USA Today Article 1/20/12Great American Bites: Crab heaven at Cantler’s in Annapolis
By Larry Olmsted, special for USA TODAY
The scene: Maryland is world-famous for its crab cakes, but along the coast of the Chesapeake Bay, including Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy, steamed hard-shell crabs are an even more traditional local specialty. Fortunately, visitors to Cantler’s don’t have to choose. The waterfront crab house, which specializes in steamed crabs by the bucketful, also serves up virtually every other imaginable twist on local seafood, from crab cakes two different ways to fried softshell crab sandwiches, the other Chesapeake Bay specialty, alongside shrimp, scallops, oysters and clams.
Great American Bites
In the nearly 40 years since it opened, it is doubtful any regular – and there are plenty – has called it Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn. Known simply as Cantler’s, it is a short drive or cab ride from the heart of downtown Annapolis, located amongst riverfront fishing shacks in a residential neighborhood. It is easy enough to reach, but you have to know where to look, and it is not the kind of place visitors are likely to stumble across. Nonetheless, its reputation attracts outsiders, since it is usually ranked first or second in Annapolis for crab cakes, among stiff competition – and crab cakes are not even the specialty. Once you find it you are glad you did, because Cantler’s is about as real and old school as it gets.
The freestanding building contains a mix of individual and larger communal tables, with empty seats filled in as needed. The place feels like a neighborhood bar — indoor tables feature old newspaper clippings that have been lacquered into history, the metal chairs are straight out of a Lions Club function, and the decorative highlights include a Budweiser blackboard displaying the market price for fresh blue crabs by the dozen ($60 large, $75 x-large) and a huge dispenser roll of brown paper for covering the tables in advance of crab smashing feasts. Beer is served in cans, crabs on plastic cafeteria trays, soup in paper cups, and fried seafood is accompanied by tiny tubs of Kraft tartar sauce. There is an outdoor deck with picnic tables that is enclosed with plastic tarps in winter and heated, so you can still sit “outside.” The only concession to modernity added since Cantler’s opened is flashing buzzers to let waiting patrons know they have a table. It is often very busy.
Reason to visit: Blue crabs, crab cakes, fried seafood, soups.
The food: The Atlantic Blue Crab, also known as the Chesapeake Blue Crab, is the official state crustacean of Maryland, and its Latin name means “beautiful savory swimmer.” Chesapeake Bay yields about a third of all blue crabs in the U.S., and they are revered throughout the state. Because they are notoriously difficult to “pick,” or extract meat from, they cost a lot more in forms that involve finished crab meat, like crab cakes, than served whole and simply steamed. As softshell crabs they can be eaten whole, shell and all, usually breaded and fried. Softshells are simply molting blue crabs that just shed their hard shell, available May to September.
By Larry Olmsted for USA TODAY
The interior of Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn feels like a neighborhood bar, with brown paper ‘tablecloths’ covering picnic benches.
At Cantler’s the specialty is steamed whole crabs by the dozen, cooked with Old Bay seasoning, the best known of several local spice mixes specifically for crabs. The twelve crabs, sold by size, are dumped onto a plastic tray, sprinkled generously with more Old Bay, and delivered to your table along with implements of destructions including wooden mallets and metal knives. You use the mallets to break open the legs and claws, then unhinge the top and bottom shells of the main body and hunt around inside for meat using a combination of knife and fingers. Pieces of meat fall onto the brown paper and you pick them up with your fingers. It’s quite messy, and like eating a lobster, for some the battle is half the fun, for others simply a nuisance. Either way, the crabmeat, always fresh from the bay, is tender and very sweet.
But for those who want to take it easy, crab cakes are the way to go. In Maryland, the best are made from almost entirely crab, ideally the most desirable “lump” meat, with as little filler (bread crumbs or cracker) and binder (egg, mayo) as needed to hold them together, usually broiled or pan sautéed. At Cantler’s they offer this style as broiled lump crab cakes, nearly all meat – they look like scoops of crab ice cream. But they also have deep fried crab cakes, made with the less exclusive but still good backfin meat, then breaded and fried. Both are excellent, and while some purists look down on the fried version, it’s a matter of taste and many like the fried better. At Cantler’s both were excellent, as good as any I’ve had, served as platters, two large cakes with fries.
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The cream of crab soup was excellent, with a good amount of very tender crab meat in a thick white creamy base, like New England clam chowder, which is also on the menu, along with crab soup and oyster chowder. Cantler’s is very good at frying, a tough art to master, and the fries are excellent, as are the softshell crabs, oysters and all things breaded and fried. The fried oyster po’ boy does New Orleans proud.
They have a surprisingly large menu, and while crabs in one form or another are a prerequisite for first-time visitors, and the crab cakes exceptional, nearly anything from the seafood offerings is worthwhile. For two, a dozen crabs and a crab cake platter will suffice, while larger groups can enjoy the shared crab picking experience and try several other things as well. Either way, the food is very good, the setting wonderful, and the ambiance feels like you have been let in on a local secret.
What regulars say: “How’d you hear about Cantler’s? That’s not a place people staying at the Westin go. It’s where we go,” said a local in the Westin hotel bar.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – all the best of Maryland seafood under one roof – or the summer sky.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 458 Forest Beach Road, Annapolis; 410-757-1311; https://www.cantlers.com/
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a BBQ contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter,@TravelFoodGuy, and if there’s a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.