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Chesapeake-style charm at Island View Waterfront Cafe

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Island View Waterfront Cafe is the kind of place that's made for summer. But that doesn't mean a wintertime visit is a bad idea.

On a recent Friday night — cold and rainy — the summertime crowds were nowhere to be found. But the service was personable and efficient, the food comforting, and the space, with its Chesapeake tchotchkes and antique decoys, as charming as a seaside cottage.

Located at the end of a long road in Essex, on a tip of land jutting out into the Chesapeake Bay near Hart-Miller Island, Island View Waterfront Cafe was built in 1920, originally as a dance hall and picnic spot for people escaping the city in the summer.

Run by the Laing family since 1968, Island View is popular in the summertime with kayakers, boaters and anyone who enjoys a panoramic view of the bay.

During our visit, the gorgeous view through Island View's many large windows was obscured by the rain, and no one was interested in a stroll down to the water. Instead we were treated to a small but cozy fire in the bar, which felt like a perfectly reasonable trade.

Our first course, cups of cream of crab and Maryland crab soups swirled together ($5), warmed us even more than the fire.

Island View's cream of crab is thick and velvety, while the Maryland crab has tons of vegetables and just the right amount of spice. In both, the lumps of crabmeat are sweet and plentiful.

Alone, each soup is a solid example of its genre. But together, they make something brilliant: a spicy, creamy, crabby stew that is eminently satisfying. The cream gives the soup substantial body and somehow doesn't obscure the Maryland crab's invigorating spice.

Washed down with a refreshing glass of Big House pinot grigio ($5) (Island View features a new set of wines each month) and a crisp Fat Tire from the tap ($5.50), the soup kicked off the meal on a hearty, tasty note.

Our soup and drinks arrived quickly, and throughout the meal, our waitress kept up a friendly banter that made us feel like regulars.

Service slowed, though, between the soup and entrees, and we spied other tables experiencing similar waits. But since our waitress kept our glasses filled in such a prompt and chatty way, the lag seemed shorter than it actually was.

A chicken and biscuits entree ($12) was comforting and rib-sticking, just as it should be. The exact flakiness of the two biscuits was hard to determine, drowned as they were by pea and carrot-studded chicken pot pie filling. But together with the filling, they gave the dish the right amount of heft.

On top, a crispy fried chicken finger was a tasty surprise. Bites of moist chicken added welcome crunch to the gooey pot pie filling.

Our only complaint was that the dish lacked seasoning. A pinch of salt from the shaker coaxed out the savory chicken flavor.

The crab cake and fried oyster platter ($18) was more hit or miss. The crab cake, a house specialty, was nicely seasoned, constructed of a tasty ratio of crab and filler. Unfortunately, the crab cake was a touch overcooked, leaving it just a little dry.

At another restaurant, we might not have noticed the mistake. But Island View's location and bay-oriented atmosphere left us with lofty crab cake expectations.

The oysters were from the bay, but Island View purchases them pre-breaded from a local supplier, which seemed like a mistake. The breading was so thick it overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the oysters, leaving nothing but crunch.

However, Island View did a nice job with the meal's side dishes. A healthy helping of green beans tasted crisp and fresh.

An equally generous serving of french fries were hot and just crispy enough — the type of fries in which a very thin layer of crisped potato on the outside gives way to an almost creamy center.

Dessert was a moist slice of chocolate cake ($5), made in-house, chilly from its time in the refrigerator. The slice was on the small side, which was just right — the cake was rich and chocolately enough that a few bites did the trick.

Plus, a modest slice of cake, simply presented on a plate, felt like the right ending to dinner at a place like Island View. No frills, no trendy presentations, no over-thought surprise ingredients. Just a traditional slice of cake that tasted great.

Familiar and satisfying. Just like dinner overall.

Island View Waterfront Cafe

Back story: Built as a dance hall and waterfront picnic grove in the 1920s, Island View Waterfront Cafe has been owned by the Laing family since 1968. Today, the third generation of the family runs the cafe, serving good seafood classics and comfort food in a space full of Chesapeake-style charm.

Parking: Lot in front

Signature dish: With large chunks of crab meat and chockfull of vegetables, the swirled crab soup — half Maryland crab, half cream of crab — strikes a terrific balance between creamy and spicy.

Where: 2542 Island View Road, Essex

Contact: 410-687-9799; http://www.islandviewwaterfrontcafe.com

Open: December-February open Friday-Sunday at 11 a.m.; March-April and October-November open Wednesday-Sunday at 11 a.m.; May-September open Monday-Friday at 11 a.m. and Saturday-Sunday at 8 a.m.

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

Rating: **

[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]

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