Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Cantler’s Riverside Inn used to be one of Annapolis’ little secrets. Over time, though, word has spread about this hard-to-find crabhouse on Mill Creek.

Now instead of solely a gathering spot for watermen and locals, you are just as likely to dine beside a politician, Naval Academy midshipman, professional athlete or entertainer.

None of that has changed the feel or food at this joint and that is what makes a trip to Cantler’s something you won’t forget.

It’s not a gourmet restaurant with starched linens and spotless crystal. Cantler’s is a truly unique no-frills experience.

The tables are covered with brown paper for customers who may be ordering spicy, steamed crabs. Food is served on plastic-foam plates. Beer comes in cans only. Sometimes the service leaves a little to be desired and the servers are uninformed.

For the best dining experience, choose the outdoor seating — but come early, because it fills up fast. Part of the deck is covered, so it’s an option even on rainy days. In total, Cantler’s can seat 350 customers.

Right now, expect to pay top-dollar if you are ordering steamed crabs. On a night last week, a dozen medium crabs cost $35. If you are a crab lover you will pay the price.

These crabs were good but they will get better as the season goes along. Since there aren’t enough local crabs to meet demand, these piping-hot crustaceans came from Louisiana, but still carried the steep price. The prices will drop — they always do.

Cantler’s vegetable and cream of crab soups are consistent with what you would get at many of the area’s crab shacks. They are made traditionally and usually are very good.

Steamed cherrystones, soft-shell clams, mussels and shrimp can be found on the appetizers list as well as crab dip, smoked bluefish, calamari and fried oysters and shrimp.

Sandwiches include soft crab, crab cake, fried fish, grilled chicken breast and half-pound hamburgers.

Dinner offerings would best be described as platters, most served with a starch and cole slaw.

Capt. Lou’s seafood — a fried crab cake, soft-shell crab and rockfish fillet — is a popular main course.

Jimmy’s Steamed ($15.99), my favorite, delivers a generous portion of steamed mussels, cherrystone clams, soft-shell clams (seasonal) and shrimp. A nice plate to take your time with in between cracking crabs and sipping on a cold brew.

Fried soft-shell crabs ($15.99) were small, but balanced out with three to a portion. The crabs were prepared to satisfaction, as the outside was nicely crisp but the inside wasn’t dried out.

Stuffed rockfish ($22.99) features lump crab imperial and a generous-sized fillet, broiled with butter. The rockfish was flaky and flavorful, but the real surprise was the crab imperial. Most imperials these days are overly rich, which can be too much when combined with butter and the sweetness of good crab. This stuffing was full of lump crab, and had a light sauce with just the right touch of richness.

Crab cakes, sea scallops, and fish selections (rockfish, perch, mahi mahi, tuna, grouper) are all available broiled or fried. Lobster also is available, if that’s your seafood of choice.

There is not a whole lot on the menu for the land lover — this, after all, is a crabhouse. If you must, though, there is a 12-ounce New York strip steak or a 7-ounce filet mignon. Also, they do a homey honey-dipped and golden deep-fried chicken plate. There also were two different pork chop offerings on the specials that evening.

A children’s menu includes burgers, hot dogs, chicken strips, shrimp, clam baskets and pizza. All are served with french fries.

With the crabs and platters, our party ate so much to even think about dessert. There were several choices, including a strawberry cream cake.

Reservations are not accepted Thursday through Sunday. If arriving by boat from the Chesapeake Bay, enter White Hall Bay, pick up flashing channel marker 320 NW to the restaurant. Free dockage is available.

RESTAURANT: Cantler’s Riverside Inn, 458 Forest Beach Road, Annapolis; 410/757-1311

HOURS: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until midnight Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Soups, $3.79 to $5.99; appetizers, $6.99 to 14.99; sandwiches, $5.25 to $12.99; platters, $7.50 to $24.99; steamed crabs by the dozen, mediums, $35, large $55, jumbos, $75

RESERVATIONS: Not accepted Thursday through Sunday

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: On-site

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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