and pineapple salad. Spend happy hour at the sumptuous, Argentina-influenced Bar Vasquez, and savor the Tostadas de Cangrejo, a small plate featuring blue crab, avocado, chili, corn, and cilantro. From there, put cornmeal-dusted soft-shell crabs (and profoundly well-done cocktails) at the center of your dinner at Minnow, one of Baltimore's new standouts.
Tucked around the corner from the Inner Harbor and at the feet of the pub-blessed Fells Point neighborhood, the Sagamore Pendry Baltimore is a sophisticated new hotel with a killer whiskey bar, a terrific restaurant, and a swank waterfront pool. Rates start at $275.
Packed with jumbo lump crab, the crab cakes at Chick & Ruth's Delly, a narrow, fluorescent-lit landmark in downtown Annapolis, are considered among the biggest in the state—and the flavor lives up to the scale. Make time (and save room) for a trip across the street to The Red Bean ice-cream shop and coffeehouse for a scoop of vanilla ice cream with caramel and Old Bay mix-ins. The renowned Maryland crab seasoning is a perfect savory note within the sweet creaminess. For yet another time-honored crab ritual, wait on line for an outdoor table at Cantler's Riverside Inn, a revered crab house perched on Mill Creek outside of town. Try everything (steamed crab, crab dip, Maryland crab soup), enjoy the company of devoted locals, and don't miss watching the sorters working downstairs along the water.
WATCH: How to Eat a Crab
One of the prettiest towns on the Eastern Shore, St. Michaels is home to a marvelous maritime museum and a gorgeous waterfront resort, as well as a classic crab house, Chesapeake Landing, which locals love. Pickers work on site, which means that the crabmeat is as fresh as it gets.
Graciously set on the banks of the Miles River, the beautifully designed Inn at Perry Cabin by Belmond serves up a jumbo lump crab-and-corn chowder among its myriad pleasures, including a fleet of boats, a spa, and a garden-walled pool. Rates start at $242.
For the most picturesque route, travel to this tiny town on the Tred Avon River via ferry from Bellevue. Make your next stop Capsize, a sunlit spot right on the water, for a lunch to remember: Order the generous crab cake sandwich—fried or broiled—or just the crab cakes, plus a bloody Mary. Ask for it with an Old Bay rim.
Fishing Creek/Hoopers Island
A crab quest could have no finer conclusion than in a cozy, worn booth at Old Salty's Restaurant, a sprawling, big-hearted family place that shows off the spoils of this watermen community—complete with salty, loving counsel from your waitress. The enormous broiled crab cakes are made entirely of pure lump meat—no fillers. It's magic how they hold together. And the rich, flavorful Crab Imperial, a classic dish that has largely disappeared from menus today, is a piping-hot combination of crab, mayo, and cheese. In other words, divine. The fresh-from-the-oven dinner rolls are splendid, baked pineapple is the side of choice, and house-made meringue pies complete the Chesapeake dream.
Best Time to Go
While the hard-shell season in Maryland runs from April through mid-December, those outlying months can mean crabs coming in from North Carolina and Louisiana. Go crab-tripping in June through August for the real, local thing, and consider September and October for better prices and bigger crabs. Soft-shell season generally runs from mid-May through September.