ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Do not wear your Sunday best.
That's the first rule for eating messy crabs here on the Chesapeake Bay. Everything else -- demonstrating brutal hammer skills, sending up clouds of powdered spice blend, shaking the wobbly communal picnic tables -- can be forgiven here at Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn (458 Forest Beach Road, Annapolis, Maryland, (410) 757-1311 or cantlers.com).
After all, everyone commits at least one of these offenses during a visit.
A family-run institution on the Mill Creek since 1974, this casual crab shack is a favorite for those lucky enough to live in Maryland's picturesque state capital, as well as visitors from nearby Baltimore and Washington. Because how many other restaurants have industrial-sized wash tubs off the back deck for patrons to rinse their arms between courses?
Tucked off a side road a short drive from the Statehouse, this low-key restaurant is mid-Atlantic comfort food, served on plastic trays and with plenty of napkins. Seats inside are easier to come by, but then you would miss out on the breeze coming off the water.
Instead, wait for a bench on the back patio at one of the communal tables. The parking lot is fine for loitering, but head down to the lower decks where workers sort the crabs by size and boaters get free docking with their lunch. There is something comforting about knowing the meal is undoubtedly fresh and, just hours earlier, was splashing around in the industrial tubs.
That's not to say fresh is the same as cheap. The steamed super-size crabs ran $105 a dozen on a recent visit. Large crabs were $75 a dozen. All come crusted in seasoning on the outside that inevitably ends up in a dust cloud all over everyone sitting nearby as hammers -- and shells -- fly.
The menu has slightly less pricey options for those who don't want to spend an entire afternoon removing legs, cracking shells and scraping gills for what, really, isn't all that much meat.
The soft-shell crabs are crunchy and a bit salty, full of flavor and like biting into the Chesapeake Bay. The sandwich is an easy-to-eat plate, but the platter offers two juicy soft-shell crabs. Now is not the time to exercise moderation.
The crabcakes are almost entirely meat with just enough filling to hold them together and keep them moist. As with the soft-shell crabs, the sandwich is solid, but the platter is better.
The jumbo shrimp live up to their name, and the platter is enough to share, especially when matched with fries piled high. The tangy coleslaw cuts through the rich seafood and is a surprising bite of coolness on a warm afternoon.
Every order should also include a side of hush puppies. Wonderfully fried, not at all greasy and nicely chewy on the inside, they come with a small tub of butter for dipping.
Fine dining, this is not. But it's local and authentic. The brown paper table coverings aren't here for kitsch. It's there for easy cleanup of errant shells that don't make their way into the plastic beer buckets.
Yes, it's messy.
But if a visitor doesn't end up caked in crab shells and seasoning, he can't walk to the side lot and shower his forearms in the industrial tub. And that would just be missing the whole experience.