- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2002

With Memorial Day weekend upon us, it's time once again to kick off the crab-cracking season. What better way to do this than by visiting one of the area's best crab houses, Cantler's Riverside Inn?

The Annapolis institution pulls in throngs of crab lovers who will spend hours hammering their way through a meal of steaming crustaceans. Those "in the know" show up early to grab the outdoor seats that overlook tranquil Mill Creek.

Owner Jimmy Cantler and his family fleet have been harvesting the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for five generations.

After several visits, it's still tricky to find this once-hidden locals' hangout, but once you're there, the fun begins.

Upon entering the big, dark dining room, you are welcomed by the wonderful aroma of steamed crabs, beer and bay seasoning. The laughter and chatter of family and friends also fills the air.

We headed directly for the outdoor seating area. Because it was cool on a mid-Saturday afternoon, we didn't have to wait for a table. However, that will change in the weeks ahead.

Heavy brown paper is placed on long wooden tables that have been covered with painted sheet metal to absorb the pounding of crab mallets.

The "all-you-can-eat" steamed crabs special ($20.99) includes corn on the cob and is "offered daily until the inn runs out of this particular size of crab (medium)," said Dan Donnelly, the general manager.

Don't worry, crabs are always available. By the dozen, they were priced at $60 for jumbos, $42 for large and $35 for medium. Prices will come down as more become available during the warmer months.

The three of us decided to split a dozen large blue crabs so we also could sample other menu offerings.

The crabs? They were outstanding hot and "heavy" and covered with wonderful bay seasoning. The seasoning is applied generously, and one of the best ways to wash it down is with a cold beer. The inn serves beer in cans only, and the large selection guarantees you'll find the perfect accompaniment to these spicy delights.

Jimmy's Steamed Platter features mussels, cherrystone clams, soft-shell clams and shrimp ($14.99). It was served piping hot with drawn butter, bay seasoning, fries and the kind of cole slaw you would find at a church social.

A soft-shell crab sandwich ($8.99) served on white bread (the only way to eat one, but you are given a choice) comes with a mound of fries and cole slaw. The crabs were tender and meaty, fried perfectly crisp but still moist inside. It was a real treat.

One of the day's specials was a Chesapeake favorite: smoked bluefish ($6.50) with chopped onion, tomatoes, capers and hard-boiled egg. The bluefish was firm and flavorful, and it made an excellent starter.

Other specials included a mixed grill of tuna, swordfish and mahi-mahi; half a stuffed lobster and filet mignon; or a pan-seared rare yellowfin tuna with wasabi and soy sauce.

For land lovers, there are chicken and steak offerings.

Our 6-year-old eats from the "big menu," which means she devoured crabmeat and other seafood from Mom's and Dad's plates. For those children not as adventurous, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, pizza and grilled cheese are available.

You even can take the young ones to the waterfront area, where watermen unload live crabs and place them in their appropriate tanks.

So, the secret is out (Mr. Donnelly confirmed that the Food Network paid a visit a few weeks back), but this place still has a charm that can be experienced only by finally finding and making your way to the end of Forest Beach Road.

The "come as you are" establishment is open seven days a week year 'round. Ask for Sara to be your server.

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