In a May 1983 travel column, New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne wrote that "Olde Obrycki's [is] to my mind one of the greatest crab houses in America, which is to say the world."
Claiborne, a legend, had sung the praises of Obrycki's before, but I think it was those words that changed everything, beginning with the way we perceived our own crab culture, which was now elevated to world-class cuisine. Those comments would eventually change the way we felt about Obrycki's.
As an institution, Obrycki's can get under some people's skin. Not everybody likes a self-appointed ambassador, and Obrycki's has been the village explainer for going on 30 years. More and more, though, I find myself admiring the work ethic and hustle of the family that runs Obrycki's, which has grown into an empire that extends far beyond the Pratt Street restaurant and now includes not only an extensive mail-order business but also two airport restaurants, one of them newly opened in Cleveland.
We can get ridiculous about our crab culture, about what's authentic and what's ersatz. Does every crab-eating experience really have to be so picturesque or so self-conscious? "Here we are, we're in Baltimore and we're eating crabs!" Sometimes, what people want is a relaxing and family-friendly atmosphere, basically a nice, bright room.
As a restaurant, Obrycki's is perfectly fine. A dinner there these days is a pleasant and relaxing occasion, marked by wonderfully sweet service and mostly satisfying cuisine. It's not inexpensive — once you throw hard crabs into the picture, few restaurant meals are — and there are weak spots on the menu. But if someone told you that he visited Baltimore and the only meal he had was at Obrycki's, you could safely assume he was treated well and came away feeling good about the city.
In 1986, Obrycki's moved away, across Pratt Street, from the location that Craig Claiborne loved so much. The neighborhood has seen better days, but families still flock here, from March until the annual end of Obrycki's season, which this year will be Nov. 6. The modern Obrycki's has that middle-temperament atmosphere that suits some diners better than others. The dining room is lit very brightly, and the motifs and details are Colonial (but not necessarily the materials).
When we visited recently, service made a huge difference. There's a kind of server who makes every table of diners feel special, and I think that's a quality you can't so much teach as recognize when you see it — and hire that person quickly.
Throughout the evening are nice surprises. An early one is the crisp and clean Obrycki's Lager, brewed exclusively for the restaurant by Clipper City Brewing, which turns out to be an ideal crab accompaniment. I wish it were everywhere. Another comes on the house appetizer platter, which includes tasty clam bits, devilled crab balls and nicely presented clams casino, all of them fine. But the steamed shrimp, seasoned only with coarse salt and cracked pepper, is outstanding. On a random summer afternoon, a pitcher of lager and a pound of shrimp might make for some serious pleasure.
A few unexpected entrees turned out to be winners. From a short list of grilled or blackened entrees, the 10-ounce blackened salmon fillet is terrific, with a meltingly moist interior texture and a satisfyingly peppery coating. From an even shorter list of Italian-inspired seafood entrees, the cioppino is a disarming success, a warm, rich tomato broth holding hunks of snowy crab meat and specimen shrimp, clams and mussels.
When we were disappointed with something at Obrykci's, the word that came up was "bland." We thought that about the crab soup, which makes an otherwise good impression with fresh tomato taste and generously portioned crab meat. We thought it about the deviled version of the classic Obrycki's crab cake, which I think are in every other way expertly handled, with a golden proportion of lump to backfin. (If they hadn't been sold as spicy, I'd be praising them without reserve.)
A few things don't show Obrycki's off well at all — a dull garden salad, and later a gummy chocolate éclair, look like food from another lifetime. Sides tended this way too, especially the blah steakhouse fries and too-big baked potatoes. Soft-shell crabs are bland and breaded too heavily.
And then there are the steamed crabs — and here, Obrycki's is solid. This is still an Old Bay-free zone, and it's always a relief not to be near it. The peppery blend Obrycki's uses isn't as overwhelming; it enhances the taste. A dozen crabs were going for $49 for medium and $79 for extra-large when we visited. We took a dozen of the medium, were treated to what was the best tableside crab-handling demonstration I've ever had, and found all of them to be perfectly intact and full of good meat. Careful sorting is obvious.
There is not a moment of pretension or posturing at Obrycki's. The restaurant doesn't act like it's a legend. That helps diners to appreciate its modest pleasures.
Where: 1727 E. Pratt St.
Hours: Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]