Photography by Steve Legato and Amy Harrington
Not all crab houses are created equal. But they all specialize in one delicious item—steamed blue crabs. We set out in late spring to sample the spice-coated hard crabs and report on the various locations, from waterside to landlocked. We didn’t include prices because they fluctuate during the season, and we didn’t rate the crab houses because each one is special in its own right.
And in case you prefer to pick crabs in the comfort of your own back yard, we list several carryout places. We also included a primer on dissecting crabs for any newbies and a glossary to explain exactly what those crazy terms like dead man’s fingers and apron really mean. Now, it’s time to grab a mallet and get crackin’. These places, in alphabetical order, are just waiting to serve you the fat crabs of summer.
The Blue Crab, Sussex County
The Blue Crab shares a building and pass-through to the Bethany Oyster House. Pick crabs on one side. Enjoy an expansive raw bar on the other. Both are remarkably bright, cheerful places that quickly became favorites upon opening in 2004. Owner Tim Haley buys from purveyors on the Chesapeake and in Louisiana, and he’ll happily take a hit on pricing so that customers will have consistently sized crabs at consistent prices from opening day (sometime before April 1) through the end of the season (late October-early November). “I buy the best crab I can find,” says the affable Haley. “We live on repeat business.” The dining room is an oasis of soothing blue, from the walls to the blue-and-white-checked linoleum floor. White enamel ceiling fans stir the air. Tiffany-style lamps harken to the heyday of oyster houses. Classic rock keeps the atmosphere lively. And every table and booth is set with its own can of Old Bay seasoning. “I love the crab business,” Haley says. “It’s part of the vacation experience, and I love being a part of that.” Don’t miss: any of “the feasts,” bargain-priced mounds of crabs, shrimp and fried chicken with corn on the cob and hush puppies. 210 Garfield Pkwy., Bethany Beach, 537-4700, www.bethanybluecrab.com
Boondocks, Kent County
If available, snag one of the community picnic tables on the enclosed back porch and enjoy the wide expanse of farmland and marshes surrounding the seasonal crab house. There’s lots to see inside, too. The place is filled with knickknacks—from license plates from around the country in the entranceway, a giant stuffed crab draped over a rafter, and bras, signed by previous owners, dangling in the ladies room. But gewgaws aside, Boondocks is serious about its menu. A sherry-laced cream of crab and a vegetable-filled, red crab soup, featured on our visit, got us off to a good start. The restaurant’s signature alcoholic drink, called Swampwater, is a must if you’re of age, even at $8.50 a pop. Served in a one-quart Mason jar, the very green, potent libation, with a cattail stirrer, packs a punch with rum, vodka, Triple Sec, Sprite and lime juice. But the pounding that resounds throughout the room reminds you that the restaurant’s steamed crabs (mediums from Louisiana that night) are the draw. Our half-dozen came with a bonus crab, which we always appreciate. The seasoning, a blend of Old Bay, salt and paprika, is used sparingly, but the sweet meat inside is the reward. If you want to linger in the boonies, we recommend the ice-cream sundae for dessert. Don’t miss: the “Pig Out”: one-half dozen crabs, a bowl of steamed shrimp, a bowl of chicken wings, a bowl of French fries and two ears of sweet corn, $40. 825 Lighthouse Road, Smyrna, 653-6962, Facebook
Claws Seafood House, Sussex County
Founders Jeff and Kim Hamer had a vision when they opened their family-friendly Claws in 2006 in a quaint Victorian-style building on Rehoboth’s main drag. And their dream to bring great seafood to the beach town has come true. Sit on the covered front porch and watch humanity parade by, or grab a table in one of the wood-paneled rooms indoors. Wherever you sit, you’ll be able to nosh on menu items that include a fish board that changes daily. Recently, the selection featured grouper, rockfish and swordfish, served in a variety of ways. Whet your appetite with oysters Asiago (cheese, leeks, fennel and spinach baked atop half shells) or mussels marinara before digging into a pile of steaming crabs. We were there on a night that hefty Jimmies from the Chesapeake, doused with an Old Bay-like seasoning, were available. The claws were as big as the mallets. Desserts are tempting: Kahlua mousse, PB pie, brownie sundae and more. Or head to the nearby Boardwalk for all manner of treats or, at least, a post-prandial stroll. Don’t miss: the lobster roll. 167 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-2529, www.227claw.com
Fenwick Crab House
Crab House, Sussex County
The Crab House in Rehoboth is everything you want in a classic seafood shack, but with modern-day touches like spotless white paneling, polished linoleum, stainless-steel sinks to wash crab-pickin’ hands and pristine trashcans at the end of brown-papered tables to swipe off the debris. Veteran restaurateurs Eric and Norman Sugrue of Big Fish Restaurant Group, who opened Crab House last year, know the secret to dining success. You start your meal with a mound of hot popcorn to whet your appetite for menu items like crab balls, Chesapeake combo platters and, the reason you’re really there, steamed crabs (from North Carolina that day), generously coated with J.O. Spice seasoning. The crabs are sold by the half dozen and dozen, and sometimes individually, and are served with drawn butter and “crabby sauce,” a sultry vinegar blend. The only bummer is that reservations are not accepted, so you may have to wait at busy times. Don’t miss: the lump-laden crab deviled eggs. 19598 Coastal Hwy., Rehoboth Beach, 227-2019, www.crabhouserehoboth.com
Fenwick Crab House, Sussex County
Don’t let the big 10-point buck or razorback trophies fool you: This place is all about crabs. Amid the model railroad suspended above the dining room, the duck decoys, sports memorabilia and musical instruments on the walls and ceilings—mementoes of owner Scott Fornwalt’s days in New Orleans—you’ll still find the kind of nautical decor that signifies seafood: a vintage wooden paddleboard that predates the current standup craze, a spear-fishing gun, a giant hunk of driftwood and photos of the “great” storm of 1962. The crab house was born the following summer, making it the oldest crab house in the state. Fornwalt shops local purveyors before sourcing from suppliers in the Carolinas and New Orleans. The house has a great guarantee: It will replace any crab a diner deems too light. It’s open Easter through Columbus Day. Don’t miss: the zesty barbecued ribs. 100 Coastal Hwy., Fenwick Island, 539-2500, www.fenwickcrabhouse.com
Hilltop Crab House, Toughkenamon, Pa.
Hilltop Crab House is by no means fancy—and is fancy what you really want when you’re about to dive into a crab feeding frenzy? We thought not. The important things at Hilltop: The crabs are good, the beer is cold and the service is friendly. Crabs are served by the half-dozen and dozen, as well as an all-you-can-eat deal, which includes Alaskan snow crab legs, salad bar, fries and corn. The crabs, from Louisiana, the Carolinas and from closer to home, when available, receive a generous dusting of Hilltop’s spice: a blend of salt, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder and … “we like to keep it a little bit of a mystery,” says head chef Will Coleman. Hilltop is also known for its signature ketchup- and Old Bay-based sauce. The 30-seat bar keeps a rotating list of craft beers on tap, and you’ll find live entertainment Thursdays through Saturdays. Don’t miss: Daily happy-hour specials on clams and shrimp, among other dishes. 8980 Gap Newport Pike, Toughkenamon, Pa., (610) 268-2766, www.hilltopcrabhouse.com
Lazy Susan’s Hot Fat Crabs
Kelly’s Tavern, New Castle County
Don’t be put off by the ramshackle appearance. Go ahead, push open the solid door and enter into a tidy bar and dining room the size of a club basement. You have to be 21, but sometimes the kids just have to stay home. With decades of experience, Nancy—your bartender, waitress and hostess for the evening—is the personable force behind Kelly’s quirky charm. Do call ahead to see if crabs are available. On a recent Thursday, we found No. 1s (larges) from Louisiana. Coated with a Baltimore mix (according to Nancy), they bordered on jumbo and were packed with luscious lump. An accompanying dipping sauce adds zip with vinegar, paprika and cayenne. Soups, like the crab vegetable, are homemade as are the crab cakes (a reasonable $13.50 with coleslaw and fries). The place is bare bones, but worth the trip. We can still hear Nancy calling out as we left, “Thanks for coming. Come back soon.” We will. Don’t miss: the sausage, clam and mushroom soup. Congress and Market Sts., Port Penn, 834-9221, Facebook
Lazy Susan’s Hot Fat Crabs, Sussex County
Nothing says Mid-Atlantic coast like the replicated U.S. Lifesaving Service station that serves as your dining room. There are spacious wooden booths on the perimeter, a long bar on the back wall, bead-board walls and picnic tables in the center. You’ll find every kind of crab decoration you can imagine plus a blue marlin. You can also eat at one of the 20 tables on the expansive porch out back, where you might meet one of the gang’s foster pups. Crabs come in medium and large, and though you’ll pay by the dozen, you’ll generally find one or two more. There are few land options on the menu. Don’t miss: Susan’s crabsgetti, lump crab in marinara over shells—a longtime house favorite. 18289 Coastal Hwy., Lewes, 645-5115, www.lazysusanshotfatcrabs.com
Lestardo’s Crab House, New Castle County
Tucked in an unpretentious strip shopping center, the modest Lestardo’s has all the trappings of an old-fashioned, landlocked crab house with fish netting separating the bar from the dining area, stuffed fish swimming their final journeys on the walls and a no-nonsense decor. If you have a hankering for crustaceans in the Wilmington area, this is the place to go for a sit-down crab feast. We started with a veggie-packed, Maryland-style crab soup; a fried seafood combo that included oysters, shrimp, clam strips and scallops; and potato skins (splurging for the extra-price bacon). The blues we ordered hailed from Louisiana on our visit and were steamed to order, peppered generously with the restaurant’s custom, Old-Bay-like seasoning. All we needed were the mallets, knives and a roll of paper towels to get the job done. Don’t miss: the sweetest waitresses in town. 135 Christiana Road, New Castle, 328-5070, Facebook
Meding’s Seafood, Kent County
You may know it as the place with the big propeller out front, but the family-friendly restaurant along Del. 1 thrives on its reputation for seafood—from flounder and steamed shrimp to snow crab legs and fried oysters. And you have to love a place that serves baked crab pretzels and crab puffs. (There are options for meat eaters, too.) But don’t miss the hefty steamed crabs, doused in J.O. Spice seasoning, that can measure up to nine inches for jumbos. “A lot of people come in for the crabs,” says Mike Pastor, a Meding’s manager. “We sell bushels a day.” You can get carryout or settle into the indoor dining room or outdoor deck for the crabs caught in Maryland waters. They’re cooked to order and arrive at your brown-paper-covered table hot and spicy, and ready to be devoured. Don’t miss: the lump-filled crab cakes. 3697 Bay Road, Milford, 335-3944, www.medingsseafood.com
Mickey’s Family Crab House, Sussex County
The fun of Mickey Walker’s place is the laidback island vibe. The low-slung, blue building, surrounded by short pilings linked by sisal rope and topped by corrugated steel and standing-seam roofs, looks like the kind of roadside seafood shack you’d find in coastal Florida, with food to match. From Easter through Columbus Day, you’ll find the best Chesapeake Bay crabs available. Eat on the breezy deck next to the sand-gravel parking lot or in the cozy dining rooms amid the many colorful carved fish. Call ahead to find out if the all-you-can-eat special is running. Don’t miss: the oysters Chesapeake appetizer—baked with crab imperial and bacon. 39610 Jefferson Bridge Road, Bethany Beach, 539-5384, Facebook
Mick’s Crab House, Elkton, Md.
The first thing you notice when you enter Mick’s is the large print of a blue crab painted in the Maryland flag’s distinct red, yellow and black pattern. You figure these folks must be serious about crabs, and they didn’t disappoint. The No. 1s on our visit measured 5 to 6 inches, packed plenty of meat and were generously covered in a coarse, flavorful spice. Mick’s shares a location with Bentley’s Banquet Center and has ample space for its paper-covered tables. The dining room is classy yet casual with hardwood floors, the requisite nautical decor and eight widescreens for sports fans. The bar offers more than 70 different beers. Mick’s makes good use of its crabmeat, featuring crab balls, crab pretzels and crab dip for starters, as well as Maryland crab soup and crab bisque, along with crab cakes and crab imperial. It also serves other seafood entrées. Mick’s claims it’s the only all-you-can-eat crab place in Elkton. Be aware that the deal is subject to a two-hour time limit and be sure to check the website for seating time restrictions. Don’t miss: Mick’s outdoor dining area with 10 picnic benches with umbrellas. It’s not the beach, but at least you can wiggle your toes in the sand. 902 E. Pulaski Hwy., Elkton, Md., (443) 485-6007, www.mickscrabhouse.net
The Old Mill Crab House, Sussex County
Don Prouse knew what he was doing when he opened up in Western Sussex in 1983. The Old Mill became an instant classic. The place is pure Eastern Shore (despite the Delaware address), linked directly by small local waterways to the Wicomico River. Pay by the dozen or go for all-you-can-eat crabs. Open April into November, you dine in a big, post-and-beam room—just like an old mill—at long wooden picnic tables, each with its own lined, and spotless, Rubbermaid trash can at one end. This is serious business. There is plenty of fish on the menu, prepared almost any way you’d like, along with beef, chicken and excellent ribs. Buy your own picking knife there. It definitely improves efficiency. If you like the house seasoning—a secret recipe, natch—you can buy some for home. Don’t miss: the funnel cake fries with raspberry sauce, if you still have room for dessert. Del. 54 and Waller Road, Delmar, 846-9000, www.oldmillcrabhouse.com
Sambo’s Tavern, Kent County
Despite the “tavern” name, seasonal Sambo’s is a traditional, true-blue crab house with fresh-from-the-water, true-blue Delaware Bay crabs. Hugging a wooden dock next to the docile waters of the Leipsic River, the longtime establishment does have a bar in the front (you must be 21 to enter), but the back dining room is all about seafood like crab cakes, steamed shrimp and rockfish sandwiches. But the royalty here is the steamed crabs. The heavy red beauties are seasoned with a pinkish, salty mix that is a secret, our waitress told us. That’s OK. We don’t want to duplicate it. We want to crack crabs here amid serene water views, brown-paneled walls lined with photos of NASCAR personalities (like Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr.) who make the six-mile trek from Dover Downs when they’re in town, and newspaper-covered tables ready for the eager assault with mallets and knives. Sipping a local 16 Mile brew, icy cold, keeps it even more real. Don’t miss: the silky crab bisque. 283 Front St., Leipsic, 674-9724, Facebook
The Surfing Crab, Sussex County
Enter at the small bar. Turn left for the porch, which is packed with picnic tables. Turn right to the small dining room if you prefer a chair with a back. In either area, you’ll enjoy crabs from Louisiana, the Carolinas or the Chesapeake, depending on the time of the season. Donald Vechery imported The Surfing Crab from Bethesda, Md., where his family had been in the business since 1961. The Lewes location took off immediately when it opened in 2008. Crabs range from 5 inches to, when available, 7 inches plus. Buy by the half dozen or dozen, or opt for all you can eat (in two hours, sides included). Visit from mid-March through Thanksgiving. Don’t miss: mussels sautéed in garlic, white wine and butter. 16723 Coastal Hwy., Lewes, 644-4448, www.thesurfingcrab.com
Tap Room Crabhouse, Chesapeake City, Md.
The Tap Room is ground zero for feasting on steamed crabs in this waterfront village. That is, once you are parked and able to make your way inside the cozy spot. Its tiny parking lot holds just 12 vehicles, so you’ll likely need to park on the street. The Tap Room is unpretentious and made for eating crabs. The servers’ T-shirts sum up the place—“I got hammered at the Tap Room”—where beer, fresh frozen drinks and crabs are in constant flow. These blue crabs, imported from Rock Hall and the Wye River on the Eastern Shore, as well as Louisiana, are dusted in a powdery seasoning of salts and Old Bay mixed on the premises. The crabs during our visit were packed with meat and spiced and cooked just the way we like them. Along with all the required crab house offerings like corn on the cob and hush puppies, the Tap Room also serves Italian dishes made with homemade sauces. Don’t miss: the fact that they don’t accept credit cards (or personal checks). 201 Bohemia Ave., Chesapeake City, Md., (410) 885-2344, www.taproomcrabhouse.com
The Wellwood, Charlestown, Md.
This historic hunting and fishing club on the North East River started as a political club in the Victorian era, a place visited frequently by personages such as Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, John F. Kennedy and other presidents. Their gifts to the house are displayed prominently in the fine dining rooms. You won’t pick crabs in those areas, but you have your pick of other places on the property: The Club Room tavern area, two shaded patios, the shed-like River Shack out back and the sandy outdoor area in between, which is perfect for small children. Owner Larry Metz admits his crabs aren’t the least expensive—that’s the price an owner pays for a year-round supply—but his staff is careful to sort out the lightweights. That year-round supply—175 to 300 bushels a week—is flown in from Texas or trucked in from Louisiana, with some Chesapeake crabs available at the height of summer. Don’t miss: the live music and, if you have time for a three-minute walk, the spectacular view of the North East from Long Point Park. 523 Water St., Charlestown, Md., (410) 287-6666, www.wellwoodclub.com
Woody’s Crab House, North East, Md.
For an honest-to-goodness, Eastern Shore seafood experience, look no further than Woody’s, a landmark destination at the head of the North East River. The restaurant uses cherished recipes from residents of the former fishing village for many of its menu items—like the lump-filled, award-winning crab cakes. But many diners come here for the steamed crabs, as evidenced by the paper-covered tables. Early in the season, the crabs came from Louisiana, but they were heavy, fat and seasoned with an Old Bay-kosher salt blend. We like that you can order crabs individually, so you can save your appetite for other signature dishes (crab imperial, stuffed oysters, anyone?). The dining room’s expansive windows overlook the town’s charming Main SDon’t miss: the real-deal Maryland crab soup. 29 S. Main St., North East, Md., (410) 287-3541, www.woodyscrabhouse.com