Crabbing in Maryland is an experience that first timers will either love or hate. The concept is as simple as it is rustic. You get a bushel of freshly steamed crab, seasoned with a local spice called “Old Bay” (a heady mix of several ingredients including mustard, paprika, bay leaf, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, salt, and ginger) a mallet for cracking the shell and not much else other than cold beer and fries.
Getting to Cantler’s is as much of an experience as eating there. You’ll find it at the end of a single lane road that offers a wide variety of scary looking accommodation, interspersed with some lush looking houses. Given its location on Mill Creek, right on the Chesapeake, you really need a car or taxi (or boat, should you be so lucky!) to get there. Cantler’s is a family run business that has been around since 1974. It’s eponymous owner worked as a waterman on Chesapeake Bay.
The porch is impressively decorated with both local and national awards and acknowledgements, and leads into a cozy dining-room lined with bench-like tables covered simply with plain thin cardboard table cloths. The restaurant has an outside area right on the creek as well as an inside dining room. It has an obvious nautical theme, and its wood interior and low ceilings give it a real faux-shack feel. The area to the left of the door is dominated by a large bar (which serves food and snacks at bar side stools) and the constantly swinging door in and out of the kitchens. There is a natural bustle to the place that just adds to the atmosphere.
Service was immediate and attentive, with several young ladies in Cantler’s T-shirts (yours for only $17.95 in a variety of fashionable colors!) making the rounds to explain the system. Their “Feast” package, includes aforesaid crabs, generous helpings of steamed shrimp, giant, Olympic-sized onion rings, lashings of French fries and tubs of coleslaw, along with buckets of canned beer on ice, including the unlikely-sounding Yeungling’s – the oldest continuously operating brewery in the US, operating up the road in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (and anglicized from the German name “Jüngling”). This was all to be polished off by a selection of home-made deserts. A swift crab-cracking tutorial followed before service commenced. Incidentally, those not partial to seafood or alcohol are offered suitable alternatives.
You’ll never have to work harder when you’ve paid to eat. Maryland Blues are around five to seven inches across and getting into them requires a bit of muscle and graft. That said, there is something oddly primeval and satisfying in taking a large wooden mallet to a crustacean, and you kind of get into the flow of things. What they don’t tell you is that you’ll end up making an almighty mess, so make sure you don’t arrive in your Sunday best. The crabs themselves, once you get into them, are perfectly cooked and seasoned, so that dipping them in the little pots of drawn butter provided almost seemed like sacrilege.
Given the crustaceans are the main event, its easy to forget the sides. The onion rings were delicious – real, giant rings of onion covered in a delicate and flavorful batter that didn’t overwhelm them. Even the standard French fries were a cut above the ordinary. Only desert was a teeny bit of a let-down, with the archetypical local version of death by chocolate being wheeled out, and proving a little too rich and sickly sweet after three or four forkfuls. There is a display of the “merchandising” in a glass cabinet between the toilets, which, incidentally, were quite small and cramped for a restaurant the size of Cantler’s, and as such, not particularly clean.
Appetizers go for around $10, sandwiches around $12, and mains from around $20. Soft drink refills are free, and as mentioned before, they also do a limited menu of steaks, ribs and chicken for “land lovers”. Tipping is expected, with 18% added for service to groups of ten or more. If you’re planning on going, their web site (www.cantlers.com) is a must visit, providing directions, booking details, opening times, recipes and several how-to guides on buying, preparing and eating crab. Parking on-site is limited, so car-pooling is suggested, and if you’re lucky enough to be going by boat, there is free mooring for patrons. They are open seven days a week, and will not take bookings during their busy season, so its first come first served.
So is Cantler’s worth the diversion? Absolutely. Its reputation as a local institution is well justified. Sure, your hands will be stinking of crab and you’ll be sweating out Old Bay for a few days, but it’s well worth the experience – and that’s what it is really – a social experience that’s perfect for a fun night out, provided no one is too fussy to join in.
Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Road
Annapolis, Maryland 21401