- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

No place better exemplifies a Maryland crab house than Capt. Billy’s, a large waterfront restaurant nestled in Popes Creek.

I’ve been to dozens of crab houses, some outstanding (Cantler’s in Annapolis; Harris’ on Maryland’s Kent Island), many just ordinary. But Capt. Billy’s is unique. From the hostess to the waitresses, everyone greets you with a warm Southern Maryland smile, and there’s an aura of community all around you.

Among the crowd, a local gentleman was celebrating his 65th birthday with more than a dozen family members and friends. Children of all ages and couples young and old, blue-collar and white-collar, sat at adjoining tables. Dressed up, dressed down. It was really a down-home experience.

George William Robertson Jr., known in these parts as the legendary “Capt. Billy,” was a longtime waterman and restaurant owner. After a successful seafood career, Mr. Robertson died of cancer in March 2000. His stepdaughter, Celene Graves, operates the 350-seat establishment on the edge of the Potomac River.

Crabs are available year-round, but the best time to visit this Charles County good-eats place is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Unless there’s a shortage, it’s a good bet that your order of steaming crustaceans was removed just hours earlier from local waters. If you eat only one meal at Capt. Billy’s, it should be a dozen hard-shelled crabs. The price can change daily, depending upon the supply, and it should start falling as the season progresses. Prices last week were $30 a dozen for mixed, mostly medium-size crabs. That is steep, but the crabs were as delicious as ever. Our dozen were heavy with the sweetest of meat.

Small plastic buckets for the shells and broom-handle-size hammers (not the usual wooden mallets) preceded the arrival of our crabs.

The all-you-can-eat offering was not yet available because of the difficulty of finding an abundance of local crabs at this time of year.

Steamed hard shells aren’t the only reason to visit Capt. Billy’s. There’s a wide variety of soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees, both surf and turf.

The menu contains an abundance of drink specials, too. Beer and ice tea arrive by the glass or pitcher, and there is a full bar, which features the Backfin ($5), another one of Capt. Billy’s legacies, a secret recipe made from three blended rums. It was tangy and refreshing, with just a hint of coconut. The Blue Crab ($4), like its namesake, is a little sweet, a blend of gin and fruit juices. There’s also a whole line of frozen drinks, sure to hit the spot when the hot weather finally arrives.

The menu says the cream of crab soup ($6.95 a bowl) is one of Capt. Billy’s most desired treasures. We found it to be good but ordinary. It was very thick — similar to a lot of the area’s cream versions that are made in large quantities — but it did not have the pasty flour taste often found in thick versions. It did sport a generous helping of crabmeat, and a sprinkle of seasoning on the top gave it the right dose of spice.

I was longing for a cup of vegetable crab soup, again made from a secret recipe, but unfortunately, it was not available on this Saturday night.

If you’re fond of crabmeat but don’t like all that hammering and picking, try the crab salad, where the work already has been done for you. Lump crabmeat is piled above a bed of salad greens and garnished with seasonal fruits. It is served with homemade potato salad and cole slaw.

Sandwiches include a crab cake, broiled or fried; crab melt; fried oyster; rib-eye steak; blackened chicken or a grilled hamburger.

Baskets of fried seafood and chicken also are available, all served with french fries.

The most popular entree, other than the steamed crabs, is the broiled or fried seafood platter. I opted for the broiled ($24.95) and was quite pleased. The plate came with a large crab cake, subtly seasoned; a generous piece of flounder; four butterfly shrimp; and a half-dozen scallops, all broiled in butter with a dash of Old Bay.

My wife chose the lump crabmeat scampi ($20.95). Local blue crab was sauteed with butter and garlic and a hint of lemon. A dish full of sweet crabmeat. So simple, yet so wonderful.

Other main plates included twin lobster tails with or without crab imperial; crab cakes; stuffed shrimp; fried oysters; fried, broiled or blackened flounder; a 14-ounce New York strip; a full or half slab of ribs; a chicken breast topped with crab imperial; and fried chicken.

All entrees include one trip to the salad bar (reminiscent of the walk-up station of the ‘70s) and a choice of french fries, potato salad, coleslaw, applesauce or vegetable of the day. It’s unlikely, but if you’re still hungry when you’ve finished your main course, an assortment of desserts is always available.

The view of the river and the Route 301 bridge between Maryland and Virginia is one-of-a-kind. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one of the riverside tables. The interior at night is dimly lit. Tables are wooden, of course. The walls are adorned with autographed pictures of members of the Redskins and Orioles and NASCAR drivers. Also, there are numerous images of Capt. Billy through the years.

An outdoor deck seating another 100 is open when the weather is appropriate.

At Capt. Billy’s, both patrons and staff enjoy the leisurely pace of life on the water.

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